Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Sleep well in your beds, 'cause if this thing comes true there ain't gonna be any more": Ecology and Psycho-sexuality in Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter

       The opening scene of Jeff Nichols’s existentially terrifying film, Take Shelter, sets the mood for entire affair: our protagonist, Curtis, stands in front of his house in the Midwestern United States watching an encroaching storm (the effects here are absolutely beautiful, although the result is unsettling).  As he observes the strange cloud formations, it begins to rain; but this rain is a strange amber color, and is compared by Curtis later on in the film to motor oil.  He sniffs the rain, but says nothing.  The scene then abruptly cuts to Curtis in the shower, yet the sound of the rain is uninterrupted, carrying continuously into our main character’s morning cleansing ritual.

            It is revealed that the strange opening sequence is one of many dream visions our middle-class protagonist begins to suffer.  As the film progresses, the nightmares grow stronger, and are paralleled by Curtis’s increasing paranoia and intensifying fear: fear, first and foremost, that his family is in danger; that, as he says, “[…] something might be coming.”[i]

            The film follows this growing paranoia; how it manifests, its mysterious cause, its effects on Curtis’s family… and as the audience is carried along, hypnotized by Nichols’s near-flawless directing, we begin to wonder: are these visions the result of a psychotically damaged mind; or is there some kernel of truth to them, some metaphysical essence of prophecy?  I do not intend to spoil the film for anyone, but I will say this before continuing: Take Shelter is possibly the most terrifying film I have seen since Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey (and those who are familiar with the latter will understand the kind of terror I am speaking of).  It does not rely on cheap scares, although there are a few moments that might make you leap out of your chair; rather, the film thrives on its growing intensity and uncertainty.  It gradually creates an aura of utter displacement and alienation, from both others and oneself, realized through the film’s protagonist (supremely played by Michael Shannon).  The most terrifying aspects of the film never cause the audience to jump or scream.  They are the moments when we realize how things that we take for granted – things that are supposed to be normal and familiar to us – suddenly become different, strange, and utterly unknown.  The film deals with this theme of alienation through one of the most precious and valorized institutions of our contemporary society: the family.  This is the primary reason why this film chills me to the bone.

            Someone might ask why I am including a discussion of this film on a blog about science fiction.  I have two reasons: first, I am inclined to believe that the film might actually be classified as science fiction (but I’ll say no more); and second, even if the film does not fall under the traditional category of sci-fi, its subject matter is of a common type with sci-fi (I’m referring to the nonhuman as such).  Take Shelter is a film about the gradual evacuation of a human relationship with the world.  As the film goes on, objects lose their sense of familiarity.  Scenes of nature appear grim and unforgiving, even intentionally threatening.  Family members begin to turn against each other, even while trying ruthlessly to prove their love.  Human action looks strange to other humans.  Intentions are threadbare, although they seem to still exist.  The human mind, that organ we take for granted, becomes the source of an unreality that we can scarcely imagine.

            Take Shelter is not terrifying because it shows us aliens, or ghosts, or monsters.  It is terrifying because it asks if there is any difference between the aforementioned things and human beings.  If you are an object for me, then I can only be an object for you; and when objects lose their anthropomorphism, the terror can be unlimited, even for a film that is as superficially banal as Take Shelter.  In this post, I want to venture beneath the banality to try and decipher a bit more about what is going on in this artfully composed film.  I have been a bit heavy on theory and philosophy in the past few posts, so I hope this one marks a return to dealing more directly with the “text” itself.

            I want to suggest two components of, or approaches to, the film, since they comprise the crux of the burning question at its center: is Curtis insane, or are his visions prophetic (are these mutually exclusive)?  In light of this central question, I want to suggest the following pair of methodological discourses: the psychological (psychoanalytic? schizoanalytic?), and ecological (since, if Curtis’s visions are somehow prophetic, it would appear that some catastrophic ecological disaster is looming).  Both of these approaches share a common concern: the relationship of the subject to an-other, whether that ‘other’ is another human being, or the nonhuman noumenon of nature itself.

            The human/nature dichotomy has long been a subject of debate among theorists, with many recent figures claiming that it is nothing more than an effect of rampant anthropocentrism since the Enlightenment (and prior) that posits the natural world as something “other” that needs to be controlled.  While this is a vulgar description, I want to briefly pursue a clarification of a more recent conception of what this human/nature dichotomy has in store.  It is put forth by Eugene Thacker in his recent publication, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Volume I: “can there exist today a mysticism of the unhuman, one that has as its focus the climatological, meterological  [sic], and geological world-in-itself, and, moreover, one that does not resort to either religion or science” (133).[ii]  Thacker is cautious to distinguish this proposition from any kind of mysticism of the Earth or nature, both of which harbor certain connections to more archaic conceptions of theism and spiritual unity between self and world.  Thacker urges his audience to consider the implications of a mysticism “after the death of God” – a “mysticism of the unhuman”, which he claims can only be “climatological” (158-9).  I do not want to dwell on this point too much, but I think it affords us a point of entry to Take Shelter: does this film offer its audience a terrifyingly real representation of humanity coming into contact with a strange, catastrophically violent external world?

