DID YOU READ

This Movie Makes No Sense: “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan”

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There are good movies and bad movies.  And then there are those movies that defy easy categorizations.  The inexplicable, the incomprehensible, the indecipherable: these are the movies that make no sense.  And that’s why we love them.

From its opening title card, “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan” makes no sense. It reads: “Chapter 1: Not All Things Are Tricks” but guess what: the not-particularly well-buried secret of “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan” is that the whole thing is a trick. The film purports to be an unauthorized look at the life of the “notoriously secretive director” of “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” — but it’s actually an authorized piece of propaganda designed to promote not only a movie, but also its egomaniacal author. “Secretive?” Really? Do secretive directors commission three hour documentaries about themselves? The whole thing makes no sense, but the whole thing is also one of the most fascinating media texts I have ever watched in my entire life. Like Joaquin Phoenix’s “I’m Still Here,” the actor’s — and frequent Shyamalan collaborator’s — ficto-docu-portrait of his (apparently staged) descent into alcohol and drug-fueled madness, “The Buried Secret” lies in the service of a buried truth about its subject.

Here is the story behind it: the film, directed by and starring real-life documentarian Nathaniel Kahn (“My Architect”), was produced for the Sci-Fi Channel in 2004 as guerilla marketing for Shyamalan’s then upcoming feature “The Village.” Within the narrative of the film, Sci-Fi hires Kahn to make a puff piece, Shyamalan avoids the cameras, Kahn starts digging, and finds all kinds of skeletons in his closet. It could be a goofy, winking joke, but rather than air it as a goofy, winking joke, Sci-Fi actually tried to pass the film off as a legitimate documentary. They even convinced the Associated Press that it was true and that Shyamalan was fighting to keep the film from airing; the AP, in turn, published this article detailing the way “Buried Secret,” intended as a “benign profile,” “went sour” until “Shyamalan quit on-screen.” Days before the three-hour doc (about two hours and ten minutes plus TV commercials) was set to air, though, Sci-Fi was forced to admit it had lied about the film and their battle with Shyamalan in another AP story. “We created a fictional special that was part-fact and part-fiction, and Night was part of the creation from the beginning,” said network president Bonnie Hammer.

Let’s get right to the part-fiction stuff. As hard as hard as it might be to believe — especially when you realize that someone thought the public might actually accept this thing as gospel truth — the Shyamalan of “Buried Secret” is a man who has touched the beyond. The secret he’s tried so hard to bury — SPOILER ALERT; READ NO FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN’S MADE-UP SEVEN-YEAR-OLD LIFE-ALTERING SECRET — is that at the age of 11, he died for thirty-five minutes, drowning at the bottom of a pond. After they fished Shyamalan out and undied him (the movie does not explain how), young Night found that he could communicate with dead people, a la Haley Joel Osment’s character in “The Sixth Sense.” Thus, as Kahn says to Shyamalan in the confrontation that supposedly pissed him off, “Your movies aren’t fiction, Night. They’re autobiography!”

This is interesting on a few levels. One, because a director is trying to suggest that he can actually communicate with the dead. Two, because it suggests that if it were true, Shyamalan apparently wouldn’t want to use that as marketing tool when, clearly, Shyamalan is a guy who will use anything as a marketing tool (see: “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan”). Three, in a weird way, Shyamalan is thinking like a film critic. What Kahn does in “Buried Secret” is basically what scholars who subscribe to the auteur theory of film do. They look for recurring themes and motifs throughout a director’s body of work, and try to connect them to their lives and beliefs. For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s father had him thrown in jail for a few hours when he was a boy, in order to teach him a lesson. Some critics cite this as the origin of Hitchcock’s career-long paranoia about the police and the government, which manifests itself over and over in films like “The 39 Steps” and “North by Northwest.”

Here Shyamalan — a man who frequently invites comparisons to Hitchcock — is inventing his own directorial mythology. Even if he didn’t expect people to buy that he could commune with the dead, I suspect he did want them to buy that he’s carried the idea as a lifelong obsession, which, in turn, makes his movies about that idea feel far weightier than they might otherwise. It turns a canny and cleverly manipulative piece of pop entertainment into the deeply felt expression of a tortured artist.

