Perspectives on M. Night Shyamalan

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The reason M. Night Shyamalan is so important is he demonstrates how twisted the film industry really is. Here’s a guy who is a complete failure, while somehow continuing to be a success (financially that is). He went from “the next Hitchcock” to Brett Ratner territory. There aren’t many who can claim such a career arc.

His career has followed a fascinating path: he burst onto the scene with Sixth Sense, made a ton of money and won some pretty decent critical acclaim (I think he even got an Oscar nod). Then he made Unbreakable, my (my personal favorite) which didn’t do as well in the BO. Then came Signs, a great movie if you ask me despite the lame special effects.

After these three movies, everyone thought Shaymalan was the next big thing in film. His films were more or less respected by critics, and audiences loved them. What’s interesting to me is that Shaymalan seemed to misunderstand why, exactly, audiences (or least this guy) loved those first three movies so much. I’ll come back to that.

Then came the masterful disaster of The Village/Lady in the Water era. As everyone knows, critics were pretty cruel to The Village. Most people thought it was just a bump in the road for an obviously talented director, except of course, for M. Knight himself who decided that critics didn’t matter. Fair enough.

Then came the whole Lady in the Water debacle. Basically Disney knew it would be terrible so they ordered rewrites, he siad no, took the picture to Warner Bros. and some dude wrote a book about it. Everyone hated the movie and it bombed. The end.

But not really. Instead of going back to his roots and making the kind of movies he was actually good at (which, again, I’ll throw out my opinion of what kind of movie that is exactly in a little bit) he just went straight up crazy. Everyone has hated everything he has produced since LITW, and he seems totally fine with it. There’s the killer grass movie, The Last Airbender, and now After Earth (which seems to have solidified his downfall).

The funny thing is, his movies still make money, which is why he keeps making them.

Now, after reflecting on M. Night’s career, it struck me as oddly similar to the story of Orson Wells. Not because they are the same, but because they are the exact opposite. Orson Wells, as everyone knows, made Citizen Kane, largely considered to be the greatest film of all time (a statement I’m willing to stand by, even though there are plenty of haters out there) and his career never recovered from it. You see, the film was such a scandal at its release that studios were always weary of what Mr. Wells was up to with his next project (that and he was apparently very difficult to work with). His movies continued to be innovative, but the studio system hated him so much that they virtually ran him out of Hollywood.

Wells’ story is seriously one of the most depressing things you’ll ever hear. He died alone, claiming he was never able to make the movies he wanted to and recognizing he had wasted his life away. One of the most influential filmakers of all time, and no one would cut him a break.

In fact, LITW and Citizen Kane have some things in common. Both were huge gambles on the part of their directors, and they were financial failures largely because of the public controversies that surrounded them.

The one big important difference? Kane was an amazing film and everyone who actually saw it knew it. Lady in the Water was terrible. Orson Wells never gets another solid movie deal, MNS gets bigger and bigger budgets.

So there you have it. M. Night’s career is basically Hollywood’s way of repeatedly spitting on Orson Wells’ grave.

Now for advice to MNS. His best films – Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs – are not great because of their “twists”, or even their creepiness. I think they are great because they explore in interesting ways how adults interact with, and relate to, children. All three of those movies are centered around a man who is struggling to understand and protect a young boy. In Sixth Sense it’s the therapist and his dead dude seeing patient. In Unbreakable it’s the superhero and his son. In Signs it’s the faithless father and his son(s). They are all from the perspective of a man struggling to resolve his own problems, while attempting to not alienate his relationship with his son/patient.

In other words, he does sentimental really well.

So it seems to me that MNS only has one story to tell, and he realized that early on. That must have scared him, even though it shouldn’t have. A lot of great directors tell similar stories in their movies. PT Anderson is almost always exploring familial relationships and moral corruption. Peter Wier mostly told stories where characters are ripped from their narrow world view to see a bigger more important purpose to everything. Shaymalan just needed to learn to get more creative while telling the same story. He was doing a great job, for a while.

Instead, of course, he decided his talent was in “twists” and eeriness. Those are two trademarks that grew old the moment the credits rolled in The Village.

So it looks now like he’s taken a different path. He now directs terrible summer blockbusters that people will continue to love to hate. What a shame.

Why it’s ok to hate music criticism

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Carl Wilson is a “poptimist,” or at least he calls himself one in a piece he wrote for Slate on why he hates The National. I don’t really know what poptimism is, but from what I can gather it means you hate music.

Wilson’s piece  in Slate is a perfect example of why I hate music criticism. Let me correct myself: I don’t hate music criticism, I hate music critics. Or, maybe it’s more fair to say they don’t fulfill my needs as a consumer of music.

