' ' Cinema Romantico: Seeing The Signs All Over Again

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Seeing The Signs All Over Again

Has it really been 10 years? I seem to be saying that a lot lately. Has it really been (insert number of years here)? But it really has been that long. It's been 10 years since I trekked to a theater for a showing of "Signs" which, surprisingly, turned out to be one of the Greatest Moviegoing Experiences Of My Life, a screening so enjoyable I still to this day recall the woman directly behind screaming me at a particularly scary part and having to restrain myself from turning around to thank her for enjoying the film as much as me.

2002. What a world. Mel Gibson was not yet Hollywood's go-to bigot. M. Night Shyamalan was still living off "Sixth Sense" karma. Heck, Kate Middleton and Prince William hadn't even officially started dating! And that August Mel & M. Night released "Signs" into theaters, a film in which a Pennsylvania family wakes one morning to discover crop signs in their cornfields. Are these a hoax? Or a......sign of something bigger?

Re-watching the film for the first time in several years I was most struck by the immense command of craft demonstrated by its writer and director and producer (Shyamalan), whose career would careen off the rails two years later with "The Village" and then just keep careening into a lake with "The Lady In The Water" and then sink fast and furious with "The Happening" and "The Last Airbender". There is an exquisitely haunting moment in this film after it has been revealed crop signs are appearing at multiple points all across the globe and fears and suspicions are arising and so Gibson takes his son (Rory Culkin) and daughter (Abigail Breslin) and brother (Joaquin Phoenix) away from the farm and into town because he has forbade to TV to get their minds off the situation. His son asks for the radio to be turned on. It is. Immediately they hear more talk of the crop signs. Gibson turns off the radio. "No radio either," he says. And THEN the film cuts to an overhead shot, the camera tracking the family car as it makes its way down the road, suggesting that whoever it is out there who has created the crop circles is still watching and waiting, whether or not you turn off the TV and the radio and try to ignore it. GOOSE.BUMPS.

More than that, though, a re-watch reveals just how much of a classical filmmaker Shyamalan was (is?). The scene that finally prods Gibson to turn back on the TV to reveal the arrival of the aliens occurs after has encountered some unseen being out in the field and fled back inside his house. The shot is set with Phoenix in the foreground off to the right side of the frame, reading in a chair, and the two children are in the background at the sink, washing dishes and laughing. Gibson enters to the left side of the frame and collapses at the kitchen table. It is often difficult to remember in this world of incessant shaky cam just how stunning a simple, sturdy, static shot can be.

Trust the art, not the artist. A well-trod phrase, to be sure, but one that seems to summarize the duo at the forefront of "Signs" perfectly. In the face of his sudden downward slope, Shyamalan often likes to turn around the criticism of his films as a means to criticize the critics who dare criticize him. “Reviews of my movies,” he has said, “often spend a lot of the time talking about me and not the movie.” This, I would suggest, is generally a half-truth. If The Auteur Theory – “a view of filmmaking in which the director is considered the primary creative force in a motion picture” – is to be believed, then it would be required of reviews of his movies to discuss him. Even MORE so if he doubles and triples as writer and producer. These are HIS films. But Shyamalan’s assertion is that critics are out to get him specifically and use their reviews less as a means to discuss his films than as a means to “get” him. Nonsense. After all, what did we just confirm? Trust the art, not the artist. And sorry, M. Night, but no matter how much you try to deflect it, your art speaks for itself and your art has progressively gotten worse. Signs was fantastic. The Happening was awful. Them’s the facts.

On the flip side, trusting the art and not the artist brings us right along to perhaps cinema’s current most polarizing figure. And Mel Gibson, to be blunt, seems like a complete a—hole – a sexist, a racist, an anti-semite, a homophobe, the list goes on. If I ever saw him in real life, I would probably turn my back on him. I have no time for self-righteousness. Yet…… While I admit it’s potentially dangerous to say so out loud, is it possible that Gibson’s real-life self-righteousness enhanced his work as (former) Father Graham Hess in "Signs"? Recall the character – a priest in the Catholic church he loses his wife in a car accident and turns his back on God (“I am not wasting one more minute of my life on prayer”). He has become terribly indignant and bottles up the furious rage he feels inside. Gibson makes you SEE the bottled up furious rage, and that’s not easy. But don’t you suspect that for years and years the real Gibson had to bottle up the furious rage he felt inside simply so he could exist as a Movie Star? Once it poured out, his mainstream days were done.

When discussing “Signs” with others I often find they are discontent with the aliens, their presentation and their weakness, but “Signs” is REALLY about the Hess family coming to terms with their collective weaknesses – notably Father Graham Hess being able to read the signs and finally re-realize who he really is. And in so many ways the public has come to realize who Mel Gibson really is. One can only hope he, like his character in the film, accepts it. Maybe then he can deal with it.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant writeup of an underrated M Night film. I saw this ages ago but I was quite taken with it. Yes the alien was rather goofy looking but like you said, this is not so much a movie about alien so much so about the Hess' family. You are right, The Happening is so darn awful it's hard to imagine they're done by the same person!

As far as Gibson's personal life goes, I do hope a bigot is not who he really is. I mean people make mistakes and most of us don't get our outbursts distributed so publicly. I pray that he gets some help if he hasn't already done so. No one is a lost cause.

Nick Prigge said...

It's just so confusing to watch this compared to his more recent movies. It really DOES look like it's made by someone completely different. So strange. But even so, I still love this movie so much.

Madison said...

Hi! Great site! I'm trying to find an email address to contact you on to ask if you would please consider adding a link to my website. I'd really appreciate if you could email me back.

Thanks and have a great day!

Derek Armstrong said...

I'm with you on Signs. The thing I think of most when I think of this movie is the scene where Gibson starts blubbering at the table with his family. I don't know what real emotions he tapped in that scene, but they were pure. Extremely convincing display of emotion. (Let's just hope he wasn't crying over the perceived victory of Zionism or something.)

I also love that snippet of alien footage on the news. This was before every other found footage movie made that kind of thing completely boring. "Vamanos, children!"

I can't remember, did you see Jeff Who Lives at Home? That's not a random question ... there's a reason I'm asking, but I won't spoil it if you haven't seen the movie yet.

Nick Prigge said...

I did see Jeff Who Lives At Home. And that's party why I wanted to re-visit Signs again.

That birthday party, alien footage scene is actually the one that made that girl behind me scream. It really is well done. I loved how all the news reports kind of left blanks in them, just giving inconclusive information.