' ' Cinema Romantico: Forgotten Great Moments in Movie History

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Forgotten Great Moments in Movie History

“The mechanical resolution of a movie’s problems is something we sit through at the end,” the esteemed Roger Ebert wrote in his review of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 film “Signs”, “but it's the setup and the buildup that keep our attention.” He concludes: “’Signs’ is all about the buildup.” Indeed, as it opens, strange sounds and creatures dot the landscape of Graham Hess’s (Mel Gibson) farm outside Philadelphia. Those sounds and creatures give way to crop signs in his field and those crop signs give way to crop signs around the globe. The latter is discovered through the magic of television, where Graham and a local cop, Caroline (Cherry Jones), see it. “What in God’s name is going on?” Caroline says, a line reading Jones expertly infuses with as much jaw-on-the-floor confusion as dread. She councils Graham to take his two kids and his brother into town, “get their minds and your mind on everyday things. Good medicine.”

That’s good advice, like Graham says, but is easier said than done. The ensuing shot is my favorite one in the movie, the camera watching the Hess family car as it drives into town from above, as if whatever’s out there is up there watching. Spooky, spooky stuff. In town, the pharmacist (early Merritt Weaver, man) just wants to unload on Graham about what’s going on; Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), Graham’s brother, pays a visit to the local army recruiter, a creepy scene I’ve written about before; Graham’s kids, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), visit a bookstore where the proprietor is convinced the crop signs are a network TV scam to sell soda. I laughed then; I laughed harder now. They get away but they can’t get away, you know? It’s Graham, though, who’s most insistent that they take their medicine, telling them to turn off TV, to keep the radio on silent, ignoring the news, trying to steer clear of what’s going on, insisting they all sit down to pizza, even if his eyes, offset by Gibson’s rock solid posture, seem ready to burst.


Waking up this past weekend, I stayed away from my phone, deliberately stranding it in another room. I didn’t want to refresh any news apps, I didn’t want to scroll Twitter. I poured my coffee and picked up our issue of The New Yorker. Most of the articles concerned the Coronavirus, of course. We turned on The Weather Channel, which is usually innocuous in its own way, polite if meteorological informed chatter about rain in St. Louis or a cold front on the Plains. But they kept, as they should, issuing COVID-19 updates. We went for a walk in the neighborhood, passing the Starbucks on our corner which had tacked up sign to advise it was temporarily closed, lights on but no people, the display case devoid of any items. The bar and restaurant across the street had all its chairs up on the table, like it was 2 AM even though it was 2 PM. When someone came walking up behind us, we instinctively fell into single file, trying to provide her and us the necessary six feet; they crossed the street anyway, 12 or 25 feet better than 6. I tried to take my medicine but it didn’t have much effect.


After returning home from their medicine-taking excursion, Graham winds up encountering what will soon prove to be an extra-terrestrial in his field. Before he re-enters the home, shaken, Shyamalan sets a scene, this scene, one of cozy domesticity.

The kids are in the background, washing dishes at the sink, sort of, more interested in splashing each other with water, laughing as they do. Merrill sits in the foreground, chewing gum, reviewing the brochure he picked up from the Army recruiter. For a moment, they have, without maybe even realizing it, managed to get their mind off things.

Then Graham enters from the left, head down, not just looking shaken now but beaten.

He slumps into a kitchen chair. As he does, the kids and Merrill all turn to face him.

“Okay,” Graham says. “Let’s turn on the TV.” Try as you might, you can only keep the world at bay for so long. 

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