I've seen M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, I've read the glowing praise from the likes of KABC's Jim Ferguson ("The creator of The Sixth Sense...has done it again!"), I've learned of the movie's estimated $50 million gross on opening weekend, and I'm trying hard not to take these as Signs of a dire new threat to the American cinema.
The optimist in me wonders: What if Shyamalan's really big surprise--even bigger than the twist that would appear to turn his latest "thriller" into the most absurd studio film in 20 or 30 years--is that he's not only a millionaire movie director, but a slumming Situationist out to prove how alarmingly gullible our pop-culture world can be? What if the hidden subtext of The Village is that the Disneyland we call home harbors a terrible sham--an empty, ugly, evil experiment in mass duplicity? What if the blind naïf played by Ron Howard's daughter in the movie is meant to represent We the People, stumbling through the woods in search of some cheap thrill, our sixth senses serving only to hasten our doom? What if Shyamalan's subliminal message is that the millions of us who paid to see his feeble joke of a movie last Friday should have gone instead to see The Manchurian Candidate--a film that addresses rather than evades what's afflicting our global village?
That sounds insufferably sarcastic, I'm sure. But in all seriousness: You can't spend two hours in Night's Village and not feel the desperate urge to scramble for daylight. If you haven't yet discovered the movie's climactic twist, which brings the tale of red-cloaked creatures haunting a Puritan settlement in rural Pennsylvania right out of its own setting (and out of the realm of common sense as well), let me just say that second-graders around the globe will be absolutely convinced that Shyamalan snuck into their dreams and stole it. Has any A-list Hollywood director ever shown such brazen contempt for the adult ticket buyer? (And has any film critic ever used such hyperbolic language to express his sad dismay at the state of the art? Uh...don't answer that.)
A shocker far more compelling than the one in The Village itself is that The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, the two-hour "documentary" that the Sci Fi Channel revealed to be a PR stunt just days before airing it in mid-July, happens to be an even funnier movie than Shyamalan's. (The network has stopped running it, of course. But I imagine Google would lead to a bootleg DVD-R at the same price as an evening trip for two to The Village--and much greater reward.) Directed by Nathaniel Kahn in a comic reversal of the earnest inquiry in his own My Architect, Buried Secret--or B.S., for short--finds a fictionalized Kahn investigating whether Shyamalan's uncanny success in the suspense genre might owe to something more supernatural than astounding luck. (Another way to put a very good question: Might the man's unbreakable deal at Disney have been made with a devil other than Eisner?) Grilling everyone from Johnny Depp and Deepak Chopra to Shyamalan's grade-school art teacher and a Philly cheese-steak vendor, the increasingly desperate documentarian merely uncovers what Nick Broomfield has known for years: You can't issue a conclusive statement about a celebrity without his or her consent.
Still, there's more than a little truth to this B.S. Pressed by the intrepid Kahn to reveal even one minor detail about The Village, a familiarly coy Shyamalan allows that, as with all his other films (he's an artist, see?), "it's about belief--about the act of believing." Yes, indeed. But wouldn't this master of articulation rather confess that the movie is really about the act of believing in...belief? About the process of believing in one's own ability to perceive what's true--like, without the slightest doubt? (Apologies to Disney publicists if this is giving too much away.) Shyamalan may have intended Buried Secret to be a playfully fraudulent means of promoting his own fraudulent movie about fraud. But as a covert exposé of an auteur's unearned arrogance, it's the real thing.