Saturday, July 12, 2008


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.


John Barber said...

I love you like a brother, Myles, but I couldn't disagree more. Now, I don't disagree that M Night intended a parable about interdependence. I just think that the execution stunk.

It seems to me that the best parables exist on a small scale. When they're applied to the larger scale, as THE HAPPENING is, they fall apart and the lesson is lost.

You speak of the saving aspect of the relationship of Marky Mark and Zoe, but didn't those relationships exist for thousands of the killed? John Leguizamo and his wife had the healthiest relationship in the film, and they died while attempting to reach each other. Their marriage was the definition of interdependence, and M Night used it for a shock death.

I appreciate the O'Connery quote, but the problem with it is that we're not almost blind and we're not hard of hearing. We appreciate nuance and subtlety, and instead, M Night is ham-fisted. Where simplicity is called for, we get talked down to like schoolkids.

Somewhere along the line, M Night started reading his own press and began fashioning himself as some sort of wunderkind. He seems to believe that his voice is smarter and better than ours, and we should swallow what he's selling, no matter how bad the story is told.

John Barber said...

Whoops - insert "badly" for "bad" in that last paragraph. My bad.

Pass the Fist said...

Brotherly love accepted and reciprocated. Kiss your kids for me.

I think this is why the parable works: Marky Mark isn't the savior of the world, but the hero of the story, and so, we learn what the lessons are through the hero, for better or for worse. Leguizamo's relationship--true--is a healthy one, in that he loved his wife, but it's subject to destruction because of the way he stayed connected to his wife in the context of the film: via cell phones and text messages. Within the confined logic of the story, cell phones and text messages are false substitutes for face-to-face contact. That's how I'm going to explain that one: it's not fair, but then again, mass death via plant spores isn't really fair.

Pass the Fist said...

Oh, and for the record, I think the execution was less than stellar: SIGNS and THE VILLAGE were great, while the dialogue on this was painful in places, but conceptually what he's communicating is great.

the hamster said...

myles - hey, how about not upstaging us on the writing next time around? sheesh! this was flippin' eloquent. you could have talk a load of fly food here and i would have still smeared it on my sandwich. nice. i'm printing this out for you to autograph when you come to house tomorrie.

i like your ideas. i've got no problem with any of this. communication and cell phones and suicide reaching out rather than in - it's all good stuff. i'm still taking this over THE VILLAGE. however, UNBREAKABLE remains untouchable in my m. night shabalabashouldveboughtahonda film book. he's never topped his first film for me.

as an editorial note: i like this bit at the beginning about AMERICAN BEAUTY, but i like the line you left on my phone even better. you said: "THE HAPPENING IS AS MUCH ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING AS THE WIZARD OF OZ IS ABOUT TORNADOS." i freakin' saved that message, man. i keep telling the wife, "it's stuff that myles says like that that lets me know he'll kick my ass in the evolutionary survival games."

your third paragraph made me drool.

the hamster said...

john - like what you said here about parables existing best on small scales. i think the Messiah illustrated that well. you've given me a moment of pause here. will chew on this.

i'm kinda wondering, when it comes to film, what the difference is between a parable (as we are labeling m.night s's work) and metaphors (i.e. romero's "DEAD" series). what constitutes the difference? is there a difference? is this a shit question?

just wondering. i like to sound all literary when i talk about films, so i don't want to go blowing my cover by calling a parable a metaphor or vice versa. i'm just one man here, guys.

John Barber said...

I think that when the entire story exists to make a specific point, you've got a parable on your hands. Personally, I think that calling THE HAPPENING a parable is insulting to parables, but that's just me. I think it's closer to a parabola...

How about this one: THE HAPPENING is as much about global warming as THE RUINS is about plant care.

the hamster said...

john - as much as i hate to say it: good one.

yo, i'm watching FRIDAY THE 13TH V as i type this. you're so right, they go way down hill at this point.

(you know a film is bad when i check a blogsite in the last thirty minutes.)

Anonymous said...

Hmm, good words. Maybe this movie was more worthy of my time and respect than I originally thought...