June 24, 2010

The Village

Another in my series of old reviews about old movies, so note the parentheticals.

The only surprising thing about The Village is that so many critics were apparently surprised by the ending. I'd have a hard time imagining how it could have ended otherwise. After all, of M. Night Shyamalan's films to date, only Unbreakable boasts a narrative complexity to match its premise. Otherwise, he has produced some polished Twilight Zone episodes, compelling ideas that may work as extended metaphors but fall to shreds under closer examination.

I can usually suspend disbelief long to enjoy Shyamalan's stories between the opening and closing credits. [Up until Lady in the Water. That was my last Shyamalan, and reviews of Airbender are awful across the spectrum]. The problem is, I'm not sure he always has metaphors in mind. No doubt this literalistic simplicity is part of the attraction. But unless you can impose some deeper level of meaning on the plots, the internal logic evaporates like morning dew in the Sahara.

Speaking of deserts, in Signs, for example, you have to ask why in the world aliens would want to take over rural Pennsylvania, let alone hydrophobic aliens. Why not Nevada? This doesn't simply strain common sense. It takes a wrecking ball to it.

The Village is best interpreted as a Thoreauvian tract on the ideals of (in)voluntary simplicity. If you think such ideas, taken seriously, are cute but batty, then join the group. After all, none the 19th century transcendentalist Utopian communities Shyamalan is mimicking here lasted more than a year or two. The Village, I think quite unintentionally, vividly illustrates why.

To start with, this is apparently a self-sustaining community lacking any recognizable economy, trade or industry--or, for that matter, genetic diversity. The most successful 19th century Utopian movement--the Mormons--similarly attempted to isolate themselves geographically. Despite having a large and growing population and a hundred thousand square miles to work with, the demand for hard currency made trade with the outside world a necessity from the start.

Luckily, the Mexican-American War and the California Gold Rush happened just in time.

Brigham Young still managed to almost bankrupt the state when the financiers of the Transcontinental Railroad pulled a Bernie Madoff on him. He thought he was smart enough to swim with the sharks. They made a minnow out of him. [On Writing Excuses, L.E. Modesitt comments about how the settings for fantasy and science fiction stories so often fail to account for the most basic economic realities.]

The Amish are not an exception. While they separate themselves from the modern world, they exist only by trading with it. The Amish also recognize the truth of the expression, "You can't keep them down on the farm," and lets its young adults exhaust their wanderlust before settling down. Human beings are restless creatures. The idea that you could keep them penned up indefinitely is as fantastic as E.T.s who shrivel like the Wicked Witch when dunked in a fish tank.

The Village is best held up as a cautionary tale far more frightening than monsters and haunted woods. It's the same subtext that comes through loud and clear in glib works of science fiction, Star Trek: TNG perhaps being the worst offender. That is, no Utopian community, high moral claims notwithstanding, can long be maintained, except through fear, ignorance, isolation, and authoritarian rule, with each generation breeding the next class of enlightened despots.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
6/25/2010 10:50 AM   
Has anyone really ever been surprised by Shyamalan's twists?

What annoys me is that several of his movies would have been much better had he not bothered with a twist at all.

I knew the twist of "The Village" in the first few seconds, but keep hoping I was wrong or that at least the twist would be the outside world had turned super horrible (and the monsters really were, gee, monsters!)
# posted by Blogger Eugene
6/25/2010 11:48 AM   
The Village could have been a great satire if a reporter had come to investigate their "self-sustaining" community. But while he was there, everybody had to hide the generators and refrigerators and pretend they weren't smuggling in food from the local supermarket. Of course, living that "green" for real would quickly drive them all nuts. The comedic possibilities abound!
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
6/25/2010 7:07 PM   
I think the biggest problem with fictional utopias is that the writers don't understand what constitutes technology. This is why I, a self-admitted Trekkie, can't rewatch Star Trek: Insurrection. Here's this lovely anti-technological utopia . . . where people use complex irrigation techniques.

Hint to writers: irrigation techniques would be considered technology. So would long-bows. So would the printing press. So would the loom. So would . . . just about everything else that turns up in fictional utopian environments.

What the writers of these fictional utopias mean is "this community is free from technology that goes 'beep.'" NOT "this community is free from clean air, clean food, clean water" and usually not "this community is free from antibiotics." I suppose Shyamalan should be given kudos for playing fair but come on, nobody snuck in some penicillin? (I love the idea of a cardboard/front utopia, by the way. Actually, this idea is sort of used in Stargate: Atlantis. Of course, our heroes discover the technological society behind the simple farmers facade. At one point, McKay complains, "You know, if people could just learn to keep their secret underground hatches locked.")

P.S. Scholars have postulated (with good supporting evidence) that witchcraft trials AND hangings were more likely to occur in closed-off environments (like Salem Town) than in more cosmopolitan environments where accusations got swallowed up in surges of newcomers.