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So What, Exactly, Happens in The Happening?

Written by: Ron Bricker


Image That eerie guy on my street corner is right: Nothing lasts today. I'm pretty sure he was talking about the strength of today's condoms versus whatever imaginary contraceptive he used back "when I was just a ‘perm" but, nevertheless; his toothless wisdom applies to the current state of today's "entertainment". The ADD revolution of the 90s, and its ability to jack every soul of its attention capacity, disproved the eff out of Warhol’s theory that everyone gets their 15 minutes (the theory itself already having got more than its 15 minutes). Today, mostly because of YouTube and partly because of Oprah (because she’s at least partially responsible for everything), the longevity that an inconsequential videotaped act of nothingness receives has been reduced to somewhere between 6 (waterskiing squirrel) and 8 (Paris Hilton) minutes. For those who don’t indulge in kick-in-the-balls montages (and the likes), this change shouldn’t matter —the 15 minutes was never theirs in the first place. But it does. Over the past couple years, a funny thing has happened. That same unconscious aversion to anything real (read: tangible) has begun to affect the way the movie going masses perceive popular film. How? It goes like this…

 

The excited masses go and see a popular film. That excited mass makes way to the Internet to report the news to those who have yet to see it. They blog and boast and quote, but their feedback isn’t coherent. It’s got no context. Instead of being judged as a whole, the film is subsequently boiled down to wikipediad, internet-ready bites for easy consumption (Best Comedy Ever! Stupid! Worst Star Wars ever! Enlightening!  Great quotes! And so on and so on). The film, once a full feature, is now a status, defined by its highlights and only its highlights (or its lowlights). Reduced to a shell, forced to live off its quotes, or its theme, or whatever attractive trait the masses picked upon. And it’s that status that the film is forced to live off of until some hipster picks it up 30 years down the road and turns it into a cult classic.

Whether good or bad, hundreds of films are affected by the moviegoers need to minimize. Napoleon Dynamite, The Departed, Saw, The Core, No Country for Old Men, Snakes on a Plane: All reduced to, and known, by what the attention-less audience decided to run with and not what the film was supposed to be about. The reason I rant is this: the person undoubtedly affected the most by this new trend is M. Night Shyamalan. And his new film, just as the other before it, will certainly be affected.

The Happening is happening. M. Night’s newest secret is out, and that means only one thing. You don’t care about all of the subtleties of this film: the intended over-creepiness from each character, the well-woven subtexts which highlight our world’s ills, the soundtrack, the inventive camera shots, the creepy children. Admit it. Screw the movie, you say, bring on the twist.

But here’s the twist: the entire movie is based around the fact that M. Night knows that you know he is going to “blow your mind” with an ending that sticks. M. Night crafts the ending according to what you think it’s going to be, because he’s undoubtedly heard what everyone knows: The surprise endings are the only reason to see his flicks. He’s the guy with the twist endings, so fuck everything else. Well he’s onto us. Even the name of the film, The Happening, plays off of his realization of the viewer’s expectations. He’s shoving the label back into our faces.

So, what happens? (Sorry, in a review of The Happening it was inevitable) Well, that’s tough. The Happening is as just as it sounds, broad and specific all at once. Absolutely everything and unequivocally nothing (I will guarantee that the critics will say that it’s nothing). A chemical “attack” takes place in Central Park. Anyone who comes in contact with the “toxin” experiences the same effects: They become disoriented, stop whatever they were doing and kill themselves. There is no warning. The “attack” swells up and down the Northeast corridor, from Maryland to Maine, from the Pennsylvania rurals to Manhattan. A set of characters have to try and survive whatever the attack is and for however long it lasts, neither of which anyone knows. And that’s it. Something is happening, and you watch people run away from it.

The film isn’t as involved in the plot as it is with its subtexts (which inevitably cripples the piece). Shyamalan spends so much time alluding to our problems (our impact on nature, our illogical everyday fears, etc.) that he never makes a real attempt at the story. The characters are never built up, and that hinders the viewer’s ability to attach and sympathize with any of them. So, instead of becoming invested in the film, the viewer is just left sitting there, wondering why they are watching people run away from whatever they are running away from.

Ahhhh…the signature Shyamalan creepiness. That eerie robot-like line delivery during a tense moment, distributed so deliberately—“There appears to be something happening.” “If we stay here, we are going to die.”— it shouts out to the viewer that SOMETHING has to be wrong. The quiet child, staring straight ahead expressionless, while the audience waits, illogically, for a second head to pop out of the kid’s neck. These are the instances that carry the film, using unfettered eeriness (and awkwardness) to break the fourth wall to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, while still holding the viewer tight. This is to say nothing about the fact that people are killing themselves throughout the entire film, using extremely inventive ways (A couple of examples: by lawnmower, garden hose, window, pen, the ground) with unbelievable haste. The creepiness from all of the suicides eventually subsides, which causes you to realize that you have been desensitized to the undesensitizeable, which, in turn, creeps you out even more.

Regardless of whether the film is good or not, The Happening does show that Shyamalan is progressing, which none of the other films could claim. The Happening also has something that no other M. Night film’s can claim: actual subtlety.  Sure, the majority of M. Night’s films are known for their low-key, passive nature; dragging the viewer slowly through the streets before a sudden, unexpected curbing. But, what Sixth Sense and Unbreakable hold isn’t a true, quiet nature; it’s all to set the viewer up for the finale. For his past films, the beginnings are purposely slow and the ends purposely quick because, well, you can’t teach lessons and showcase everything wrong with humanity and blow people’s minds at the same time. The Happening is subtle through and through, the total plot of the film designed entirely around keeping the viewer on edge without anything actually happening. It’s all in what M. Night makes the audience fear, and somehow, magically, by halfway through the film you are (or maybe it’s just me) cowering at the sound of an approaching wind. And it’s not even hurricane-force, it’s a flippin’ breeze. That’s where the subtlety lies. Normally, viewers are horrified by gale winds throwing tress and cattle and George Foreman grills. Shyamalan, however, threatens you with rustling leaves and a continuous whooooshing.

That said, this film is all Hitchcock— a good cut of The Birds and a bad swipe at Vertigo. Just as Hitchcock built suspense in a thorough, almost business-like manner, Shyamalan has realized that the path toward legitimate horror isn’t constantly making the audience jump; it’s building the suspense until the viewer can’t shake the creepiness. His past films have all made obvious allusions to the master, but, until now, he hadn’t fully embraced the Hitchcock mantra. Shyamalan still uses the occasional quick cut freak out as a crutch, but he’s learning the more homage to Hitchcock, the better film.

As I came out of the theatre, someone asked me how I felt. I responded with an odd look on my face and a shoulder shrug. And days later, that’s what I still have – a giant “?” over my head. The film does certain things well: the soundtrack is phenomenal, the subtext is well thought out, and it achieves definite creepiness. It’s missing almost everything else, namely great characters and a plot. But all that doesn’t matter, because all you want to know is one thing: What’s the twist?

Author: Ron Bricker

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