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Sunday, August 01, 2004

Ebert Brain Tumor Proceeds Apace

. . or how my friend A made me say why I liked The Village

I knew two things about this movie going in: Ebert hated it with the white-hot passion of 1,000 suns, and Faux News was calling it Shyamalan's cover Farenheit 9/11, because it's anti-"A Culture of Fear." If I had the patience, I'd do a poll, but instead I'll just ask: Anyone here pro-"Culture of Fear"? Anyone think that it's a great idea to try to make grown ups behave by scaring the crap out of them? How about puppy kicking, kitten drowning, and baby punching? Anyone for those? I wish I could say that's the most nonsensical thing I've heard recently, but that wasn't even the most nonsensical thing in a brief perusal of the headlines that day.

As for the twistiness, I'm in agreement with the majority: The twists in The Village aren't all that twisty. More Twisty than Signs, less twisty than Sixth Sense or Unbreakable.

But the twistiness or lack thereof has never been the draw to his movies for me. I'll admit it, he's caught me when I should have caught on, because he draws me in. I just watch and enjoy watching. So a well-done twist can be a bonus, but if it's your one-trick pony, you've got a problem.

I think A and I likewise agree that the look of the film is A Good Thing. There are moments in some films that make me weep because they are so unrelentingy beautiful---the daffodil moment in Big Fish; when the boys emerge from the forest in O Brother! Where Art Thou? and happen upon the group baptism in the River; the Hide and Seek scene in Kikujiro---but there's never any of that in Shyamalan.

Every moment of joy is uneasy, becuase there is something unnerving in the frame (the red flower the young women find as they're making a game of their sweeping; the encroaching mist and night when Ivy and Lucius have their scene on the porch). But at the same time there's beauty in the most terrifying, depressing, and "horrifying" moments, there's also something beautiful, wheter it's the way the light falls, or the expression on a character's face. That kind of artistry just overwhelms me and keeps me from worrying about the twists.

Acting wise, I couldn't have been more impressed. Joaquin Phoenix has never wowed me other than giving me a bit of an eyebrow raise in Signs, which I attributed to Shyamalan's skill as a director. I thought he was just great in this. He had terrific chemistry with everyone. The fact that he wrote out anything important he had to say and read it out was touching and well-handled (and really crucial to the issue of repression, which I'll get to in a bit) and really made his outburst with Ivy touching in all its sillyness. I also thought Bryce Howard handled the weird combination of a constant stream of stilted dialogue really well. And I'm heartened to know that William Hurt's acting chops were not killed in the making of the Dune Miniseries.

Storywise and in terms of deep thinkability, here we have why I really liked the movie. In contrast to Signs, which I liked thoroughly in the theater, but started thinking "hmmm . . . that didn't make a lick o' sense" as soon as I left the theater, I'm still pondering things in this one.

First of all, a couple of things from Ebert's review that he saw as weaknesses (or, in my opinion, utterly missed the point of:

"Everyone in the village does everything together, apparently, although it is never very clear what most of their jobs are. Some farming and baking goes on."

and a bit later on:

"Everyone speaks in the passive voice. The vitality has been drained from the characters; these are the Stepford Pilgrims. The elders have meetings from which the young are excluded."

Hello, Roger, perhaps you should step outside the confines of your capitalist running dog world sometime. What's being depicted is an subsistence-level, incipient agricultural community, and here's what even the most knowledge-repellant of my Intro to Cultural Anthropology students could tell you about what to expect in such a community:

  • Active avoidance of any kind of status differentiation---that includes no production of surplus and NO differentiation in jobs. Every adult will be broadly competent in all areas appropriate to their gender. Every adult will do the same jobs as every other adult every day.
  • Little or no formal political organization. What political hierarchy there is will be based on a meritocracy---elders who have proven their ability to lead will be looked to for advice, but there will be a strong emphasis placed on gaining a consensus before major decisions are made.
  • Dependence training---individuality is strongly deemphasized and an investment in group identity becomes the core of personal identity. To this end, virtually every activity will be communal if not cooperative.

I'm not sure why Roger states the obvious in such outraged terms. All of these things are rather the point of the whole thing. And it isn't as if Shyamalan accepts that this is utopia or even that they're achieving what they presumably set out to do.

In fact, one of the most interseting things to me is Shyamalan's roving microscope. Virtually every moment in the film is exposing some crack in the facade of the Utopia: The Council of Elders rotates leadership, but it's clear that everyone defers to Walker; a child has died of illness; there is potentially volatile competition between sisters for the affections of the same man; two of the village elders are lusting for one another; the children terrorize one another as children will; there is excess for some (Lucius garners the affections of two women) and dearth for others (Noah loses the one woman who seems to pay him any attention at all) in what should be an egalitarian group.

But there's also a great deal of good in the place, too---the sisters have a frank, open discussion about Lucius and their relationship is the stronger for it. Walker does for Alice what he can and, though it pains him, he does what he believes to be right, staying with his family and being the (misguided) guiding hand for The Village.

Ultimately, what have these people done for their children, though? I was not only surprised, but entirely dismayed when Lucius got stabbed---I felt betrayed, it was an "Eric-Stolz-in-Anaconda" moment. He'd just found his voice, just started to feel ready to talk to Noah about the different kinds of love, and that voice is abruptly cut off. That's a tragedy, yes, but the bigger tragedy is how long he was willfully repressed, stifled, and infantilized by the community for his entire life, resulting in the bent-but-not-broken young man we see struggling.

In the photo we see that reveals the "twist," Sigourney Weaver is holding an infant, whereas the rest of the couples are pictured together, without children---this, presumably, makes Lucius the oldest of the children in The Village. In many ways, he seems to feel the burden of that and sense that he's not measuring up. His desire to go to the towns is the only dilute form of rebellion he can muster and the only way he seems to feel that he can break into an adult role, and his mother tells him a true Fairytale, reducing him to tears.

Noah is Lucius's foil in more ways than one. He can't seem to not speak. Where Lucius is stunned and blindsided by Kitty's sudden proclamation of love (and devastates her, however temporarily, with silence), Noah cannot imagine that Ivy could love another. And to the letter, he honors his promise to Ivy. He does not hit Lucius. He does not engage in the petty, safety-valve violence of children.

He, more than anyone in The Village, does not understand anger, conflict, hurt and that they must exist in any group, because without them there cannot be true connection, amity, or consolation. It cannot be remedied with the Quiet Place forever. And in two (well, gosh, I need a verb here---thrusts is far too Freudian, and strokes is no better) flicks of his knife, one spur of the moment, the other chillingly deliberate, he's pulled back the curtain.

The argument with the elders, herded into the light, trying to shelter themselves outside the sickhouse, was powerful to me: These are not evil people, but they've done something so unsustainably, staggeringly repressive, taking the choice of an entire generation away from them. The product of the deception of the elders is grim indeed, but the grimmest decisions are not without benefits and not without allure.

So that's why I enjoyed it, visually, intellectually, and pretty much in every way I can think of.

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