It is not uncommon for people who grew up in unstable homes or circumstances of economic insecurity to feel a pervasive sense of dread. Remote yet ever-present, the feeling that disaster is never a long way off can be hard to shake. It may take the form of paranoia, depression, or simply a diffuse pessimism—a conviction that events, whether on a scale as small as romantic relationships or as large as the future of the world economy and the environment are not likely to turn out well. Such leanings may be found among various ideological cults, as among millenarian Christians or certain subgroups of the environmentalist faith, like the anarcho-primitivists and peak oil enthusiasts who feel certain that modern industrial society is not long for this world.
But in times as dislocated and dangerous as our own, such existential anxieties are particularly easy to find. Much like the 1950s, when the prospect of nuclear annihilation cast a pall over much of fiction and film, we live in an age of Fukushima, BP, and Bear Stearns, when catastrophes both manmade and natural appear to seriously challenge our prospects for future prosperity. It might be rising sea levels, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, diminishing resources, economic mismanagement, or just old-fashioned human error and plain bad luck that sooner or later wipe us out.
One can find the fingerprints of this existential funk all over twenty-first century culture—and particularly in the indie arts that are most ready and willing to register feel-bad impulses. (Disasters, of course, often make great fodder for mainstream special-effects spectacles like 2012, but a sense of looming economic or ecological crisis is missing.) Two strikingly similar films of 2011, Melancholia and Take Shelter, may be the thinking man’s answer to the dunderheaded duo of Deep Impact and Armageddon, as both films explore mental illness against the backdrop of impending annihilation. They capture the sense of a world gone out of individuals’ control, one of environmental catastrophe and implacable forces that humans can anticipate but hardly resist. In a time when so many people find themselves at the mercy of a diagnosis, a pink slip, or the twists and turns of stock markets in China and Greece, these films portray the experiences of characters who struggle to cope with problems so vast and sinister that humankind collectively cannot hope to solve them—and thus individuals must respond in whatever ways they can, no matter how perverse or dysfunctional.
Melancholia, which T of M has discussed before, follows the story of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a profoundly disturbed bride who deals with her own depression as the Earth awaits the approach of a stray planet, which experts predict will come close but narrowly miss our own globe. As the planet, dubbed “Melancholia,” approaches, Justine finds herself entranced by it, somehow intuiting that the approaching orb promises the imminent destruction of the Earth and total erasure of human civilization from any recognizable trace in the universe. For a woman who could take no joy in love, marriage, family, food or anything else, the prospect of annihilation seems almost comforting. In any case, she is able to adjust to the dark future far better than anyone around her, because she never saw anything good in human life anyway. “The Earth is evil,” she intones to her unwitting, unbelieving sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg). “We should not grieve for it… No one will miss it.”
The director, Lars von Trier, is said to have originally developed the film from the intriguing premise that depressed individuals deal with crises and catastrophes better than their more sanguine peers. The film certainly encapsulates a scenario in which one who hates life would find the destruction of life appealing—a pitch-perfect match between pessimism and a bleak, unstoppable fate that warrants it. Many people might not find much to appreciate in Melancholia’s stately nihilism, but they just might find that their own ashen expectations for the future in a world of war, recession, and rising temperatures align with Justine’s to one degree or another.
The misalignment between vast, systemic, environmental doom and individual, ordinary concerns can also be found in Jeff Nichols’s film Take Shelter. The story of a working class family in northern Ohio, it is a far cry from the aristocrats who cavort around a Danish castle in Melancholia, with nothing to do but quarrel and snipe as they wait for the world to end. Yet the parallels between the two films are remarkable. There is little of Melancholia’s Wagnerian pomposity, of course. But the main character in Take Shelter, Curtis (Michael Shannon), perceives the coming of a destructive force alone among his peers, much as Justine did. Curtis works for an oil company, doing physical work that leaves him tired and dirty when he comes home to his wife, a stay-at-home mom. He is a dependable provider for his family who trudges along, hoping to make enough money and retain health benefits to help his daughter, who is deaf.
But he also comes from a family with a history of mental illness, and when he begins having terrifying dreams that portend an apocalyptic storm, complete with evil birds and dark, sticky rain, he nurses his fears at the same time that he dutifully acknowledges that he too may be suffering from the schizophrenia that afflicted his mother. His path is beset on one side by visions of an approaching holocaust that leave him fearful and unstable, and on the other side by the realization that his own behavior is not normal—a healthy if painful sense of self-doubt.
