Take Shelter from The Birds
A couple of months ago I hit the point of quarantine where I watched a whole bunch of blockbuster disaster movies. Disaster movies are when a natural event occurs or is about to occur and millions or billions of people are in jeopardy and they are almost never very good. Some of the biggest ones are Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow and The Core. Okay, The Core isn’t really one that caught on, but it sure captures the spirit of the rest through over extended special effects and dialogue writing that is never up to the quality of the cast. And they almost always have great casting even if everyone isn’t in quite the right roles.
There are a few disaster movies from the last couple of decades that really surprise either from unexpected plot turns like the inclusion of aliens posing as angels in Knowing. Or, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia that sees characters dealing with mental illness and family dysfunction ahead of a cataclysmic event. It’s not exactly the first auteur’s take on a world-wide disaster, one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s last films saw a family dealing with the announced Cold War end of the world and the dramatic ways they deal with it in The Sacrifice.
Those movies all bring us either to the point of mass destruction but Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011) shows the premonitions of someone with visions of a future disaster and his insecurities because of it, and The Birds (1963) tells the story of the beginning of the end before something bigger appears to be coming. Both disasters are signaled by birds, Take Shelter shows Michael Shannon marveling at odd behavior from starlings making shapes in the sky and The Birds signals the start of something darker with a single divebombing bird striking Tippi Hedren in the head.
It has been called a monster movie, and a bridge to Speiberg’s Jaws away from Universal-style monsters like the Wolfman, Frankenstein and Dracula to monsters straight from nature. That's a bit of a stretch. There isn't a singular bird to defeat and the menace of their attacks is more of a sense of the end of the world, that nature is turning itself onto people rather than a single entity.
When hiding away from the bird attack Tippi Hedren ducks into the diner where an older lady accosts her for being the cause of the calamity. She is blamed for being a cursed person that has brought this upon the town. Michael Shannon feels much the same way in Take Shelter. He feels shame for the dreams he has and his bed wetting incident. He has his own public outburst at a church potluck where his warning to the community is taken as a breakdown, a defect of mental health passed down from his mother who is institutionalized. The woman in the diner mainly faces a similar reaction that her outburst is a defect of poor mental health, and perhaps Hitchcock believes the warning, despite the level of aggression, is true. Hedren had released a bird in the pet store at the start of the movie, using a bird as an object of a frivolous prank, then travels great distance with a bird in a cage as part of a continuance of her pranking nature. She has antagonized the birds of the world and they are getting their unbalanced revenge. Michael Shannon is tortured in a similar way, he suffers from his own masculinity, unable to vocalize a need for medical help and is tasked with being the messenger for a catastrophe that he foresees. When he is faced with a poster in the background with precautions for H1N1, the last pandemic the world had seen in 2009 before this year, he walks away from the newly assigned therapist and walks out the door ignoring the informational doctor’s office poster.
These movies don’t conclude, they don’t have endings. The movies are warnings of unseen events that are to come, that are expected to be greater. The Birds is the only Hitchcock movie not to go out on the words “The End.” While it seems that things have calmed in the town, the audience is left with lingering thoughts of what is left to come in the world of the film. Take Shelter ends with just the reflection of a great event in the distance signifying the start of the disaster that is to come. It is movie on its own, but it is just the first act of a disaster movie when scientists discover something terribly wrong is happening and they need to rush to the White House to demand action is taken immediately. Or, they are too late and the series of events has already set in motion, like Knowing or 2012, and the only remedy is to find some way to ensure the survival of the human race. That’s when we are left with the debate over winning the “mine shaft gap” of Doctor Strangelove.
Next Month: Alternate Black and White, Black and Chrome or Noir versions of Parasite, Mad Max Fury Road and Logan.