Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Catholic World News News Feature

Fear of Evil November 15, 2002

By Tim Drake

The film career of M. Night Shyamalan (pronounced Sha-ma-lawn) career is soaring. With six films to his name, the 31-year-old writer/producer/director has already established himself as Hollywood's highest paid screenwriter. The fees he commands have quadrupled since the release of his blockbuster The Sixth Sense in 1999.

The vision and style of this rising young filmmaker can easily be traced through his small but successful body of work. Although he is a Hindu, Shyamalan's artistic imagination is decidedly Catholic. Like the endings of most of his movies, the author's own story is unexpected.

Born during one of his parents' trips back to Pondicherry, India, in 1970, Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan was raised in the affluent Penn Valley of Philadelphia and attended private schools there. (The Waldron Mercy Academy for boys, the Catholic grade school Shyamalan attended, serves as the backdrop for his second film Wide Awake.) The child of physician parents Jayalakshmi and Nelliate, he grew up on films such as Star Wars, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark. By the time he reached the age of 8 he had been given a Super-8 camera, igniting his early passion for filmmaking. By age 17 he had completed 45 homemade movies.

A 1988 graduate of Episcopal Academy, Shyamalan went on to graduate from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 1992. It was there that he took his new middle name, "Night"--a name he chose not only for its entertainment value, but also because, he explained, one can see the full breadth of the universe only at night.

Following film school, Shyamalan tried to arrange financing for his first script, Wide Awake. When that financing collapsed, he wrote Praying with Anger, and flew to India to shoot the feature-length film. In 1994, Shyamalan wrote the script "Labor of Love," about a man who walks from Philadelphia to California to prove his love for his recently deceased wife. He sold the script to Twentieth Century Fox for $750,000 with the understanding that he would be able to direct the film. Later, it became evident that he would not be allowed to direct. "It was a story about what I felt about first being married," Shyamalan told Newsweek. "It was pure." Fox has still not turned the script into a movie. By this time, however, major studios were taking notice of the young director, and now Miramax funded Shyamalan's Wide Awake, a film about a 5th-grader's search for God.

"I'm wide awake now." Joshua Beal from Wide Awake

SPIRITUAL BOOKENDS

Shyamalan's first studio film, Wide Awake (Miramax, 1998), along with his most recent film, Signs (Touchstone, 2002) serve as spiritual bookends to his other films. Both focus on the relationship between man and his creator.

The most Catholic of his films, Wide Awake takes place at Waldron Academy. Shyamalan admits that in some respects the film is autobiographical.

In the film, 10-year-old Joshua A. Beal (Joseph Cross) has lost his grandfather (Robert Loggia), leaving him desperate to know where the older man has gone, and whether he is all right.

The film is separated into three parts, each patterned after the school year. It opens in September with a section called "The Questions." The middle section takes place in December and is termed "The Signs." The final third is set in May and is called "The Answers." The three parts mirror Joshua's journey of faith.

When Joshua asks his best friend, Dave, whether he ever thinks about God, Dave responds, "I go to a Catholic school. God is like our homework. No I don't think about God." When Joshua presses, asking Dave whether he thinks that God is real, David responds, "Nope. Too many bad things happen to people for no reason."

This sets Joshua forth on a mission to find God. In his quest, Joshua watches television, searches the internet, sneaks into a girl's school to speak with a cardinal, talks to the school priest, and suggests a family vacation to Rome. "Why Rome?" his parents inquire. "It's a nice city," he responds. They point out that Rome is where the Vatican and the Pope is. "The Pope is not God," they tell him. "I know that, but he's his best friend," responds Joshua.

Joshua has little success in this search. Dave advises Joshua, "Look, Joshua. Either there is no God, or he doesn't really care that you are looking for him." This line signals a turn of events that opens the eyes of both the cynical Dave and the seeking Joshua.

