Posted 9 November:
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A Different Reading of Signs
Dear Locus Online,
As I read the reviews (professional and otherwise) of Signs, I keep wondering if I'm either dull or saw a different movie. I thought the film was savagely critical of simplistic thinking, of humans "connecting the dots" when no connection exists, instead of letting life's events speak for themselves.
Everything that we or the film's characters learn about the motives or intent of the aliens are self-referrals: the hyperbolic commentary of TV reporters and interviewees, the fearful speculations of friends, foes and family members, the fear and violent response of human beings around the world toward the aliens.
And these responses seem unwarranted by the alien behavior directly shown. Some responses are patently and obviously hysterical like the TV report that the saucers in South America didn't vanish, but are now invisible as evidenced by the discovery of a dead bird!
The alien behavior that we actually witness seems almost exclusively focused on attempting to communicate with increasingly hysterical humans. In fact, when Gibson and his family emerge from the cellar late in the film, the aliens have carved the simple shapes from Gibson's son's bedspread into holes in the wall. Once again, they seem to be trying, desperately, to communicate with us abandoning their own complex symbols for the simple (and they would assume, powerful) ones in which we wrap ourselves while we sleep.
The only creature in the film that the audience has direct evidence that the aliens harmed (and even that, off-screen) is one of the dogs. Since Mel Gibson's son killed the other one earlier in the film defending his sister, might not the aliens have been doing much the same? I could cite a number of other examples of "observed" vs. "reported" events, but I'm trying to keep this short.
There is a theme running throughout Signs that the Gibson character's loss of religious faith has brought him and those he loves tremendous pain. His children and his brother even scream at him at one point to get back to the man he was so that they can have the father and brother they need. He is miserable, and highly motivated to find "meaning" in all that has happened to him.
Even in the climatic scene, when Gibson sees the alien threaten to "poison" his son, there is no direct evidence that the alien was actually planning that. Gibson got that speculation from TV too. In fact, since we later find out that the child's asthma attack had stopped his breathing, the alien might even have been attempting to give him the "breath of life."
Shyalaman's harshest criticism of humans grasping at "signs" to fill their emotional vacuum comes when Gibson's character concludes that he has received a "message from God" (through connecting his dying wife's ambiguous last words with other "coincidences") to kill another intelligent being. And this being has committed no overtly hostile act toward him (and in fact has previously been mutilated by Gibson without responding). Gibson's character urges a violent murder as a reaffirmation of his own reborn belief in God! Is that really any different from other fanatical fundamentalist killers from abortion clinic bombers to bin Laden?
My reaction to Signs was that Shyamalan was criticizing unthinking belief and the need to turn coincidences into "signs" that ease our own fears not endorsing it. In both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable Shyalaman has demonstrated that his films are clever, layered, and sly and not at all about what appears on the surface. He even casts his leads with actors who have iconic personality to American movie audiences, and uses our expectations about the actors' previous roles to misdirect us as well. He has shown a wonderful talent for misleading audiences from his true objectives.
That many people see Signs as a simplistic argument for "God works in mysterious ways" means to me that either Night is losing his touch, or we've been duped again. Based on the film I watched, and on his record, I am proponent of the latter.
Of course, maybe I too am seeing signs in Signs that weren't there.
Dear Locus Online,
As a long time bookseller and critic, let me applaud Claude Lalumière's book suggestions for vampire haters. Perhaps the single biggest surprise was Todd Grimson's Stainless. I have hand-sold countless copies of this out-of-print masterpiece. An amazing novel with humor, insight, and most importantly balls. (There ain't nothing better than a story that doesn't flinch.) It was second only to the sadly out of print Anno Dracula as my favorite vampire novel of the 90's. Most people haven't heard of Stainless, so it's always a pleasure when you find a fellow fan. (A word to the wise: stay away from Grimson's vastly inferior second novel Brand New Cherry Flavor. It lacks the humor, quality writing, and cleverness. Basically everything that made Stainless so wonderful.)
The only title I would add to Lalumièrelist is Richard Matheson's classic I Am Legend. Truly a vampire book for non-vampire fans.
Dear Locus Online,
I'm working on a couple of R.A. Lafferty-related projects for which I
need to collect as much biographical material as I can. I would like to
hear from anyone who met, knew, or worked with Lafferty and has a story
they would like to share. I would very much like to hear from anyone
who has any correspondence with or photographs of Ray Lafferty.
I can be contacted at:
P.O. Box 1110
New York, NY 10159
The Monkees and Heinlein
Dear Locus Online,
Concerning your discussion of rock music and SF influence, let me add a footnote to a footnote. In 1967, the Monkees recorded and released a song
titled "The Door Into Summer." The title comes from the novel by Robert A.
Heinlein... and in a quote in a booklet accompanying a 1991 CD "greatest hits"
compilation, one of the songwriters said so.