When you look through the layers of mystical bullcrap and puffed-up narcissism, what you really see in “The Buried Secret” is a man desperately trying to build and control his own mystique. Because Shyamalan is supposedly so secretive about his filmmaking methods and so nervous about giving Kahn access to his set and his personal life, a lot of “The Buried Secret” takes place far from the production of “The Village.” This might be the single most hubristic element of one of the most hubristic films ever made: it’s a three hour profile of a filmmaker in which the filmmaker himself rarely appears. Apparently, Shyamalan thought his fans were so interested in his life that they’d sit through a three hour film about a guy waiting to talk to him.

While Kahn waits for access he travels around Philadelphia, interviewing Shyamalan’s family, friends, and co-workers. Though these look like authentic interviews, we need to bear in mind that most, if not all, were staged. What’s being said is therefore a lot less interesting than why it’s being said in the context of the mythic portrait that’s being created. For example, when Kahn interviews one of Shyamalan’s “childhood friends” and the friend says he stopped trying to get in touch with Night because he was starting to feel like he was stalking him, the implication is that Night has become too cool to hang out with his childhood friends. When Shyamalan’s “former neighbor” Georgine says that people drive through his old Philly neighborhood looking for him “often,” the implication is that Shyamalan is such a huge celebrity that people actually do kind of stalk him.

Kahn’s interviews with Shyamalan are fascinating as well. The director blows off most of his scheduled sit-downs; Kahn includes the footage of him and the crew waiting around for hours on end because, I guess, that’s what documentarians do — they just keep their cameras running at all times even when absolutely nothing is going on. When Shyamalan does show up, his mere presence creates havoc for Kahn’s microphones, which hiss, putter, and short circuit repeatedly whenever he speaks. This, I guess, is supposed to be another facet of Shyamalan’s supernatural mystique, though the obvious question — if Shyamalan’s otherworldly mojo screws with microphones, how the hell does he record clean sound on his movies? — is not addressed.

Kahn’s questions reveal more of Shyamalan’s self-obsession. He asks what it feels like to be so successful so fast (which reminds the audience how successful Shyamalan is), and whether he feels pressure to make huge movies (which reminds the audience that all his movies are huge movies). When Shyamalan takes Kahn on a tour of Philadelphia, two different people recognize him and ask to have their picture taken with him. At several points, various random strangers turn to the camera and point out how incredibly handsome Shyamalan is. After all the adulation, it’s kind of surprising Shyamalan doesn’t put down his Philly Cheesesteak and turn his fountain soda into wine.

In other words: for all the manufactured hullabaloo about the rift between Kahn and Shyamalan, “The Buried Secret” is about as fawning a portrait of a man as has ever been created (in one hilarious and pointless scene, Kahn sits in his hotel room and watches “Signs,” frequently complimenting how good it looks). If this were a real documentary — if Kahn had decided to make a fanboy celebration of Shyamalan entirely on his own — that would be one thing. But this is really Shyamalan making a fanboy celebration of himself. It’s like “This is Spinal Tap,” if “Spinal Tap” was about how awesome Christopher Guest looked when he played guitar.

The portrait being painted here is so cartoonishly egocentric that one has to at least consider the possibility that Shyamalan is making fun of himself. It’s certainly possible. For example, the first time Kahn is taken to “The Village” set by Shyamalan’s publicist, she lays out rules he has to follow, including the fact that he’s not allowed to make eye contact with Shyamalan while he’s directing, or even speak to him until they’re properly introduced. The rules are so extreme, you want to read them as a joke — but what is the joke, exactly? The joke could be that the publicist is overly and excessively protective — only she’s not; in “Buried Secret,” Night is exactly the kind of ultra-sensitve Hollywood neurotic who needs coddling handlers. The joke could be that Night is the exact opposite of the guy he’s playing here — but why play that part in a movie you wanted people to think was real? Again: this film makes no sense.

Even within the large tapestry of madness, there are individual moments of amazing weirdness. One of the supporting characters in the film is a pizza delivery man, who repeatedly brings Kahn and the crew food in their hotel room, and begins to critique their work and even teaches them about Latino supernatural myths because, hey, that’s what pizza guys usually do when they bring you pizza, right? In one scene, Kahn follows a lead to the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles where he interviews Johnny Depp. Like, the real Johnny Depp, who was apparently considered for the lead in “Signs,” but turned the part down because he found Shyamalan too weird (can you imagine?!?). “I don’t know what he’s up to,” Depp tells Kahn about Shyamalan. “I don’t think anybody does. But it’s not worth it. It’s only cinema. It’s only movies, man. Just have a good time. Step outside once in a while. Go get a donut.”

