Film: The Red and the Blue

Summer is the season of stupid movies. (I do solemnly swear that this is the last time you will ever see the words “Vin Diesel” within a mile of my byline.) So you’d think that critics would have reveled in a summertime blockbuster about the heavyweight subject of religious faith. Why, then, did so many of them go well out of their way to dismiss M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs as, well, stupid? To date, the New York Times has published three separate pieces that were sharply critical of Signs, including an unfavorable review by A.O. Scott, an unfavorable Sunday piece by Stephen Holden, and an unfavorable capsule review in the Times’s “Taking the Children” column, which advises progressive parents as to whether a given movie is suitable for the tots. According to Peter M. Nichols, children older than ten will find Signs to be “a bunch of empty hoo-hah that is reasonably entertaining.”

Now, Signs is about an Episcopal priest who undergoes a crisis of faith after his wife dies in a car crash. To be sure, it’s also about little green men in flying saucers, but the crisis of faith is the important part, and while I suppose it’s possible that one could make a film about such matters that would be nothing more than empty hoo-hah, I think it rather more likely that Nichols considers religious faith itself to be hoo-hah. Not that he actually came right out and said so, but Holden, to his credit, made no bones about it:

The exploitation of magical thinking in mass entertainment the “touched by an angel” syndrome—triggers an almost allergic reaction in me. It strikes me as a sentimental palliative that encourages people to wallow in passivity and wait for miracles instead of doing for themselves. As much as I admired the craft behind the whopper ending of The Sixth Sense, that movie left me feeling manipulated by a spiritual huckster. And so does Signs.

Holden is a smart critic, and I take everything he writes seriously. Nevertheless, his review of Signs is less an exercise in thoughtful criticism than a museum exhibit, a pitch-perfect specimen of the authentic voice of Blue America, the part of the country that not only voted for Al Gore but can’t imagine how anyone with an IQ higher than 85 would have dared to do otherwise. Such folk are rarely if ever to be found in church, except possibly to attend a wedding, or maybe a Greenpeace rally; they certainly don’t want church coming to them, least of all in a multiplex theater. Thus it stands to reason that they would be mightily offended by a blockbuster movie based on the premise that faith is the substance of things not seen, and that those things are real.

Living in Manhattan as I do, it occurred to me that I might not be getting an altogether balanced picture of the way critics responded to Signs. So I did a little research and learned that while the Times, the Village Voice, and the New York Observer had given it a thumbs-down, reviewers in such far-flung cities as Chicago, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Crystal Lake, Illinois, thought it was terrific. Is it really the case that New York-based critics are no longer capable of appreciating a work of art with whose implicit premises they disagree? Or is it that Red Americans simply don’t know bad art when they see it?

For those of you who took a really, really long summer vacation this year, Signs is the story of Father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a Pennsylvanian priest-farmer who awakes one morning to find that “crop circles,” huge symbols visible from the air, have been incised in his cornfield. (Don’t ask me why a lapsed Episcopal priest has a cornfield.) In due course, it emerges that such circles are popping up all over the world and that they appear to be the work not of pranksters but of creatures from another planet. Father Graham can’t believe it, any more than he can believe in the existence of God—the death of his wife knocked all his faith out of him—but it quickly becomes apparent to him that there’s something peculiar going on in his cornfield, and in the process of protecting his children from those little green men I mentioned earlier, he is simultaneously forced to confront the question of whether the world spins at random or is being spun by a higher power.

In Blue America, this question can have only one right answer, and without giving away too much of the game, I can say that Signs comes down firmly, even aggressively, on the wrong side of the issue. Indeed, I can’t think of any other Hollywood film made in the past quarter-century that sides so forthrightly with belief over disbelief. A.O. Scott’s review of Signs may have been overwrought, but in truth, her testy summary of the film’s not-so-tacit message was almost entirely fair:

Unless you have faith (in something tactfully left unspecified), it says, you are putting the integrity of your family and the very lives of your children at risk, and you no longer deserve to be called father—as if skepticism, or indeed any but the most literal-minded expression of belief, were a form of child abuse.

The catch is that most Red Americans would likely read that sentence, nod their heads, and say, “OK by me!” That’s what makes the commercial success of Signs so revealing a mass-culture phenomenon. Not since the presidential election of 2000 has so efficient a cultural litmus test been administered to so many Americans at once. If you agree with the premise of Signs, you’re a Red American and probably voted for George W. Bush; if not, you’re a Blue American and probably voted for Al Gore. It’s just about that simple.

Note, however, that I said “agree with the premise,” not “like.” I liked Signs, but I didn’t think it was a masterpiece, or anything remotely approaching one. In fact, I was surprised—and not favorably—by its obviousness. I didn’t go to film school, but I understand that in Horror 101, they teach you that it’s scarier to imagine awful things than to actually see them. Shyamalan knows this, which is part of what made The Sixth Sense so gripping a movie: The fear is not on the screen but in your head. Why, then, did he choose this time around to show us his alien invaders in all their repulsive glory?

You don’t have to be a secular humanist to wonder what he could possibly have been thinking. Not only does Shyamalan go too far in showing what might better have been suggested, he goes even farther in portraying Father Graham’s loss of faith in near-mechanistic terms. His wife died, so he took off his collar; God shows him a sign, so he puts it back on again. That’s Hollywood theology, closely related to Hollywood cancer, the dread disease that kills movie stars without mussing up their hair.

Yes, Signs is a pretty good movie, and a scary one, too (it made me jump more than once), and perhaps its unsubtle approach to the problem of faith makes it a more effective spiritual statement than The Sixth Sense. “Subtlety is the curse of man,” Flannery O’Connor once said. “It is not found in the deity.” No doubt, but it is found in the stories of Flannery O’Connor, and I can’t help but wish that there had been a bit more of it—maybe even a lot more—in Signs.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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