Betsy Shebang - Column for 1/15

Cinema Smackdown

I'm now a few days unemployed, so like a good productivity-minded American, I've been catching up on movies. Saw Grosford Park last night and The Sixth Sense yesterday afternoon. Stop reading if you don't want to read spoilers about these flicks.

(This space left blank intentionally.)

The Sixth Sense

So, first question: what the fuck was all the hoo-hah about The Sixth Sense? This flick made everybody I know wet their pants with delight and I thought it sorta sucked. (Then again, I should be used to that by now.) But what am I to do when my very best non-wife friend loved The Sixth Sense and (ack) Moulin Rouge, but doesn't understand the glory of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Can we still be friends? Should we get our own antagonistic film-review show - Cinema Smackdown?

I should be more precise: The Sixth Sense didn't actually suck; as I said, it only sorta sucked. This means it was a nice, thoughtful little flick and everybody on planet Earth begs for an explanation of the difference between a "major triumph" and a "clever yarn". In place of that explanation, I'll offer a list of reasons why The Sixth Sense sorta sucked.

1) We never find out where the kid's scratches and wounds are coming from. Is some angry spirit abusing him? We see scary spirits, but all they do is walk past the camera, vomit, and offer advice. An unexplained thread in the story might be intriguing in itself - David Lynch's work is full of them - but to suggest that the kid is tormented by dangers unknowable to any other character - especially if they threaten the mother's custody of the child - and then to drop those dangers completely out of the story, without resolution, is just bait-and-switch. The ending has comparatively little to do with the problems presented at the beginning. It's like abandoning the "Rosebud" thread halfway through Citizen Kane.

2) When the story drops the cute-kid-in-danger bit, we need a new bad guy; so out of the arbitrary-bad-guy file comes the weird little thread with the girl fed poison by her mother, or her stepmother, or somebody. We never see the story develop; we just learn that an active, fun-loving child has been secretly poisoned by a woman for no reason. For two minutes, I thought somebody had recorded a very special Oprah onto my rented video. Many movies make this mistake - expecting the audience to get instantaneously hot and bothered over a drama involving characters we see for all of thirty seconds - but this particular example is just weirdly unsatisfying ("Sir, your wife murdered your children! This house is now cleansed! What's for supper?") because the discovery of the child spirit's murderer does not resolve anything; no tension had been established, so there is no sigh of relief in the revelation of this horrific crime, no sense of any truly cleansing justice finally done. Somehow we've created a myth that the conclusive establishment of blame is a resolution in itself. It is not.

3) The scene where the kid confesses to seeing dead people is, like most of the movie, very cleverly conceived and played out; but it can't be taken seriously unless either a) the kid doesn't know Bruce Willis is a spirit, or b) the kid knows Bruce Willis is a spirit, and knows that Bruce Willis doesn't know, but the kid DOESN'T TELL HIM. Either scenario can be explained away, but neither explanation is satisfying: if the kid doesn't know, then he's as deluded as Bruce Willis is, only seeing what he wants to see; and if the kid does know, he spends the entire film tormented by the twilight delusions of spirits but unwilling to say one word to resolve the problems of even the most benevolent of them.

When the bombshell first dropped at the end, the wedding ring rolling across the floor, I thought for a moment that a powerful comparison was being made - between the tormented, silent half-lives of ghosts and the tormented, silent half-lives of living people absorbed in meaningless work or other petty concerns. Instead, the Hollywood thing happened: the comfortably surreal, impossible, sentimental turn is taken and love, it turns out, has conquered all throughout. Does he apologize to his wife for his failings, mortal and immortal? Of course not - he says only that she's "always come first". His every action has suggested otherwise, but a Hollywood that would recognize that distinction would produce very different movies.

4) Add Bruce Willis to the list of actors who are very talented and effective, as long as they're not trying to be loveable. (The list is long: Mel Gibson, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey...) This isn't really a comment on these performers, of course, but rather about the creation of a cinematic character. It's much easier to like a character who's a dickhead maybe five percent of the time, and feeling lost maybe ten percent. And don't get me wrong; I actually thought Bruce Willis' acting - actually, all the acting - was very good in The Sixth Sense. I just hate the feeling that I'm supposed to love a character by virtue simply of his smarmy, famous presence.

5) A trick ending does not a plot make. The story that had jerkily developed was about a psychologist and a troubled child, and the ending had already come and gone by the time the twilight-zone finale kicked on like an emergency generator. I certainly admired the way the new information dovetailed with the story as I'd perceived it; I love a real conclusion that makes me look at the story I'd just seen - and, perhaps, even life itself - in a new way. But I resent it when

6) Okay, it's a thriller, I guess. It could have been more, but: it's not really a horror movie; there isn't enough confrontation with real danger. And unfortunately, this movie also cannot be a mystery, for only one reason: because the commercials give away all mystery in the movie. Damn the advertising industry.


Next week: Grosford Park, which I enjoyed but can't assuredly spell

Columns by Betsy Shebang