Category for Film

Wild: What if I was never redeemed?

If Wild, the book, the movie, the world-wide phenomena, had no other virtue, the story would deserve praise for the sheer volume of reaction and thought that it has inspired.

If Wild, the book, the movie, the world-wide phenomena, had no other virtue, the story would deserve praise for the sheer volume of reaction and thought that it has inspired. Not just on hiking, but on feminism, on wilderness, on relationships: previously unknown author Cheryl Strayed hit a chord nearly everybody recognized but nobody had ever heard sounded quite that way before  

The influential review of the book, by Dwight Garner in the NYTImes, from just two years ago, is at once respectful, but also a confession, in that the reviewer makes clear that he has been, as Shakespeare would say, overthrown. Wild broke his heart, as we say in our time, and tears came to his eyes, and what can a reviewer say after that? 

But not because Strayed put her life at risk, or had an insanely dangerous time outdoors.  

The author was not chewed on by bears, plucked dangling from the edge of a pit, buried by an avalanche or made witness to the rapture. No dingo ate anyone’s baby. Yet everything happened. The clarity of Ms. Strayed’s prose, and thus of her person, makes her story, in its quiet way, nearly as riveting an adventure narrative as Jon Krakauer’s two “Into” books: those matey fraternal twins, “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air.”

Screenwriter Nick Hornby read this review, ordered the book, and set out to adapt it — even before getting the assignment, though he knew as little about hiking as Strayed did when she set out. 

I felt I understood the book. It wasn't about hiking, not to me. It was about grief, families, ambition, rage, disappointment and hope, and it was written with an urban liberal-arts sensibility that succeeded in placing anyone with the same set of values right there on the trail with Cheryl, screwed up, unprepared, determined to succeed in her ambition simply because there are no viable alternatives anywhere else.

But why was Strayed's story so riveting? After all, thousands of people have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Nearly everybody a person meets thru-hiking the trail is on a quest, as occasional trail companion Chris Nottoli likes to say. 

What's so special about Strayed? 

Surely the best overall — and longest! — attempt to answer this question comes from Kathryn Schulz for New York magazine. Interestingly, she frames the question much as Garner does — at first:

People love to read about outdoor extremis and debacle, à la Into Thin Air, but books about nature in which nothing goes terribly wrong do not normally attract millions of fans. Moreover, there is a kernel of genuine radicalism in Wild — and radicalism, by definition, does not appeal to the mainstream. Outside of slave narratives and horror fiction, adult American literature contains very few accounts of a woman alone in the woods. YetWild is the story of a woman who voluntarily takes leave of society and sustains herself outdoors, without the protection of a man, or, for that matter, of mankind. It is the story of a woman who does something physically demanding day after day, of her own free will, and succeeds at it. It is the story of a working-class woman and her mind — of what Strayed thought about in the three months she spent almost entirely alone. And it is a story that ends happily in the near-total absence of that conventional prerequisite for happy endings, romantic love.

That phrase "near-total" stuck in my craw a bit, because the movie does conclude with a mention — if not the in-person sight — of a romantic love. To make sure Schulz was right about this interpretation I looked up the conclusion in the book, and what do you know, it's just about word for word. Strayed does mention returning to the Bridge of the Gods, where she concluded her trip, to marry a new man. 

But Schulz's point — that this was a woman's story that has to do with self-discovery, and not about being discovered — remains central to the story. As she says:

In a ­culture with profoundly ambivalent feelings about independent women, it is not always clear what kind of adventures we will be lauded for undertaking, nor what kind of tales we will be lauded for telling. So why did so many people fall in love with Strayed and her story?

I asked Strayed myself a similar question, when she spoke at UC Santa Barbara a couple of years ago, hoping privately that she would say something about how her story arrived at a moment when as a people we were falling back in love with the wild and the trail. Or were at least open to stories about that, as we as a culture had not been in either of the boom times of the 80's or 90's. Sez me. 

Strayed did not. In a polite but firm way she spoke of the writing itself, and of the publishing team that gave the book the best possible launch. Which wasn't what I wanted to hear, but statistics cited in a recent LA Times op-ed appear to bear our her point: 

Visits to the 58 crown jewels of the National Park System — nature-based parks such as Acadia, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite — peaked in 1997, and, per capita, had declined 19% by 2010. Some who work in state and national parks have expressed deep concern to me about how school kids show up on field trips not so much eager to play, or excited to learn, but unsettled by whatever ferocious creatures might be lurking in the bushes. As stated in a news release last summer by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Getting [today's] visitors to reweigh perceived threats is an art.”

