On a whim, I picked up a documentary from Blockbuster entitled "The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan." If you read my post last week on unreliable narrators, it won't come as a surprise to you that I find his work fascinating. My only preconceived notion going into the film was that he was a bit of a recluse, not much of a Hollywood stretch of the imagination.
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn, hired by the Sci-fi channel to delve into the director and his craft, begins a journey, both sanctioned and forbidden by Night, a man who longs to connect but keeps tripping over his inability or unwillingness to share anything personal about himself. Kahn tries to play by Night's rules, but the restrictive nature of only pre-approved interview questions and associates tempts the filmmaker to ferret out less-rehearsed sources.
First, we meet a devoted legion of hooded teenagers who linger outside Night's Pennsylvania estate and explore their unwavering belief that the director communicates with the dead. We're introduced to his sixth grade teacher, a nun, who sheds light on his childhood and had saved a haunting sketch he made while in her class. We meet childhood friends unwilling to show Night's adolescent flirting with movie making. One innocent, unsuspecting female, whom we might assume had gained the shy boy's confidence in high school in an intimate way, is assured the interview's content will be removed should Night disapprove. After much coaxing and manipulation, she reveals Night had a near-death experience as a child that forever changed who he was.
We see the pond where a ten year old Night attempted to save a deer trapped in the ice and fell in. She shows Kahn the watch Night gave her, stopped at the moment of his icy plunge and trail along with the documentarian as he finds the exact moment the newspaper reported him pulled from the pond-thirty-five minutes after the time on the watch. We learn the pond is located in a suspected area of witchcraft and an unnatural number of drownings over the centuries. We learn Night's sixth grade sketch subject looks like one of those victims, the same ghostly boy who is captured in a camera shot of a mirror at Night's childhood home during the filming. Night's childhood friend confirms that in those thirty-five minutes, he saw his own deceased relatives and the dead he didn't know.
During the course of the film, we sense a polarity between the documentary Kahn was hired to do and the story he wants to tell. Again and again, he finds evidence in Night's past that are direct echoes of scenes in his films, secrets that resonate through his work. Through insightful interviews with celebrities like Johnny Depp and Adrien Brody, we become privy to how far Night is willing to go to protect himself and his craft.
But this knowledge doesn't come without a price. The subversive way Kahn manipulates interviews with people Night does not place on his approved list is at once fascinating and disturbing, especially the girl, who realizes far too late she'd probably betrayed Night's boyhood confidence once entrusted to her. In moments where we witness Night reaching out in good faith, unsuspecting of Kahn's back door investigation into his past, we understand completely the lengths the man has gone to protect himself and almost turn our sympathies away from the documentarian.
Ultimately, it's not much of a stretch to imagine this is Night's past. For a man who brings an audience to the edge of possibility, to face fears we didn't know we had, his movies become a transparent projection of his experiences. For artists and writers, it's a powerful reminder of how vulnerable we are once we open our work to the outside. For everyone, it's a study of the blurred line between celebrity and privacy.
Having said all that, and realizing I must have been living in a cave during the pre-publicity cycle of The Village, I bought into this "mockumentary" completely. Night masterminded a complete reversal he's famous for in his films in order to generate buzz surrounding his new release. Some now crown it the worst piece of drivel ever committed to film, no doubt smarted by the betrayal. I may be among the few who can appreciate a good hoax, a fully-realized ghost story and the ultimate twist on an audience.
What do you think? Fun or ego?