In the course of the film, Curtis becomes obsessed with expanding a tornado shelter in his backyard, planning for a storm that will be so uniquely destructive that no one else in the community is mentally or practically prepared to deal with it. The film is like Field of Dreams on bad acid. In the process, he endangers his family’s livelihood and mortgages its financial prospects on a project that his friends and neighbors find increasingly creepy and weird. Like the right-wing survivalist who stocks up on guns and canned food or the left-wing environmentalist who’s planning on how to deal with menstruation and birth control in the coming post-oil dystopia, Curtis expects to be the one person who can take care of his family in the face of a malevolent future.
Like Melancholia, Take Shelter can be read in many ways. On one level it is merely a fable of one man’s deep insecurity about his own ability to provide for his family, given the vagaries of health, employment, insurance, and income—fears that are dramatically realized in his nightmares of helplessness and devastation. On another level, it embraces a clear environmental subtext. Curtis works in extractive industry, and the ominous storms he envisions bring with them a hail of sticky, viscous rain, as well as birds that regroup, coordinate and attack humankind in a kind of vicious, swarm-like behavior—mother nature turning on man, as if seeking vengeance. On yet another level, the birds and the rain are just dead, dumb environmental forces, as unchangeable and irresistible as the weather itself, which terrorizes man in a capricious manner—like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and even the “weather” of financial markets that are humanmade but seem beyond human control.
Such stories transmute twenty-first century anxieties into a rich texture of narrative, characterization, and social commentary, much like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006). That film told the story of a not-too-distant future in which human fertility has ground to a halt, and a reeling planet’s population attempts to muddle through a future in which there will be no new people to replace us. Society, of course, freezes up; no one will invest in the stock market or property taxes for public education or any other kind of layaway for the future if there is no future, and desperate refugees seek asylum in one of the few countries where a semblance of order remains, a fascistic Britain. The film arguably taps into conservative themes and impulses—by placing reproduction at the center of human experience, it challenges contemporary ideas about the primacy of individual self-fulfilment and the purposes of sexuality. Its imagining of a “world without children’s voices” is a dark, selfish, nihilistic one, and the film’s narrative emphasizes the possibility of (literal) rebirth. (Its release near Christmas 2006 may have been no coincidence.) But Children of Men also folds issues of immigration, human rights, and terrorism into a dystopian scenario that could easily be read as a stand-in for any number of threats that confront humanity, from war to climate change.
In this way, such films mirror Cold War pop culture, in which people found themselves crushed by massive institutions, runaway technology, and the relentless force known as the atom. Film noir, a quintessential genre of the 1950s, spoke to a dark world in which heists went wrong and fate could not be escaped. Meanwhile, films like Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962)and novels such as Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959) showed humans knuckling under the brutal forces of a world completely beyond their control. In Level 7, the few remaining survivors of a nuclear war mark their time deep below the earth in a shelter designed to preserve a remnant of the human race for the future; unexpectedly, though, radiation from above gradually seeps in and kills off those remaining in each level of the underground structure. As the toxic material makes its way to the deepest inner sanctum, Level 7, the survivors develop a religion in which the radioactive substance Strontium-90 is the embodiment of all that is evil in the world. Like original sin, though, this evil is inevitable; it is coming, and it will eventually strangle and kill everyone. The inexorable radiation in Roshwald’s sci-fi classic is not unlike the approach of Melancholia or the coming storm that Curtis awaits.
The good news is that we survived the Atomic Age (at least so far) without the bleak, hopeless visions of Cold War culture coming to pass. We may yet work our way out of climate change and economic disorder without facing the miserable fates allegorically depicted by Melancholia and Take Shelter. Yet there is something very deep and resonant about these films; they both may be artful explorations of mental illness, but they also embody a sense of dread, frustration, and helplessness that vibrates with the zeitgeist of a century that’s off to a difficult start, to say the least.
Intriguingly, the protagonists in both films seem most secure when disaster is imminent. Kirsten Dunst’s Justine goes from inert basketcase to stoic Cassandra as the planet Melancholia draws closer to the Earth, bringing total destruction in short order. Destruction is something she can handle, something she can appreciate, unlike everyday, ordinary existence. Likewise, Curtis unravels over the course of the film, finding his only steady purpose in preparing his family for the evil that he feels is sure to come. When the rest of the community ridicules such efforts, his whole family nearly falls apart. Notably, both Melancholia and Take Shelter give a slight suggestion that their protagonists’ mental illness is rooted in the neglect caused by cold, indifferent, or otherwise absent parents—perhaps resonating with Children of Men’s pro-family message, tying an apocalyptic sensibility to the decline of the traditional family. Perhaps these characters who grew up in chaos and disorder can only really function within an atmosphere of constant insecurity. When, at the end of Take Shelter, Curtis and his family finally see the storm coming and feel the oily rain fall on their skin, only he is calm and resolute—the world he had been waiting for had finally arrived. Sometimes the end of the world can be a way of life.