To be fair, it must be hard to be a music critic these days. With movie ticket prices being so high, I lean on the critics I trust the most to offer an idea of which films are worth the $12 admission, and which aren’t. When it comes to music, there seems to be little point to reading a 1,200 word review when you can just listen to it yourself before buying it (bless you Spotify).

For that reason I think music critics should work a little harder to justify themselves. We all know that critics, in general, live on another planet. One where art and entertainment are not to be enjoyed in the context of your current life experience, but instead examined in a vacuum that changes its air pressure every couple of years. They are attempting to objectively analyze something that is, by its nature, subjective.

I think for that reason a lot of music critics, more so than theater or film critics, have to get creative. Sometimes it’s interesting, most of the time it’s unfortunate. I remember reading an absurd piece in the New Yorker a few years back (it’s always stuck out in my brain as the best example of wacky music criticism) that criticized Arcade Fire for not being “urban” enough. I feel like that’s akin to someone criticizing Radiohead for not being American enough. Win Butler grew up in suburban Texas and went to college in Montreal, Canada.

Anyway, I think that Wilson’s latest piece for Slate is another great example of why I’m so turned off by music critics. In his article, Wilson tries to explain why you don’t need to feel ashamed to admit you hate The National. I was unaware that this was a problem (closeted National haters) but I’m sure he’s more tuned-in to the situation than I am.

Let me just say that I definitely have a bias against the article from the get-go;  I’m a huge fan of The National. That being said, I can think of many reasons why someone wouldn’t like them. Actually, I can only think of one: they don’t get it. Not in a “you’re not deep enough” kind of way, but in a “they don’t click” kind of way. You see, all these scientific attempts at identifying why you do or do not like a band, or album, or song seem completely unnecessary. Either something clicks (or moves, or whispers, or whatever) inside you when you hear it, or it doesn’t. It’s really that simple.

Now that’s not to say it’s not important to try and explore what that “click” feels like. It’s a unique feeling, but good music critics can capture the intangibles of a great listening experience. It’s the bad ones that say things like, “The National reflects the way social and economic stratification are narrowing the space for cultural free agency and rewarding artists who straightforwardly serve either the libido of the mass market or the neurotic narcissism of the privileged classes.”

Wilson admits that his little burst of silliness that I just cited is likely an attempt to rationalize a more “gut reaction” hatred of the band, but it’s still a wonderfully stupid thing to say, particularly when you’re talking about a band that hasn’t reached nearly the amount of mainstream success that critics want to believe they have. They aren’t Green Day for heaven’s sake.

Wilson can’t decide whether he hates The National because they they represent the mainstream too much, or because they aren’t main stream enough. His confusion is likely because he isn’t motivated by either. His hatred comes from the fact that whatever it is they are laying down, he isn’t picking up. Which is a perfectly healthy attitude to have towards a band.

He says other silly things, like “I’m the kind of person who listens to the National,” implying  that only middle-class, liberal white thirty-somethings can possibly enjoy their music. He has a blinding disdain for what he considers to be “pretentious music”, because it makes him think “rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school.” Which is exactly why we should all hate James Joyce novels and Orson Wells movies.

Complicating things even further, Wilson admits that he likes what he hears beneath the surface. He claims he began to understand the band the more he listened. It’s only the surface that bothers him, and that’s what he has decided to base his judgement on, like any self respecting critic would.

He dislikes the fact that for some unimaginable reason he’s tricked himself into thinking Berninger is faking a British accent. Not only have I never noticed that before, but I’ve even begun to look for it. Suffice it to say I haven’t located the fake British accent songs yet, but I’ll keep trying.

He also says he hates the “artificially thrilling” crescendos (or he did before he dug “beneath the surface”, I think) which are a trademark of The National’s sound. It’s beyond me how something can thrill you artificially. Can an unsolicited emotion be artificial?

“Oh, you scared me. But only artificially.”

I don’t think it works that way. Either you are actually scared or you’re not. Either you feel thrilled, or you don’t. Maybe you consider the means by which you were thrilled to be artificial, but that doesn’t mean you weren’t genuinely thrilled. But I guess I understand his point.

He then lumps The National into an interesting category. What he calls it “Crescendo Rock.” These are bands he feels “sound like a group of guys who feel they’ve got something to say and demonstrate their significance by saying it over and over, getting louder and louder.” Or what us non-critics call “music.”

There is something to admire about Wilson’s article though. He is always quick to remind the reader that he recognizes there are many redeemable qualities of the band, and he understands why people like them.  He even goes so far as to suggest that if he ever had a band, it would likely have all the same shortcomings of The National. In fact, that seems to be the theme of his rant: The National reminds him of everything he hates about himself.

With that in mind, I can understand why he would be turned off by such a band. There are plenty of bands I dislike for irrational reasons, and finding one that caused me to search deep down in my soul to confront my inner demons is as good a reason as any.

