Awakening The Senses

As with most of M. Night Shyamalan’s work, this American Express commercial features three things: a supernatural take on everyday events, a twist at the end and himself.

It was the “himself” part that I had a hard time with at first. While The Sixth Sense is one of the biggest grossing films of all time, and, like Hitchcock, he tends to appear in cameo roles in his films, still, most viewers would be hard-pressed to recognize old M. Night in a lineup.

So unless the two-minute spot were going to bring back the “Do you know me?” tagline, I found the opening, which shows the writer/director sitting in a red booth at a French bistro—dressed in a crisp suit and showing off his most excellent hair—a bit presumptive and self-important.

But that’s all part of the build: The spot is part of the credit card company’s breakthrough “My Life/My Card” series, and therefore, it’s all about the filmmaker-who-changed-his-name-to-Night’s vision. He’s the center of the story. And he’s a master storyteller: Time gets suspended, we get hooked and, by the end, the spot pays off the viewer’s bug-eyed investment many times over. It’s got all his usual built-in tension and creepy schtick, but it’s also a visual enchantment that manages to come off as subtle and even lighthearted.

It works because it does seem to be based on a basic truth about Shyamalan’s process, and I appreciate his honesty. Bistro people-watching is fun; Shyamalan probably does observe ordinary events and everyday behavior and then is somehow able to ratchet them to a level of grotesquery or thriller-ish intensity that few of us could muster. (“My life is about finding time to dream,” he says in the voiceover.) He’s also a technical master: The cinematography, cuts and effects are amazing.

What’s so engaging is that the guy’s a genius at implying, instead of directly showing, bits of character. We get visual and audio hints. Mostly, it’s about seeing emotionally dead people.

One young couple, particularly, is so without affect, so separate and zomboid in their stares, that they seem like a Diane Arbus portrait. From out of nowhere, a baby carriage passes their table. (An awful cry from a never-seen infant and sounds of a couple bickering are heard.) Here’s where he’s so good: That one image of the old-fashioned pram (no Bugaboos here!) conjures up so much emotion and psychology learned from movies past. Is there a cruel, jealous and plotting English nanny ignoring the baby somewhere? Or does it refer to the mother of all film sequences, when a similar-style carriage bumps down the Odessa steps in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic, Potemkin? (OK, so I took a film course in my junior year.)

Night sits alone, but the other diners are mostly couples—couples who appear imprisoned with each other, except the first bizarre image of an older pair who are ostensibly so much in love that they dye their hair the same color and wear the same sweaters. We see them from the back, and when they turn around to face us (a real Rod Serling moment), they seem to have grown the same face. Yikes!

The funniest one shows a rather plain-looking woman engaged in conversation when a fly starts bothering her. No problem—she extends her tongue, serpent-like, and—thwat—eats the bug. There’s a table full of hooded men (monks? bikers? fashion victims?)who seem to have an angel among them.

All the forward movement is deft; the director sets up the ending when a waitress drops a glass and it shatters on the floor. (A reference to Mr. Glass in his harshly reviewed movie Unbreakable?) She later comes to Shyamalan’s table, calls him by name and starts gushing about all of his movies. Looking like a much more handsome Jon Lovitz at this point, he nods politely, but his ability to observe, as well as his cover, has been blown.

It’s a smart way to tie the narrative together, and it could have been self-serving, except that he actually makes it funny. (“First of all, I loved everyone’s shoes in The Village,” she says.) This is such a relief in tone and intensity, and we need it.

So he leaves, and we get a cut to the voiceover and “My Life” stuff. Finally, we see him entering a restaurant. “Table for one.” This is classic—is he somewhere else, starting the process all over again? Or did we come in later, and now we’re going backward in time?

This spot actually ties nicely into the card. Sitting with a cup of coffee all day gets expensive. Shyamalan’s donating his whole fee to help inner city kids in Philadelphia get scholarships to private schools, so that’s cool. I give AmEx props for acceding to his demands, including that this most cinematic of experiences won’t be seen in cinemas. (Night is all about the purity of the theater experience, uncontaminated by unsightly ads before or after the beautiful trailers.)

But the spot will run on TV, in two-minute and 60-second versions, and it will have a big viral presence on the Web. AmEx is also running “My Life” work in “pods” (TV spots run together or print ads grouped in a series).

It’s a gripping, innovative ad—and my new favorite in the series—although the brand that comes out most ahead is M. Night Shyamalan’s. And after this, boy do we know him.