The Sixth Sense Intimates Mortality
Bumps in The Night The one essential thing to know in advance about supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense is what not to know: the ending. Even though I have a few things to say about the ending's importance to the movie's cumulative impact, and to the fact that the movie was made in the first place, I hereby promise not to reveal anything about its content; you can read to the end of this review without fear of having your fun spoiled. That said, I hasten to add that what interests me most about the film has absolutely nothing to do with surprise endings or supernatural thrills?at least in the sense that those terms are normally used. M. Night Shyamalan is a 28-year-old filmmaker of Indian descent who grew up in Philadelphia, where he currently lives and where The Sixth Sense, his third feature, is set. More than that of any other American director under the age of 30, his work strikes me as offering an unusually hopeful answer to a crucial question: Will Hollywood beyond the generation of Spielberg, et al., still contain the conditions necessary for auteur moviemaking? That, after all, is the largest cloud hanging over the Sundance generation. Kids come out of film school raring to go, but where exactly can they go, even assuming they have boundless amounts of talent and drive? The obvious first step, a film that grabs attention and prizes at Sundance or similar venues, often leads directly to a bedeviling fork in the road. On one hand, the makers of films that are genuinely adventurous and idiosyncratic face being labeled "small, quirky" and consigned to the circumscribed ranks of the perennially independent, like it or not. On the other hand, those making Hollywood-friendly debut features can easily stumble into the curse of the willfully compromised: They may get a career, but not a name that anyone cares about from film to film. Granted, most of the really interesting and original films to be made in the U.S. may continue to be made independently. Yet every cinephile has an investment in the idea of a mainstream that's open to individual voices: Like it or not, Hollywood is destined to remain the world's primary education in what?and how?movies signify. When I say auteurist in this context, I don't mean to suggest films that are especially brainy, offbeat or autobiographical. I simply mean movies that bear the unmistakable stamp of their creator. If that mark is distinguishable across all sorts of genres, even ones usually linked to pure popcorn entertainment, so much the better. It was the same with the likes of Ford and Hitchcock and Hawks, who not only made Westerns, crime dramas and romantic comedies, but were genuinely avid for popular approval and box-office reward. Even though Shyamalan seems to have been born for Hollywood moviemaking, he wasn't born to it. I vividly recall seeing his first feature, Praying with Anger, at the First Look screening series in 1993. Shyamalan, who graduated from NYU's film school, wrote, directed and starred in the low-budget movie, playing a guy who goes back to his family's home in India looking for his roots, only to discover a series of interlocking melodramas awaiting him. What struck me about the film was its willingness to risk moves that could be seen as corny, self-aggrandizing and naive in order to put over a cross-cultural drama that meant to be absolutely heartfelt and, its own disarming way, climactically electrifying. Since these gambits not only worked, but also put the film at odds with all the determinedly hip and risk-free debut features coming out of collegiate Indieville at the time, it made an immediate fan of me. Shyamalan's zeal for filmmaking and determination to succeed on his own terms have obviously continued unabated since then. I didn't see his second feature, 1997's Wide Awake (starring Rosie O'Donnell, Denis Leary and Robert Loggia), but considering that it demonstrably failed to set the world on fire, how did he jump immediately to making a big-budget thriller starring Bruce Willis? Simple, if not easy: He wrote one of those rare scripts that's undeniable. Picturing it on the page, you can't imagine any Hollywood producer not wanting to make it. This is what countless writer-directors aspire to, yet the success rate is infinitesimal. As it happened, Shyamalan's screenplay got snapped up in one day. The taker was Barry Mendel, whose debut as a producer was Wes Anderson's Rushmore, the only other recent Hollywood film I can recall by a twentysomething writer-director with a claim on auteur status. In a sense, both movies offer an auspicious sign that there's at least one producer and one studio (Disney backed both films) willing to take a chance on young talent. Yet in other ways the two are virtual opposites. Rushmore has all the cerebral quirkiness of an indie film that just happened to stumble into studio sponsorship. The Sixth Sense strikes me as more interesting not only because its writer-director is so hell-bent on a kind of profundity?as opposed to mere offbeat cleverness?but also because Shyamalan so readily submits to the constraints of genre. Everything that's quirky about his film is hidden deep inside a supernatural yarn that's ostensibly as popcorn-friendly as they come. All the same, The Sixth Sense isn't exactly conventional in its form. Shyamalan has the unevenness of a recent film-school grad whose ambitions and eagerness still run a bit ahead of his chops. The bulk of his story concerns?here comes the give-away-nothing synopsis?a Philadelphia child psychiatrist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), trying to help an eight-year-old boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) who is convinced that he sees ghosts. While the mood here is one of mounting mystery and dread (Shyamalan has aptly summarized his aims as "Ordinary People meets The Exorcist"), some things go bump in the night, and others merely go clunk. Scenes of startling power and freshness are set beside passages that almost jell, or that invite you to check your watch. For a suspense film, it sometimes veers perilously close to tedium. In a weird way, though, it could be that this patchiness, while obviously unintended, ultimately works in Shyamalan's favor. Precisely because it keeps us at a slight, skeptical distance from