The humor found in this film is not of the "Do Patent Leather Shoes Reflect Up?" style, poking fun at things Catholic. Rather, the treatment of Catholicism in the film is respectful. Rosie O'Donnell plays a dedicated, baseball-loving nun. Father Peters is a respectable priest. And in a particularly moving scene, Joshua's grandfather is shown receiving the Eucharist at a special healing Mass for the sick. The scene shows the first time that Joshua realizes his grandfather is ill.

One night Joshua begins to doubt his mission. Out of desperation, he utters a prayer. "Please, I need one bad," he says, asking God for a sign. "My grandpa believed in two things," he says, "Always keep your eyes on the ball, and hold onto your faith. Faith will get you through. I don't think I believe in anything at all."

Next Joshua has a flashback: Joshua's grandfather points to the snow as proof of God's existence. His grandfather asks Joshua, "How do you think the snow appears?" Joshua offers a scientific explanation. "You're right, but there's more. Much more. Maybe you're going to have to find your own proof," the grandfather concludes.

That night, Joshua gets his sign. It snows.

The sign signals Joshua's epiphany, as he begins seeing things that he has never seen before. At the film's conclusion, Joshua says:

Before& Bullies were bullies for no reason. Weirdos were just weird, and daredevils weren't afraid of anything. Before this year, people I loved live forever. I was asleep. I spent this year looking for something and ended up seeing everything around me. You know what? I'm wide awake now.

The final piece to the puzzle is Joshua's encounter with an angel who has been with him all along. The angel, referring to Joshua's grandfather, tells him, "You don't have to worry, he's happy now," and then disappears. In the end, Joshua makes his own statement of belief. "I believe that not all angels have wings," he says.

Joshua Beal's name and character remind us of Job. It is Job's story presented for our time.

Ultimately, Wide Awake is a film about faith. Although seen through the filter of a non-Catholic eye, the film is filled with Catholic symbols and rituals: religious statues, confession, a May crowning, guardian angels, heaven, and the Eucharist. In fact, the film was so Catholic that some critics, such as the New York Time's Stephen Holden were offended. Perhaps in response to such criticisms, the Catholicism in Shyamalan's later films has been more subtle.

"I see dead people." Cole Sear from The Sixth Sense

VISIONS OF PURGATORY

After Wide Awake, Shyamalan focused on two projects. During the day he worked on the screenplay for the children's film Stuart Little--about an adopted mouse's challenge of fitting in with his adoptive family. At night, he worked on The Sixth Sense (Spyglass, 1999): a film about a young boy who sees dead people. While more subtle in its Catholic vision, the film is essentially an allegory for purgatory.

Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a beloved child psychologist. Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), is a brilliant but terrified 8-year-old boy.

After a gunshot wound from Vincent Grey, a former patient whose tortured emotional state represents one of Malcolm's few failures, Crowe feels he has been given an opportunity for redemption by helping young Cole, whose psychological problems are virtually identical to Grey's.

Cole is thought a "freak" not just by other children, but by his teachers as well. Only his mother (Toni Collette) supports him--but he dares not share his dark secret with her.

Crowe and Sear's first conversation takes place in a Catholic church. The church's white interior stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film's darkness. Cole is playing with his toy soldiers and speaking Latin: "De profundis clamo ad te Domine!" ("Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord.")

"In the old days, people used to hide out in churches," Crowe tells Sear. "What were they hiding from?" Sear asks. "Bad people, mostly," says Crowe. On the way out of the church, Cole grabs a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which he will use in the red-tent sanctuary he has built in his bedroom to protect himself from the terrifying presences that surround him. Cole tells Crowe, "I don't want to be scared anymore."

Meanwhile, Crowe has serious problems of his own. He spends too much time working, his marriage is deteriorating, and his wife begins seeing another man.

Eventually, Cole reveals his dark secret to Crowe. "I see dead people," he says, "They see what they want to see. They don't know they're dead." Crowe, naturally, finds this hard to believe.

