Twilight of the Idyll
Michael Koresky on The Village
“The better life! Possibly, it would hardly look so, now; it is enough if it looked so, then. The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool; the truest heroism is, to resist the doubt—and the profoundest wisdom, to know when it ought to be resisted, and when to be obeyed.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance
Is allegory dead in American cinema? How else would one accept the rivetingly short-sighted reviews of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village? The only excuse for such a wealth of nonliterate responses is the supposed fact that only six percent of Americans read at least one book a year. In a way, the inability to connect The Village to its clear lineage of American fiction matches the film's depiction of cultural ignorance, bred of willful, ahistorical blindness. There's a form of repression inherent in choosing not to see the precedence of gothic Americana that enfolds Shyamalan’s twice-told tale. In his appropriation of a wide, almost timeless range of American custom, from religious conservatism to more secular folklore, the director creates a parallel history of the country’s foundations, from conception to present-day upheaval. As an ostensible period piece that investigates the basic governmental hypocrisies on which America is based, The Village functions within a pseudo-mythological framework that echoes the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne, transforming history into legend and back again. Setting much of his fiction within a supposed idyllic past, Hawthorne was commenting on his present, stripping away the pretensions of his 19th-century society to reveal the Puritan rot beneath. With The Village's final revelations, Shyamalan creates a similar pattern, yet here it produces an ironic triangular catastrophe: 20th-century political radicalism begetting the search for 19th-century socialist utopia, which in turn produces 17th-century colonialist fundamentalism.
In 2002, PBS’s shrewd series Frontier House recontextualized manifest destiny as a reality-TV gimmick, a time-travel escapade in which its snapping, battling clans of petty contemporary families learning to live without the amenities, realized that, notwithstanding backbreaking scythe-wielding and laundry-scrubbing, the more things change the more they stay the same. By devising preordained social strata, pitting the Malibu mansionites and weapon-manufacturing Clunes and the modest-income, down-home, country twanged Glenns against each other, Frontier House uncovered the growing class chasm of which Alexis de Tocqueville warned. In trying to escape these worlds by playing at history, the Clunes and the Glenns brought along all of their mundanely insidious 21st-century emotional baggage—marriages crumbled, feuds between neighbors reached boiling point. As if illustrating these playing-at-real-world missteps, in The Village, a group of disillusioned 20th-century support-group members choose to retreat from what they see as a violent, baffling urban present into a simulacrum of a 19th-century agrarian commune, and in their attempts to escape violence, end up creating their own form of it. This terrifyingly apolitical and hermetic community exists, cut off from all outside forces, inside a Pennsylvania wildlife preserve, the elders’ descendants kept ignorant of the mind-boggling future world that lies beyond the environs.
In order to realize their dreams of utopia, the eight village elders, including patriarch Mr. Walker (William Hurt), have created generations of blank-slate paper dolls on which to hang period garb and project their collegiate fantasies of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather. The elders have developed a simple and effective method for keeping the children—and their children’s children—docile and accepting of the world with which they are presented, which also allows Shyamalan to occasionally regress into more straightforward horror imagery (and for Disney to launch a campaign of wild subterfuge): prowling, grunting oversized porcupine-razorbacked, sharp-clawed beasts occasionally stalk and terrify the townspeople into submission. Never mind that the costumes look slightly suspect and jerry-rigged; these youngsters have never been exposed to anything outside of their own narrowed experience. It’s Shyamalan’s acknowledgment that rumor and myth can regulate a society as much as direct governmental intervention—both, in this case, become inseparable. The monsters in the woods, dressed in deep, rich reds, the things “we do not speak of,” are as much Ichabod’s Headless Horseman, a personification of rural intolerance, as they are Dubya’s WMDs—the threat that’s always supposedly waiting right around the corner but is ultimately fictitious. In the absence of real danger, it must be created. Or the natives might grow restless.
