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On M. Night Shyamalan and Plot Reversal

I wrote this post this morning for a film class, and I felt like sharing:

I’d like to point back to a time in M. Night Shyamalan’s career when he was still turning out enjoyable, thought provoking films–you know, before SignsThe VillageLady in the WaterAvatar: The Last Airbender, and The Visit. In fact, I encourage you to reply to this post with your “check out” film–you know, the one that made you stop taking Shyamalan seriously as a director. For me, this was The Village, but I honestly saw it coming with Signs. M. Night Shyamalan was a success when he utilized the plot reversal technique (that ironic twist that changes the stakes) well, but he began to fail when he ran out of original ways to do so.

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In The Sixth Sense, we see the plot reversal after the film’s midpoint. Bruce Willis’s character is, in fact, dead, and has been since the beginning of the movie. This explains why he can’t communicate with his wife. What the audience has taken for a hyperbole about the pain of impending divorce and a metaphorical barrier between him and his wife was actually not exaggerated and a very physical barrier. No corpus mundi for Bruce Willis, no way of speaking to anyone other than the boy who sees ghosts. The biggest reversal here is that Bruce Willis’s character believes he is helping the child throughout the movie (and he is), but the child is really the one helping him, which is even more ironic due to his character being a psychologist. How we experience the movie the first time and our second viewing changes as we begin to look for potential holes and foreshadowing (like Fight Club, The Secret WindowShutter Island, etc.) because we, as an audience, have been fooled. (Well, if we have been fooled. I figure most of these kinds of movies out before the big reveal, which irritates anyone sitting through them with me for the first time. Sometimes it depends on the genre. I had The Sixth Sense‘s number pretty early in, but I didn’t see the reversals in Die Hard with a Vengeance or The Usual Suspects coming because contemporary action flicks aren’t my cup of tea. I knew there was something wrong about the village in The Village based on the dates on the tombstones at the beginning and so assumed the monsters wouldn’t be any more real, which made the movie even more disappointing for me because I could not suspend disbelief.)

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In Unbreakable, which features Bruce Willis again but this time with his Die Hard co-star, Samuel L. Jackson (M. Night Shyamalan must have liked Die Hard with a Vengeance too), we meet two characters at opposite ends of a genetic spectrum: David Dunn (Willis) and Elijah Price (Jackson). David is unbreakable; he was destined for athletic greatness before a conflict with this girlfriend, who he later marries, causes him to fake an injury that leads to him working as a security guard at the stadium where he once had his glory days. Elijah, on the other hand, has a genetic disease that makes his bones particularly susceptible to being broken. (His legs are broken during his birth in the opening scene.) These two meet because Elijah, who used comic books as his inspiration to succeed in life despite his disabilities, is searching for a real life comic hero–someone like David, who is on the opposite end of the genetic spectrum. This happens when David walks away from a train crash as the sole survivor and without a scratch on him. David is skeptical, but Elijah points out that he has chosen to protect people as a career, that his accident with his wife was a fake, that he has never called in sick to work, and other aspects of David’s life that he has taken for granted. Elijah leads David to becoming a gritty, real life superhero, and this culminates in his saving a family from a serial rapist and murderer. Then, the reversal of the plot happens at the end of the film. David realizes (or, in a way, Elijah confesses) to being the villain of the story all along. Elijah set up the train crash to see if anyone would survive. He also set up a hotel fire and various other atrocities, killing thousands. He has been searching for a hero all his life. While David has only recently become Sentry Man (the newspapers name him this), Elijah has always been Mr. Glass. This is probably the best example of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” I have seen in a film, and it is made possible by Shyamalan’s use of plot reversal. In the title cards at the end, we see that David leads the police to Elijah and finally has him arrested on mass murder charges.

