Film directors have inserted themselves into their work ever since they figured out that somebody else was able to keep the camera rolling. In fact, quite a few have become known for doing so (you can find a more or less comprehensive Wikipedia list here). While most of these instances of director cameos are barely noticeable and can be easily filed as interesting curiosities to bring up during a podcast recording, some filmmakers have become well-known for sliding themselves into the frame. Naturally, the go-to example is Alfred Hitchcock who did this in the vast majority of his features (again, a comprehensive Wikipedia list is a great resource), but even the most vaguely informed movie-goer would be able to name Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner or Martin Scorsese as filmmakers known to have appeared in front of the camera in their own movies for a brief moment in time.
Naturally, the very idea of a director cameo comes with a modicum of playfulness as it most often isn’t there to distract the viewer from the story at hand. In fact, Hitchcock (the absolute hero of the director cameo) once admitted that he had become consciously aware of the fact viewers would see finding him as a challenge so he deliberately inserted himself into his movies close to the beginning so as to let the audience concentrate on the film. However, his appearances were never anything more than a cool Easter egg or a playful temporary distraction. His involvement would be reduced to walking across the frame with a trumpet case (Vertigo) or winding the clock (Rear Window) while breaking the fourth wall.
Now, this is only one end of the spectrum with progressively increasing involvement/distraction on behalf of the filmmaker being the changing parameter, on the other extreme of which you’d find directors like Takeshi Kitano or Woody Allen who blatantly cast themselves into lead roles. However, the middle ground is where things get really interesting. It’s hard to call Tarantino’s appearances in Pulp Fiction or Death Proof simple cameos comparable to those of Alfred Hitchcock’s because he would write characters for himself, which – more often than not – were almost completely inconsequential to how the stories resolved. They were still distractions. You could possibly even bring Kevin Smith to the conversation as well, who has invented a recurring character of Silent Bob for himself, who also tied quite a few films together with his presence and made tangible dents in the respective universes of Smith’s films.
And then… there’s M. Night Shyamalan who all throughout his career has worn his adoration to Hitchcock and Spielberg (both known to indulge in playful cameos in their own movies) on his sleeve and consequently ended up inserting himself into the vast majority of his features as well. This has been documented in a variety of places and a simple google search will yield a bunch of listicles ranking his cameos from best to most egregious or think pieces using Shyamalan’s own performances (and he is not a trained actor, which he has admitted on many occasions) to discredit his artistic output or jab at the man’s ego. On the other hand, I believe there’s more to his cameos which could throw into question the very idea of calling them cameos in the first place.
Contrary to Hitchcock, Tarantino, Spielberg, Donner and others, Shyamalan doesn’t just insert himself into the shot every now and again to give film fans something to talk about, or just to have fun on set. He actually writes characters for himself. Not only that – the characters he writes for himself are not regular by-standers. They are instrumental to the progression of their stories. He is the doctor who draws attention of Toni Collette to the cuts and bruises on her son’s body in The Sixth Sense, as though to stay in control of the information dispensed to help the characters figure out what’s going on. He then played a drug dealer in Unbreakable whose interaction with Bruce Willis’ character was a catalyst for him to realize he had supernatural powers. Naturally, the same character is found in Split and Glass. In the former film he helps Dr Fletcher figure out Kevin Wendell Crumb has been lying to her about which of his personalities is currently in charge. In Glass his role is less pivotal but still a powerful reminder (especially in the context of the entire story whose thesis revolves around self-doubt) of Dunn’s positive and lasting impact on other people. Shyamalan is the one who lays out the truth about what’s going on in The Village and gives the film its potent social commentary. And it is his voice we hear over the phone in The Happening, which propels the character drama between Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel’s characters. He’s almost directly responsible for everything that happens in Signs by virtue of having killed Mel Gibson’s wife and then dropping a subtle hint about the aliens not being too fond of water. And then, of course, there’s Lady in the Water where Shyamalan abandoned the idea of a limited cameo and gave himself a very important role in the entire film.
I suppose what I am trying to articulate is that Shyamalan’s cameos in his own films are exemplifications of his utter insistence on remaining in full control of the stories he is telling. This is not a dig against him; merely an observation. Nevertheless, his cameos are not innocent. They are indispensable to how these stories progress, what information is disseminated at any given time, how characters are allowed to progress and when. He is not just a director having fun but a God revealing himself to the viewer for a split second to reaffirm his grasp on the machinations of the universe he has created for the characters to inhabit and for the audiences to admire.
This brings me to Old, which – as I have remarked in my own review – is Shyamalan’s most self-aware film to date. His directorial idiosyncrasies are all turned up to eleven in this absurdist spectacle about grief, passage of time and big pharma, therefore it is natural to assume that his controlling behaviour would be equally exacerbated. And it is. Even though Shyamalan’s character does not have a name, he is pivotal to what’s going on. He drives the vacationers to the anomalous beach and then he is patiently recording everything from afar. He collects evidence. He observes. But he never interferes… which is exactly what an omniscient and omnipotent deity would do. He’s present, but he isn’t. He stays in control. To a point, which is yet again another piece of evidence supporting the theory that Old is much smarter than the nay-sayers give it credit for, because the very ending of the film also implies that what is needed to outsmart a god is perseverance and faith.
Therefore, next time you sit down to re-visit Signs or The Sixth Sense – and let’s not kid ourselves; you know you will eventually – pay closer attention to the brief moments M. Night Shyamalan appears on screen because what you are seeing is not only directorial ego on display, but something more. You are being reminded you are in the presence of a powerful storyteller who not only wants to keep you constantly aware of the fact you are being told a bedtime story in his own voice, but that he is perpetually and irrevocably in charge. Think about it: when you tell your little kid a bedtime story, you are in control. It’s up to you if on this particular occasion Red Riding Hood makes it out alive. It’s up to you to decide what happens to Snow White. You are a god when you tell stories. And so is M. Night Shyamalan. He has successfully claimed the idea of a director cameo and commandeered it as a pivotal storytelling tool. He’s the one who decides whether Mel Gibson loses his faith or not. He’s the one who tells you what to think of The Village. His brief appearances in almost all of his films reinforce his complete and unyielding authorial control over every single aspect of the movies he makes. Like them or not, they are his and his alone. Thus, his directorial cameos are equally Shyamalanized. They are not cameos.
They are Shyamalameos.