Depp’s offhand quip cuts to the core, not just of Shyamalan but also his “Buried Secret.” This movie’s constructed, artificial reality attains a deeper truth than it even aspired to. In creating this absurd and wholly artificial portrait of Shyamalan, it reveals the depths to which the man is genuinely obsessed with crafting his own image as a supernaturally powerful, wildly intelligent, devilishly handsome filmmaker. His movies may not be autobiography. But “The Buried Secret” is.

What movie do you love that makes no sense? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Religuous Bill Maher

Politics Now!

10 Hilarious Political Documentaries You Need to See

Documentary Now! gets political with "The Bunker" premiering September 14th at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: ©Lionsgate/Courtesy Everett Collection

Who says political documentaries can’t be hilarious? The best political docs — like The War Room, the 1993 depiction of the Clinton presidential campaign that Documentary Now! pays homage to with “The Bunker” — have plenty in them to make you laugh. Here are 10 political documentaries that will elicit more than just bitter laughter.

1. The Yes Men

Activist duo Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos are responsible for not just one, but three funny and scathing political documentaries: The Yes Men (2003), The Yes Men Fix the World (2009) and The Yes Men are Revolting (2014). The pair impersonate bad guys from the worlds of business and government, and often end up fooling the media. They also stage elaborate pranks like having dozens of people don inflatable ball outfits called SurvivaBalls to help survive catastrophes resulting from climate change. Along the way they’ve racked up numerous awards and almost as many arrests.


2. Weiner

“Hilarious…like a Spinal Tap of politics,” said the New York Post about the doc Weiner, of course adding, “…it’s the full package.” This doc follows the disgraced Congressman, who had to resign due to a sexting scandal, in his quest for a comeback, running for Mayor of New York City. Incredibly, yet another sexting scandal explodes during the course of filming. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, as the whole sordid story unfolds before the cameras, featuring Weiner and his wife, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. It’s the film that puts the (Carlos) “danger” back in politics.


3. Please Vote for Me

Politics on a scale much smaller but just as riveting are on display in this 2007 documentary. A third grade class in China is given the task of holding an election for class monitor. The resulting web of intrigue, dirty tricks and bare-knuckle politics among this group of 8-year-olds are reminiscent of something Karl Rove or Lee Atwater would come up with. And the parents are worse. A fascinating look at the roots of democracy, with a touch of Lord of the Flies.


4. Roger & Me

Filmmaker Michael Moore could have any one of a number of his movies in this list (his is the first name most people think of when the subject of funny political docs comes up). But his first doc, Roger & Me, remains one of his funniest and — with its focus on the economic impact of globalization on American workers — still remains one of his timeliest. The film centers around Moore’s attempts to confront then CEO of General Motors Roger B. Smith. Moments from the film including scenes with former game show host Bob Eubanks and another with a luckless rabbit have become iconic.


5. Bronx Obama

The first feature-length documentary from filmmaker Ryan Murdock, Bronx Obama follows the story of Louis Ortiz, a lifelong resident of the South Bronx. Unemployed and with a young daughter, Ortiz is told by a friend in 2007 that he looks like a rising young politician. Before long, he’s making a living as a Barack Obama impersonator. The award-winning doc shows many hilarious moments intentional and otherwise as Ortiz comes to grips with his new life over the course of three years during Obama’s first term and deals with an unscrupulous manager.


6. Religulous

Bill Maher brings his scathing satire of organized religion to his 2008 documentary Religulous. In the course of the film he travels to The Wailing Wall, The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City and The Vatican, among other places. But some of the best scenes are in cheesy locales like The Creation Museum and a Christian theme park in Orlando called Holy Land Experience. He even finds a Muslim gay bar in Amsterdam. Maher is merciless in his mockery of the main Western religions, but even if you disagree with his viewpoints, his comedy is always spot on.


7. Al Franken: God Spoke

From the makers of The War Room, this doc shows the evolution of Al Franken from comedian to political pundit during the first term of George W. Bush. We see Franken touring in promotion of his book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, broadcasting at Air America Radio and touring with the USO in Iraq. The most memorable encounters in the film are clashes with right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. It’s a funny look at a man on a journey from SNL to the US Senate.


