The Happening: Hitchcockian Plodder

Near the beginning of The Happening, a quote conspicuously attributed to Einstein seems to act the part of the film's thesis. Though it has never been confirmed that Einstein said it, the quote still rings in the audience's ears – “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live.” Films that threaten to destroy the world are far more common than those that do. When it happens, the audience feels a certain perverse payoff. Shyamalan’s ability to frame tiny details with universal significance is a good fit for the ambition to go through with the deed and show the world in a state of twilight. In all his films, he shows more interest in seeing the horror in everyday things than in a gory set piece or jump scare – even the monsters in his films are never scarier than we are. But with The Happening, Shyamalan made a film that tries to present significant things as significant. He created the counterargument for his appeal, where the destruction of the whole world seems as silly as the disappearance of a bee. It may be the funniest film ever made.

Willingly, if not intentionally, Shyamalan created a parody of the meaningfulness in his previous films. Films like Unbreakable and Signs already had an awkward tinge to them, near to comedy but played straight enough to function as wit. Part of their success was due to the performers – in Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson, Shyamalan found protagonists who could sell an awkward tone with manly confidence. You believed they meant to do that. The brilliant badness of The Happening cannot be intentional, as Shyamalan weakly insisted after its release, because he stated before its release with clear confidence that this was meant to be his take on The Birds or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, films whose chilly, post-apocalyptic tones never stop for irony. Not only by writing dead-end dialogue, structured like punchlines, but simply by casting Mark Wahlberg in the role of the 1950s scientist-dad, Shyamalan ensured that nothing he wrote could be taken seriously enough even to seem intentionally funny.

Before the release of The Happening, Shyamalan mulled over his directorial voice in interviews, playing up the tactics of his suspense in his “first R-rated movie.” When his protagonist speaks about his “respectful awe for the laws of nature,” he is an insertion of Shyamalan. The film offers no indication that it intends to indict this awe. While that may be a testament to Shyamalan's misguided planning on this film, it is also the secret to its endless watchability. When movies like this intend to be bad, they become unbearable. Sharknado has the tagline “Enough said” because it never put more effort into the film than it needed to come up with a title. But when they came up with, “You have Sensed it. You have seen the Signs. Now … it’s Happening,” they meant it as Shyamalan’s career-high, not a B-movie throwback. The egg on their face is only funny because they thought it would become an omelet.

The film in retrospect now acts as a fascinating display of conflict between Shyamalan's belief in his identity as a horror director and his means as a writer of normal human interactions. It’s even sillier coming off Lady in the Water, in which he killed a film critic for refusing to believe in the messianic narrative powers of the film’s undervalued neighborhood storyteller hero, played groggily by himself. Together, the two films are like the results of Shyamalan's Rorschach test in artistic form. They reveal the intentions behind his feelings.

Tak Fujimoto shoots The Happening with the same detailed eye, the horror of the mundane, that he shot The Silence of the Lambs and Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. But if he used smallness to create an eerie feeling in those films, the effect in The Happening is unmistakably comedic. The film’s most gruesome scenes are even funnier than its attempts at comedy.

Shyamalan’s style is the issue that turns well-meaning tragedy into a comedy of the director’s errors. In Unbreakable, long takes and claustrophobic framing made the viewer imagine the minutiae of the character’s history, leading to his dreary middle-class life. The enclosed feeling gave us the accurate impression of Superman trapped in the life of a normal guy. A simple scene like Willis sifting through a closet becomes dark because it is so mundane. A scene of his young son contemplating shooting him to prove that he’s Superman becomes funny for the same reason.

When the same logic is applied to the literal, external horrors in The Happening, this habit of underplaying the tone becomes hilarious. The normal significance these events would have in the frame in any other film would go against Shyamalan’s evident belief that mundane events contain more truth. As a result, people kill themselves and jump from the roof or shoot themselves in the head, but they do it with the decisive energy of opening a Coke bottle.

In an early scene, a body falls limply from a scaffold onto the ground; a construction worker looks up, horrified, mouthing their name. “David?” They inch towards the body. As they do, another body drops to the ground. “Carl?” The reaction between my brother and I as we watched this for the first time was as decisive as if it was coordinated. He turned to me before the scene was even over and said, suppressing a smile, “Billy?” I said, “Jasper?” We alternated: “Milton?” “Kermit?” “Weston?” “Simon?” “Rudy?” “Gandalf?” The entire time, we were in pre-laughter, as bodies fell from the roof like marionettes in The Thunderbirds.

The joke that turned a scene of grave consequences into humor is that Shyamalan has no great gift for straight emotional drama, but his films had disguised this fact with a clever balancing act of tones until The Happening. He strategically tints serious scenes with awkward dialogue, dialogue that makes his movies special because they combine the pleasures of normal life with extreme horrors in order to nullify them. When the tone works, Shyamalan seems like a virtuoso violin player who is also playing the part of the violin. This is most true of UnbreakableSigns, and even The Village.