It is when Crowe admits that he cannot help Cole that salvation becomes possible. Cole realizes that the problem is that Crowe does not believe him. What he needs is someone who will listen and believe. Crowe is required to make a leap of faith beyond the limits of his own world view to accept the unbelievable. It turns out that the dead are in need of the same.

The dead people whom Cole sees walking the earth are those who died with regrets or unfinished business. They need the help of the living. In this way the film plays with the idea of the communion of saints. Cole serves to finish what the dead could not, helping to release them from their state of unhappiness.

Resolution, therefore, comes in embracing the truth. That truth, revealed in the film's surprise ending, shows that Malcolm Crowe has been dead all along. In the end he tells his wife, as she lies sleeping, "I think I can go now. I just needed to do a couple of things. I needed to help someone. I think I did. And I needed to tell you something. You were never second, ever. I love you. Everything will be different in the morning."

"Water. It's like your kryptonite." Elijah Price from Unbreakable

GOOD VS. EVIL

In Unbreakable (Touchstone, 2000), Shyamalan, an avid comic-book fan, creates a film about the mythology of superheroes.

Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, a soft-spoken security guard. While on a train ride home from a New York job interview, Dunn survives a derailment that kills everyone else on board. This prompts Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a mysterious comic-book collector with a rare degenerative bone disease, to contact David. Price offers Dunn a seemingly preposterous explanation as to how he managed to survive the train accident unscathed. He proposes that he and David are on the opposite end of a strange physiological continuum; Price, because of his illness, is subject to constant injuries and broken bones, while David is "unbreakable" Price sets forth this hypothesis as one that he wishes to explore, to support his theory that there are real-life superheroes.

Dunn, of course, has reservations about his strange explanation of his role in life. However, reflecting on his youth, Dunn realizes that he has never been hurt, never been sick, and has inexplicably accurate instincts for identifying bad people.

The more Price talks to Dunn about his gift, the more Dunn and his son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) experiment with his preternatural powers. This sets up the film's most amusing and terrifying scenes. In the humorous scene Dunn and Joseph are in the basement lifting weights. When Dunn thinks that his son is removing weights from the barbell, Joseph is in fact surreptitiously adding more weights, and proving to himself that his father does indeed have extraordinary strength.

In the film's most terrifying scene, Joseph confronts his father in the kitchen with a pistol, threatening to shoot him. Joseph believes that his father is a superhero and so he will not die. (Adding a moment of levity to a tense situation, Dunn tells Joseph, "Friends don't shoot each other.") Resolution comes only when Dunn threatens to leave. Joseph's fear that his father could leave him is greater than his fear of his father's death.

Dunn's discovery of his remarkable gift rekindles his interest in life and renews his love for his estranged wife (Robin Wright Penn). Once he embraces his gift, he dons a monk-like smock and hood and fulfills his role of protecting and defending people. Price, in the end, is revealed to be the archetypal intellectual villain.

While Unbreakable is not explicitly Christian, themes of virtue run through the film. It is a classic tale of good against evil. Dunn is a faithful father working to preserve his marriage and family. Except in an early scene on the train, Dunn always acts honorably, trying to do what is right.

The film also calls to mind the parable of the talents, with its when we do not use the gifts God with which has blessed us, we are giving offense to God and to mankind. We eventually learn that Dunn's choice to spurn his natural gifts has led to the near-death of his marriage, his career, and his heart. Dunn, in some ways, is like Moses: a reluctant hero-leader, fearful to use his gift. Price recognizes this as well, albeit in a twisted way.

There is, in the film, dignity in the human person. At the film's end, Price asks,

Do you know the scariest thing, David? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you're here. That's just an awful feeling. I almost gave up hope, but I found you&. Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I'm not a mistake.