            It is, of course, fitting that Curtis’s hallucinations almost always involve storms.  Sometimes he hallucinates thunder absent any visual signs; in one stunning scene, he witnesses an immense murmuration (for those who are unfamiliar with this term, look up some photos of them online – amazing).  Eventually, strangers begin to appear in his dream-visions, near faceless abstractions that seem to harbor no other discernible intention than harming Curtis and his family.  Finally, these hallucinations culminate in visions of people he knows, at first his coworker.  Then, in what is certainly the most terrifying scene in the film, Curtis has a vision involving his wife.  There are no words spoken in this vision, and no acts of violence, although the presence of a knife on the kitchen counter heightens the tension.  The scene is terrifying in the potential chaos that lurks beneath the surface, and in the terrific acting by Jessica Chastain (Curtis mentions earlier in the film that, in his visions, people’s eyes are “different”; somehow, Chastain manages to pull this off, and it doesn’t flee quickly from memory).  It is almost as though, in Curtis’s hallucinations, the enormous power of some unhuman noumenon infects those other human figures, who become nothing more than things (phenomena?), apparently devoid of any relative subjectivity.  It is worth noting that the hostile figures in Curtis’s visions have always been subjected to the greasy rain.

            Accompanying these hallucinations are several episodes and details that may offer some clarification on the psychological front:

            Curtis’s daughter, Hannah, is deaf, and in an early scene we see the whole family at an ASL class.  Not by accident, the sign they are discussing is the sign for the father.  Throughout the film, Curtis is conflicted by what it means to be a father (protector, lawgiver, breadwinner, etc.), and this comes to the surface in a line when he admits his hallucinations to his wife: “I promised myself that I would never leave, and I am doing everything I can to make that true” (Nichols).  The promise that Curtis made as a member of the family (legal/social/economical) conditions his actions, particularly in a financial way.  Money remains a prominent theme throughout the film, since Curtis’s obsession in protecting his family (which leads to him building a tornado shelter in their backyard) is a large drain on their savings.  Furthermore, the family is also saving for a cochlear implant for Hannah.  Around every turn lurks the question of money.

            The sexual imagery and social hierarchy of patriarchy is present as well, particularly in associations of phallic representations and nocturnal enuresis.  Themes of drilling and digging – even employment itself (Curtis works on a construction crew that involves some kind of rig-drilling – more than a coincidence the weird rain sometimes looks like oil…?) – all these tropes reinforce Curtis’s masculine sensibilities.  His confidence is shaken in an episode of bedwetting, but his daily activities allow him to compensate.  Part of his anxiety is a fear of not fulfilling the space of the father in the familial hierarchy; of not being able to protect those whom he is supposed to protect.  His obsession with the symbolic compensation for his feared lack of masculinity essentially presents itself as the trend we know of as “homesteading.”  Finally, we also learn that Curtis’s mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was only ten years old; and to add to that, we also learn that his own father passed away less than a year prior to when the film takes place.  Any issues he may have had with his own father are left out of the film, but an audience might wonder what this literal “death of the father” might symbolically connote for Curtis.

            Psychologically, the film offers a probing look at one man’s descent into an intense anxiety and the effect of this anxiety on his family.  However, don’t write the film off as a depressing, hopeless representation of madness or insanity.  At the true heart of this film lies something extraordinarily touching and human (I know, strange for me to claim!): that is, the representation of trust and love among a family.  Samantha, Chastain’s character, is a strong and realistic representation, and doesn’t succumb to what might be criticized as typically negative feminine stereotypes: she does not leave Curtis, although she struggles with him.  She does not try to hurt Curtis psychologically, and in fact ascends to a position of admirable strength in order to assist him in what she must understand is a culturally difficult scenario.  Even in one of the film’s most violent scenes, in which Curtis’s questionable mental state boils over in a public rage, she does not run away or shrink like other members of the Lion’s Club dinner event.  Instead, she approaches her tormented husband, reassures him, letting him cry on her shoulder as they vacate the premises.  She does not see him the way other characters are made to: she never alienates him, never begrudgingly ignores him.  The only thing she could be said to feel is uncertainty and worry over his condition; but this only urges her closer to him.  In a telling scene near the end, Curtis admits unemployment to his psychiatrist in a slightly embarrassed tone, and we are again reminded of that symbolic link between unemployment and castration.  But I would encourage the audience not to project this view onto Curtis’s character; for while Nichols may very well be dealing with these ideas, I would argue that Samantha does not view Curtis as emasculated at all.  Curtis is still embarrassed to admit his unemployment in front of someone else (is it a coincidence that this other figure is that of the psychiatrist?), but he is not embarrassed to admit it in front of his wife.  I believe that the film deals, at least mildly, with a Deleuzian-Guattarian subversion of traditional (Oedipal) psychoanalytic structures.[iii]  Certainly there is some connection to be made between Curtis and his deceased father, but Curtis himself has a daughter, Hannah.  The Oedipal cycle ends here, so it does not behoove us to discuss it.  What we can discuss is the sexualization within the social apparatus, specifically a capitalist social apparatus.  The psychological implications are all there, ready for the taking…