But conversely, he rarely presents a serious situation as a grand set piece, like a crowd of bodies killing themselves portrayed at face value as a horrific tragedy. For example, Joaquin Phoenix was not asked to react to the alien on the TV in Signs with true dramatic horror, but to play it up as a serious comedic reaction. Signs would not have worked as well if like The Happening it tried to convince the audience to take even more seriously than the characters (and when the people in Signs are actually scared or sad, the audience can feel it too because they've been invited into their point-of-view with the humor).

The scene of the bodies falling in The Happening is not only played as operatically serious, it also occupies the same space as Shyamalan's normal tension-deflating dialogue. So in the same film that this was apocalyptically significant moments ago, a man will say with the tone of asking for money on the street, "Y'know, hotdogs really get a bad rap." This combination takes Shyamalan's ambition to make The Birds and turns it into the reality of a big-budget Birdemic. Ironically, he was closer to Hitchcock when he created his own tone than when he tried to emulate the master's in The Happening.

Wahlberg has denounced The Happening, which is a cute way of suggesting that he was better than the film rather than one of its biggest problems. The film’s imperfections are accentuated by Marky Mark more than they would be by almost any other actor. Even the premise that he plays a high school science teacher is completely negated by Wahlberg’s default face, which is that of a person looking for the way he should go in a place he’s never been before. When Fujimoto gets close enough to Mark’s uncertain face, the memes make themselves. He acts like, if everyone would just give him a goddamn second, he might get his bearings straight enough to read his lines better. His superfluous lines are almost as superfluous as that superfluous bottle of cough syrup he never actually bought, and just as memorable for the wrong reasons.

Sincerity is often funnier than comedy – Wahlberg accentuates that relationship by continuously stepping in the potholes dug by the editor (Conrad Buff) and Shyamalan’s self-important script. He wrote his characters terminal dialogue in this film, like every scene ends on a punchline no matter what the line is. The feeling is inflamed by scene changes that are usually hard cuts to new times and places. Even if no one ended the previous scene with the word “happening,” which they sometimes do, it feels like that kind of cut. The best in the film has to be when Mark looks straight into the camera, as disillusioned as a bunny that bit into a plastic carrot, and says, “You lied to me?” It wasn’t the only time my brother and I had to pause the film for a laughing break.

Zooey Deschanel is no better – arguably she’s the film’s biggest, most beautiful disaster, reading her lines like someone who has not spoken English for a very long time. Shyamalan’s scripts often read like they’re written in a personal language, and that must have been the phrasing she had trouble learning to speak. The result is her wide Kewpie doll eyes wandering the frame trying to interpret their own reaction like a human Speak & Spell. Nothing she says in the film has more dramatic clarity than if she instead said, "The cow goes 'Moooooo.'" John Leguizamo fares better only by having a lesser part.

The fact that The Happening says its own title no fewer than five times exemplifies how misplaced its tension is. That feeling when you hear a film say its own title and cringe a bit is the entire experience in this one – it’s the feature-length version of that feeling. Everything in the movie is dramatic by virtue of being allegedly meaningful but nothing is suspenseful. Even the worst B-movies created more of a pretense of suspense than this.

If I was asked before doing research, I would have said The Happening was based on a book and adapted by multiple screenwriters. It has that feeling of conflict unique to adaptations that try to squeeze themselves into new mediums using the diluted visions of several different authors. But Shyamalan is the sole listed screenwriter – he himself contains the irreconcilable intellects that make every emotion in The Happening the opposite of the intention.

The film plays like a monster film with the thrills censored out, like a YouTube video of Hitchcock’s The Birds but “just the humans.” The characters run from nothing, swat at invisible flies, and in their wide-eyed worry become perfect parodies of every movie that ever failed to know that its only appeal was its failures. Shyamalan was once hailed as the next Hitchcock, but a string of failures made him seem more like the next Ed Wood. He has often expressed his love of cinema and remains, in my view, a filmmaker with great potential. But he took the wrong lessons from his critical underperformers, believing that the problem was with the audience’s expectations rather than his technique in applying his own style to drama. He seems unable to view his work as others would see it and rather than learning from Lady in the Water to manage his tone, he doubled down on expectation-setting with The Happening without wondering how it would affect the craft of his suspense. The result is a film with the unique charm of being told something very serious by someone who doesn’t realize their fly is open. The audience has all the power to create their own reactions to the imagery, something Hitchcock never let them have.

To open this film, rather than the quote about the bees, another quote, more confidently attributed to Einstein, might have been more appropriate: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, March 25, 2018

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©20th Century Fox

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