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.