Saturday, July 12, 2008
UNITED, WE FALL; DIVIDED, WE FALL
To begin: The Happening is as much about global warming as American Beauty is about teen sex. Like the rest of the Shyamalan canon, the movie is never just about the movie: the plot is never just an excuse to make some larger political statement, i.e. any Oliver Stone movie, but rather the plot is itself a larger metaphor. In that way, Lady in the Water, being told as a fairy tale, was the most true movie he's made to date. That being out of the way, this apocalyptic tale is one of judgment upon the manifold ways we distort the basis of real realtionships: interdependence.
To be sure, the environmental theme is a part of this larger canvas. References to decline of species and the tenuous balance of the natural world are peppered throughout the film, but here's why this isn't a movie about the environment: repeatedly, the dialogue hammers home that despite our attempts to pin down the reasons for why things happen (nature and math being the two first targets to fall), the mystery of how things are held in balance expands beyond rationality and science. Throughout the film, commentators mutate their explanation for why people are dying, pinning it on this plant or this genetic outburst, but never able to fully explain the hows and whys. But if this is the message of the film, 80% of the dialogue and encounters remain superfluous. At the root of the environmental crisis is not that people exist, but that people exist badly with the earth, using more than they need, but I'll leave those pontifications for Al Gore. Shyamalan's target is bigger than the environment.
The problem in Shyamalan's world is that people begin inexplicably to kill themselves, after a period of loss of communication and disorientation. As suicide notes tell us, self-harm is not always about self-destruction for its own sake, but as a last desperate effort at communication. In a world built on false communication and shallow association, suicide functions in Shyamalan's vision as the most graphic way of reaching from one to another, with violence binding one person to another. Note the ways in which guns in the movie are dropped and picked up by another, uniting the people in death in ways they were never united in life. Once our ability to communicate with one another is destroyed, it is only a moment of time before we resort to violence to communicate with one another, however badly.
Against the backdrop of environmental breakdown, we see endless scenes of people connected to one another through cellphones, through unspoken fears, through miscommunications and lies, perversions not limited to the big city. As the deaths move to the smaller regions, it becomes apparent that what are being attacked by the plague are corrupted relationships of all manner: the big cities are damned for their surface relationships, for their cell reception and for their pragmatic relationships, but small towns with their rampant isolation and begrudging hospitality are targeted as well. Case in point: Mark Wahlberg's character finds himself in a relationship characterized by these alternating waves of isolation and victimhood--his wife dwells in isolation, while Wahlberg wallows in victimhood. At one point, a child accosts him with saying, "You have to take responsibility for your relationship." And thus, the question of Wahlberg's relationship--and of the movie--is what a good relationship looks like, both with the earth and with other people.
The answer? One of interdependence--of the earth and humanity, of people with one another. This is why we find the reunion of Wahlberg and his wife at the crecendo of the film. Why do Mark and Zoe not fall prey to the swirling winds? Because they alone mirror the right relation of the earth to humanity: one of need, interdependence, of admitting of fault, and of reunion. Once the world goes haywire, the thin veils which hold us together in the absence of the wildness of true interdependence (math, science, formality, custom) come crashing down, showing corrupt relations for what they are. Once the veils come come off, the corruptions become evident, played out throughout the film: strangers shoot strangers instead of offering hospitality; children are murdered by adults. Time and time again, the false groupings of people are dispersed and killed, while the only relationships in the film that admit to their need of one another survive. You could make the case that the group that finds themselves at the crossroad "need" each other, but their need, again, never really sees the other people, but only how the other people further their own ends. By contrast, Marky Mark and Zoe are perfectly safe at the end in their respective houses with the wind swirling around outside, but brave the wind to stand with one another in its midst.
In the end, The Happening holds a mirror up to human society, showing that what happens in the environment is only a large scale explosion of the human condition: what lies silenced by technologies and false relations in the urban world becomes naked aggression in the environment. Whereas people are able to, in the absence of interdependence, are able to loathe each other from a distance, the environment knows only either cooperation or belligerence. While stilted at times in dialogue, Shyamalan's film succeeds in the way his films always do: by telling parables that paint in large pictures what diatribes cannot do. As Flannery O'Connor said, "to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures."
The problem with the environment is that we approach it with science: rather than seeing our lives as interdependent, we approach ourselves and our worlds as managable entities, rather than live gifts, gifts to which we must give ourselves.
4 abandoned Jeep Wranglers out of 5.