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In The Village, M. Night Shyamalan is still working with the plot reversal technique, but audiences have come to expect it from him, and his usage of it is not up to par with his previous films because he now has the challenge of “fooling us” without simply placing the reversal near the end. The Village bleeds the plot reversal in through too much foreshadowing, and when coupled with the audience suspecting Shyamalan of “fooling us”, it ends up not really being a reversal at all. By the time the blind girl is in the forest with monsters, only she believes in the monsters because the audience knows the truth. Moreover, the monster’s costume is entirely unnecessary because she is blind. This scene is a particularly strange example of what is happening visually on the screen being far more interesting than– and entirely out of touch with–what is actually happening in the plot of the story. No one was “fooled”.

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It becomes easy after The Village to chalk up Shyamalan’s more recent failures to his being a proverbial “one trick pony” in his use of the plot reversal, but this is an oversimplification. Poor research, the inability to cast as many A list actors after Signs, and his insistence on writing, directing, and producing rather than breaking up these roles has led to a steady decline in his films. Conversely, he has also had a heavy hand in Wayward Pines, a successful television show that (guess what?) used the same technique but made it viable again through stretching it out over most of season one. Now that the audience knows the truth about the town, however, the show is relying on us sticking with the characters to see what happens to them, and I imagine a dropping off of viewers will occur now that the cat is, once again, out of the bag.

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7 Fantasy Clichés That Need to Disappear (For the Good of All)

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Right, I get it. Fantasy is a genre comprised of clichés that have transcended myth and legend just to end up being serialized in books or regurgitated on the big screen for our collective entertainment. Still, there’s a difference between an archetype and…

7. The Loyal Follower Eager to Sell his Life Dearly for a Person he/she Has Just Met

Novelists and filmmakers alike make the mistake of forgetting that the centaur or elfish thing or whatever expendable ugly is on the chopping block this time has just made the protagonist’s acquaintance in Act III. Writers often get away with this because the audience has been privy to the hero’s trials and tribulations from the start of the novel or film and thus take for granted that Loyal Sycophant Number 7, who is about to go all Mohammed Jihad on the bad guys, has never even had a conversation with said hero. (The excuse, of course, is always some vague prophecy we must assume this expendable creature fervently believes in.) The effect is something like this:

Hero

Hey, I just met you!

And this is crazy!

But I’m your savior—

So die for me, maybe?

Loyal Sycophant Number 7

Before you came into my life…

I missed you so bad.

Now other than in American politics (and pop music), where would we see such blind devotion to a largely unknown and doubtlessly misunderstood cause?

6. The All Powerful Technique/Magical Item/Elixir of Great Bullshit

This persistent literary ultimatum that stretches out plots and invites snores from fans and haters alike is really just a thinly veiled reiteration of the Grail quest.  Only in Fantasy is it impossible to heal the land and put the villain in his grave without first obtaining Ye Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.

This works both ways, of course—the evil sorcerer cannot raise the Lord of Nothingness from his bier without a cookbook’s recipe worth of made up shit. He must then scour the land in an attempt to obtain the ingredients whilst cleverly evading the story’s hero at every turn, only to finally complete said ritual and have the hero defeat him anyway using the same bullshit iterated above.

 Lord of Nothingness

But how can this be!

I am the Lord… of Nothingness!

Hero

What the hell does that even mean?

(throws matter at him—in the form of a spoon)

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Lord of Nothingness

Bah! My only weakness!

Villain

Well, shit. Next time, I’ll try the

Lord of Magical Realism…

(This last bit was inspired by Joe Erickson of http://scifiandsushi.com/, who has been hating on nothingness since the 10th grade.)

I mean, if you think about it, even Excalibur is really just the metaphorical equivalent of a steel erection, and most All Powerful Weapons of Great Bullshit are allegories for Excalibur.

Maybe your hero shouldn’t need Viagra just to get the job done?

And I digress, but do you know what was really great about Kung Fu Panda? Po obtains a Magical Item of Great Bullshit in the form of the Dragon Scroll, and it doesn’t do a blessed thing but help him understand that there is no secret ingredient to badassery. (Badassery. Is that a word? Well, it is now.)

