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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The Nutty Professor Eddie Murphy 1996

Weird Science

10 Weird Movie Substances That Had Hilarious Consequences

Catch The Nutty Professor this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

If you’ve ever opened your refrigerator to find some seriously gnarly days-old potato salad, then you know that sometimes the most harmless-seeming things can turn freaky. Movies have conjured up some truly bizarre stuff, often the work of crazed scientists. Before you catch The Nutty Professor on IFC, check out some of the icky-est, gooey-ist and just plain weird substances on the big screen.

10. Flubber

Flubber
Walt Disney Studios

Professor Brainard’s “flying rubber” increases its speed every time it bounces, and increases the chaos, destruction and unlikely basketball-dunkage of anyone who uses it. Thankfully the movie ends before its thermodynamic impossibility cause the incineration of the entire universe.


9. Quantonium, Monsters Vs. Aliens

Monsters Vs Aliens
DreamWorks

In Monsters vs. Aliens, both action-packed parties are battling over Quantonium, an exotic material which massively empowers anyone who holds it. Literally in the case of Susan Murphy, whose exposure turns her into Ginormica and enables her to fight against Gallaxhar’s invasion force.


8. Sustengo, Little Fockers

Sustengo
Universal Pictures

After finally finding favor with his hard-bitten father-in-law, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) finds himself strapped for cash and starts promoting Sustengo, an erectile dysfunction drug. Which means leaving boxes of ED drugs lying around a family who can’t even use a toilet without triggering a series of hilarious misunderstandings.


7. Iocane, Princess Bride

Iocane
20th Century Fox

Iocane is a deadly poison with no odor or taste that dissolves instantly in any liquid. The perfect tool for murder isn’t usually hilarious, but The Princess Bride makes everything funny. Hero Westley (Cary Elwes) tricks cunning Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) into drinking the poison in a game of wits. Vizzini lost, not knowing that the answer is “Don’t drink anything offered by someone who just talked about how awesome their poison is.”


6. PX-41, Despicable Me 2

PX41
Universal Pictures

The mutation compound engineered by PX-Labs turns anything into a purple, fluffy, indestructible killing machine. And when Despicable Me‘s famous Minions are dosed with it, look out. Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) crafts an antidote, PX-41 Antidote, proving he’s much better with chemicals than he is with names.


5. Mood Slime, Ghostbusters II

Mood Slime
Columbia Pictures

When the Ghostbusters came back for their 1989 sequel, the slime they encountered was sillier and scarier. The “Mood Slime” was a special form of ectoplasm utterly saturated in the emotions of everyone and everything around it. And while our heroes energize some positive vibes with Aretha Franklin tunes, the entire city of New York’s psychic outpourings are filling the sewers with something distinctly less positive.


4. The Stuff

The Stuff
New World Pictures

A science fiction soft-serve satire, The Stuff is about an oddly organic treat which is utterly delicious and zero calories. In fact it’s negative calories, because if you eat enough it’ll take over your brain and hollow you out from the inside.


3. Miracle Weight Loss Serum, The Nutty Professor

Buddy Love
Universal Pictures

The core component of The Nutty Professor‘s plot is a miraculous weight loss serum, a simple fluid which re-engineers human DNA all by itself. This allows sweet but sizable Sherman Klump (Eddie Murphy) to transform into the tight, toned and turbocharged Buddy Love (Murphy again). The serum is revealed to be fatally dangerous, but anything which allows Eddie Murphy to play himself cranked up to the max is pure comedy gold.


2. Cobalt Thorium G, Dr. Strangelove

Dr Strangelove
Columbia Pictures

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb is about a bomb built with Cobalt Thorium G. It’s a doomsday device designed to annihilate all human civilization and is, slightly worryingly, based on the least fictional materials on this list. Cobalt and thorium both have applications in nuclear weapon design. Luckily we haven’t got them up to G yet.


1. Ectoplasm, Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters
Columbia Pictures

The Ghostbusters live in a world where ghosts are real but physics is still in charge. So while the ghouls are flung around with proton packs, they get the boys in grey back with their appalling ectoplasm, or slime, trail. As Venkman says, getting covered in the stuff will make you feel all funky.

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Fast Times Jennifer Jason Leigh

Retro Grades

The 11 Best Movie Comedies of the ’80s

Catch Fast Times at Ridgemont High during IFC's '80s Weekend.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

The ’80s gave us so many great things (Tab, anyone?), but when it comes to movie comedies, the Reagan years were a golden age of funny. In honor of IFC’s ’80s Weekend, we’ve selected the best big screen comedies from the decade that gave us Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and other comedy greats. And like one of the movies featured below, this list goes to 11.