            …and then we are awarded with the film’s ominous and stunning final scene, which I don’t want to discuss in detail (for those who want it spoiled for them, send me a message or look it up!).  I only want to ask how we are to reconcile the two apparent concerns within the film: the psychological and the ecological.  My most immediate response is likely also the simplest, and probably too vulgar to withstand any serious academic interpretation: capitalism.  But of course!  Scenes of construction and drilling are juxtaposed with scenes of trees and leaves, storms and rain; is this not the anxiety over the destruction of nature?  And we are constantly reminded of the family’s financial troubles, more general economic concerns (as when Curtis’s brother warns him about the state of “this economy”); is the looming storm, the pending catastrophe, not the inevitable explosion of the real contradictions that grind and crank in the capitalist economy’s core?  I think Nichols would scoff at this superficial interpretation, but I do think it is worth considering, even if only to discard it for another more appropriate analysis.  Most pertinently, I think, we can engage the film through a kind of triumvirate: sexuality/psychology, commodity/money, ecology.  It is in the latter of these three that potential relief waits, the bombastic release of internal tensions in the form of a thunderstorm.  But the former two components are specifically codifying systems; they are hierarchized structures, the real conditions of which effect imagined social relations.  I won’t offer any more lucid interpretation of the relation between these structures, but I think that their presence in the film is beyond coincidence.

            Why does Nichols choose the ecological as the locus of disaster, of catastrophe (of revolution)?  I believe it has to do with a conception of the ecological, or the climatological as Thacker calls it, as an alien realm; a reality not-for-us, a harsh noumenon that does not even permit its “thinkability.”  Here we might briefly quote Quentin Meillassoux, whose book After Finitude has proven quite monumental for me as of late: “this totality of the thinkable is itself logically inconceivable, since it gives rise to a contradiction.  We will retain the following translation of Cantor’s transfinite: the (quantifiable) totality of the thinkable is unthinkable” (104).[iv]  In Take Shelter, the natural world assumes Meillassoux’s definition of reality as an unthinkable totality, specifically because totality itself becomes non-totalizable.  Reality becomes, as Meillassioux defines it, transfinite.  Part of this concept of “transfinitude” involves an opening up the “possible” to a set of unlimited possibilities.  Thus, order gives way to chaos, reason to unreason, systems to their dissolution (and perhaps, even, moments of pure miracle, which is not quite an appropriate word but the only one we have recourse to).  This is how the film achieves its stunning portrayal of the world we know suddenly become other; threatening, ominous, almost intentionally malicious…

            I believe that one scene in particular solidifies this terrifying representation of reality.  In one of his dreams, Curtis pulls his daughter away from their living room window after seeing a stranger outside, peering in through the glass (it is, of course, raining outside).  The front door begins to shudder violently, as though someone is trying to get in.  Eventually this shuddering afflicts the entire house, the furniture, picture frames, vases, televisions, everything.  And then, when the intensity of the tremors reaches its climax, everything in the room suddenly lifts off the ground, suspended in midair by perhaps three or four feet.  A deafening silence accompanies this moment (a brief auditory glimpse into the world of Curtis’s daughter, whom he clutches desperately), as though the house has been invaded by a vacuum.  Accordingly, Curtis looks as though he cannot breath, although he does cry out at one point; sound, of course, does not carry in a vacuum, although Nichols does choose to drastically lower the frequency of Curtis’s voice.  This is a strange episode that does not repeat in the film; reality never again alters itself in this way.  It is as though, for this single moment, the void of some nonhuman reality yawns in front of Curtis, its Lovecraftian jaws gaping wide, threatening to engulf him.  It is as though it begs Curtis to see its true nature in this moment, albeit briefly, but we are left to wonder whether human senses could apprehend such abyssal otherness.  I am reminded of R. Scott Bakker’s wondrous character of the No-God in his ongoing fantasy series, which begs those who look at it to “TELL ME WHAT YOU SEE.”[v]

            Of course, such hallucinations can only be classified as such: hallucinations.  We are given this from the eyes of someone who very likely suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.  However, I would just like to close by asking if, perhaps, what the film is drawing our attention to is the fact that as humans we have no choice but to identify such behavior with insanity.  How else could we make sense of someone who claimed to witness something so vastly alien?  The explanation, within our systems of science and knowledge, does not allow for a “mysticism of the unhuman,” as Thacker calls it (although he, Meillassoux, and others are working to change that).  We must classify such cases as psychotic episodes, instances of insanity.  After all, if we define insanity in its crudest sense, it does not mean a broken or deficient human being; it just means a square peg that won’t fit into a round hole.

            From this perspective, science is just another way we sleep soundly at night.  Watch Take Shelter; you might not sleep soundly, but it will be because you’re busy thinking.

[i] Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter, Strange Matter Films: 2011.
[ii] Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. I, Zero Books: 2011.
[iii] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, Penguin Books: 2009.
[iv] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, Trans. Ray Brassier, Continuum: 2008.
[v] R. Scott Bakker, The Second Apocalypse Series, Overlook Press: 2003-present); the figure of the No-God is one of current speculation on internet forums.