Friday, 7 June 2013

Waiting to Hate

"I didn't know it was by Shamamwhatever. I hate that director."

And that was the part of an After Earth after-movie convo I overheard. Granted, the marketing has done a good job of hiding director M. Night Shyamalan's involvement, and with good reason. When his name finally appeared at the front of the end credits, there was an audible groan.

It's obvious: the audience that night didn't like the movie, but can we get away from this bullshit condemnatory glee? Amongst those already aware that Shyamalan is the director of After Earth, the claws have been out, the prejudice and stupidity abundant.

After Earth is a mediocre film. But that's really all it is. The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern asking if it's "the worst movie ever made" not only shows a feeble grasp of syntax (that "made" after "ever" is self-evident), it's forcefully blind toward the movie being projected on screen.

Like any movie, After Earth should be divorced from buzz and prejudice, and viewed for what it is. It's a kid's boy scout adventure movie, a coming-of-age tale in the true sense in that it places teenage Kitai (Jaden Smith) through a series of survivalist tasks until his father (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) is able to tell him he's now a man. It's narrowly focused, but walks with more confidence than The Last Airbender, M. Night's last children's movie.

Part of the confusion is that in the milieu of summer blockbusters this delineation between kid movies and grown up movies is rarely present. In other words, almost all summer blockbusters are for kids, but After Earth upsets adults by never trying to hide it.

As a complete film experience, it's dramatically stilted (Shyamalan's typical whispered-monologue-long-takes don't quite suit this milieu), lacking in wit beyond its thematics, and too constrained in scope. Kitai is dropped into what looks like some Western American forest, but the dramatic impact of an adolescent trying to survive in brutal nature is never desperate or frightening enough. Shyamalan makes a movie about life in the wild, and then neglects to give it much liveliness.

So what's this got to do with M. Night hate? Simple, After Earth is a mere shrugger of a film that's being taken as evidence that its director is the once-trusted babysitter who you caught corrupting your dog.

Collectively, the Zeitgeist will often randomly decide it's time to hate someone, and try to downplay that it ever liked them. It happened to Michael Jackson for the fifteen years before he died. It happened to Oliver Stone in 2004, with the aggravatingly reviewed Alexander, his last film to approach greatness. It's happening to Tim Burton right now. This tendency is completely ignorant of what was and remains appealing about a given artist, denies shifting personal interests, and relishes in disdain. Shallow people need enemies.

All of these artists have identifiable tropes and styles, which makes the pile-on easier. There was no widespread grumbling that Louis Leterrier was back this summer with Now You See Me , even though The Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans were lacklustre. Leterrier has no plainly evident distinguishable style, so he isn't on anyone's radar. But because Shyamalan's made four movies from The Sixth Sense to The Village that had twist endings, negative assessment of him always incorporates this most obvious facet. And since his last few movies have been sub par, he's suddenly incapable of, and unwelcome to, redeeming himself.

I don't aim to celebrate Shyamalan (the only of his movies I really like are Unbreakable and Lady in the Water) so much as identify a movement in film-going that's based in know-it-all shortsightedness rather than thirsty open-mindedness.

Last week, leading up to After Earth's release, a writer for TV's Suburgatory tweeted, "I don't see how M. Night Shyamalan directing a story made up by Will Smith to get his kid more work could possibly be bad." Funny, especially if you're already in agreement with the author's disdain. But having addressed the M. Night prejudice enough, let's counter these other complaints.

1) Will Smith is a storyteller, and a pretty good one. If you picked up and enjoyed one of his more narrative-centric rap albums prior to 1991's Homebase, you know that.

2) Tailoring a story for your son to star in is certainly nepotism, and gives the young Mr. Smith an unfair advantage over other child stars, but it isn't that different than if the elder Smith were writing a story as a showcase for himself. It's just a redirection of ego, which is always a primary fuel in Hollywood anyway.

I've never watched Suburgatory because it's called Suburgatory, and I assumed it was another stereotypical look at how shallow and repressive suburban life is for creative people. But people tell me it's in fact good. Having never seen it, I've never condemned it on Twitter. Ya see? It's of no benefit going on record, and contributing to mass discourse, about how bad an artwork looks like it is probably going to be.

Also, I don't have cable.

It's a weird time for film criticism. The general public has largely taken over the reigns, many of them slaves to buzz who spread hype like insight. When we talk about Marvel Phase 2, we're not even talking about films anymore. We're talking about a corporate growth strategy. Even some critics prioritize being first to discover and generate hype for movies at Cannes, SXSW, and Sundance. That's fine. But when it's standardized, somewhere along the way unclouded insight and evaluation is compromised. Criticism has been uncomfortably conflated with consumerism, as has the audience's appreciation for movies. Groaning at the mention of Shyamalan, Stone or Burton is the common response because it's the accepted fashion.

So take Dr. Funkenstein's advice and blow the cobwebs out of your mind. And open your eyes. We deserve better movies, but we should also demand better of ourselves.