5. Evil Wizards with Portmanteau Names

A portmanteau—unless we’re talking suitcases—is a (sometimes nonsense) word created by blending other, familiar words together. The idea is that the reader will carry the connotations of the original words into the new, smashed up version. Portmanteaus can be as simple and universally understood as “smog” or as complex and nonsensical as those that comprise the majority of Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky”.

So where do we see this in Fantasy? Frickin’ everywhere. They range in quality from Darth Vader (Dark Invader) to Darth Sidious (Dark Insidious) to Darken Rahl (cringe).

(Note to Trolls: According to George Lucas in the book he wrote about creating Anakin Skywalker and the many drafts the original Star Wars went through, it is “Dark Invader”, not “Dark Father”. Lucas didn’t even know that Darth Vader would turn out to be Luke’s father when A New Hope was released in 1977. Do your research, trolls.)

Here’s a spot of logic—if your villains exist in a galaxy far, far away or an alternate universe, they don’t speak our language, and their names certainly wouldn’t be silly portmanteaus of our contemporary tongue. Their names, like ours, would probably stem from the dead languages of their ancient civilizations. (As long as you’re not feeding us long, unpronounceable names with meaningless apostrophes.) Only in YA Fantasy stories like the Harry Potter series can a writer get away with portmanteaus like Voldemort.

Don’t just write a name that you think sounds evil. Write a character that makes his or her name evil though action. Most Fantasy readers are quite intelligent and may be insulted when they figure out your process. The rift can grow even wider if it takes them a few years.

I mean, it’s almost as insulting as having a G.I. Joe villain named Cesspool.

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I slept with that action figure under my pillow. I’m laughing now at 30, Hasbro. You guys are dicks.

4. Orlando Bloom

Who decided this guy looked like a hero?

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Other than those eyebrows (apparently Tolkien’s elves have bad dye jobs that don’t include ye olde forehead caterpillars), I could grow more hair on my knuckles than this pansy will ever legitimately grow on his face. Russell Crowe could pick his teeth with this guy. Gerard Butler could Sparta kick him down the pit from Mortal Kombat wherein some intense acupuncture action would ensue, and that embarrassingly stupid skateboard stunt he pulled with a shield in Two Towers wouldn’t save him. And Arnold, well, even in his current deteriorated ex-governator state, Arnold could sail over him with the flabby windsocks of his arms all flying squirrel style and then take him out with a mere one liner.

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Krom is not amused, bitch!

You know what would have made Kingdom of Heaven (historical fiction, but close enough) the best movie in the known universe? Swapping out Orlando Bloom, who brought nothing to that role or that cast, for Heath Ledger.

We miss you, Heath. The world needs more protectors of Italian virginity.

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3. Heroes That Are Only Heroes Because Daddy Was a Hero

And A Knight’s Tale, another historical fiction flick starring the late great Heath Ledger, really brings me to my next point.

I’ve seen a rise in Fantasy stories wherein the reasoning behind the hero’s badassery or legitimacy is directly linked to his or her lineage. Essentially, one cannot be a hero unless his/her bloodline dictates this is so, and usually with a prophecy thrown in for good measure. It’s ironic that primogeniture, which is argued against in many of the works of the middle ages that serve as the superstructure on which the current Fantasy genre is built, seems to have resurfaced in the modern writing of “democratic” nations that claim to have abolished the idea of an aristocracy.

As Chaucer tells us, just because your ancestors possessed virtues that caused the people of their time to call them “noble” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any better than a guttersnipe in Cheapside.

“But will himself do naught of noble deeds/ Nor follow him to his name he succeeds/ He is not gentle, be he Duke or Earl/ For acting churlish makes a man a churl/ Gentility is not just the renown/ Of ancestors who have some greatness shown/ Of which you have no portion of your own” (Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, 299-304).

I don’t know about you, but I’m not all that much like my parents. There’s the genetics argument of course, but here we are discussing Fantasy, and you just threw in the s-word–science.