1. Back to the Future

“A high school slacker goes back in time, takes his mother to a dance, and gets dangerously close to becoming his own father.” The elevator pitch for Back to the Future doesn’t sound so charming, but the 1985 flick starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover is declared by many as being the perfect movie. (Though we can’t officially say if the Eric Stoltz version would’ve been better.)


2. Ghostbusters

The sheer number of childhoods that were professed to be ruined by the recent reboot should tell you how beloved the original film is. A perfect blend of comedy, horror and fantasy, Ghostbusters has an indelible cast at the top of its game and a heap of one-liners worthy of countless casual references. They have the tools, and they have the talent.


3. Airplane!

Speaking of one-liners, it doesn’t get much more quotable than the 1980 Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker classic Airplane!. Almost a one-to-one parody of the 1957 disaster film Zero Hour!, Airplane! works so well because of how straight faced the zaniness is played — which is something its many imitators fail to notice.


4. This Is Spinal Tap

Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer created the de facto mockumentary film with the hilarious 1984 rock diary This Is Spinal Tap. Heralded as one of the most accurate depictions of backstage life by actual real-life bands, the movie showcases an aging glam metal band struggling for the spotlight while keeping the group intact (especially the spontaneously combustible drummers).


5. National Lampoon’s Vacation

While Caddyshack and Fletch are quintessential Chevy Chase films, nothing beats the bumbling patriarch of the Griswold clan losing his mind en route to Wally World, America’s favorite family fun park. Yes, the sequels saw diminishing returns (aside from Christmas Vacation), but the one that started them all is endlessly watchable. Amen, let’s go!


6. Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe managed to capture exactly what high school life was like in the early-’80s. The awkwardness, the frustrations, the scares, the search for purpose and gratification, Fast Times presents its young characters as fully fleshed-out individuals (even the designated stoner shows nuance) and doesn’t talk down to its audience like many teen movies do. (Click here to see all airings of Fast Times at Ridgemont High on IFC.)


7. Beverly Hills Cop

A reminder of the days when Eddie Murphy was the edgiest comedian in showbiz, the one-two punch of Beverly Hills Cop and 48 Hrs. set the template for modern action comedies. We wouldn’t have the Rush Hour franchise and every Kevin Hart film without Axel Foley.


8. Trading Places

A treatise on the Nature vs. Nurture argument at the height of Reagan-era excess, Trading Places depicts the lives that are held in the balance when the mega-rich make friendly $1 wagers and just how joyous the retribution can be. Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Lee Curtis are terrific as the leads, the Duke Brothers are delightfully evil, and in all seriousness, that is a nice purse.


9. Better Off Dead

This 1985 Savage Steve Holland movie is teen angst at its most surreal and affably goofy. John Cusack stars as Lane Meyer, a high schooler still reeling from the loss of his girlfriend to a cocky champion skier. (Is there any other kind in an ’80s movie?) With bloodthirsty paperboys, foreign-exchange street races and stop-motion hamburger interludes, Better Off Dead doesn’t let realism get in the way of accurately portraying pure teen heartbreak.


10. Midnight Run

Of all the critically acclaimed pairings that actor Robert De Niro has had through the years, few are as entertaining as his reluctant team-up with a persnickety Charles Grodin in 1988’s Midnight Run. Perfect foils, the bounty hunter and mob accountant race against time, the Feds and mafia hits until mutual Stockholm Syndrome kicks in and the partnership stops becoming merely professional. (The counterfeit bill scene alone is worth the watch.)


11. Heathers

Heathers is the kind of pitch-black comedy that would never get a major release in 2016. Unflinching in its satire of school shootings, teen suicide and the tragedies that come with the need to fit in, the movie remains relevant to the kids currently growing up in a cruel and judgmental world. And the fact that it’s laugh-out-loud funny while also making a sharp point about youth culture is a testament to how great the movie really is.

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Bill Hader in Conan Star Wars Audition Sketch

Acts of Wars

Watch Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy and More Audition to Play Young Han Solo

The Documentary Now! star shows off his best Han and Chewie.

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Photo Credit: TBS/YouTube

Thanks in large part to The Force Awakens not sucking, the Star Wars universe is about to get a lot more expansive. Sequels, spin-offs, TV shows, and more are underway — which means a helluva lotta casting calls. Fortunately, Conan O’Brien got his hands on a few audition tapes of celebrities trying out for a role as a young Han Solo.

Check out Documentary Now!’s Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy, Portlandia favorite Jeff Goldblum, Todd Margaret star Will Arnett and other funny folks offering their takes on what that younger, brasher space swashbuckler would be like.

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