Preview: THE HAPPENING: Filmmaking On The Edge Of The Goldilocks Zone

Members at different levels of my Patreon get access to exclusive content. Today I published a lengthy piece on The Happening and M. Night Shyamalan, available only to subscribers at the $10 and above level. Here is a small preview of the piece; to read the rest, subscribe at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha.

The Goldilocks Zone is the belt around a star where liquid water is possible. Too close to the star and liquid water doesn’t stand a chance in the heat; too far and it’s frozen. Liquid water is what we look for when we’re searching for life in the galaxy, as we know it’s fundamental to life (as we know it) on Earth. 

We’re living on the one planet that’s lucky enough to be in that zone for our star, Sol. Venus maybe once was, when Sol was dimmer, but over time the star heated up and Venus’ water boiled away. Today the surface of Venus is around 880 degrees Fahrenheit (partially, to be fair, because its thick atmosphere creates an intense Greenhouse Effect)*. Mars, on the other side of Earth, is just on the fringe of the habitable zone; perhaps it once had liquid water, but today that water is all frozen, as the planet’s surface tends to clock in around -80 Fahrenheit. 

Too hot. Too cold. Earth, just right. It’s an amazing, almost miraculous balancing act, and it’s unclear how many planets in the galaxy hit this mark. How many worlds out there are just too far away, or just too close, and never had a chance. 

The Goldilocks Zone is what I think about when I watch a movie like The Happening, M. Night Shymalan’s 2008 thriller that is one of the most baffling films ever made. This is a movie that exists right at the edge of the filmmaking Goldilocks Zone, that is almost close enough to be a real movie but that is, on a very fundamental level, absolutely awful. Albeit it in an incredibly entertaining way. 

The Happening came in the middle of what was possibly the greatest run of bad movies ever put out by one director at a major, mainstream level. The badness of Shyamalan’s run is different from the badness of journeymen filmmakers who turned out unremarkable schlock year after year, or the badness of spectacle auteurs like Michael Bay, whose Transformers films seem to break the very laws of physics by getting worse and worse. Shyamalan’s string of disasters is notable because these are all films made by a man enamored with the smell of his own shit, a guy who was told he was the new Spielberg and/or Hitchcock so much he fundamentally internalized this idea and made terrible movies that he absolutely, one hundred percent believes in. 

There’s no way that Michael Bay believes in Transformers: The Last Knight. He’s making trash, and he knows it. But for this run – from The Village to Avatar: The Last Airbender – Shyamalan was full of the belief that he was making great films. That’s the key to their absolute, transcendent badness: there’s not a moment of irony in them, not a hesitation, they’re all power swings, each missing the ball by huge, back-wrenching margins. 

(I leave After Earth out of this because I believe that with the failure of Avatar – Shyamalan’s attempt to use existing IP to get out of his hole, and what he thought would be the beginning of his personal Star Wars franchise – he opted to just follow Will Smith’s lead.)

This kind of badness is the most exquisite kind of badness. Save your tongue-in-cheek Sharknadoes for the people who share Minions memes on Facebook. Give me the good stuff – a terrible, misguided movie made with all the best intentions and, more than that, with the belief that what was being put on film was something special, something unique, something absolutely artistic.

Usually you find this in lower budget productions. People like Neil Breen, the Tommy Wiseau for people who graduated from Tommy Wiseau, have this on lockdown. Breen, whose money may come from Vegas real estate, keeps making absolutely terrible films in which he is the action and romantic lead, but that’s a dime a dozen in self-financed films. What makes Breen unique is that his movies have political and philosophical points of view, points of view that Breen will sometimes just recite to the camera. This is what takes it to the next level: Breen has something to say. 

With filmmakers like Breen they’re clearly well outside the Goldilocks Zone. His movies are like artifacts of another civilization, movies made by someone who had perhaps never seen a movie before. They’re exciting in this way; the work of Breen and his ilk (I’d say peers, but Neil Breen has no peers) is true outsider art. 

It’s much rarer to find this kind of badness in a major Hollywood production. The very nature of Hollywood sands the weird edges off of things; the movies that end up getting made are rarely too good or too bad – they’re often just there. The system is designed to find a middle lane for films, to keep them from being too out there, and that usually stifles great creatives but probably also saves a bunch of incompetents. When a movie does get through the process with all of its uniqueness attached – whether that be a great film like Mad Max: Fury Road or a scintillating disaster like Cats – it’s worth celebrating. 

That Shyamalan got away with one movie as weird and unique and bad as he did is a miracle, that he got four in a row is earth-shattering. That he was able to make The Happening after Lady in the Water, one of the most fabulously up-its-own-ass movies of all time, is nothing less than a quantum miracle or something. This just shouldn’t happen – The Happening is an R-rated movie about the grass making people kill themselves, and it stars Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher. Every aspect of that description is more unbelievable than what came before, but none of it is a lie. 

It’s important to be aware that Shyamalan saw The Happening as a B-movie, but when he’s talking about B-movies he’s talking about The Birds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers – films that are acknowledged now as great. In later years he would give interviews that made it seem like he intended The Happening to be a deadpan comedy, but I don’t buy it, especially because this is the same pivot made by Tommy Wiseau re: The Room. I believe, based on his own words, that Shyamalan thought that he was working in what we would now (irritatingly) call ‘elevated genre,’ that he thought he was taking schlocky B-movie elements and raising them into greatness. 

That said, it’s the fact that the entire movie could credibly be a deadpan joke that makes The Happening fairly amazing. It exists in a state of quantum flux where the general wrongness of every choice could be (but likely isn’t) intentional. And every choice is absolutely wrong.

But getting back to the major production aspect of it: when you watch a Neil Breen film the technical and skill limitations make the movies oddities. But The Happening, made by a crew of professional filmmakers, looks exactly how a movie should look. The filmmaking fundamentals are more than there – cinematographer Tak Fujimoto is one of the all-time greats, having shot astonishing looking movies like Silence of the Lambs, and editor Conrad Buff won an Oscar for Titanic – and so when you’re watching The Happening you’re in a discombobulating, almost dream-like place where everything looks right but feels wrong.

At first it seems like that’s on purpose; the movie opens in Central Park where two characters are having a conversation that sounds like no conversation real people have ever had. Then one of the characters glitches, repeating her lines. And then we see everyone in the park is standing still, except for a few people who are walking backwards. Next the suicides begin. But that initial stiffness, the falsity of the moment, is that the point? 

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