(It's been four years since those stats were published, and I like to think that the tide has turned towards respect for wilderness. Certainly I see people on mountain trails — particularly women, many not young — that I didn't see when I was hiking Sierra trails twenty years ago.)

But Schulz would agree with Strayed. She points out that Strayed's story — in which she has to lose everything, and start over — has a myth's power. 

Strayed sets out on her journey after the loss of her mother (and husband, stepfather, father, and childhood home)… It is as if only the total destruction of the domestic sphere could justify a woman’s presence on such adventures. Or rather — since Strayed’s story is not fabricated — it is as if that destruction were necessary in order to secure the audience’s sympathy for a woman doing something risky and alone.

As a literary device, the destruction of the home front silences these concerns. But it has another advantage: It is universally familiar — not from stories about independent women but from stories about independent children. In real life, the death of a parent is an agonizing loss. But in fiction, that death, while nominally tragic, often marks the beginning of an adventure; it gives the hero the freedom, and sometimes the motive, to go explore an unfamiliar land. Mowgli in the jungle, Bambi in the forest, Huck on his raft, Dorothy in Oz: For any of these adventures to transpire, the parents must first be made to vanish. 

Further, as Schulz says, and Reese Witherspoon, who became the heroine of the tale in the movie seconds, this is a classic American story, in that it is about a woman who had nothing, no money, and sitll and found something, in this world and in herself. Witherspoon told the LA Times:

And it was really important that it wasn't about, like, white-girl problems, you know? I told her that so many people in this world have nothing, and that's what I really responded to, that you get to the end of this movie and this woman has nothing. She has no man and no money and no parents and no job, and it's a happy ending. And that's extraordinary in this life because so many people don't know where to turn or what resources are going to lift them up out of their grief or their despair, and she did this for herself with nothing. And I felt like it could be inspirational to other people.

Which it clearly was. Thank you Reese Witherspoon, and thank you Cheryl Strayed. Especially for these concluding words:

What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I'd done something I shouldn't have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I'd done other than becuase it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn't do anything differently than I had done? … What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn't do anything differently than I had done? … What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was? 

WildPCTimage

 

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Flying tumbling vehicles: #1 movie visual today?

Took a look at the classic old disaster movie, Earthquake, from 1974, which has a great preview/trailer: 

This movie surprises, first of all, because its strongest images inadvertently connote 9/11. Not what one expects from a movie set in a natural disaster

Of course the plausibility question, so often an issue with disaster movies, cannot even be raised: heck, the Northridge quake of 1994, costing in the range of $40 billion in 1994, remains one of the worst natural disasters ever to befall the US. Earthquakes happen in Los Angeles.

So where do the writers — including Mario Puzo — choose to go for drama?

I can tell you where the writers of today go for drama — in this weekend's Into the Storm, to a couple of teenagers who barely know each other and find themselves on a video shoot in an abandoned factor as a monster torpedo spins near. 

Frankly, the dumbness doesn't almost matter — the movie does flying tumbling vehicles spectacularly well. Perhaps better than anyone. Witness the conclusion of the trailer, which uses silence and darkness to hint at a story — slightly reminiscent of the great preview for Twister — but thoughtfully short: 

Arguably flying tumbling vehicles — usually cars, but increasingly semis and even airplanes — have become the most dramatic visual of action movies (of various types) this century. Look at Fast and Furious, Transformers, The Dark Knight, the list goes on and on.  

Yes, all too often, that's what drama has come to on movie screens in 2014: will this tumbling semi-rig spin and tumble and crush our hero/the camera?

Okay, sorry. So in 1974. by contrast, with Mario Puzo of "Godfather" fame writing, where did the filmmakers choose to go for drama?

They focused on a love triangle around a super-successful architect/developer, played by Charlton Heston, who is being pursued by the extraordinarily beautiful Genevieve Bujold, dressed in neat peach-colored pants, turtleneck, and jacket. A single mom, she cares for her young boy more than anything, and saves him from a fiery and water disaster — in part due to her scandalous friendship with an influential married man. 

Probably her greatest role. The movie's great success and her bralessness made her a 70' icon, at least to some of us, and a website that tracks such culture epiphenomena as Susan Dey and Genevieve Bujold.  

Genevieve-bujold-earthquake-1974-image-6

And how did the writers convince us that Charlton Heston, playing an architect/developer vaguely reminiscent of John Galt, is as successful and worthwhile as he is good looking? 

