I remember when I realized M. Night Shyamalan was doomed to become a stereotype. First, there was the agreed-upon mockery of his name: Shamalamadingdong. I don't know who started it, but here's Quentin Tarantino casually dropping it in 2009, while at the same time praising Unbreakable as a masterpiece. (Maybe not unrelated.)
The nickname persists to this day, in the same way that Harinder at the office gets renamed "Harry" by his managers because it's easier for them to pronounce. (Or the way that "Manoj" becomes "M. Night" for the sake of marketability.) Second, there was that Robot Chicken sketch. Seth Green, known Hollywood kingmaker, created the one-minute sketch "The Twist" for the April 17, 2005 episode of his Adult Swim series. If you've never seen the sketch, you've at least heard the punchline.
"What a twist." It's all there: The weird decision to stick an accent on a brown guy who has never spoken with an accent, the repeated mispronunciations of his last name, and that three-word condemnation of his whole career.
Why Do We Hate Him, Again?
M. Night Shyamalan. One of the youngest Best Director nominees in the history of the Oscars. An unapologetic student of Alfred Hitchcock. He struggled to find his voice for his first years in Hollywood, bouncing from personal art films about the Indian-American experience ( Praying With Anger), to family comedies starring Rosie O'Donnell ( Wide Awake), to writing Stuart Little (the twist is that human couples can't legally adopt mice), before blowing up with The Sixth Sense in 1999. M. Night Shamalamadingdong. King of the twist ending, and then the victim of it. Peaked too hard, too soon. Started to get serious backlash if the twist was too ridiculous ( The Village, The Happening) or not prominent enough ( Lady in the Water, which also suffered from being a garbage fire). Through his casting decisions on The Last Airbender, he inadvertently created the discussion around "Racebending" and simultaneously ruined the live-action future of a universally beloved animated series. M. Night fucking Shyamalan. Had all of his involvement in a Will-and-Jayden Smith film erased from marketing materials because Sony was scared of his name on a poster ( After Earth). Went low budget with his next two films ( The Visit and Split) and made a huge box office profit on both of them. His next film, Glass, is the end of a trilogy two decades in the making, and will most likely complete his artistic redemption arc. So maybe it's time we stop treating him like a (shitty, racist, entirely undeserved when compared to other directors who continue to bomb with no end in sight) joke, and examine the entirely coincidental fact that Hollywood's most notable brown director is also the one we seem unwilling to forgive. Why Did We Love Him, Again? Everyone loves to define a Shyamalan film by its massive plot twist, but I'd argue that The Sixth Sense, despite having a plot revelation in its final minutes that single-handedly introduced the idea of SPOILERS to an entire generation, isn't actually about the twist. The central story is about a child psychologist desperately trying to break through to his newest patient, who believes he can see ghosts. That entire arc is resolved in full before the famous twist is revealed. That's the biggest twist of all: His best plots don't need twists to work on their own, and if they do (like Unbreakable), it's a twist you can see coming. Shyamalan rose to popularity by making well-shot thrillers that were cerebral yet accessible for mainstream audiences. A decade later, Christopher Nolan is Hollywood's guy for movies like that. Today, we call on Denis Villeneuve. But seriously: Shyamalan knows how to frame a shot.
Watch the opening scene of Unbreakable, where an increasingly-horrified doctor breaks some terrible news to a new mother; we watch the entire scene reflected through a glass mirror (and all of that ends up being some fucking rad symbolism when you rewatch the film). Watch him perfectly frame pre-meltdown-Mel Gibson's head in the gap under a door as he checks for intruders in Signs, or realize that during an impromptu confession scene at a convenience store, he has both actors look almost directly into the camera during their takes. He was also ahead of his time. In 2000, he wanted to market Unbreakable as a comic book movie grounded in reality. He was overruled by Touchstone Pictures, who wanted to portray it as a psychological thriller in marketing materials. Five years later, Christopher Nolan would make the world lose its collective shit with Batman Begins, a comic book movie grounded in reality. Who Deserves a Second Chance? Many other big-name directors have run off a string of flops, either critically or commercially, in Hollywood without becoming a punchline like Shyamalan. Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, Ron Howard to name a few. Shyamalan isn't immune to shooting himself in the foot. By all accounts, he went mad with power somewhere around the marketing blitz for The Village. For a person of colour, he could be casting way more minorities in his films. And he broke every rule of being a Hollywood director by refusing to move to LA; he lives in Philadelphia to this day. There are reasons to dislike the man and his work. There is an argument to be made that he burnt his biggest bridges in Hollywood. But, shit. Maybe it does have something to do with being a brown-skinned guy with the "unpronounceable" name. Because if Hollywood—and the filmgoing public—can embrace directors who are literal rapists and/or Woody Allen because they're good behind a camera, maybe we can offer a clean slate to the guy who just made $140 million off of a $9 million budget. You can start by getting his damn name right.
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