Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I See Dead People: M. Night Shyamalan

Writer, director and sometime actor, M. Night Shyamalan shot to glamorous heights after the 1999 hit The Sixth Sense followed in 2002 by Signs and then began the great fall for what many people consider to be the dismal failure of The Village in 2004; it appears it's been a steady decline from there. Although not Catholic himself, his father enrolled him in Catholic schools so he grew up in the "Catholic atmosphere" and I think that's a reason his stories are so rich in complex symbols.
He has many talents, but perhaps the greatest is his understanding of the relationship between the "seen and unseen," the tangible world and the intangible, the world of the dead, the world of souls and the world of physical bodies. Each of these three films communicates to us about life and death, and what keeps us living and what causes us to die. It's fitting that a child can "see the dead" because children haven't learned the adult way of lying, the adult way of wearing a mask, of accepting things that are un-acceptable, of putting "things" above people in terms of love; children haven't learned how to kill themselves.
Haley Joel Osmet starring as Cole Sear. "Coal" refers to the fuel which Cole has, because his heart is willing to do what others would not or could not do for themselves; "Sear" is "see-er" because he can see when others can't.
"I see dead people" became one of those phrases that had its 15 minutes of fame but it's worth more: when we care about those we profess to love, we should see them when they are dead, when something has caused the life to go out of them. In essence, this is what a zombie is, and I will be dealing with zombies this month in both Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Carnival of Souls (1962). What is so surprising about the film, however, is zombies are usually altered in their appearance so we know they are zombies; in The Sixth Sense, we do not know, for example, that Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a "zombie," and this is the scathing social commentary the film provides: we all see "dead people," especially when we look into the mirror, but we don't see that we are "dead."
Bruce Willis as Dr. Malcolm Crowe and his wife Anna (Olivia Williams) when Vincent has broken into their home and is preparing to shoot Dr. Crowe and himself.
So the big question: what qualifies "dead?"
The reason Dr. Crowe wasn't able to help Vincent (Donnie Wahlberg) is because Dr. Crowe couldn't help himself; likewise, by helping others, Cole is learning how not to become dead like those he sees. What makes Dr. Crowe dead (and the reference to a "crow" is the opposite of the Dove of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life) is his devotion to his work, so his priorities are turned upside-down: instead of loving his wife, he loves his work (please see Se7en and the Eighth Deadly Sin for more on being a workaholic). Each of the ghosts appearing to Cole are the victims of someone's upside-down priorities which we ourselves could very easily have, because we love what we ought not to love and do not love what we ought. The source of life is love, and when there is no love, there is no life. That's the reason why it gets really cold when "the dead" are near: a corpse is cold because there is no warmth of life and there is no warmth of life because there is no love.
The hit film Signs re-enforces this concept.
First of all, why are "signs" made in the crops?
The crop is symbolic of our soul: "Pray the Lord of the harvest will send workers into the field," because the harvest is our virtues, our sacrifices and acts of love; sin is what destroys the crop. When the Lord tells us that He does not sow the crop, but He reaps the harvest, He refers to all the troubles in life the devil sows for us to break us down and draw us away from God; when the devil sows troubles for us, God is to reap the harvest of our praise and devotion to Him in spite of what the devil has done.
This isn't what happens in Signs.
Picture of the first alien sighted at the birthday party in Brazil and caught on camera. Why a birthday party? Because an alien is the exact opposite of a birthday: the day we are born is the day we are given life; an alien symbolizes that something has "become alien within us." In the trailer, the different dates and places when "crop signs" have appeared, suggests the slow development of how something becomes alien within us, but it's not particular to one generation or one culture, rather, it's universal.
The death of the wife/mother, Colleen, embitters Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) so much that he leaves his pastoring position and loses his faith in God; this is the reason why there are "crop signs" in his fields, because his soul is dying from not forgiving just as the crops are dying from being flattened. The vet who causes the car crash killing Colleen is played by M. Night himself (Ray Reddy: "ray" because he's going to shed an important "ray of light" in Grahame's darkness and "reddy" because it's a description used of King David as a young man, referring to his health and strength, but most importantly, that the "Spirit of the Lord" lives in him, and as an animal doctor, Ray Reddy is trying to help Grahame's "animal instincts" so Grahame can become a man of faith again).
