Meditations in a State of the Precarious
David T. Johnson on Take Shelter
In the summer of 2004, I moved to a town where I had never lived. For months, I had to ask for directions and occasionally got lost, despite the town’s being small and my regular routes among work, home, and other destinations even smaller. Still, I felt lucky: I was teaching movies at a university, and I had found an apartment I liked, its windows facing a wooded area that, unlike much of the surrounding land, had never been cleared. It was as good a place as any to read about film among preparations, grading, and other tasks absorbing my time, and the view of thick tree-trunks and low-lying overgrowth, a Waldenesque simulacrum that hid a street not twenty yards from where I sat, provided a field of vision where I might get distracted when trying to articulate an idea—or, as often as not, a jumble of ideas, a vague sense of things related to cinema and teaching and writing and life that I was just beginning to put together and will always be trying to sort through.
It was in that apartment that I stumbled on Reverse Shot, and what struck me then and continues to hold me whenever I visit the site is that these were authors whose critical engagement was intimately linked to their emotional response to whatever film they were writing about. For me, as someone coming off the graduate school experience, such writing filled a gap in a great deal of the scholarly studies I had immersed myself in—many of which I admired, and still do—where the affective dimension of one’s personal response was not so much resisted as it was beside the point. Fortunately, in more recent years, many scholars have taken up questions related to affect, writing, and the first-person encounter quite directly, and in doing so, they have opened up even further possibilities for scholarly inquiry for which I am grateful. Still, regardless of whatever new forms of writing may or may not be emerging within academia, Reverse Shot continues to hold an important place for me, its writing sending me off in a new direction, or reminding me of an older one, as its authors and editors continue to insist—and long may they do so—what the theme of this year’s ten-year celebration indicates: that cinema, and that writing about cinema, are alive, and that they inform who we are and how we locate ourselves in our world, even if that means confronting the precariousness on which so many of our lives, and so much within even a single life, hinges.
Few films I have encountered in recent years have plunged me so viscerally into a sense of the precarious—in one’s individual existence, in one’s community, in geopolitical and economic realities—as the 2011 film Take Shelter, written and directed by Jeff Nichols. When I first learned of the symposium’s call to resist the refrain of cinema’s death, I knew exploring a film that narrates an approaching disaster seemed counterintuitive—what better visual metaphor for the medium’s demise than those dark skies rapidly approaching, especially if, as some writers do, one equates cinema with celluloid, given that those thunderheads and tornadoes are themselves digitally rendered? And yet the film’s vibrancy in the face of, and because of, such images, was for me a self-evident response to those eager to bury cinema once and for all. More immediately, my desire to write about Take Shelteralso lies, quite frankly, in my inability to explain that desire, exactly. Erik Syngle, reflecting years ago for Reverse Shot on a very different film, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, admits that, “the films we love tend to choose us, slip quietly into our lives until we look up one day and are shocked to realize there was ever a time before we knew them.” Such is the way I feel about Take Shelter, though I am not sure the description “slip[ped] quietly” fits my experience, since bringing the film to mind always occasions the memory of a gathering storm, nothing quiet in its slow, dreadful approach.
Take Shelter begins with such a vision: a man stands at the edge of his yard, an enormous cyclone rumbling in the distance. He holds a hand out to the rain, just starting to fall, but this is not like any other rain: it is an oily liquid, yellow and thick. A cut to the same man in the shower reveals this opening scene to have been a dream; soon, he’ll be at breakfast with a wife and daughter who love him, before going to his job at a sand mine, where he’s a trusted, valued employee. “You got a good life, Curtis,” his friend will tell him later, after work, drinking beers. “I’m serious,” he says. “I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man.” And he does, indeed, seem to have a good life; what’s more, he seems to know it, appreciate it.
But the apocalyptic nightmares, as we suspect they will, continue; and every time they return, they get worse. In one version, his dog attacks him, clamps down on his arm; in another, faceless strangers swarm his truck and rip his daughter out of the passenger seat. Always the storm is about to arrive. It even encroaches on his waking life when, one day on the job, he hears the peal of thunder, twice, a sound his partner can’t sense but one that makes Curtis hyperventilate, run away, and vomit. Maybe it’s just anxiety or the beginnings of some deeper psychological problems, as suggested by the fact that his mother suffers from mental illness. Or maybe there really is something terrible coming this way. In any case, Curtis isn’t taking any chances; he begins to build an enormous shelter, one that will eventually cost him his job, his savings, every friend he has, and very nearly, his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their young daughter. Curtis has seen the apocalypse, his inverse ark a small, underground ship where he and his family can ride it out, and gas masks, purchased from a local army surplus store, recall suburban survivalists of an earlier era, awaiting nuclear holocaust. Yet Curtis has nothing so tangible to explain his actions, even when called to do so, the voice of reason expressed most directly by his brother, a rational skeptic dismissed by a sibling set on a course of action as inevitable for him as the arrival of the coming storm.
For the most part, Nichols’s film wisely restricts itself to Curtis’s perspective so much that, as it progresses, we may doubt his sanity, but we equally must remain open to the possibility that, within this narrative’s reality, Curtis may be right: the end of all life as we know it is imminent. Neither option provides much comfort. If mental illness, at least the world will be spared, but it may yet reveal something actual, at its core, something that most of us suppress as we go about our days: those forces, economic, historical, environmental, political, or otherwise, that can, in an instant, send us reeling, even if we cannot see them—at least, not as Curtis does. Or maybe Curtis’s mind has become unveiled in another sense; he now confronts, within these visions, his ultimate finitude, and that of everyone he loves, and this knowledge, once internalized, has shaken something loose in his psyche that cannot be inserted back into place. He is digging his own grave, and like the leader of some ancient culture, is insisting that his family be buried with him. But beyond the possibility of a mental unhinging lies the alternative: total extinction is at hand; the end is nigh. Would it were merely one man’s sensory perceptions in thrall to a deep psychological sickness.
