Director Cameo in the Films of M. Night Shyamalan
Note: Don't read this essay if you've not yet seen The Village and plan to see it. This is a critical essay on the films of M. Night, and I don't hold back on details in any one of his films I've seen, particularly The Village which I just saw yesterday afternoon. If there are any other's of M. Night's films you haven't seen, you might want to be extra careful while you read. There are to some degree or another spoilers here for nearly all his films.
This is intended to be a semi-scholarly essay. Only semi-scholarly because I don't cite reference for anything. That would be too much work for my intentions. But I promise, everything I say below that isn't my own commentary and interpretation can be gleaned from the "bonus material" on Hitchcock's or M. Night's films.
Author Intrusion is a literary device whereby an author inserts himself into the story. It is generally deemed by the status quo of literary establishment to be an error. Good writers, you are taught, avoid author intrusion. The same has always been taught with regard to filmography. Good filmmakers avoid author intrusion. You don't want to "interrupt" the flow of your story with a distraction, particularly by placing yourself into the story somewhere. Unless your story is told in first person (like American Beauty or Nabokov's Lolita) it is just plain wrong (according to the "establishment") to insert yourself into the story.
Alfred Hitchcock, for whom M. Night makes no apology of constantly emulating, was very careful about interrupting the flow of his films. It is well known that he appeared in Cameo inside each of his films, but a careful study of his technique on the matter is revealing. The first time Hitchcock did this it was because he needed an extra to walk through the scene and there wasn't one handy. The second time it happened, he only did it because it seemed an interesting little thing to do the first time - rather like a signature in the corner of a painting. By the time it became a regular thing, however, Hitchcock realized that his fans were intentionally looking for his cameo appearance in each film. So thereafter, Hitchcock intentionally placed his cameo appearance at the start of the film, to get it out of the way so that the audience wouldn't be distracted from the story.
It should be obvious to anyone who has seen one of M. Night's films that he has no such intention. He interjects himself into the film, not simply as a stranger walking by in the background, but as an integral part of the story. I think the particular manner of M. Night's author intrusion tells us something interesting about his intentions in these films.
In The Sixth Sense he plays a doctor who is outside the main action, and yet who is consulted as an expert in some matter. He seems to know much, and of course, we know deep down inside that he knows everything, since it is his story that is being told. In spite of the fact that he is a character in the story, he never divorces himself from the role of directory. In so doing, he takes author intrusion to a new level. We are aware that he's the director even though he's a doctor. By making himself a doctor in the story, we know that he has knowledge, perhaps some intimate knowledge of secrets we cannot yet understand. The "establishment" would think of this as an error on his part, a distraction. On the surface perhaps it is a distraction. Yet on the other hand is it possible that it is a glimpse into some inner meaning of the story? Read on.
In Unbreakable he is a drug dealer in the stadium. He has again a very minor role, but it ends up being a role that is pivotal in the thinking of David Dunn (Bruce Willis). It is this glimpse of evil in the world that makes Dunn snap, and change his course, and realize his place in the scheme of things. Again he has played a very minor role, and again we are aware that he's the director, and he combines somehow the strangeness of this story and his role as storyteller in a unique way. Even by being a part of the evil in the world, he can push people toward the good. And we may conjecture: by being a director that likes to tell tales of the evil in this world, can he ultimately motivate the audience toward the good?
In Signs the author intrusion is taken to a whole new level. Here he is the direct cause (possibly) of the two major conflicts in the film. We wonder if he is responsible for the alien invasion of earth since he has aggravated them by trapping one of them in his basement. But more importantly he is directly responsible for the anguish of the main character Rev. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) since he has accidentally killed the Reverend's wife in a late night traffic accident. Again he has an insignificant role, only a moment or two of speaking with the main character and then he's gone. But the repercussions of the things he has done ripple out from that and permeate the film.
Finally, there is his brief cameo in The Village. My friends told me before I saw the film that his cameo was much smaller in this film than the others, but I'm not so sure that's the case. When the young fellow security guard goes to the guard station to retrieve the medications that Ivy Walker needs to save her true love, we hear M. Night talking to the young guard and warning him to be careful what he does and says. On the surface it seems insignificant enough, but considering the things he says and his reflection in the medical cabinet glass, perhaps not so. While he is warning the young guard, we get the distinct impression that he knows: that he knows about those people back there, and is devoted to keeping silent on the matter. This is particularly underscored by the fact that he watches the young man steal several bottles of antibiotics (it is clear in his reflection in the cabinet glass that he sees it and notices it) and yet he does and says nothing about it to the young man. He doesn't even ask.
Again his role as storyteller (director) here is superimposed upon what would seem to be a brief cameo in the movie. Of course he knows about them: it's his story. The fact that people can try to live in a microcosm without any interaction with the rest of the world, and the fact that as director (security guard) he is committed to protecting that right says a lot.
I think, taken as a whole, these cameo appearances say much more than they do individually. The art of storytelling is the timeless art of having a message, a story, and transferring that story to an audience. The astute author (or director) makes the audience feel that they are a part of the story, that the story is a part of them. By seeing someone inside the story, whom the audience knows to exist outside the story, the audience is drawn in even more. The boundary between fantasy and the real world is broken. If those from the outside world can exist inside the story, perhaps we can also. This, I believe, reinforces the inner message that seems to be present in M. Night's films: that of empathy and the interconnectedness of people and their stories. His films resonate with the repercussions that each of our decisions in life have on the world around us. If we put ourselves in the place of the storyteller, we find that we can be the ones that push someone over the edge toward either good or evil. We find that our tiniest mistakes and most random musings can have drastic consequences in the lives of others and in the world all around us.
Far from being random acts of a narcissistic personality, I think M. Night's cameos have an important and meaningful place in his films. They go much further than those of his famous predecessor Alfred Hitchcock, but not in a casual and off-hand manner. Not only are they not mistakes, but they are highly meaningful juxtapositions of the world within the film and the world outside the film, that add to the depth of the story being told. When taken at their face value, the uncritical viewer could think that he might just as well have walked past in a scene with dog on a leash or something. Yet when one considers the significance of each cameo appearance, it becomes obvious that his cameo is so tightly integrated his with the plot there is not a single other role in the film that could have had M. Night taking the part.
I, for one, think I am going to be looking at his cameo appearances in a new light from now on.