8. Journeys with George

In the year 2000, Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi) was covering the presidential campaign of then-Texas Governor George W. Bush for NBC. For 18 months, she also used a handheld camcorder to record Journeys with George. The result is a remarkably warm and funny portrait of a somewhat goofball politician. Pelosi went on to become a filmmaker. Bush went on to bigger things as well. From the vantage point of 16 years later, the big takeaway from Journeys with George is that George W. Bush seemed a lot funnier before we had eight years of him as president.


9. Mitt

You may have suspected that George W. Bush could make a goofily entertaining subject for a documentary. What you never suspected was that Mitt Romney could ever be anything other than stiff and robotic. For the film Mitt, documentarian Greg Whiteley was given unprecedented access to Romney in his runs for president in both 2008 and 2012. What emerges is a surprisingly human portrait of Romney and his family. There’s an amazing scene in the hotel on the night Mitt lost to Barack Obama revealing that he never even contemplated the possible need for a concession speech.


10. Sarah Palin: You Betcha!

No list of things both political and funny can avoid having at least one entry about Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin: You Betcha! is from noted British documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) and should not be confused with the fawning Palin doc The Undefeated. In 2011, after she had become a conservative icon, Broomfield went to Alaska and documented his attempts at getting an interview with Palin in a Roger & Me-esque pursuit. In interviews with Palin family, friends, fans and foes, Broomfield manages to make the self-described “mama grizzly” seem both dangerous and ridiculous, both of which are undoubtedly true.

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Die Laughing

5 Depictions of “Death” in Comedy

Catch Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey this week on IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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With Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey airing as part of IFC’s Rotten Fridays, we got to thinking about how exactly the character of Death made his way onto the screen – and onto the poster – of a 1991 comedy sequel.

Ingmar Bergman’s depiction of Death in his 1957 classic The Seventh Seal set the tone for how most people think of The Grim Reaper. Portrayed by Bengt Ekerot, Death was a chess-playing philosopher, answering deep existential questions while capturing your rook with his knight. In Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Death is partial to board games.

Here then is the journey of Death in movie comedies, from Bill & Ted to Whoopi.

1. The Dove / De Duva (1968)

Three years after The Seventh Seal hit theaters, this short film parodied as much Ingmar Bergman as could fit into 14 minutes. The centerpiece is of course the pale-faced and shrouded Death, challenged this time in a game of badminton. It’s also the film debut of Madeline Kahn, who would go on to become the queen of parody with Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety and Blazing Saddles.


2. Monty Python and the Holy Grail trailer (1975)

One of the greatest comedies of all times parodies one of the greatest movies of all times –- but only in the trailer. Referring to the director and title by name, this preview promises something “all rather silly” when compared to The Seventh Seal. To wit: Death takes a pie to the face.


3. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

Bill and Ted
Orion Pictures

If Death can play chess, then why not Twister, Clue and Battleship? Of all the comic portrayals of Death in movies, this is the one that holds up best. William Sadler brings a vulnerability to the role while never losing Death’s sense of menace. Like the Bill & Ted movies, it’s brilliantly smart and stupid all at the same time.


4. The Last Action Hero (1993)

"Ian
Columbia Pictures

This action-comedy-trainwreck acknowledges The Seventh Seal as a movie and then takes a big leap as the character of Death leaves the land of Ingmar Bergman and jumps into the world of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ian McKellen (the Bengt Ekerot of our day) takes over the role and wreaks havoc in 1990s America.


5. Monkeybone (2001)

Monkeybone
20th Century Fox

Whoopi Goldberg plays Death in this bizarre 2001 comedy, where Brendan Fraser’s comatose cartoonist must get an “exit pass” from Death in order to return to the land of the living. Also, Death has a giant robot. It’s a weird movie, folks.

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Rick Moranis Honey I shrunk the kids

Rick of Time

10 Best Rick Moranis Roles

Catch Rick Moranis in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Buena Vista Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection

Everyone loves Rick Moranis. It’s just the truth. This month on IFC, you get a chance to rediscover his awesomeness in Honey, I Shrunk the KidsAs you enjoy that family comedy gem, here are a few other roles that showcase Rick Moranis’ greatness.

1. Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour Krelborn

Only Rick Moranis could play a character that you still root for even though he’s murdering people and feeding them to an alien plant. Audiences loved Seymour so much, the studio had to reshoot the ending of the film. Originally, the film ended like the original Off-Broadway play, with Seymour and Audrey being eaten and Audrey II taking over the world. Test audiences couldn’t stand the fact that they were killed, so a new ending was shot with our leads victorious and the film became one of the best movie musicals of all time.


