Monday, 3 November 2014

Film Ramble: Take Shelter

One of the things I find most exciting about the current state of genre film-making is that I'm no longer one hundred percent sure what the term even encapsulates.  So many of the Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror films I've liked in recent years have hung upon the edge of those categorizations; for where exactly do you place oddities like Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Safety Not Guaranteed, or Seeking a Friend For the End of the World?  And what about a film like Take Shelter, which tells a story ideally suited to a genre movie - a man begins to have vivid visions of an imminent apocalypse - and equally so to something considerably more Art House, and ends up straddling a perilous line between the two?

That story in brief: Curtis (Michael Shannon), a blue-collar worker of limited means - husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and father to a young daughter, Hannah, suffering from deafness, though not beyond hope of cure - begins to experience nightmares and hallucinations of terrible, imminent future events.  Curtis has plenty of reason to doubt himself, not least the fact that his mother is in assisted living after a complete breakdown that occurred during his childhood.  Yet if he's right then the possibility of not acting on what he's seen, horrors that specifically jeopardize his small family, is too awful to contemplate.

From that summary, it wouldn't be hard to read Take Shelter as a work of Fantasy.  And, since much of it, whether it be prediction or hallucination, takes place specifically within Curtis's head, it inarguably is fantasy of a sort.  Or ... take for example a moment during one of Curtis's predictions / hallucinations, where every item in his living room is suddenly drawn up from the ground, as though the house itself has bucked free of gravity.  Everything hovers, as Curtis stares, wild-eyed.  Seconds pass.  Then the furnishings plummet earthward.  The scene is never referred back to, never explained.  Rationally, even within the context of Curtis's visions, it's not quite explainable.  Emotionally, subconsciously, while it's on the screen, it's absolutely convincing.  It's a perfect moment of Fantasy film-making.

Then again, it would be just as easy to interpret Take Shelter as a Horror movie, a reading equally impossible to discredit; if only because director Jeff Nichols is more than okay with wrapping his film up amidst the ideas and imagery of Horror.  Not that it would be easy to make a movie about a man being tormented by apocalyptic visions and doubting his own fragile sanity without at least a little horror slipping in around the edges, but you could certainly make one without the incessant sense of dread that hangs over Take Shelter, or the aggressively unsettling note of unreality.  That scene I just described, for example?  It's truly terrifying, and on a deeply primitive level.  It takes something private and intimate and makes it weird, unruly, discomforting.

Looks like rain...
Yet for all that, Take Shelter for the most part works perfectly well outside the confines of genre.  There's no question but that it's an allegory, the story of an everyman wrestling with the concerns of his particular moment in time; that it's a very specific response to financial crises and wars on terror and climates changing, all of those of-the-moment terrors ramped to quasi-mythical levels.  Strip away the Fantasy, the Horror, and you'd still have a perfectly serviceable movie about a man who knows that awful things are happening, who wants to protect his family, and has no idea how to reconcile the one against the other.

But let's back up.  Because that scene, in which all of Curtis's household goods are torn loose from the rules of gravity and reality, only to be dashed back moments later with shocking force - a moment so fantastical in concept, so real in practice - sums up a lot of what fascinates me about Take Shelter.  It's open to multiple readings, and it clearly wants to be, but at the same time it makes no compromises in telling its own narrative according to its own terms.  That ambiguity, which permeates every moment of the movie, is quite an achievement, and I'm not sure it could have worked half so fluently without the technologies of modern film-making to back it up.

Which I guess is also a big part of what I find exciting about Take Shelter: I don't see how it could have existed in anything like its current form even a decade ago.  Pluck it from a world in which utterly convincing special effects work can be done on a relatively small budget and you'd have a movie that, if it should even manage to get made, would have to commit itself to being either fantastical or realistic.  Now that's no longer an issue; it can be genuinely ambiguous.  It can take from genre film-making without devoting itself to a genre aesthetic; it can tell a story grounded in a clear and definite reality without being constrained by reality.

In genre literature circles we've been talking about this kind of thing for a while now, or at least something very similar, and placing it under the (maybe not altogether satisfactory) term of Slipstream.  But is Slipstream film-making a thing?  Or, you know what, maybe that shouldn't be a question.  Because on the strength of Take Shelter, and those other movies I name-checked, I'm pretty sure that it is.

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