Wednesday, February 8, 2012

At the World's End Multiplex

You should see the films Take Shelter and Melancholia. Just don't make the mistake of seeing them in the same week, as I did. Double downer. These are movies about the apocalypse, each focusing on the human drama, and neither relying (much) on special effects or cgi for their impact. More on these soon; first I will recount my earliest experience with the genre: Roger Corman’s B-movie from 1955, The Day the World Ended. It is not an exaggeration to say that no movie has affected me more. I saw it after school on television—probably third or fourth grade. I wish I could pinpoint the moment and contextualize it among the Kennedy assassination and the Bay of Pigs. In my life they were all of a moment, but the connections among them are lost to me now.

About The Day the Word Ended: the central facts are there had been an atomic war, which I knew was possible; there were mutations caused by radiation, which I also knew was possible. Thus these two “facts” weighed heavy on my mind. I was convinced that our family needed a bomb shelter. One family in our neighborhood had built one. These people were the only sensible folks among us, in my view. I knew that hiding under our desks at school was not going to cut it. And yes, they really had us perform such drills, just as schools will practice fire drills today. In any case, I consulted my father with the issue of a family bomb shelter. I explained my reasons. He said, simply, “Don’t worry about that.” Easy for him to say. He hadn’t seen Roger Corman work his magic, based on true facts! This film occupied my late childhood until replaced by the usual drama of adolescence.

While I’m at it, I think I’ll mention The Day After—early 1980s. This is another film that bummed me out (dude). The actual firestorm was dramatic and the after effects were dramatic, to the point of national conversation. Unfortunately I saw this right before a ski trip to Mammoth, and I remember thinking, bizarrely, that skiing wasn’t that much fun, if outside of the ski area the world was ending. But I couldn’t then, and still can’t now, figure out how skiing depends at all on what is happening off the mountain. One of the whole points o skiing is to live in the moment and let the outside world drift blissfully away. But this film would not permit me this illusion.

This brings me to Take Shelter. At center of the film is the tension created by the main character wondering if he’s going crazy or if something BIG really is about to happen. It’s actually a rather quiet film in most ways, but the sense of impending doom is palpable, if subtle. There’s hint of the coming storm as the result of some kind of human mucking up of the environment—the main character is a miner of some kind. And the literal shelter of the film is the good-old fashioned bomb shelter of my childhood—so it resonated in that way for me. Probably the most effective element of the film for me was its Midwestern setting. In both its exteriors and interior scenes I felt like I was right back in Macomb (it’s set in rural Ohio). And the characters were good working class folks—the apocalypse as brought to us by Raymond Carver. I suppose this film works because, despite Mr. Eastwood’s steely-eyed, firm-jawed hope that “the second half” is upon us and that things will get better, most of us don’t believe it.

I know my son’s generation is scared, as they should be. Currently 85% of college graduates return home to live with their parents. The average debt of college graduates is $27,000. Of course, they’re scared.

If you’re naysayer, your anthem is, well, take your pick), but I was thinking of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall.” That’s the theme of this film.

Melancholia has similar concerns but the sensibilities couldn’t be more different. Foremost: this is film about really wealthy people. They are as isolated on their estate as Corman’s 1950s survivors were in the shack they use as a fallout shelter. The movie is linear but it opens with a collage, a sequence really, of moments from the film that work as staged pieces. Probably most of the frames of this film could stand as single image set pieces of nearly surreal beauty. It’s a hard movie to describe: it opens with a lavish wedding that ends in spectacular failure and moves on to a second part in which the would be bride is nursed back to mental stability by her wealthy sister—this in the fore––in the slowly surging background is the possibility that a newly discovered planet will collide with earth.

Melancholia is radically different from Take Shelter in that is doesn’t pretend to present any kind of mirror to the way “we” live today. At least, I don’t think it does. If Take Shelter was Carveresque in its sensibilities, it’s hard to conjure up a counterpart influence for this one. Breughel perhaps, who is invokes here, if he lived in the 21st century and had cupboards full of prescription drugs and inexhaustible wealth. It’s beautiful, but hard to know what to take with you when you leave the film. Which of course, is a different sense altogether to most Hollywood films, after which you are not expected to take anything with you. The best you can hope for is not to be bored in the actual moment of viewing.

Denial is a thematic concern in both visions. And sometimes I wonder: if its death that’s being denied, what’s the harm? These films are a reminder just how watered down our popular cinemas today is; both are exponentially better than any of the films nominated by the academy for best picture. (Non sequitur: see Margaret by Kevin Lonergan; what a brilliant mess!).

So Dylan’s been warning us for years, like the ubiquitous bearded guy in the new Yorker cartoons who carries the “the End is Near” sign on a street corner. But let’s not forget Sam Cooke, who foretold “A Change is Gonna Come.” These songs have more in common than their “gonnas.” One is a glass half empty and the other a glass half full. And yet poor Sam Cooke was shot and killed before that song was even released. The change came a bit faster than he had imagined. And old Bob, he just keeps on keeping on. The hard rain hasn’t fall on him, yet.