Why do they wear the silver hats? It's not to protect their thoughts from the aliens (temptations from the devil) but the pointed tip is like a radar. The aluminum foil is "silver," and that's important (as we shall see in the upcoming posts on Werewolves) because the word for "Silver" in Hebrew is very close to the word "Word," as in the Gospel, meaning, they are focusing their minds on the Gospels and not on what the aliens (the devil) is trying to get them to believe, which is exactly what Grahame has done in denying his faith.
What is the "ray of light" he sheds?
"They seem to stay away from water," and that's because water is the symbol for Grace (the Life of God Himself) and our souls need Grace as crops need water. When Ray leaves, blood covering his shirt, he tells Grahame he has captured one of the aliens in his pantry and is headed for the lake. Investigating, Grahame uses a knife to try to catch a glimpse of the alien on the blade, and a clawed hand reaches out for him; Grahame cuts off two of the fingers of the alien and then goes home. Later, it's this same alien who captures his son, Morgan.
As in The Sixth Sense, it takes a child to show us what we are missing.
This is a deeply, rich symbolic scene. First of all, Grahame can only come face-to-face with this alien because he has finally come face-to-face with Ray who caused the accident (which Ray fell asleep at the wheel, because he had been working late and caused the crash; Ray, like Dr. Crowe in The Sixth Sense, was working too much). The alien is in the pantry because the alien is "eating off of" both Ray and Grahame (who doesn't have a "gram" of faith anymore) and that's how this alien survives (metaphorically). The door of the pantry is the door of his heart. The knife is Grahame finally ready to "severe" the connection with the alien which he can do because catching the "reflection" of the alien means that Grahame himself is "reflecting" or opening up to God again and how he has become "alien" to himself over his wife's death. When this same alien later catches Morgan, it's a "sign" of how Grahame's demons have tried to hold his children hostage, but as Grahame accepts God's Providential care in all things, Morgan is saved by his asthma protecting him from inhaling the alien's poison.
The "sign" of the struggle in Ray's kitchen where the alien is trapped.
This allows Grahame the strength to defend himself (when we give into temptations, we have stopped defending ourselves) and the cutting off of two of the alien's fingers symbolizes that the alien is one, loosing his "grip" on Grahame and two, Grahame is no longer "united" to the alien in agreeing that God is a bad God because He allowed Grahame's wife to die. This is the beginning of Grahame's healing, and it's because Ray finally said he was sorry for the accident and saying he was sorry was what Grahame needed to start the process of forgiving. Ray is able to "go to the lake" to receive the grace of healing, and Grahame and his family can defend themselves from the aliens.
The Village of 2004 offers a synthesis of The Sixth Sense and Signs and provides the culmination of what love is and a very graphic illustration of what our "animal passions" look like, instead of "dead people" or aliens:
Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) is the key symbol to the film. Like Noah who gathered his family to avoid the flood waters, the people live in "the village" to escape the sin of the outside world that brought them so much pain and suffering. Just as in the Bible Noah still had sin within him and his family (the episode of the "drunkenness of Noah" as it is known) so sin still exists within the villagers: just because they have "received" pain, doesn't mean that they are immune from dishing it out and that's exactly what happens.
William Hurt as Edward Walker, the elder and founder of the village, and Sigourney Weaver as Alice Hunt at the wedding of Walker's oldest daughter. This is the most important moment in the film and without understanding what happens in this moment the rest of the film doesn't make sense. The little "star" pattern on her dress represents the "stars in her eyes" when she decides that Lucius is right, Walker does have feelings for her. Both of them have reddish hair, like Ivy, and Alice (as in Alice in Wonderland, the foolish girl) is slowly letting her thoughts of Edward Walker dominate her, Edward Walker is being dominated by a higher love for the vows of marriage he took to his wife and family.
The blind Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) tells Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) that she knows he wanted to help her when they were young but he was afraid that, if he did, everyone would know that he cared for her; Lucius then tells his mother, Alice, that Mr. Walker never touches her because Mr. Walker has feelings for her. Lucius doesn't mean anything sinister to happen as a result. "Lucius" is the Latin word for "light," and that is what Lucius "hunts" for himself and everyone else, but that doesn't mean that is what everyone else "hunts" for, especially his mother. At the wedding, Alice attempts to shake hands with Edward Walker (who doesn't shake her hand) and she's satisfied that Walker does have feelings for her even though he is all ready married. It's at this time that those of whom we do not speak come, skin the animals and leave warnings that frighten the villagers.
