Friday, September 30, 2011

The Village (2004)

In the 2004 film The Village, writer and director M. Night Shymalan uses narrative form—particularly foreshadowing and false and withheld exposition—to successfully create mystery, suspense, and surprise, while maintaining a cohesive and logical backstory and story “reality.” 
The Village is the story of an isolated, seemingly idyllic nineteenth-century community, cut off from “the Towns” and the rest of the world by a large forest and its inhabitants—a breed of creature known only as “Those We Don’t Speak Of.” The woods are forbidden, but young, blind Ivy Walker must venture through Covington Woods to the Towns to fetch medicine when her fiancé Lucius Hunt is stabbed by jealous, mentally-challenged Noah Purcey.
The film begins with the image of a man mourning beside a child-sized coffin and a gravestone marked, “1890–1897.” In a voiceover, another man begins to speak. Two lines in this brief opening monologue foreshadow important themes. First is a question: “Did we make the right decision to settle here?” As the story progresses, and more information about the circumstances of the Village’s founding is revealed, it becomes clear what the Village is, and what it represents. Second seems to be almost a prayer: “We are grateful for the time we have been given.” This enigmatic aphorism is not emphasized, nor is its meaning ever fully explained, but the idea of time becomes very important near the end of the film, when it is revealed that “the time [the villagers] have been given” isn’t at all what it seems to be.
Throughout lengthy setup of the film (almost an hour before Lucius is stabbed), the Village is introduced, and several details are planted that hint at what is to come. From the beginning, Noah is connected to Those We Don’t Speak Of. He is first introduced laughing with glee at eerie howling coming from the woods. Later, when a skinned animal carcass is discovered by the village children, Mrs. Hunt (a Village council member) assures the community that the culprit was most likely a coyote “suffering from madness.” Although the one responsible for the dead animals is mentally unstable, he is no coyote. This becomes apparent a little later when scores of dead animals are discovered strewn about the village and hung from the doors. Our introduction to Lucius (Ivy’s eventual fiancé) is when he comes to the Council of Elders requesting to go to the towns for medicine, in reaction to the tragedy of the child’s death (from the beginning). This becomes Lucius’s main goal, and he is arguably the protagonist until he is stabbed, at which point the mission to the Towns and the role of protagonist both fall to Ivy. Ivy is introduced quite late in the film, as caring (comforting her lovesick sister) and, although blind, very capable. Her lack of vision doesn't inhibit her physically; she challenges Noah to a friendly footrace, getting a head-start through a bit of trickery. Noah chasing Ivy, and Ivy's cleverness both return at the film's climax.
While most of the first hour of the film is concerned with Those We Don’t Speak Of, the skinned animals (which continue to appear), and the romance between Lucius and Ivy, hints are planted about the Elders and the backstory of the Village. Lucius notices that each Elder has a plain black box in the corner. In explanation, all his mother says is, “That is for my own wellbeing, so the evil things from my past are kept close and not forgotten.” Three of the Elders’ personal backstories are shared, all concerning the loss of family members to violence in the Towns. This theme of tragedy is stated explicitly sixteen minutes into the film by Mr. Nichols, the grieving man from the beginning: “You may run from sorrow, as we have.… Sorrow will find you.” This is another major theme, and the idea that the Elders have run from sorrow becomes very important later in the film. 
In the second ‘act’ of the film (after Noah stabs Lucius, and Ivy becomes the protagonist) there are three major plot twists, each one set up by hints planted in ‘act one.’ First is the truth about Those We Don’t Speak Of. All the Elders sworn an oath to never leave the Village, but Lucius’s wounds are infected and his only hope of survival lies in medicine from the Towns, so Ivy’s father gives her permission to make the journey herself. Before she goes, he takes her to an old shed “that is not to be used,” to show her something important. The scene is not shown, however, until Ivy’s journey is underway. The two men assigned to guide her through the woods abandon her in fear, and only then is it revealed what Ivy discovered in the shed: Those We Don’t Speak Of are fake—costumes donned by the Elders to keep the villagers from returning to the Towns. It now becomes clear why the Elders were so confidant that the skinned animals were not left by Those We Don’t Speak Of, and why Ivy’s father and Mrs. Hunt were fearful and confused when the carcasses were hung from the doors. Ivy’s father explains that “there did exist rumors of creatures in [the] woods,” and that the Elders’ lie was intended to protect. He says he thinks one of the Elders is responsible for the dead animals.
