Film & TV

The Mad, Comic-Book Insight of Glass

Bruce Willis in Glass (Universal Picures/Trailer image via YouTube)
M. Night Shyamalan looks through a glass politically.

Is it too much to hope that Glass, the new film by M. Night Shyamalan, contains a useful political metaphor? After all, it deals with dissociative identity disorder. Shyamalan uses that psycho-babble term to justify bringing together characters from two previous films — Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis from 2000’s Unbreakable and James McAvoy from 2017’s Split. These social misfits converge through Shyamalan’s usual quasi-supernatural comic-book circumstances, which, these days, are not dissimilar to Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Think about the Glass premise, in which SamJack’s mandarin psychopath Elijah Glass returns to the grand narrative as a rival to McAvoy’s schizophrenic Kevin Wendell Crumb and Willis’s David Dunn. Shyamalan mixes his comic-book lore with sociological dread so that it has nightmarish political dimensions. (“Delusions of grandeur — it’s a growing field,” says a psychiatrist studying the three would-be superheroes.) Shyamalan’s eerie dramatic projection is shamelessly illogical, yet by the time a lineup of cheerleaders is threatened and the cops draw guns on public bedlam, the film evokes the nearly psychotic treason and chaos that recently descended on the U.S. government and American culture. (Only sci-fi/horror could explain the vengeful, censorious arrogance so frequently exhibited by folk who consider themselves politically conscious, although they merely rationalize their social predisposition — a process that is then repeated and promoted by the agenda-driven media.)

Shyamalan recently told the Times of India: “This is a moment of globalisation and every country is worried that its distinct identity is going to go away and everybody is fighting for the old ways at the moment. But the courage to be part of a larger group, I don’t know if it is a superpower, but it is obviously something that we need right now.”

These crazies that Shyamalan devised don’t necessarily represent us all, but, maddened by their eagerness to control society, and compelled by their own physical weaknesses and personal psychological inadequacies, they seek vengeance through excessive, juvenile, Halloween styles of retaliation that play out their own warped sense of achieving “justice.” Shyamalan’s worldview is what happens when the moral basis of the great books (and the great movies) gets replaced by comic-book sensibility.

Shyamalan first achieved fame with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, a cheesy Twilight Zone rip-off that Y2K moviegoers, recently stung by the hackneyed Blair Witch Project, responded to as fresh and original. (Never forget how Newsweek magazine responded, touting Shyamalan as “The New Spielberg” on its cover — boneheaded journalism like the Newsweek cover headline that was planned to proclaim “Madam President” in 2016.) The Shyamalan films that followed (Signs, Lady in the Water, The Village, The Visit, The Happening) never achieved the heights of E.T. or War of the Worlds, but each one sold second-rate horror gimmicks in the service of a silly mythology that some viewers and critics took to be ingenious.

Glass is no worse than Shyamalan’s other scams, particularly Split, which mimicked Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs but without comparable compassion or social alarm. Split was simply trite, but in Glass, Shyamalan ups the exploitative ante — adding social collapse to serial-killer-threat and girl-victim dread. Glass repackages Shyamalan’s harebrained gimmicks for the same reviewers and filmgoers who prefer Marvel’s F/X stunts to Zack Snyder’s visionary expression of mankind’s mythological needs. This film’s jail-clinic scenes where the three protagonists are lined up (under observation by psychiatrist Sarah Paulson’s imitation of Jodi Foster’s Clarice Starling) are so banal yet absurd that they seem to parody what kids think is profound about the Marvel franchise.

SamJack’s pathetic superhero/supervillain figure Mr. Glass, a scandalous Frederick Douglass evocation, is the ultimate demonstration of that actor’s temerity. How he gets away with it in the Black Lives Matter era points to the ignorance behind that movement. More so than McAvoy’s scenery-crawling hysterics or Willis’s white man-stoicism (both are comic-book clichés), SamJack’s blatant reprobate confirms that what distinguishes Shyamalan’s phenomenal success is his frequent exploitation of social pathology. He’s shrewd, yet he’s sometimes “tone deaf” (the ultimate cultural sin, according to political pundits).

By taking advantage of the sophomoric paranoia that “real villains are among us, real heroes are within us,” Shyamalan demonstrates a tried-and-true commercial knack. The madhouse metaphor of Glass works as a liberal response to the contemporary temper and shows the same political calculation and ghastly impudence as Ryan Murphy’s berserk allegories in TV’s American Horror Story, The People v. O. J. Simpson, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace fright series.

The only Shyamalan film worth revisiting is the widely reviled After Earth, a “tone deaf” sci-fi adventure that also happened to fulfill his under-recognized sensitivity to ethnic experience as evidenced in the consistent multiculti casting of his Philadelphia-set films (a sort of box-office urbanity). After Earth is also the best on-screen expression of Will Smith’s experience as a paternalistic celebrity — an appeal to responsible parenting and family life that Men in Black and hip-hop fans didn’t want to hear. But after the merciless drubbing Shyamalan received for that risky project, he has retreated to the safe plans of his second-rate comic-book mythology, complete with mumbo-jumbo and wild metaphors — racial slander and political offense be damned. His geek insensitivity is now even geekier. In my original review of Unbreakable, I feared Shyamalan’s all-too-easy compliance with Hollywood racism and lamented that “this will never end.” It hasn’t.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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