the film, wondering, "Is this thing gonna add up or not?" it makes the ending's knockout punch that much more surprising and powerful. Yet I also liked the film's occasional roughness for its own sake, and it made me appreciate some of the decisions made by Disney and producers Mendel, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy (the latter two are frequent Spielberg collaborators). Put simply, lots of big-time producers and studios would have tried to impose a state-of-the-art slickness on a movie like this one, if only because they could. That The Sixth Sense was allowed to retain its rough edges entailed certain risks, yet the payoff is in the film's peculiar spell. By any reckoning, Shyamalan has a sure way with actors. Willis' performance here is a model of control and sensitivity, while 11-year-old Haley Osment's is little short of staggering, a gripping portrait of internal disturbance and haunted premonition. The director also gets solid work out of Toni Collette as the boy's mom and Olivia Williams as Dr. Crowe's wife. Nor is it a total coincidence, I think, that these actresses are both non-Americans. When you gaze back on The Sixth Sense from the standpoint of its stunning ending, many things look much different than they do while you're experiencing them during the story. This perspectival flip gives the movie an aspect of intriguing self-reflexivity: It suggests how all films convert our basic estrangement from their imaginary worlds into an illusion of familiarity. From another angle, the re-viewed story posits loneliness?a great if difficult American theme, though one weirdly suited to our spookier genres?as the film's central idea. Yet when you realize that the movie comes from a director whose family's immigrant status is an important element in his work, loneliness gives way to an idea with more concrete cultural ramifications: displacement. Very much like Praying with Anger, The Sixth Sense is the story of a guy who ventures to a distant shore in search of something he doesn't understand until he encounters it. Like the earlier film, the new one evidences a striking mix of youthful naivete and absolute conviction, as well as a nervy commitment to endings designed to take your breath away. There is something beyond all this, though: a sense of religious intensity that gives meaning to every movie's thirst for revelation. In addition to the promise it holds for Hollywood's future, Shyamalan's work reminds us how much the American cinema owes to the ideals and fears of immigrants, and to their faith in satisfying conclusions. On the Ropes directed by Nanette Burstein & Brett Morgen As we know, documentaries by white middle-class filmmakers about the ethnic underclasses face one looming pitfall: the tendency to be so straitjacketed by an attitude of sympathetic concern that one misses the subjects' inevitable complexities and sometimes not altogether agreeable self-understandings. Perhaps the greatest exception in recent years, Steve James' Hoop Dreams succeeded in large part, I think, because of its five-year duration: Being together for so long virtually guaranteed that the filmmakers and their subjects would relax from out of their usual postures, bringing to the film a de facto candor to match its novelistic density. On the Ropes, which focuses on three boxers and their trainers at a Bed-Stuy gym, is like a Hoop Dreams made without enough time or wit to overcome the situation's built-in obstacles. Its characters are fascinating and ethnically righteous, and the film is certainly well-made enough to please uncritical liberals whose main interest lies in seeing their own beliefs and sympathies reflected onscreen (naturally, it won a prize at Sundance). For less self-interested viewers, though, there's a big problem with the film's method: It doesn't question its own effect on its subjects. This is not so much a hindrance with the primary trainer, Harry Keitt, a burly guy who's seen many troubles and emerged into what looks like genuine self-acceptance. This means that he knows life has given him all he's gonna get, so he's not too concerned one way or the other with the cameras pointing at him. Not so the three young fighters, Tyrene Manson, George Walton and Noel Santiago (the first two are black, the third Latino; all appear to come from very deprived and fucked-up circumstances). When they are onscreen and not boxing?and On the Ropes is far more interested in sociology than sport?there's often something intrinsically guarded and phony about the way they handle being filmed. Worse still, the film neither acknowledges nor explores this self-evident oddness. You can hardly blame the three fighters. Their mix of wariness and tenuous calculation is understandable. Given their longshot prospects in the ring, it would be strange if their attitude did not include a bit of, "Hmm, if the boxing thing doesn't pan out, maybe this film will make me famous?what should I do to come off as attractive, sympathetic or at least interesting?" Tyrene is the most complicated of the three, with the weightiest stack of troubles on her slim shoulders. The uncle she lives with is a serious crackhead, and early in the film she's arrested after cops bust into her house and say they found her flushing drugs; she claims she had diarrhea and thought the invaders were her ex coming to kill her. At her trial, she suddenly turns uncharacteristically strident and confrontational, obviously damaging her chances. Why? The filmmakers perhaps want us to understand this as a self-destructive reaction to the uncaring impositions of "the system," etc., etc., but such an assumption would be as indirectly patronizing as it is unsupported. In fact, we can only guess at the reasons for Tyrene's actions since the film never really lets us see behind the mask she has constructed for the cameras. Besides having very little feel for, or evident interest in, boxing, the film makes an annoying mistake in pumping a song (usually monotonous, thudding rap) onto the soundtrack whenever a fight commences. This makes every match come across as a tv commercial or filler on a weekend sports show. If the filmmakers want to do a hiphop Rocky?call it Rappy?they should wait till they can afford to jettison the documentary format altogether.
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