As Ivy continues through the woods alone, tension builds and important details from earlier begin to pay off. Ivy falls into a deep sinkhole, but manages to climb out again, noticing the shape of a nearby tree root. She hears sounds of a pursuer and begins to run. It is one of Those We Don’t Speak Of, visible to the audience but not to Ivy. Whether it is a rogue Elder or one of the rumored beasts is unknown. The climax of the film comes as Ivy feels the tree root as she runs, and stops at the edge of the sinkhole, back to the advancing beast. This parallels a game the young men of the village played earlier in the film, in which they stood on a tree stump at the forest’s edge after dark, backs to the trees, for as long as their courage held out. At the last moment, Ivy dodges to the side, and the creature falls into the sinkhole. This is the point of the second big reveal: Ivy’s pursuer is Noah, wearing one of the Elders’ costumes. Back in the village, Noah’s parents discover that he has escaped from the room in which he was imprisoned and taken one of the costumes. They also realize Noah was responsible for the dead animals. Sure enough, Noah has been absent from all the scenes before the animals have been found.
All is demystified when, at last, Ivy reaches a hidden road taking her out of Covington Woods to the Towns. As she climbs over a tall fence, she is greeted by a sound she’s never heard—a siren. On the other side of the fence, a park ranger pulls over to the side of a highway in a truck labeled "Walker Natural Preserve."  This is the third and paramount twist—it is the present day. Through a voiceover, the three Elders whose backstories were revealed in the beginning recount their stories in more modern terms, accompanied by shots of the elders opening the mysterious black boxes and looking through photos and newspaper articles linked to the tragedies of their past lives. Mr. Walker retells the story of his father, a wealthy businessman murdered over money (explaining the funding and naming of the "wildlife preserve" of Covington Woods), and he begins to tell the other mourners his idea for the Village. Though this voiceover seems to be a flashback to some sort of grief support group, is purely directed at the audience; being blind, Ivy has no idea the true extent of how different the "Towns" really are.
These ending twists are major shifts in the accepted world of the film. The Village is set up as a fantasy period-piece, but in fact it is neither. Without the proper foreshadowing and set-up, such total changes of the film’s “reality” (or the audience’s perception of the rules) would break the suspension of disbelief and seem like “cheating.”

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Life Lessons (from Yew York Stories) [1989]

Life Lessons (directed by Martin Scorsese) is the story of a famous and masterful painter Lionel Dobie, torn between his driving passion for painting and his need for an honest human connection. It stands to reason, then, that the art within the film plays a crucial role.

At the start of the film, Dobie has a severe case of painter's-block. He has an immense white canvas scattered with haphazard black squiggles—it's as if we can see into Dobie's stagnant mind. There are a few beginnings of ideas, but nothing is unified or coherent. There is neither passion nor reason. As the painting shows visually, Dobie is stuck. As the audience soon learns, the the cause of his difficulty is that the young, attractive Paulette—his assistant, lover, muse, and amateur painter herself—is away in Florida. She returns, determined to move out for good, but Dobie persuades her to stay as assistant only. With Paulette near, but out of reach, Dobie's creative flame is rekindled, and he begins to paint.

Dobie's artistic style reflects who he is as a character. His painting is wild, abstract, and messy. This fits Dobie,  a passionate, obsessive recluse, with little regard for conventions or the outside world.

Paulette's paintings, on the other hand, are much more conventional. They are smaller and more representational. Like Dobie, Paulette is caught between her hope to be a great artist, and desire to have a healthy personal life. In the end, she chooses the latter.