"There's a monster outside my room. Can I have a glass of water?" Bo Hess from Signs

SIGNS OF CONTRADICTION

Shyamalan's most recent film, Signs, serves as the bookend opposite Wide Awake. Again it is a multi-layered film that explores spiritual themes, but now in a much different way. Whereas Wide Awake was a young boy's conversation with God, Signs is essentially God's conversation with a man.

In Signs, farmer Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former Episcopalian minister, renounces God following the tragic death of his wife. The film opens with the shadow on the wall where a cross once hung, a testament to Hess' loss of faith. Much to Hess' chagrin, residents still call him "Father."

Hess lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his two young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a washed-up baseball player.

Graham wakes up one morning to find five geometric shapes carved into his cornfield. Graham's lack of belief leads him to suspect that teenagers created the crop circles.

Yet the crop circles are only a small part of a much larger tale. Shyamalan uses the crop circles to make his audience think about Divine Providence. Does coincidence guide our lives? Or is there a pattern to it all?

Upon learning from the television news that similar circles have been discovered elsewhere around the world, Hess is also forced to come to terms with issues of faith. Not only is his family wrestling with the threat of an invasion by alien creatures, but its protagonist is also wrestling with his demons of unbelief. Some viewers of the film may question whether the former are merely a manifestation of the latter.

As the family sits watching the global crisis unfold on TV, Hess explains his philosophy. He declares that there are two kinds of people: those who believe in miracles and those who believe things happen for no particular reason. At this point Hess belongs firmly in the second group, convincing himself that humans are alone in the world.

Then in a pivotal scene, Graham acknowledges God. The scene bears similarity to the one in Wide Awake in which Joshua, in desperation, speaks to God and asks for a sign. In Signs, the first time we see Graham talk to God is as he holds his struggling asthmatic son in his arms. He tells God he hates him. "Don't do this to me again. I hate you. I hate you," Hess says. The similarity, of course, is that it is only when the protagonists acknowledge God--even if in desperation or anger--that God begins to move again in their lives. In Wide Awake, Joshua is given a sign and begins to really see things for the first time. In Signs, too, God honors Hess' prayer.

As it turns out, not only do the details matter, but God is in the details. Suddenly, the dying words of Hess' wife, his brother's decision to move in with Graham's family, his daughter's idiosyncrasy with water, and even his son's asthma make sense. In the end, the invaders are defeated and the ailing son is saved.

"Did someone save me?" Morgan asks his father. "Yes, I think someone did," his father replies, weeping and glancing heavenward.

Shyamalan ends the film much as it began. As the camera pulls away it reveals Hess dressing in his clerics. While the image of a faded cross is no longer visible on the wall, one is very evident in the architecture of the bathroom door, showing that Hess has again made his faith a part of his life.

In Signs, as in Shyamalan's previous films, tangible proof has entered people's lives, demonstrating that reality has dimensions beyond the everyday. To believe in God, one must agree that there is more to the universe than what we can see. Ultimately, this is what Joshua Beal, Malcolm Crowe, David Dunn, and Graham Hess all come to realize.

"They called me Mr. Glass" Elijah Price from Unbreakable

WINDOWS ON OUR SOULS

One technique that Shyamalan frequently uses in his films is the appearance of windows and reflections. Oftentimes our first glimpses of evil are caught as reflections, perhaps suggesting that the evil in his films is merely a reflection of the potential evil in all of us.

In Unbreakable, the film opens shortly after the birth of Elijah Price. The scene is played out in the mirror of a department store. Later, when we are first introduced to Price as a young boy, the scene between him and his mother (Charlayne Woodard) is caught in the reflection of an old television set. Later still, he is seen in the reflection of a piece of glass framing a piece of his comic-book art. Price is later revealed to be the evil, Mr. Glass: David Dunn's archenemy.

Likewise in Signs, Hess first attempts to catch a glimpse of the alien intruders in the reflection from a butcher knife. When he first actually sees one, it is in the reflection from his television screen. Later we see an image of the creature through a glass of water.