He has a telephone in his convertible. It rings as he's driving and he picks up and answers. Yes, it's true. In l974. 

Final point. There are a pair of characters — a daredevil and his supportive pal — who play a surprising role in both movies.

In Earthquake, it's the always appealing Richard Roundtree, who has a scruffy white pal who helps him make up the stunts, transport the bike, also wear the leather outfit with lightning bolts, etc. In Into the Storm, it's a couple of redneck stunt-loving bozos who just want to get themselves into a YouTube video and get a million hits. They drive a beat-up old pick-up armored with sheet metal, spray-painted Twista Hunterz. It's pretty hilarious. 

So: short comparison/review. Into the Storm is a crummy movie with only one character of any real distinction, a beleagured high school vice principal. A little humor, and a bunch of teenagters who all but snore in speech. Oh well, the images are so strong it almost doesn't matter. Earthquake is a richer and far more cohesive movie, more emotional and less random, and its effects — which won a slew of awards, and two Oscars– retain great power. Movie also has a great soundtrack by John Williams, as well a startling character, an angry cop played by George Kennedy. He loses his temper (before the earthquake strikes) and sits down at a bar like a corrupt beat cop in a big city, and has a drink and a smoke while on duty.  Unexpected!

Perhaps these people deserve punishment for their sins? It's an interesting question on which to hang a disaster movie. Distantly related to the Grand Hotel/Stagecoach/Lifeboat group drama, but arguably better, if not especially deep. Was nominated for a Golden Globe as a drama.  

But forget story about for a minute — these are disaster movies! What images do we remember?

From Earthquake, a semi tumbling off a high free-way bridge and tumbling down towards another freeway.

Earthquakemovie

 

From Into the Storm, an image of parked passenger jets at an airport being blown back and ever so gently lifted into the air by the oncoming tornado two miles across…

Intothestormplanes

 

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On love and global warming: True Detective

The HBO show True Detective included some of the most compelling filmed drama seen here in many a moon. But as much as most critics liked the show, what everyone liked was the credit sequence. Created by an Australian studio called Antibody, the creators told Art of the Pitch what they envisioned:

We boarded out the sequence with full photographs very early on. The production was inspired by the work of photographer Richard Misrach. We started with that and also folded in other evocative and strangely beautiful shots of pollution, prostitution, and wildlife across the Gulf Coast. 

They reference an influential Misrach show called Cancer Alley, about the heavily industrialized Louisana coast, which features this spooky shot of an an old Dow Chemical plant, clearly a touchstone to the designers of the haunting credit sequence:

Ltrbox_CommunityremainsMorrisonvilleSettlementDowChemicalCorporationPlaquemineLouisiana1998

The images deeply impressed this environmental-type reporter, but the former script reader in me was impressed by the dialogue, which turned philosophical readily, but never lost the heightening power of drama.

Here from The Locked Room episode is an exchange that illustrates the strange power of college- professor-turned-writer Nic Pizzolatto's exploration of pollution. 

One police detective, played by Woody Harrelson, Marty, a man struggling with family life, thinks out loud to his partner, the classic obsessive loner, played by Matthew McConaughey, who has much different concerns on this mind: 

"Hey — think a man can love two women at once? I mean — be in love with them?"

"I don't think that man can love — least not the way you mean. Inadequacies and reality always set in. This pipeline is covering up this coast like a jigsaw –this place is going to be underwater in thirty years. 

It's even better with the haunting music, courtesy of T-Bone Burnett and The Handsome Family:

HBO's True Detective – Main Title Sequence from Patrick Clair on Vimeo.

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Why gay men like Marilyn Monroe: Caitlin Flanagan

Caitlin Flanagan, the writer, has a lot of nerve, and the arrogance can grate on a reader. (And maybe grated on her editors at The New Yorker too, which might explain why she's not there anymore.) A writer who reviewed her most recent book went on air with her and Tom Ashbrook a year ago and wrote eloquently in Salon about "creepy condescension" of Flanagan, not to mention her "Michele Bachmann-esque disregard for the facts." 

Yet and still, Flanagan can hit a nerve. Be curious to hear what others think of this recent idea of hers, in a review of a couple of recent biographies in the Atlantic, that the legend of Marilyn Monroe was more or less the product of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's 70's classic pop song Candle in the Wind. (Which is when Monroe became a star for my generation, really, before the over-the-top Norman Mailer hagiography, the picture books, the unpublished nudes, etc.)

