Sunday, October 2, 2011

Climbing Down into the Cosmic — Take Shelter

Do dreams predict? Or are they simply the inner workings of our minds? Is there such a thing as prophetic revelation? Or just another name for schizophrenia?

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OVERALL: Recommended

Take Shelter is a well-crafted story about an ordinary man's extraordinary visionsWhat he sees  are storms: grand apocalyptic warnings about some undefined future.

He decides to take odd preparatory measures, such as building an underground storm shelter and protecting his deaf daughter from her dog. At the same time he seeks help from the family doctor and a local counselor, recognizing that he may have something hereditary. To his own dismay, his inner struggle spills out into his family life and even his community. He is forced to reckon with himself and his fears in unexpected ways. By the end we are left with an uncertain conclusion about the nature of his visions, but certain that they have led him to conquer some of his inmost fears.

The cinematography is gorgeous; the film is worth seeing for that alone. See it on the big screen if you can; the images of the storms are shot to invoke an awesome beauty and power, hard to recapture in a smaller format. During one especially vivid moment in the film, the main character Curtis (Michael Shannon) stands watching a lightning storm paint up the whole sky. He asks, "Is anyone else seeing this?" The answer is a paradoxical yes, because we the viewers do see it, but no one else within the story does. We are brought to feel his isolation and frustration of feeling like the only one given to see clearly.

Michael Shannon's expressive, angular face is memorable as he portrays the crabbed, pensive, and wordless struggle many men have. His character traces what seems often to descend at that time of life: the mid-life-crisis. The story as a metaphor about that transition point, what Richard Rohr calls "the second half of life." According to Rohr such transitions always involve descent: a "climbing down" into ourselves, our deepest beliefs and fears, our family influence, and ultimately our identity and place in the universe. The symbolism of Curtis going into the storm cellar, and of being confronted with the decision to leave it, is a powerful archetype and it gives the film an unusual profundity and universality.

The trouble with the mid-life crisis is this: does it cause a radical change of inner visions or is it produced by those visions? Curtis thinks his visions are objective. He sees his friend try to kill him in one dream, and as a result Curtis takes self-protective actions. The friend turns into an enemy. By believing the prophecy, did Curtis make it self-fulfilling? Or did the dream indicate something already present in the friendship, an underlying cold spot that Curtis could not see consciously? Either way, the film does not let him off the hook; he is held responsible, morally and otherwise, for his response to the visions. 

One of the biggest strengths of this film, paradoxically, is its realism. Its most penetrating and disturbing questions happen to be the least supernatural. What would you do, for example, if your trusted neighbors, friends, and relatives abandoned you or attacked you when, in their judgment, you went outside their accepted norms of behavior? Such "friendships of convenience" can easily collapse under the pressure of values conflicts, broken taboos, or sincere attempt to follow one's (idiosyncratic) dreams. What happens if familial, cultural and societal "glue" starts to be undone by a vision? But this undoing is consistent with apocalyptic prophecy—by its very nature it tends to challenge and threaten the status quo.

"One man's vision is another man's nightmare."An illustration of this prophetic threat and resultant cultural divide happens at an awkward Sunday after-church lunch, when a family member brusquely says, "We missed you at church." By this one brief, very convincing scene, the film manages at once to disassociate Curtis's prophetic revelations from traditional religion, and to introduce the idea of a spirituality not explainable either by science or the institutional church. 

One further great aspect of realism in the film is that it never overdoes the dream sequences. In a way that makes them even more disturbing, the visions are brief, understated, and leave most to the imagination. Little details like the expression on someone's face or an off-color drop of water evoke a terrifying sense that everything is off balance. The rest plays out in reality, through spare dialogue and suggestive devices (the rhythmic sound of the dangerous pile driver, the omnipresence of wind in the trees, ghostly light or reflections coming through windows.) 

I have had predictive dreams.  It is sometimes an eerie and other times consoling experience. For years I dreamt of returning to an office where I had formerly worked, and then it came true in a very unexpected way. I once dreamt about lightning, a wide beam altering everything in its path. Very soon afterward my life exploded with a sudden change (not literally involving lightning, of course). How to explain this? Our minds are capable of many more things than we understand, perhaps even including the prophetic and the supernatural. Take Shelter reminds us of the power of our dreams, the need for careful response to them, and that if we are to be led through difficult storms, it may only be through the cosmic, symbolic and (fearfully) divine language of visions.


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