A week after opening day, Karen and I finally made it The Happening, M. Night Shyamalan‘s new film, with much anticipation. Shyamalan is arguably the cinematic genius of our time, and Karen is even more of a fan than I am. Something we both noticed immediately was the 20th Century Fox clip at the beginning of the film. All of Shyamalan’s previous films have been independents. Finally, he’s made it, right? He’s arrived. His work is picked up by a major production house.
The Happening fell flat.
Don’t get me wrong, it is still beautifully filmed, avoiding gratuitous gore while still telling its disturbing story. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel acted their roles beautifully (Deschanel’s facials left me breathless at times). But the characters were not fully developed in the script, and there were holes in the plot that don’t quite sink in until after you’ve left the theatre. Is it coincidence that his first non-independent film departs from his previous levels of excellence? Somehow, I don’t think that it is.
Creative souls are constantly wondering how they could or could have made their livings practicing the art that they love. This evening I was pondering what my life would have been like had I continued to pursue theatre as a profession after finishing my undergrad instead of assuming I would never make a living at it and moving on to a “successful professional career.” The more I consider this, however, the more I wonder if perhaps making a living practicing one’s art leads to the corruption of the artistic expression. Was it ever a best-case scenario for artists to be wealthy? When artists become so successful at what they do that their work becomes the object of mass consumption through mass media channels, their work becomes controlled by their publishers, production houses, or record labels. Suddenly, what was once quality artistic expression is directed by the lesser demon of statistics. The businesses who essentially own the artist’s work and pay the artist now determine what the artist produces based on what the masses want. Then popular culture has a tendency to go south abruptly. Even worse, those who have talent but no interest in producing high quality work are made extremely wealthy to produce unsubstantive fluff that a progressively artistically illiterate society craves. Then, we end up with the Britney Spears and American Idols of the world.
What if making a living as an artist compromises one’s art immediately? In order to make a living as an artist in a capitalist culture, it seems, the artist has to surrender to business, and certain things should never be run as businesses. I’ve watched so many gifted writers, musicians, and film-makers spiral down into the abyss of diminishing quality as they desperately attempt to uphold their creative integrity while making a living, not realizing, I think, that the two are mutually exclusive.
Such is the decline of art in industrialized culture.
This, I fear, is what has happened with Shyamalan’s film. I truly hope that it is not a trend that will continue, because to lose the brilliance of his work would be a blow to the art of cinema.
At my pessimistic best, however, I’m not really holding my breath.