Shyamalan caught selling tickets to the wrong niche

OK, I first spotted this a week or two ago and I have been watching ever since for another flash of this possible, maybe, kind of guilt-by-association, post-Passion ghost story. Of course, we are used to reading about ghost stories involving the work of M. Night Shyamalan. But I am talking about an interesting thread that is woven through some of the essays about his latest movie. The best example of the genre is found in "Village Idiot: The case against M. Night Shyamalan" by Michael Agger, published at Slate.com.

It is always interesting, of course, to watch the tide turn in criticism of an artist who had previously been a critical darling. This is the whole "jump the shark" phenomenon, only being played for keeps in the mainstream media. Shyamalan has been one of the "it" directors for several years. But then he made a movie with, well, that Mel Gibson fellow. And it had a priest in it, and prayer, and that faith-friendly "did somebody save me?" dialogue in the final scene, and the cross symbol on the door and other problems, as well.

Maybe something was seriously wrong with Shyamalan. Pay close attention to this passage from Agger:

The Sixth Sense became one of top 10 grossing films of all time, and what does M. Night do with his newfound power? He stays put in Philadelphia, refusing to move to L.A. and play ball. He creates a local film industry around his productions. And most importantly, he begins the process of burnishing his legend. When a reporter asks him what he wanted his name to mean in the future, he replied, "Originality." Access to his scripts in progress is extremely limited, lest anyone reveal their secrets.

OK, so far so good. It is interesting, of course, to note that the director is being lashed for the very qualities that previously led critics to praise him. This is one of those artists who wants to stand out and does not mind being honest about it. He holds prayer vigils at the start of his movies and things like ... Wait, we're getting ahead of ourselves. Here comes Agger again:

M. Night could not control the audience, however, and he was unhappy with the poor performance of his sophomore thriller, Unbreakable (2000). He vowed to inject more emotion (and box office) in his next effort. Again, Shyamalan made the talk show rounds, promising another twist ending and cultivating auteurish tics such as putting himself in the movie, just like Quentin, just like Hitchcock. The result was Signs (2002) and a teary Mel Gibson. It became a modest hit, but only after it was adopted by Christians as [a] movie about the power of faith.

Bingo! The spiritual imagery in "Signs" must have been so obvious that even people in the Red Theaters liked it and started buying tickets and spreading the good news about the movie, perhaps even in church publications. Here is how Roberto Rivera, a culture writer for Boundless.org and other similar venues, reacted to the anti-Shyamalan blitz at Slate.com:

The writers' problems stem from the religious/spiritual core to M. Night Shyamalan's movies. He's so distracted by this that he commits howlers like ascribing "Signs" $450 million take to evangelicals. Evangelicals probably didn't get much of "Signs," what with its sacramental imagery.

And while we are at it, is a film that makes $227 million or so domestic and $400-plus at the global box office really a "modest" hit? Perhaps in comparison to "The Sixth Sense," but the adjective still seems a little strained. As does the headline on the second Slate.com essay attacking "The Village." Speaking of interesting adjectives, check out this headline: "Village of the Darned: More pious hokum from M. Night Shyamalan."

I think Mr. Shyamalan has wandered into the "culture wars" minefield, whether he wanted to or not.

Now, I have not had a chance to see the film yet as I dash to get ready for a new semester after a wild summer of work, study and travel. But the word of mouth from friends is almost totally positive. The film is doing OK, but not rocketing out of the gate.

Has anyone else in GetReligion-land (a) seen the film as worthy of comment on these semi-political lines or (b) seen other essays and reviews that reflect this Slate.com onslaught?

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