Through knotted bramble and twisted branch, the small cluster of colonial homes, church, and farmland in The Village is spied upon as if from a great omniscience. These establishing shots, taken from behind the community’s wooded boundaries, create the eerie foundation on which the film precariously sits; this is an outsider’s point of view—not of an era, or region, but of nothing less than America itself. Put aside its assumed horror genre trappings: the real terror here is of the incremental accumulation of social factors that breed isolationism, political complacency, and the never dying specter of colonialism. Always the master of the art of withholding, Shyamalan reveals his intentions with sinister ambiguity; as his narrative slowly opens up, the noose around his characters gradually tightens. It’s the dread of American history, of the past itself, that preys upon Shyamalan’s troupe of wide-eyed white “innocents.”
If all along, we are witnessing the foundation of a supposed agrarian utopia, then what if we are seeing it from the point of view of the monsters themselves? Shyamalan’s deceptively simple allegory ultimately tendrils its way out to this revelation: we can only see the mistakes of history from a helpless spectatorial remove, even when they’re being repeated, right before our eyes. Of course, what’s out in the woods is nothing less than us. We are the audience of the “civilized” monsters watching from the wings, from the thick nighttime dark of the forest.
In Frontier House’s final episode, the wretched Gordon Clune’s deadpan, table-thumping assertion of American values in response to his sneaking a more comfortable contemporary mattress into his period cabin (“That’s the American spirit!” he hisses defensively) is reminiscent of Walker’s self-deluding rationalization for the perpetuation of the “project.” Neither is ultimately more than a game, yet both have quite discernible, concrete consequences to the people involved. Frontier House’s homesteaders, like those migrants in The Village, run away from their problems, only to confront American history head-on. What’s acknowledged most is the pageantry of it all—Shyamalan pulls back the curtain to reveal a magnificent charade in which everyone is wittingly or unwittingly complicit in the world’s most extended re-enactment. The layers of self-reflexive artificiality are twofold—we haven’t even been watching a period piece, let alone a horror film—and Shyamalan leaves his viewers in a generic quandary and in direct contemplation of the “project”’s very conception.
“It’s hard to get lost in America these days, and it’s even harder to stay lost,” says naïve Burkittsville, Maryland, teenager Heather in The Blair Witch Project, 1999’s low-budget phenomenon, similarly informed with the savage possibilities of the cavernous wooded corners and deep forests of the American northeast. The Blair Witch Project made neo-Gothic a tradition fostered in Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” both of which blanketed their Yankee terrain with supernatural horrors that could be explicable by daylight rationalizations; the result was an ultimate moral darkness, being “lost in America,” as Heather puts it, and all that implies, a religious or ethical quicksand, rather than the unearthing of Satan’s own minions. For viewers to search for reassuringly literal, perhaps CGI-enhanced, monsters in The Village is to accept Puritanical doctrine itself, to worry, as Goodman Brown does, that “There may be a devilish Indian behind every tree… What if the devil himself should be at my very elbow!” Errant schoolteacher Ichabod Crane and God-fearing Brown, lost in desperately dark thickets of trees, are terrorized by age-old folktales, themselves made of the grain and soil of the colonial mentality itself, that seem to by their own accord loom up and ensnare them or frighten them away. Shyamalan continues this tradition of, as Irving puts it, “twilight tales and local superstitions.” The village itself, ostensibly founded in the late 1970s, exists in a clearing in the middle of Walker wildlife reserve, surrounded on all sides by huge, ominous oaks and birches. For the community’s residents, this is an eternal nighttime—of ignorance, alternately blissful and worrisome. The creatures in the woods, which only seem to attack when provoked or when one resident shamefully crosses the boundaries, are manifestations of such ignorance, nonsensical creatures like Brom Bones’s Headless Horseman, specters whose purpose is not to kill but to terrify into acquiescence. By creating their own mythology and apocrypha, the residents of the village are establishing their own national foundations, returning to colonialism at its inception.
