Small, intimate films like Glass live and die by the quality and clarity of the editing. The sets are spare, and often sparsely populated by at most three or four actors. There is very little in the way of camera tricks or computer enhancement. Consequently, each cut, each discrete image, carries a lot of weight.
The hints and portents that are a hallmark of an M. Night Shyamalan film only function well within very narrow parameters. To linger too long on a single image, even for a fraction of a second, can be clunky and overt, but if you don’t hold a shot long enough, all you end up with is an incoherent mess. The trick is to give the audience enough of a look at each puzzle piece to hint at the larger picture, without giving away the game too early.
It is a balancing act that rests on a knife’s edge.
Trying to find the rhythms and combination of images that clearly express even the simplest of stories is difficult enough. But to successfully manage something as conceptually complex as Glass—with its dependence upon layers of detail and physical performances that verge on the overwrought, as well as standing up to the inevitable reverse engineering that Shyamalan films are subject to—seems like a daunting task.
Often high concept, mass market films tend to be a little busy visually: bright colour palettes combined with a lot going on in any particular scene. This type of bombast offers a certain kind of leeway as far as editing goes. Films which are more densely packed require less fine tuning as long as they manage to maintain a kind of linear coherency. They have their own challenges obviously, but are rarely dependent on single images, and the kind of hair breadths timing that a film like Glass requires to succeed.
When I say Glass is a small, intimate film, what I mean is it’s a small budget (20 million and self-financed by Shyamalan himself) movie with very little in the way of studio oversight. This is definitely the film Shyamalan wanted to make. The cast is small and the production is essentially limited to two or three locations that are far from exotic. A derelict abandoned hospital features prominently, for instance. A film like this is usually featured at Sundance or tiff and sounds, as described above, like something involving an urban family drama.
While Glass is narratively dense—inasmuch it depends upon two other films (Unbreakable and Split) to flesh out the main characters—the way the story is told is pretty straightforward, at least in the technical sense. No explosions, no CGI enhancements, a bit of wirework, and very little of the impressionistic bombast that you see in most mass market films these days. What you see on the screen is what was on camera that day. Even the fight scenes are pretty basic—which can be a feature or a bug depending on individual preference.
All this means that things like shot selection, lighting, camera placement, editing choices, become even more vital. To me it is similar to working with analog photography, as opposed to digital; what you capture in frame is what you have to work with. And like a gallery showing, the sequence you choose to display each of those single images in matters profoundly.
People’s mileage will vary depending on how interested they are in engaging with M. Night Shyamalan’s idiosyncratic vision. For me, watching a Shyamalan film is interesting because I feel like I’m listening to, and watching, something unique. The fact that people find it occasionally amateurish is completely understandable, mostly because I think sometimes it is. But that bothers me less than some because I value the differences more than I care about the flaws.
And certainly there is very little in the way of fan service or creating outcomes meant to soothe the audience. But it was often a riveting watch, with character moments that had real impact, and a spare, but powerful, visual aesthetic.
You could easily watch Glass without any dialogue at all and come away with a clear sense of the story and Shyamalan’s intentions, which is a testament to the value and quality of your work. Although whether you care for the story on offer is a whole other question. I did, for the most part, and imagine I will watch Glass more than a couple of times.