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[whitespace] 'Signs'
When M. Night Falls: Mel Gibson searches for lingering traces of Shyamalan's talent in 'Signs.'

'Signs' Point To Mess

M. Night's latest disaster of a film points to a larger crisis in filmmaking--directors who can't be told 'No'

By Steve Palopoli

SOMETIMES IT'S just not enough to say that a movie sucks, even when it so obviously and completely sucks that its suckiness hardly even seems worth discussing. Yes, even when it is the suckiest suck that ever sucked, sometimes you really have to nail down exactly why it sucks, in the hope that future movies might be saved from falling into exactly the same sucktasm.

Signs is just such a film. It sucks. It sucks like a Dirt Devil. But the sheer epic nature of its sucktitude also disguises what's really wrong with it, or at least how deep the problems with this movie run and how much they speak to a larger crisis in filmmaking.

Critics have pointed out many of the superficial problems with this movie. There's the sucky alien-invasion plot, for one, with its even suckier "twist." OK, well, personally I'm willing to cut writer-director M. Night Shyamalan some slack on this one, since much of this is plainly just a joke, a dumb parody of sorts of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, and especially the 1953 George Pal-produced film adaptation of the story, in which Wells' original intent was twisted around completely by having the Martians suddenly die as they destroy a church. In case we didn't get it, the 1953 film has the voice of trusty old Cedric Hardwicke reminding us that it was God himself who put the microbes which destroyed the Martians on Earth--talk about deus ex machina. Shyamalan is clearly riffing on all this with similarly stupid little details in Signs, and one character even references War of the Worlds at one point.

Then there's the acting. Yup, that definitely sucks. Is this a movie or a two-hour staring contest?

Bad Ego Trip

But when you get down to it, isn't the real problem here the fact that Shyamalan was given an eight-figure salary to do whatever he wanted, and no one had the balls to tell him how much he was sucking up the whole thing?

It's a problem we see over and over again in the ego-driven world of Hollywood. Look, this is a guy who basically just wants to remake every genre from some kind of unusual angle--The Sixth Sense was his ghost story, Unbreakable was his take on the comic-book movie and Signs is his spin on the alien-invasion flick. That's fine, in theory. But look how out of control it's gotten. Overblown hype for The Sixth Sense led to Shyamalan earning $10 million to write and direct the exponentially suckier Unbreakable. Sizable consumption of that led to another suck-baiting deal to write his own ticket on Signs.

What this all points to ultimately is the breakdown of the Director God myth, also known as auteur theory. When those French New Wave jerks back in the '60s duped everyone into thinking that a director should be not just the primary visionary on a movie, but the only visionary, their country set public art back even farther than they had with miming and set us up for the likes of Shyamalan. The guy clearly has some potential, but he simply doesn't have the talent to carry off these ambitious projects that he expects to write, direct, produce and act in.

History is littered with examples of directors sabotaging their careers by buying into their own hype. Orson Welles allowed himself to be talked into downplaying the contributions of his co-writer and cinematographer on Citizen Kane (OK, so it didn't take that much convincing) in order to sell the public the Boy Genius myth. After that, his ego simply couldn't be kept in check, and his my-way-or-the-highway attitude, combined with a famous lack of self-discipline, contributed to a tragic career full of flawed masterpieces and half-finished projects. Did anyone see what happened when Dennis Hopper was given cash sight-unseen to go down to South America and write and direct his own movie after Easy Rider? It's a little sucktacular suck of a sucky film called The Last Movie, and boy does it suck.

Let's not even get into George Lucas, who decided one day that he was the best and in fact only person fit to write and direct a Star Wars film. He's long past the point where anyone around him will deem to tell him when he's screwing up. Now the suck will be with us, always.

By contrast, the most consistently brilliant director in movie history, Billy Wilder, fed off the push-and-pull of the collaborative process almost exclusively. Whether it was with Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity or I.A.L. Diamond on several of his other classic films, Wilder recognized that a movie does not live or die by a single creative vision and brought in the best minds he could find to help him get his own up onscreen.

When it comes to filmmakers, Hollywood loves to market them as celebrities, the same way they do their movie stars. Shyamalan is only the latest and most visible director to fall so completely into this ego meltdown--and at $10 million a pop, what does he care? Well, it might be fun to make another movie that doesn't suck.

And, hey, M. Night, if you're really ready to live and die by auteur theory, I've got two words for you: Ed Wood.

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From the August 21-28, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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