To wit: 

The song evokes a particular emotional state, one familiar to readers
of, say, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. It celebrates the aching
ardor that a certain kind of gay man can feel for a beautiful, tortured
woman, whose plight is to be dependent sexually and emotionally upon the
often brutal and brutalizing force of straight-male lust. The song has a
coherent inner logic, even if it doesn’t match up with the facts of
Marilyn Monroe’s life. Nobody else set her on a treadmill, and nobody
else created the superstar she became; full credit for both achievements
goes, deservedly, to Marilyn, who worked as hard for fame as anyone
who’s ever achieved it. But it’s the suffering itself that matters; it’s
the idea of some shadowy malevolent force sending a delicate soul on a
dark journey that was the appeal of the song and that was the true birth
of Marilyn Monroe as one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time.

Swept away by this idea, I start to imagine (if Monroe had not died young) a somewhat older and harder-working actress taking the stage in "A Streetcar named Desire," bringing her beauty and her suffering to the role of Blanche DuBois. An appealing thought, no? And allegedly Williams himself saw her in the role of Baby Doll, so not completely crazy. But Tennessee set me right, in a harsh appraisal:

I
wanted to love Marilyn: I fall for myths, too. She was fragile and she
was beautiful and she was silly. She was the lost kitten in the rain, or
the kittens who were born on Carson McCullers' bed in Nantucket–you
wonder who will take care of them, because you know that you cannot, and
you cry like the child you were who saw the dog run over and the town
move on, uncaring and serious about getting their needs attended.

Marilyn
was also annoying and cloying and demanding. She knew her power and she
abused it, but in the demonstration of it she degraded herself and she
knew this, so the spiral of destruction deepened and intensified. Do not
think for a moment that I do not see this in my own behavior and that
of others: I am only offering a sobering lesson.
But maybe it's that "sobering" — like the harsh glare of a white spot light on a black stage — that gives Monroe her power. Without the suffering, what is the point of her beauty? Just another dumb blonde. 
Marilynmonroeinnature
Norma Jean in Griffith Park, before she became famous, from a Time collection.

 

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Seth humiliates Charlize in front of a billion people

The World's Most Famous Man throws it down, bringing the scorn to the 2012 Academy Awards and Seth McFarlane:

in the thick of the “We Saw Your Boobs” song, which must have lasted five minutes all by itself, this line jumped out at me: “Jodie Foster in ‘The Accused’”. And I thought to myself “wait, isn’t her nudity in that movie part of a *rape scene*?” It threw a really sour note into what was supposed to be light-hearted. 

But the in-depth thing I want to talk about is the “reaction shots” to the song, pre-taped by game actresses who were playing along. The substance of these reaction shots highlights just what’s so awful about McFarlane singing this song: mortification from most of the actresses and a little fist-pump of triumph from Jennifer Lawrence when he says we haven’t seen hers.

The song, the reaction shots and Seth McFarlane’s general attitude are all based on a commonplace and awful trope: that sex is a contest, and that men win and women lose when sex or nudity happens. It’s an archaic, prudish, creepy concept that derives from twisted notions about female purity and women-as-property.

McFarlane thinks if he has seen a woman’s breasts, he has won and she has lost, and he is now entitled to gloat about it. Women whose breasts Seth McFarlane has seen are meant to feel humiliated and degraded by that fact, even though it’s expected of actresses to show their breasts to get work. Meet the expectations placed on you by your industry, talented actresses? Too bad you’ve now injured your own dignity such that Seth McFarlane can mock you about it in front of a billion people. Even if your character is naked *because she’s being raped* (see point 2 above), it still amounts to a victory for Seth McFarlane to have seen your breasts.

If you watch the poor quality clip (in all senses of the word) you will see McFarlane make a mocking reference to seeing Charlize Theron's breasts, and see her hide from the camera in shame — or disgust. 

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Marlon Brando ambles insolently onstage: Paglia

Camille Paglia describes a familiar scene, and makes it new:

Marlon Brando, carrying a “red-stained package” from the butcher and
sporting blue-denim work clothes as the lordly, proletarian Stanley
Kowalski, ambles insolently onstage at the opening of Tennessee
Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. “Bellowing” for his adoring
yet tart-tongued wife, Stanley is the strutting male animal in his
sexual prime. The setting is a seedy tenement in the multiracial French
Quarter of New Orleans, whose picturesque verandas open to the humid
air. Street sounds and sultry, insinuating jazz riffs float in and out. 