Nothing could be more frustrating than listening to a band whose music expolores the frustrating monotony of life in the 21st century by deep, brooding and repetitive mel-

Oh wait, that’s exactly why I love The National.

So how do I think music criticism could serve me better? Well, for starters, stop trying so hard to be career starters and enders. Talk about the music for Pete’s sake. I wish I could read a music review that reflected how I listen to most my music: driving with way too much on my mind.

I got in an interesting conversation with a film critic on twitter a while back. He wrote a fascinatingly nuanced review of a movie I wanted to see. I asked if his review was a positive one or a negative one. His response: I don’t really think that way.

Mind blown. What and idea. Maybe, instead of focusing on whether an album is “good” or “bad” music critics could focus on what’s interesting, and what’s not, about the album. That would give them the chance to be more insightful and move past their role as guardians of culture. It would also hopefully give listeners–even those who have already heard the album–a chance to think about the album in ways they hadn’t anticipated.

I guess that’s easier said than done.

What I said at the senior banquet

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For anyone who couldn’t be there, here’s what I said at the senior banquet:

While speaking to a group of BYU students in the late 1960’s, Hugh B. Brown–a counselor in the First Presidency of the LDS Church for many years–invited them (and I believe, all of us) to think a little more. “One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind” he said. “Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking.”

During my time here at Southern Virginia, I have come to value thinking very much. I think that the most important thing that we have to offer is our unique potential to cultivate “more thinking” in an LDS environment. That is what is so beautiful about a Liberal Arts education: it forces you to think in ways foreign to your instincts.

It is that very spirit of Liberal Arts that attracted me to this university. I came for the small class sizes and Latter-day Saint environment, but I stayed for the Liberal Arts. There have been times when I wondered “why am I required to take this class?” I’m not a biology major. I am not a theater major. I’m certainly not a philosophy major. So why take it? Why place value on information that I will likely never use?  Are we just jumping through hoops? No, we are not. We take these classes because it’s essential for us to know that there are many facets to truth. I may like history more, but that doesn’t lessen the value of math. If my pursuit is for truth, then I have to learn the importance of all its angles.  Recognizing our own lack of understanding is certainly an important part of our earthly experience. As  President Brown also said in the same address:

“We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers–that we in fact have a corner on truth, for we do not.”

That pursuit of truth, I believe, is worth something. In a world where information is constantly at our fingertips – literally – it’s become harder to decipher what’s true. What makes sense. What makes us better people. We must avoid falling into the mentality that our education exists only to “train” us, or reinforce our own ideas. Especially if we accept the challenge to become Leader Servants.

Hugh Nibley, a lifelong educator and great Mormon thinker once made a distinction between “leaders” (or what we would call Leader-Servants) and “managers.”  Leaders, he said, are “movers and shakers, original, inventive, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that discomfit the enemy in war and the main office in peace.” They combat the bland ideas of the manager, who are “safe, conservative, predictable, conforming organization men.”

“[L]eadership” he continued, “is an escape from mediocrity. All the great deposits of art, science, and literature from the past, on which all civilization has been nourished, come to us from a mere handful of leaders. For the qualities of leadership are the same in all fields, the leader being simply the one who sets the highest example; and to do that and open the way to greater light and knowledge, the leader must break the mold.” That is exactly why I think the Liberal Arts are so vital in preparing future leaders; they help us see things differently and break the mold.

I’m grateful that I belong to a faith that values education. Not everyone at Southern Virginia is a member of the LDS church, but I think at the very least we can all agree that “the glory of God is intelligence.” What a rich idea. God not only wants us to be happy, but he wants us to be smart as well. Of course he also wants us to be productive, not just sit around and wonder about the mysteries of life all the time. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss them.

Brigham Young, the great Pioneer Prophet who urged the saints to model their lives after the productive habits of the honey bee was also quick to remind them to sit, and think every once in a while. “This people have embraced the philosophy of eternal lives,” He declared “and in view of this we should cease to be children and become philosophers, understanding our own existence, its purpose and intimate design, then our days will not become a blank through ignorance. God has placed us here, given us the ability we possess, and supplied the means upon which we can operate to produce social, national, and eternal happiness.”

I am proud to say that Southern Virginia will forever be my Alma Mater. My nourishing mother. In a way, I was born here. I think many of us could say that. She taught me the skills to think like Brother Brigham so earnestly advocates. Here, I have learned the value of hard work, of diligence, but also of truth. I am pleased to say that I am not the man I was 4 years ago. In fact, I am not the man I was 6 months ago. A liberal arts education will do that to you. Hopefully, if I apply what I’ve learned here, 6 months from now I will have changed even more. Such is my hope for all of us.