Shyamalan also makes frequent use of windows. Windows can be channels of grace or metaphors.

In Wide Awake, a window in school, with light pouring through, serves as the starting point for Joshua's thinking about God. Joshua says, "It's funny when you first get an idea. Sometimes it comes when you look at something you've looked at 100 million times." It is also through a window that Joshua receives his sign. It is the light through the window, which reappears at the film's end, that is Joshua's proof of God's existence.

In Signs, a window serves as a metaphor for Graham Hess' faith. In the beginning, awakened by a noise, Hess looks at the cornfield from his bedroom window. As we look at him from the outside, his image is distorted by the window's aged and wavy glass. That image represents Hess' lack of faith; he cannot see clearly. Later in the film, Hess boards up the windows in an effort to keep out the alien intruders. His bedroom window is one of the last to be boarded. At this point, Hess has shut out his faith completely. In the film's end, however, Hess' faith has been restored; the window has been shattered and the view through the empty pane is clear.

"Believe it's going to pass. Don't be afraid." Graham Hess in Signs

SHYAMALAN'S FORMULA FOR SUCCESS

Shyamalan's films demonstrate an imagination influenced not only by other notable directors such as Lucas, Spielberg, and Hitchcock, but also by his own Catholic education. They make use of both Catholic imagery and Catholic themes. Catholicism shapes his moral vision as he cinematically explores themes such as redemption, purgatory, human dignity, and miracles.

Shyamalan, a non-Catholic, demonstrates that his mere exposure to things Catholic has allowed him to produce films with a Catholic sensibility. No doubt his approach reflects his exposure, during his formative years, to Catholic teachings, rituals, and practices--imagery that has made its way into his films. Shyamalan's films prove that Catholicism and its liturgy are mind-expanding.

Alfred Hitchcock once acknowledged that "one's early upbringing influences a man's life and guides his instinct." He admitted that his own Catholic education developed in him "a strong sense of& moral fear--the fear of being involved in anything evil." One suspects that the same influence has shaped Shyamalan.

Shyamalan's work shares other characteristics with that of Hitchcock. Not only were both educated in Catholic schools, but they both started their film work at a young age and both became the highest paid individuals in their profession. Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan recognizes that it is the things that we cannot see that frighten us the most. Shyamalan's cinematography, and even the opening music in Signs, owes a debt to Hitchcock. Also like his mentor, Shyamalan makes cameo appearances in each of his films. (In the Sixth Sense he plays a doctor. In Unbreakable, he is a drug dealer. In Signs, he plays the town veterinarian.) Finally, Shyamalan's fondness for surprise endings also recalls the work of the late British-born director.

There are additional recurring themes and techniques in Shyamalan's films that may contribute to his success. His films are all set in Philadelphia. He frequently makes use of windows and reflections. His films often feature children. He softens terror with humor. Such techniques breed familiarity; they let viewers know what to expect of the film, even when they do not know what lurks around the corner. They also help viewers to identify with Shyamalan's films, even when they are very different from one another.

Clearly Shyamalan's experience of Catholicism has influenced the themes found in his work: fear, family, faith, and redemption. Even when his films deal with the paranormal or supernatural, they are ultimately about relationships: the relationships between parent and child, between God and man.

[AUTHOR ID] Tim Drake is the Culture of Life editor with the National Catholic Register. He writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.

[SIDEBAR 1]

THE FILMS OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN

Praying with Anger, 1992 Wide Awake, 1998 The Sixth Sense, 1999 Stuart Little (screenplay), 1999 Unbreakable, 2000 Signs, 2002

[SIDEBAR 2]

SHYAMALAN'S OWN FAVORITE FILMS

The Godfather, 1972 The Exorcist, 1973 Jaws, 1975 Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981 The Silence of the Lambs, 1991 Rocky, 1976 Dead Poet's Society, 1989 One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975 Star Wars, 1977 Psycho, 1960