As Curtis, the extraordinary Michael Shannon communicates all of these increasing pressures, his face registering either horror, as when, in one vision, he clutches his daughter to his chest while the furniture of his entire living room lifts and hangs suspended in the air, for just a moment, before crashing down, or, as is most often the case, a persistent strain at the corner of his eyes, one that grows, as the shelter does, eventually overtaking his whole heaving frame. This may even be some kind of possession: in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Curtis erupts in the middle of a church-basement dinner, and the congregation confronts what they have only half-listened to every Sunday and at bible study—the presence of an Old Testament prophet, an actual prophet, someone who has stared deeply into the face of God, a look no mortal was ever meant to carry. No wonder they speak so often of woe, those tortured figures, returning to their communities and trying to put into words the absolute terror of meeting one’s maker. Curtis’s visions have foreseen the coming of an otherworldly cyclone that will soak the land in yellow rain, surely an accelerant for the divine fire’s arrival. And it doesn’t matter how well we have lived, or how many tills we’ve dropped in the collection plate: we will pay, all of us, every one. “THERE IS A STORM COMING,” Curtis yells, enunciating every word separately, in contrast to his characteristic slur: “LIKE NOTHING YOU HAVE EVER SEEN—AND NOT A ONE OF YOU IS PREPARED FOR IT.”
Whether or not we believe in heaven and hell, we know enough about large-scale disasters, and the way communities can be blindsided by them, for Curtis’s prophecy to register as something greater than mere ravings. And yet, much more than these larger concerns, what moves me when I see this scene is my realization that Curtis is, finally, broken. As he begins to cry, Samantha approaches him slowly, her face equally strained. Much of her own anxiety until now has been tied up with the very real economic consequences that lie ahead; as many reviews noted, Take Shelter dramatizes the very thin line between making it and not, economically, in the United States—the difficulties of pulling oneself out of debt once one is sunk in it, the extraordinarily and increasingly limited possibilities of class mobility, the suffocating pressures of merely paying a bill. But none of these concerns inform this moment; it seems to resonate with Samantha on another level entirely. As she looks at him, she realizes that this man, whom she loves deeply, is going, and may already be gone. He’s falling away from her quickly, and all she can do now is be near him a little while longer and hang onto what time they have left.
So much of this film is about sensing the precariousness of our lives—and the extent to which we can push it down, way down, bury it in our own shelters, just long enough to forget, so we can get on with our day. But maybe we shouldn’t. I have taken the title for this piece from Frank O’Hara’s famous Meditations in an Emergency, a book of poetry that saw a modest rise in attention when Don Draper came across a copy on Mad Men. Initially, the other man reading it at the bar was reluctant to share the book with Don, saying he wouldn’t “like it”—meaning, he wouldn’t get it. To be fair to Don, I think many of us don’t—at least I didn’t, the first time I encountered the title poem. I can remember, when I was younger, reading the lines, “I am the least difficult of men / All I want is boundless love,” and thinking how beautiful, how sad. It wasn’t until later that I realized, also, how funny. The narrator is mourning a real loss, but he is bright enough to realize the hopelessly clichéd situation he finds himself in: he’s had his heart broken. It’s painful, to be sure. But it’s a little humorous, too. O’Hara’s narrator slides between registers of critical observation and being inside that moment, letting them inform one another. This is what poetry does well—and what cinema can do, too. But we need not see this as the exclusive domains of poetry and cinema; our critical writing, also, can slide among registers, find new pathways into, through, and out of a film, or draw the trails in such a way that they bend back on themselves, resist linearity, allowing us to linger there, for a bit longer, within those encounters.
At the moment I am left thinking about the ending of Nichols’s film that nearly every review referenced—how could they not?—but withheld, so that each viewer might experience that final turn when the visions change, or are at least shared, and Samantha sees coming over the ocean the very storm that Curtis has foretold. Reaching out her hand, she echoes Curtis’s initial gesture, as she feels the same viscous drops. However we interpret the ending, and Nichols leaves it up to us, we remain within that sense of the precarious, the knowledge that in an instant the whole world can shift. And even if such vastness need not be felt as threatening or dire, it may be healthy and right to feel it, deeply, as dread, if only to know what other people right now, across the globe, are feeling, not in hallucinations of horror yet to come but real horror already in motion, happening to them, in the ways we as a species continue to inflict harm on one another, every day, whether halfway around the planet or in one’s own town or city, whether through direct violence or just indifference. This is hardly a revelation, but we need to be reminded of it almost constantly, and Nichols’s ending pushes me in that direction and, oddly, despite that sense of horror, gives me hope that one way of confronting such violence and indifference is by feeling how dread-filled—dreadful—so many lives already are. This surely isn’t the only reason to see the film, and watching Take Shelter will not, by necessity, provoke this reaction in everyone. But I find myself dwelling with that image of Samantha’s hand, as she takes on Curtis’s vision and finally feels, literally and figuratively, what he has been feeling, with her resolute, last word: “Okay.” This is perhaps the ultimate form of what I have been trying to describe: empathy, real empathy. And while our own empathy is not as immediate as Samantha’s, it may lead to empathy beyond the film—and a way of living borne out of such empathy.
As for me, I no longer live in that apartment. I’m still teaching, and I just recently became a father. I’m lucky. These days, I write where and when I can find the time and space. Today, I find both, this morning in my office. The halls are quiet; my door is closed. It is, in many ways, a perfect little shelter. I can distract myself well enough. After all, there’s a window here too. But when I look outside, right now, I can see that it’s beginning to rain.