Signs
dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Opens Fri Aug 2 at various theaters.

I will begin with the things I admire about M. Night Shyamalan's past three films. He is one of the few directors who, at the Hollywood level, has developed a distinctive, cinematic world and language. As with the modernist Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, one can actually watch a Shyamalan film and recognize, within a matter of minutes, the mind working behind the brooding flow of images.

The next thing I admire about Shyamalan is that he has two outstanding obsessions. One, he is obsessed with his city, Philadelphia. All of Shyamalan's films have been set in Philadelphia: The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are set near the center of the city, and his most recent film (and in my opinion, his best), Signs, is set on its outskirts. Despite Signs' dense concentration of rural codes--a country house surrounded by a cornfield, a small town inhabited by standard small-town folks who talk slow, and so on--we always feel the presence of the city. If one imagines the force field of light that covers a city at night, Signs takes place at the point where the aura ends and the night begins. In fact, the peripheral farm and the mysterious signs on its cornfields form the secret entry point to Philadelphia.

Shyamalan's second great obsession is theology. His fascination with the existence/nonexistence of God, and the nature of Good and Evil, is connected not only with his Catholic education, but also to the fact that his parents are both doctors--his father is a cardiologist and his mother a gynecologist. The intangible (miracles, ghosts, God) meets so convincingly with the tangible (family, work, death) in Shyamalan's films because of his upbringing, which had one foot in science and the other in religion.

The Sixth Sense deals with the paranormal, Unbreakable deals with the nature of Good and Evil, and Signs deals with the question of God's existence. True, the way Shyamalan makes God's existence problematic in Signs is by no means original--after a freakish car accident claims the life of a pastor's (Mel Gibson's) wife, he loses faith and becomes a bitter existentialist. But the theological substance of Signs has less to do with the way the arguments are constructed than with the way Mel Gibson looks when he is thinking about these problems.

Now his lowered eyebrows say, "I'm thinking about the emptiness of the universe, and I'm certain of this emptiness because God does not exist, and God does not exist because if he did exist, he would not have let my wife die in such a brutal way." Now his lugubrious walk says, "I'm thinking about how there is no hope at all for humankind." Now his trembling hands are saying, "I'm thinking about how there are no miracles in this empty world of ours, only the hard fact of luck." Indeed, there is more theology in Mel Gibson's cheeks than in all of Pascal's Pensees.

That said, let me talk about things I don't like about Shyamalan. The two directors who most inform Shyamalan's art are Tarkovsky and Spielberg. Both directors have a thing for children. Tarkovsky's kids are rugged and silent; Spielberg's are cuddly and talkative. Though the pace and silences of Shyamalan's films are Tarkovskian (so much so that one wishes he were directing the remake of Tarkovsky's Solyaris instead of Steven Soderbergh), the voluble kids in his Tarkovskian worlds owe everything to Spielberg. And this is the heart of the problem: In Spielberg's films, the talkative children exist in a talkative world; in Tarkovsky's films, the silent kids live in a silent world; in Shyamalan's films, the talkative kids live in a silent world, and so are more disruptive than they are lovable.

Another thing I dislike about Shyamalan's films are the plot twists. They consume too much time and energy. Signs, for example, would have been exceptional if there were no elaborate surprises. All the things I like about the movie (its X-Files-like moodiness, the relationship between the farm and the city of Philadelphia, the theological questions) are imprisoned by the necessities of plot twists. If liberated, this film, about a troubled man who is dealing not only with his wife's death but a massive alien invasion, would have been truly scary.

One last thing I want to say about Shyamalan and his new film: When it comes out on video, Signs must be watched on the same night with Tarkovsky's long and philosophical The Sacrifice. Clearly, The Sacrifice is marked by the certainties of the Cold War, whereas Signs is marked by the uncertainties of the New War.

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