With nothing more than a jumble of historical and fictional references on which to base a societal structure, the village becomes a jarring amalgam of clashing sensibilities. By reaching back to a past they mistakenly see as unfettered by contemporary evils and corruption, the elders of the village have gone too far back. The utopian ideal, clear-eyed in all its socialist intentions, is replaced by something nefarious and dangerously conservative. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, published in 1864, imagines a collective of disillusioned urban dwellers retreating to the countryside and giving up their sinful petty things to lead a life of rural transcendence. The novel not only reflected the prevalence in the mid-1800s of establishing such cooperatives but of Hawthorne’s actual experience within such a world, his own seven months spent in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, at the utopian dream of Brook Farm. The failure of Blithedale comes from the inability of radicalism to ultimately grow into something greater than mere isolationism. Though he befriended many of his contemporary writers of the transcendentalist movement, Hawthorne never believed in the idea’s spiritual richness in the same manner as Emerson, Fuller, or Alcott. The scrutinizing of Blithedale as a site of dubious moralizing and untrustworthy philanthropy comes from the author’s inherent skepticism of this sort of individualized social reform as leading to much more than fanaticism.
What soul-nurturing spot are the denizens of Blithedale and the elders of The Village desperate to attain? The wellspring of agrarian communities within the mid-19th century came at a time of widespread social reform. The scholar-minister leader of the Brook Farm commune, George Ripley, disturbed by the poverty and human degradation he saw around him as a result of the severe economic crisis in the U.S. in the 1830s, shared the fictional Walker’s good intentions. Are the children of Walker’s experimental village aware of American history, or merely their parents’ rewriting of it, their taking part in the re-establishment of a nation founded, once and again, on bloodshed? The era to which they wish to return, when cooperatives dotted the landscape, was hardly a moment of innocence—so here, by regressing rather than reforming, the village’s elders replace the true radicalism of their forefathers (abolitionists, women’s and workers’ rights activists, education reformers) with conservatism. History truly becomes nothing more than a pageant, with only empty signifiers of a falsely political and superficially polite past.
The conservative streak of William Hurt’s squinty-eyed, grandfatherly village patriarch ultimately blossoms into full Dubya mind-control. By keeping his citizens in a state of constant terror, hyperalert to imagined threats, which are each given familiar color codes (red=danger, yellow=safe), Walker traffics in a widespread form of governmental brainwashing, one to which the media, complicit with Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, and Rove, currently capitulates. Fear is established, their way of life can continue on unimpeded—their Utopia, knowingly founded on delusion, has become their prison. Regardless of the lack of financial motivation, power is still the primary moving force. How long before it all collapses? If they must create their own terrorists, mutilate their own livestock, or fabricate their own Nigerian uranium rods, or falsify documents, then so be it. Shyamalan’s swirling overhead imagery of children and families huddling together in terror within their cellar “bomb-shelters” dredges up a half-century’s worth of Red Menace propaganda. The threads of history are in a tangle.
Like the original colonial settlers, the villagers fall into the same traps they sought to escape: governmental control, religious hypocrisy, violence. The level of deception and generation-spanning hypnosis perpetrated by Walker and his cofounders cannot be underestimated. Yet Shyamalan wisely, cynically acknowledges them as basic societal foundations. And most specifically, this is a very white community—tellingly, Shyamalan, a Hollywood director of Indian descent who was raised in an upscale Pennsylvania suburb, doesn’t include a non-Caucasian face in the bunch. William Hurt is particularly well cast; with his otherworldly, timeless, halting cadences and ethnically cleansed patrician features, he has only grown more suffocatingly WASPy with age. Shyamalan’s intentional lack of diversity here hits like a punch to the gut, especially upon a second viewing. Two drably house-coated girls, sweeping their front porch, begin to spin in a forced and mechanized version of a dance of liberation, then the camera pans down, catches a glimpse of crimson red plantlife growing up from the soil by the side of the house; the girls, without hesitation uproot the flower, tainted as it is by the “bad color” (Hitchcock and Ashcroft would both approve) and surreptitiously bury it in a tiny makeshift grave. The message is clear; here is white America, fleeing color itself. Fleeing passion, romance, the shades and wonders of life, as well as the supposed urban groundswell of violence of the Seventies, taking refuge in a past free of any racial conflict. A simpler time, indeed.