 

Sexystanley

The exotic location, boisterous energy, and eruptions of violence in A Streetcar Named Desire were a startling contrast to the tightly wound gentility of Williams’s prior hit play, The Glass Menagerie (1944), whose fractured family is cloistered in a stuffy St. Louis flat. Streetcar exploded into the theater world at a time when Broadway was dominated by musical comedies and revivals. At the end of its premiere, the audience sat numb and then went wild, applauding for thirty minutes.

From A New Literary History of America, ed. by Greil Marcus, among others.

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Batman and the way we fear now: Ross Douthut

Batman 3, or, officially, The Dark Knight Rises, is actually a lot like the other big superhero movie of 2012, The Avengers.

Both stories feature a team of superheroes battling an overwhelming menace attacking Gotham/New York, with the usual betrayal, trickery, and power struggles, and (without giving it away) almost exactly the same plot twist at the finale. 

But the evil in director Christopher Nolan's pic comes from below, with menace, treachery, and a political appeal to the 99%. It's a fantasy in political claustrophobia, dark, menacing, and cruel, with little or none of the irony of The Avengers. The tone could hardly be more different, for better or worse.

And the villain's plan, as Ross Douthut points out, makes no real sense in a material, carnal, or spiritual way. Bane is a suicide bomber determined to destroy the city, but he has no plans to escape, and clearly intends to destroy himself and his minions in the end, to become part of his annihiliaton. 

Alfred Hitchcock liked to point out that the stronger the villain, the stronger the picture. In terms of both psychological depth and opportunities to act, this half-machine named Bane cannot compare to the gleeful nihilism of The Joker, perhaps the greatest of all supervillains.

So maybe this is a crummy picture. Certainly doesn't make much sense as a plot. 

But Douthut makes an indelible point about the portrayal of Bane, which has little or nothing to do with plot, and much to do with the sheer excessiveness of its evil:  

Every human society has feared the anarchic, the nihilistic, the inexplicably depraved. But from the Columbine murderers to the post-9/11 anthrax killer, from the Virginia Tech shooter to Jared Lee Loughner, our contemporary iconography of evil is increasingly dominated by figures who seem to have stepped out of Nolan's take on the DC Comics universe: world-burners, meticulous madmen, terrorists without a cause.

Indeed, even when there is some sort of ideological cause involved in these irruptions of evil — as there was in the Oklahoma City bombing, and of course in 9/11 itself — the main objective often seems to be destruction for destruction's sake. Calling Osama bin Laden's terrorism "Islamist" or Timothy McVeigh's terrorism "right wing" is accurate, so far as it goes. But the impulse that brought down the twin towers or blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building feels more anti-civilizational than political — and thus closer to the motives of a group like the League of Shadows, the secret society that seeks Gotham's destruction throughout Nolan's Batman trilogy, than to the enemies America confronted in the past.

[snip]

Nolan's films are effective dramatizations of the Way We Fear Now. Their villains are inscrutable, protean, appearing from nowhere to terrorize, seeking no higher end than chaos, no higher thrill than fear.

So maybe this is a great picture. Both critics and audiences seem to think so, and the horrific massacre in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater perversely attests to the film's visionary qualities. 

Still, after two looks, I think it struggles to compare to Batman 2 and Heath Ledger's Joker, but does do a fabulous, fun, and subtle job of introducing us to Robin and Catwoman.

Catwoman has the best line in the picture.

"There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne," she says. "You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could ever live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." 

Decades ago this character was inspired, it turns out, by aforementioned inventor/movie star/sex symbol Hedy LaMarr, and in truth, can't you see traces of her look in Anne Hathaway's depiction today? 

Here's Hedy:

Hedylamarrcatwoman

And here's Anne:

Hathawaycatwoman

LaMarr's inventions just don't quit, from wireless to the Catwoman

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When 1 + 1 = 3: Ken Burns on Story

A fascinating short film (in the Burns style) on what the documentarian thinks makes a good story

Sez Burns:     

Abraham Lincoln wins the Civil War and then he decides he's got enough time to go to the theatre. That's a good story. When Thomas Jefferson said "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal", he owned a hundred human beings and never saw the hypocrisy, never saw the contradiction, and more importantly never saw fit in his lifetime to free any one of them. That's a good story.

From Kottke.

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A fire to make The Hunger Games look tame

The new movie blockbuster, The Hunger Games, turns out to be shockingly good. Not because it's futuristic — with a little magic, it could easily have been set in ancient times. Not because it stars a teenager, or a young woman; the same story could be told through a male perspective, if less imaginatively. But simply because it's a great story: mesmerizing, suspenseful, surprising. 