2. Ghostbusters, Louis Tully

In a film with so many comedy legends, it would have been easy for Rick Moranis to fade into the background as the hapless Louis Tully. But he more than holds his own up against the rest, making Tully just as funny as he is pathetic. And when he goes bug-eyed as Vinz Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer, that’s when the fun really starts.


3. Spaceballs, Dark Helmet

You don’t often think of James Earl Jones and Rick Moranis being typecast together. But in Mel Brooks’ goofy send-up of Star Wars, Moranis takes on his version of Darth Vader. As Dark Helmet, Moranis is a perfect mixture of occasionally threatening and mostly inept. If Brooks ever decides to revisit the Spaceballs franchise on the big screen, hopefully he’ll find a way to bring Dark Helmet into the new Star Wars universe.


4. Parenthood, Nathan Huffner

Directed by Ron Howard, Parenthood is a wonderfully truthful movie about marriage, having children and the dangers of oral sex while driving. Moranis plays Nathan Huffner, an intellectual who’s more interested in raising his daughter as a science experiment than being a loving father. Though there are many comedic moments, this is a much more understated performance for Moranis. And he gets easily the sweetest moment in the film when he serenades his estranged wife in front of her students.


5. Strange Brew, Bob McKenzie

Bob and Doug McKenzie were breakout characters from SCTV that were originally created by government demand — the CBC mandates that a certain percentage of all shows in Canada have specifically Canadian content. So, Moranis and Dave Thomas thought of the most stereotypical Canadians possible and the McKenzie brothers were born. The duo appeared on SCTV, in Pizza Hut and Molson commercials, on a platinum-selling comedy album and their big screen debut, Strange Brew. It’s a tale of poisoned beer, mind control plots and an escape from an insane asylum. Plus, it’s a loose take on Hamlet. Probably not what you’d expect from characters made as a joke, but that’s what makes Bob McKenzie a great and surprising “hoser.”


6. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Wayne Szalinski

In this 1989 classic, Rick Moranis plays a bumbling inventor who accidentally shrinks his kids and neighbors to the size of ants. Though that may sound horrifying, Moranis is great as a man who’s thrilled that something of his finally worked and just as comically terrified by what he’s done. With impressive special effects for the time, the film still holds up as a fun family comedy.


7. My Blue Heaven, Barney Coopersmith

Did you know that Rick Moranis was in a comedic version of Goodfellas? My Blue Heaven, starring Steve Martin and Moranis, came out one month before Scorsese’s legendary Mob film. Though the silly comedy and gritty gangster drama may seem completely different, both are based on the life of Henry Hill, known as Vinnie Antonelli in Heaven. Moranis plays the average neighbor who tries to keep former mobster Vinnie (Martin) in line so he can remain in witness protection. Though Goodfellas was based on a novel about Hill’s life by Nicholas Pileggi, My Blue Heaven was written Nora Ephron, who happened to be married to Pileggi at the time. It’s a small mob world.


8. The Wild Life, Harry

This ’80s teen comedy has been mostly forgotten, but it’s notable not only for a performance by Moranis as a trendy manager with very big hair but it’s top level cast. Eric Stoltz, Randy Quaid, Lea Thompson and a bleached blonde Chris Penn all star, with a soundtrack by Eddie Van Halen. It’s all the more surprising that this film isn’t better remembered, since it was writer Cameron Crowe’s follow up to Fast Times at Ridgemont High.


9. Head Office, Howard Gross

This 1985 satire of the corporate world stars Judge Reinhold as a new employee who gets mysteriously promoted within a huge company and learns of the seedy underbelly of business. The film features a few subplots, one starring Danny DeVito and one with Moranis as a failing executive whose screaming idiocy is a great parody of the executive top brass. Though it may not be much of a parody, since we’ve all probably experienced our fair share of screaming, asinine bosses.


10. Brewster’s Millions, Morty King

In Brewster’s Millions, Richard Pryor finds out he’ll get a $300 million inheritance only if he can spend $30 million in one month. (If only we all had such troubles.) As Pryor’s character gets more attention for his big spending and eventual mayoral campaign, he attracts a bunch of odd characters. One of which is Moranis as Morty King, King of the Mimics. It’s a small role where he plays a guy that always repeats everything that’s said, but Morty has got a great costume and Moranis plays this confident weirdo with delightful skill. Also, the idea of anyone crowning himself “King of the Mimics” for doing a trick that little brothers use to annoy everyone is a pretty insane thought.

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