Beyond Belief

Night lite: Mel Gibson in Signs.Photo: Frank Masi/SMPSP

In Signs, the new film from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, an Episcopal pastor who loses his faith after his wife is killed in a car accident. Living with his two young children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) on his Bucks County farm, along with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), Graham rejects any notion that God is watching over them or that life is anything more than a chain of coincidences. In true Hollywood fashion, his newfound unbelief is so adamant that, of course, we wait for the moment when his faith will be renewed. But because this is a movie by the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, we don’t get the usual routes to renewal. We have instead a movie that blends supernaturalism with religiosity; it’s as if the Praise the Lord network had mated with the Sci-Fi Channel.

Science fiction, in books and movies, has been used in the past as a vehicle for all kinds of message-mongering, and usually some schlock also manages to poke through. Shyamalan is unique among contemporary filmmakers in that he seems to have no interest in the pulp pleasures of the genre. In Signs, Graham discovers that the cornfield behind his Victorian homestead has been imprinted with mysterious circular patterns. Similar crop circles soon show up on the TV news in places like England and India; before long, UFOs are hovering over Mexico. Throughout all this, as Graham’s family takes refuge against the aliens, we’re reminded of The War of the Worlds and Invaders From Mars and a million other such movies, but the tone is quite different. Shyamalan is interested in sci-fi only as a way to hook audiences into having a “higher” experience. That’s why this movie, like his two previous forays into the supernatural, is so laden with dark and doomy imagery and cryptlike silences. Graham is meant to be an iconic ordinary guy, but for Shyamalan, iconic comes across as zombiefied – and slow is the same thing as meaningful. Mel Gibson gives a ponderous, stunted performance that is probably just what the director wanted. Every aspect of this movie, even what at first seems unimportant, ends up fitting into Shyamalan’s fanatically rigorous design. No wonder crop circles intrigue him; he’s created a crop circle of a movie, with every stalk bent just so and nothing left to chance.

What redeems Signs is its occasional overtones of humor. The creature-feature effects and the byplay between the children as they try to be brave have a ghastly, off-kilter funniness, and sometimes Graham’s staunch cluelessness has its charms, too. Shyamalan doesn’t make movies like anybody else – except himself. And that may be his biggest problem right now. For all his smarts and command of the medium, he seems to have boxed himself into a corner. The Sixth Sense, his best picture, had a marvelously successful story gimmick that became clear only in its final moments. With somewhat less success, he staged another end-game switcheroo in Unbreakable, and now he’s at it again. It must be terribly confining to work in such a way, to diminishing returns. Shyamalan wants to be the metaphysical poet of movies, but he’s dangerously close to becoming its O. Henry. The best surprise ending he could give us in his next movie would be no surprise ending at all.

Steven Soderbergh, by contrast, is a director who loves to change his game plan. His last movie, Ocean’s Eleven, was a spangly all-star commercial vehicle. His latest, Full Frontal, was shot over a period of eighteen days in 35-mm. and digital video for a $2 million. It takes place in Los Angeles over 24 hours and interweaves the lives of seven individuals. The cast includes Catherine Keener as an embittered corporate employee who delights in firing people, David Hyde Pierce as her sulky magazine-writer husband, Mary McCormack as her massage-therapist sister who trawls for men on the Internet, Nicky Katt as an actor playing Hitler in a stage play called The Sound and the Führer, David Duchovny as a bathrobed movie producer, and, in dual roles, Blair Underwood as a TV actor playing an actor in a movie and Julia Roberts as a famous actress playing a reporter in that movie (it’s as confusing as it sounds). The movie, written by Coleman Hough, has its fun moments, and the dialogue, some of which was surely improvised, has a natural flow. But Soderbergh suffocates everything with stylistics. The jump cuts and the grainy digital-video imagery only add to the ongoing befuddlement about who’s who and what’s what. Soderbergh is so busy trying to create his movie-within-a-movie – and, in at least one instance, his movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie – that he botches the enclosing movie.

Soderbergh began his career in 1989 with sex, lies and videotape, a film that Full Frontal harks back to, with its quickie filmmaking tactics and art-house pretensions. He’s gone back and forth ever since, with a filmography incorporating not only Traffic and Erin Brockovich but also marginalia like Kafka and Schizopolis. Soderbergh actually does what a lot of big-shot directors always say they’ll do – he makes that small, personal movie. Despite his immense versatility, however, Soderbergh has always struck me as being more comfortable – more of an artist – making narrative movies in the commercial mainstream. His films are usually best when they are straightforward and ungimmicky, as in the sweet, Depression-era King of the Hill or Out of Sight, a great sexpot thriller that, tellingly, was marred only by its fractured-time narrative structure. Soderbergh isn’t the first American director to want to be New Wave while being much better at Old Wave: Francis Coppola is the king of that syndrome. (Remember Rumble Fish?) But Full Frontal is the clearest indication yet that Soderbergh doesn’t really have the chops to be another Godard.

The great French New Wave directors used Hollywood pulp as a jumping-off point for their own free-form lyricism; many of their best (and worst) movies were both reveries and tributes. When Soderbergh tries to get free-form and lyrical here, all we end up with is a welter of hand-me-down camera pyrotechnics camouflaging a lot of tired notions about truth and illusion. Godard and Truffaut needed new expressive techniques because they were exploring new emotional territory. Soderbergh is exploring his navel.

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan; starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix.
Full Frontal
Directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Catherine Keener, David Hyde Pierce, and Julia Roberts.

Beyond Belief