The movie includes a brush with a forest fire — a moment of real terror: 

Hunger-games-katniss_400

But this movie fire cannot compare in magnitude to the real fire that burned through much of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana  in l910, a story brilliantly told in Timothy Egan's great book The Big Burn

Here's how Egan describes this fire, as it exploded from Idaho into Montana, eastern Washington state, back towards Glacier National Park, and across the border into British Columbia. 

…the wall of flame took over the forest, hundreds of feet high, at least thirty miles wide in some parts, and still gaining strength, still fanning out, consuming oxygen in heaves, and picking up intensity as its core temperature rose. The firest was a classic convection engine now: heat rising, pulling the hottest elements upward, a gyro of spark and flame. After racing through the Clearwater and Nez Perce forests, leveling nearly all living things in the Kelly Clark region, the fire swept up trees at the highest elevations. At this altitude, along the spine of the Bitterroots, the wind moved without obstruction, and the fire itself threw brands ten miles ahead of the flame front. The storm found the Montana border and spit flames down into the heavily settled Bitterroot Valley. It found the Lolo forest and crossed over the pass and along the summits, jumping ridgeline to ridgeline. At the peak of its power, it found the Coeur d'Alene forest, leading with a punch of wind that knocked down thousands of trees before the flames took out the rest of the woods. By now, the conscripted air…was a firestorm of hurricane-force winds, in excess of eighty miles an hour. What had been nearly three thousand small fires throughout a three-state region of the northern Rockies had grown into a single large burn. 

An incredible fire that led to extraordinary heroism, and the Forest Service as we know it today. 

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Take Shelter — the birds are falling (again)

2012 opens with news of blackbirds falling dead from the sky in Arkansas — again. 

Thousands of dead blackbirds rained down on a town in central Arkansas last New Year's Eve after revelers set off fireworks that spooked them from their roost, and officials were reporting a similar occurrence Saturday as 2012 approached.

Police in Beebe said dozens of blackbirds had fallen dead, prompting officers to ban residents from shooting fireworks Saturday night. It wasn't immediately clear if fireworks were again to blame, but authorities weren't taking a chance.

Officer John Weeks said the first reports of "birds on the streets" came around 7 p.m. as residents celebrated the year's end with fireworks in their neighborhoods.

"We started shutting down fireworks," he said. "We're working on cleaning up the birds now."

Such was an image in two films this year, both contemplating environmental disaster. (Without the fireworks, admittedly.) The first being Melancholia, where blackbirds fall from the sky, and people plenty of good reasons to look to the heavens, as they contemplate the end.

Melancholia

By contrast, 2011 also featured a beautifully understated dramatic examination of oncoming disaster, called Take Shelter. In this movie a devoted father, plagued by delusional nightmares of a storm the likes of which has never been seen in Ohio, turns his life upside down. He alienates his brother, frightens his wife, and loses his job — all in the attempt to save his family. 

Despite being devastated by blackbirds falling from the sky, he wonders if he's going crazy. 

Describing what motivated him to make this film, the writer/director Jeff Nichols said:

I wrote TAKE SHELTER because I believed there was a feeling out in the world that was palpable. It was an anxiety that was very real in my life, and I had the notion it was very real in the lives of other Americans as well as other people around the world. This film was a way for me to talk about that fear and that anxiety. I hope there is an answer to this feeling by the end of the film. I believe there is, and it's the reason that this wonderful group of people came together to help me make TAKE SHELTER.

Yes, there is a palpable sense of disaster about to descend — no? For better or worse. Perhaps we're all wrong, but the fear is there, among us. 

Leave aside the much-reported record twelve billion-dollar climactic disasters of the U.S. in 2011. You can hear in the rhetoric of Ron Paul and his followers, remarked on by leading conservative Ross Douthat. You can  read it in frightened Tea Party economic analysis. You can hear it in the serious music of today, such as Holocene, by Bon Iver, and in A.O. Scott's superb encapsulation of the film's central drama:

Is Curtis mad, or is he prescient? You can debate this question when the movie is over — the brilliant final scene invites as much — but you are unlikely to find a comfortable answer. The real question is what difference it makes…in “Take Shelter,” [Nichols] has made a perfect allegory for a panicky time. There is no shortage of delusion and paranoia out there in the world. There is also a lot to be afraid of.

Once our culture located God in the skies; now we wonder if we can trust Him — or them. 

Takeshelterimage

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