This constant intermingling of past and present social realities and misconceptions, and the ongoing struggle to reconcile them without falling into their traps, is what marks The Village as a particularly incisive fable. Unlike the elders, the younger generation lives in the past only, a fabrication, and the inklings of hope and sparks of change exist within two of them: Joaquin Phoenix’s tremulous yet stalwart Lucius Hunt and his beloved, Bryce Dallas Howard’s sightless, humane Ivy Walker (their outmoded names obviously chosen with relish by their parents for their deliciously anachronistic Ye Old English appeal). Lucius’s heart-heavy pleas to breach the village’s wooded borders to see what can be gleaned from nearby towns (“wicked places where wicked people live” according to Walker…an axis of evil, perhaps) causes the elders to respond with conservative panic. Yet just as the notion of reconstituted agrarian societies were also heavily informed by the recodification of gender roles, Shyamalan’s narrative, always with a trick up its sleeve, realigns Ivy as its hero midway through the film. In a visually economical and brilliantly staged turning point, Adrien Brody’s village idiot, Noah, jealously, for love of Ivy, stabs Lucius nearly to death. Lucius is out of commission; the journey belongs to Ivy. Her sightlessness becomes our point of view, a cruel dramatic irony. Yet Howard’s headstrong Ivy refuses to be victimized by the narrative. Finally, we sense passion in this land of the dead; Ivy’s palpable love for Lucius forces the seeds of political awakening to begin sprouting. Returning with contemporary medicine for her ailing love, Ivy is surrounded by Walker’s cabinet of conspirators—though they have taken advantage of both her handicaps and strengths, her primacy in the composition foregrounds a possible radicalism. And will the community’s ultimate reliance on science and medicine rather than prayer push them further and further into a brave new world?
Today, as the death toll in Iraq increases, the more insistent our leaders grow in trying to convince the American people that God is on our side. If we can’t keep our young men and women out of harm’s way, then we can at least pray for them. Likewise, Walker also ultimately makes religion political by dissolving boundaries between church and state. Communities such as these, like those that moved further west and established Mormon enclaves from Ohio to Utah, can only survive if their founders believe in their own inherent righteousness; it’s an attempt to establish God’s kingdom in the present. Yet in his oft-repeated suppertime blessing, “We are grateful for the time that we have been given,” Walker sets himself up as his own God figure; he has hubristically given himself this time, literally. It has not been granted to him by any greater power. Through lies and political persuasion, Walker has inadvertently created a Godless world.
Shyamalan, on the other hand, has created a world full of sensuous cinematic riches, profound and wondrously spiritual. While national history is swallowed up by the deception of mythology, the natural earth glows and pulsates with the promise of something grander. Roger Deakins’s breathtaking widescreen compositions make for a bracing experience, a world of eternal twilight, and Shyamalan’s penchant for getting everything in elaborate long takes reaches an apotheosis. In one scene, Lucius and Ivy share a hushed early-morning romantic confession on the porch. It becomes a miraculous test of wills: their profiles on either side of the scope frame, their voices growing louder with each new gulp of emotion, while in the back, between their imploring faces, a sinuous blanket of fog curls and undulates. Shyamalan allows us to choose what to look at: the unveiling of a concealed love between two young people finally emerging from repression, or that thick cloud of vapor, waiting in the background, perhaps about to issue forth some carnal beast to disturb their languor.
Of course, the beast never comes. If we can create our own monsters, then we can create our own solitary paradise, as well. The Village does nothing less than bring back love and metaphor to an increasingly crass nationalism. Ultimately, this porch, suspended between pitch-black night and gradual sunrise, is the film’s only real escape from political self-defeat.