Thank you.

Gatsby, Hitchcock and Quaid

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I saw three movies in the past week, and none of them were very good.  None of them were terrible either.

Hitchcock, a bio-pic sort of thing about the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho was probably the most legitimately entertaining out of all of them. It stars Anthony Hopkins in the title role and he does a great job. The film overall was kind of a walk-through. There was nothing terribly impressive or gripping about it, but Anthony Hopkins really convinced me he was another human being, and I was entertained by that alone.

I do have to say,  he didn’t really remind me of Hitchcock though.  His interpretation seemed more like a character that took inspiration from Hitchock, like how Daniel-Day Lewis’ characterization of Daniel Planeview’s voice was inspired by John Huston.

The film took an odd angle, which had potential to be really interesting but ultimately didn’t really lead anywhere.  Throughout the film Hitchcock is haunted by visions and dreams of the real man that the character of Norman Bates is based on. The film alludes many times to Hitchcock’s personal belief that everyone is capable of great violence and even seems to be attempting to dissect Hitchcock’s own inner demons. The thing is, though, it doesn’t really do that. It stops short of any real statement of why Hitchock was obsessed with the macabre themes that defined his career.  In the end, the film turns out to be more about Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife, which is certainly a worthy story, but not the one you think you’re going to get.

Helen Miran was obviously great, and the guy from MIB and Lincoln who keeps popping up all over the place is certainly a joy to watch. I have no idea why on earth they thought to cast Scarlett Johansson as Vivian Leigh. In everything she has ever done, Johansson is either a terrible floosy or an utterly boring character. During the whole film I assumed that Vivian Leigh was really doing something terrible that would be revealed at the end, since that ‘s who Johansen is in just about everything else. As you can see, I’m not a fan.

Total Recall was just an unfortunate bore. I’ve only seen the original all the way through on television, but what  made it so special is that it was bat $#!t crazy. Both films are based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember it for you wholesale” (as was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, loosely that is). I’ve never read it, but I have read plenty of other PKD stories, and they are wonderfully wacked-up. If you are going to throw PKD’s name in the credits, you better make sure your movie is nuts. His stories exist solely for the purpose to convince his readers that nothing makes sense and that reality is an unfortunate construct to hide our bleak twisted nothingness.

The best PKD based movie I’ve ever seen is Minority Report, because Spielberg somehow managed to make it dark and twisted –like PKD’s stories demand – while  also managing to provide an interesting message that makes sense. Not an easy task.

I think most other people would say Bladerunner should be considered the best, but is loses out in the whole “makes sense” category, so I’m going to go with MR.

The Total Recall retread fits more neatly in a category with another PKD based movie, Adjustment Bureau. That movie’s tone has more in common with the Truman Show than anything  PKD ever wrote.

Unlike Adjustment Bureau, Total Recall doesn’t suffer from levity. It suffers from its reliance on its stupid action movie approach. All of the dialogue is completely forgettable, probably because they assumed no one cared about the dialogue, and all of the fight scenes thought they were way more interesting than they actually were. There were many missed opportunities to pay much needed homage to the original film. None of the amazingly quotable lines from Arnie’s movie made it into the picture (at least none that I noticed) even though there were perfect setups for their use. For example, in the original, when Quaid discovers his wife is really trying to kill and they have a little conjugal battle, he finishes off by killing her and saying “consider that a divorce.” Gold right? Not in this one, even though it should have been.

The only thing that did make it in was the prostitute with three breasts, which they unfortunately got away with showing in a PG-13 movie somehow. It was stupid, and the movie was boring.

Oh, and it didn’t take place on Mars, which was a really dumb decision.

Baz Lurmahn’s The Great Gatsby is probably the most unnecessary movie ever made.  Seriously, Gatsby is known as one of the most important examples of American literature, and is read begrudgingly by pretty much every high schooler in the country. Its not like people don’t know the story, the only thing he’s going to do is upset people. It’s like someone  stringing together a bunch of music videos and claiming its a Shakespeare film. Oh wait…

The fact that it was unnecessary doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. There is one truly great scene in the movie, when Gatsby meets up with Daisy for the first time after their 5 year separation. Leo DiCaprio does a great job in that scene, in fact he does a great job in the whole thing. The movie drags the whole first quarter because he’s not in it.

There was some cool use of music, but nothing as fantastic as his use of pop music in Romeo+Juliet (the scene where they meet at the fish tank is simply golden). The party scenes were fun, and you could tell the only reason he wanted to make the movie was so he could justify filming ridiculously extravagant parties set to Jay-Z’s thumping beats (should’ve gone with Kanye Baz).

I didn’t see it in 3-D and maybe I should have. I only noticed two scenes that I think would have benefited slightly from the silly effect though.