Some writers have caught onto this, but rather than creating characters that fight tooth and nail for what they get in life, they have instead spawned an entire generation of whiny protagonists with daddy issues. Or worse, they cheat the whole process by giving you a character who “appears to be of humble origins” but you find out was really a king or prince the damn whole time (e.g. Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, Taran from the Lloyd Alexander books, etc.).

I like my heroes with a little dirt in their teeth, a little grit. Most of us do. Unless your prince-with-daddy-issue’s name is Zuko, and he’s got scars signifying he’s been through some serious shit, I’m probably going to root for the commoner selling turnips on the street corner to pay for his broadsword lessons with the local guards.

Image Where’s your stigma, Prince Charming? Reason number one this movie flopped.

2. Helpful Dragons

I think we all know who is to blame for inspiring the recent influx of rotten stories regarding dragons that want to be ridden into battle by heroes too weak to settle their own scores with our aforementioned portmanteau villains. Do a little research. A real dragon, as supported by thousands of years of lore, would rip your face off just as soon as look at you. Then he’d loot your corpse, make off with your virgins, and take a flaming shit on your kingdom.

Read a little further, and you might notice dragons murdering gods (say Thor, for instance) and gnawing upon the Tree of Life itself. The Great Wyrm doesn’t aid men in their petty squabbles. He ends them, and everything else.

I once had a bumper sticker that depicted dragons far better than many bestselling novels and blockbuster films. It read: “Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and go good with ketchup.”

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1. Cute Things That Overpower Fell Creatures by Virtue of Being Cute

This lunacy takes many forms. It’s gotten to the point where it isn’t even ironic or funny anymore—it’s insulting to the fans that take a moment to think about it. If trained soldiers or armed bandits happen upon the young princess in the woods, she beats the snot out of them in what used to be this whole women’s lib/gender role reversal thing, but now, after so many times through the wash cycle, has faded to a form of reverse sexism.

Then there are cute short things that raze the homes of unsuspecting goblins and trolls, who were doing nothing more nefarious than lurking there in the dark when the vanilla folk broke into their vermin infested, underground biers, where they probably live because they are misunderstood.

Then there are the wiggly, jiggly, squiggly things of the nine realms that defy comprehension. They beat up an entire legion of the Emperor’s best troops in Return of the Jedi. They slay proud knights in the final round of Super Smash Bros. tournaments at co-ed baby showers through sheer button mashing. They embolden this evil cat who for the last fifteen minutes has fearlessly been trying to eat my biscuits without regard for the fact that I am 200 pounds of hurting machine (and 30 or so more of wiggly, jiggly, squiggly…)

For my part, I hope Star Wars 2015 contains a fifteen-minute scene in which a storm trooper mercilessly beats the Muppet out of a captive Ewok with a wiffle ball bat until he is ultimately forced to reveal the location of the Rebel base. Once we get there, of course, Leia will doubtless beat the Fett out of said storm trooper with a frying pan, anyway.

And women and children wonder why hubby/daddy would rather play video games than spend $40 to take them to the movies. This is why. Female editors wonder why male writers don’t read as much new material as their shapelier counterparts. This is why. The only legendary man allowed to kick ass anymore is… Santa Claus?

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(Face palm!)

Here’s a preview of topics I plan on handling in the future:

6. The soldier that avoided being a douchehammer by way of heroic death (No really, it’s not just Borromir!)

5. Too much detail (Come on, do we really need 50 pages about a feast just to get that it represents communion/a rite of passage? And there’s no sex in your book, but here’s your main character shitting in the woods!)

4. The heroic friend left for dead that returns to save the day at the very last second (usually accompanied by a horribly cheesy line).

3. Horse in a can (Wow, look at all these horses on the battlefield! Where were these when I was WALKING ACROSS THE WORLD?!)

2. Forced metaphors for your religion that keep your mediocre book selling.

1. Vampires.

Please leave a comment with the cliché that’s driving you crazy. I know I have merely scratched the surface here…

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