This moment is the exact opposite of the one above between Alice and Edward Walker. Lucius Hunt and Ivy Walker have the "purity" and innocence of love that will last and endure, and we know they do because of what Lucius' color is: red. When Noah stabs Lucius and Ivy finds him on the floor, she tells her father that she can't see his color anymore: his blood has drained from him and is all over her white shirt now. Red is the bad color in the film, because it's the color of blood that has been spilled, but red is also the color of love for the same reason: we lay down our lives for those we love. That's why Ivy is a "red-head," her thinking (the head) is ruled by her love for Lucius, and so she's capable of going on this journey to save him (and his blood all over her is symbolic of him giving her his own strength so she can make the journey).
When they find the dead animals and Walker and Alice go to the barn, Walker is looking at the opened barn door while Alice has her back to him; they discuss how all the animals have been skinned and the chickens plucked. Noah is the one who has done this, but symbolically, this is a result of Alice wanting Walker to have feelings for her: the open barn door, like Pandora's box, has let loose all the "animal passions" and instincts, and the skinned animals means "they are exposed," i.e., naked. This is a brilliant way of showing how our most private sins effect everyone and everything. But if that's true, Shyamalan is also quick to point out how our strength and victories effect everyone, too.
Gold is "the safe color" because gold invokes royalty and that royalty is being a child of God, hence, wearing the gold color means that you are reminding those who might harm you of your inherent dignity as a child of God. In the woods, when Ivy falls into the pit of mud, that's symbolically demonstrating that she is in a state of despair: the mud symbolizes how she's forgetting her own dignity and gifts and is "being pulled down into the mire" of her dark thoughts. Climbing out, she tries to get the mud off to show the gold color so she'll be safe. When the creature (Noah) attacks her, the strength she gains from having passed through the fire of despair and survives makes her stronger and "able to see more than Noah" so she is saved from the pit as Noah is lost in the pit. When Ivy comes to the wall she has to climb, it is, literally, covered with ivy, so her climbing that wall is symbolic of her fulfilling her destiny in being the one who reaches the towns and obtains the medicine. 
Are the stories of those of whom we do not speak lies?
The costume of those of whom we do not speak perfectly illustrates--just like "dead people" in The Sixth Sense and aliens in Signs--what is wrong with us: the face of those of whom we do not speak are the faces of pigs, symbolizing our animal appetites (and they are covered in fur); they have tusks for digging, i.e., like Alice Hunt, they are "digging for something they crave" (Edward Walker's feelings for her); they have the spiked back with bones coming out, meaning that they are "exposed" but also that there is no backbone, they are cowards. Those of whom we do not speak also wear the "bad color" because it symbolizes a willingness to spill blood, but also "red with anger," they tend to react to their passions and emotions; are "those of whom we do not speak" merely lies? Absolutely not. It could be anyone of else at any time of the day.
Lastly, there is an important difference between "innocence" and "ignorance." Lucius is innocent in that he believes well of everyone and does everything he can to help others; Noah is ignorant because he doesn't control himself. In The Village, everyone's hair is orderly and neat, except Noah's, his is always too long and flat on one side and wild on the other, and because it's on his head and attention is drawn to it, it symbolizes how his mind is: disorderly. When Noah enters into the blacksmith shop (below) and stabs Lucius, the knife blade enters into Lucius' body like a stick of warm butter, because it's easy for Noah to stab Lucius, Noah has no bad feelings about killing Lucius. Noah starts to leave but then goes back and repeatedly stabs Lucius again. Noah isn't sorry for trying to kill Lucius, Noah is only sorry that he's in trouble for it.
Just as a knife blade was a "sign"of reflection for Grahame in Signs, the knife is for The Village, too. Noah Percy will "pierce" Lucius to "see" what the village is made of and whether or not it can survive the crime that has been committed. Blacksmithing is a good occupation for Lucius because to be stronger, the metal had to be tempered by fire and water, trial and grace, and that's why Lucius is not only strong himself, but able to help others be strong.
There is much to be said about each of these films, but I hope I have started you thinking about your own experience with the works of M. Night Shyamalan and what he has contributed to film and culture. There is never just one interpretation of a work of art but many interpretations are possible and correct at the same time, but what is important is knowing how that work has spoken to us and helped us to see ourselves or circumstances in a much clearer way.
Please leave your comments, questions and suggestions!