Sunday, March 04, 2012

Cinema imagines the worst: A psychological journey

It's one thing to create a literal portrayal of civilization-destroying natural disasters on film. It's quite another to depict a character's inner psychological journey as the world moves closer and closer to cataclysm. In the literal portrayal category we find the likes of Armageddon and Deep Impact, both about asteroids impacting the Earth. There is as well The Day After Tomorrow which depicts a rapid cooling in the Northern Hemisphere brought on, ironically, by global warming which shuts down the thermohaline ocean currents, the mechanism by which the Earth distributes heat from the equator to the poles.

Such film depictions are usually heavy on special effects that dazzle the viewer with explosions (often lots of them) and in the case of Armageddon and Deep Impact, elaborately staged space missions. I'm normally allergic to such stuff, but found the special effects in The Day After Tomorrow quite compelling because they depicted mostly natural processes--speeded up immensely, of course, for dramatic purposes.

Now we have two films which attempt to portray the inner life of the main characters as these characters sense and then come to grips with impending civilization-scale catastrophe. Melancholia follows a new bride, Justine, into her wedding reception only to find her distraught and withdrawn. Through her conversations with her sister, we sense that Justine has had a history of depression. So, what could be troubling the poor bride on her wedding night at an elaborately planned party where she is surrounded by friends? We are given several possibilities. But the real problem is only hinted at vaguely here and there.

(Perhaps I need to insert a spoiler alert here since I will henceforth reveal a considerable amount of the storyline of the two films I discuss below. But I believe the analysis will actually enhance the enjoyment of first-time viewers.)

As it turns out, the sudden appearance of a blue planet from behind the Sun is what's unsettling Justine; only she doesn't know it at first. The film's opening leaves us in no doubt about its conclusion. So, we are freed to contemplate how each character deals with the coming of this planet and the dangers it poses. There is the denial of Justine's brother-in-law, John, an amateur astronomer who assures everyone that the planet will simply pass the Earth by. That's what all the scientists say, he explains. Justine's young nephew has a healthy, but naive curiosity about the phenomenon. Justine's sister, Claire, feels something is wrong. We witness Claire doing a little research on the internet, research which reveals the reason for Justine's abject depression and Claire's uneasiness. But as the moment of truth approaches, it is Justine, who, snapping out of her deep depression, is able to face the enormity of what is about to happen with remarkable equanimity.

And, that is the director's point. Lars von Trier means for the film to be an expression of his experience with deep depression. The depressed person, it turns out, is the one who can, paradoxically, accept very bad news without falling apart, who can actually function and act with decisiveness in the face of certain catastrophe--not so much to solve the problem as to accept it.

In Take Shelter a working class family man, Curtis, begins to have dreams of devastating storms that threaten his home and community. At first, he tries to ignore these dreams. But soon they become so insistent that he is driven to spruce up and then stock supplies in the underground storm shelter just outside his house in the back yard. And yet, the dreams continue.

Curtis wonders whether what he sees in his dreams will come to pass or whether the dreams might simply be delusions. His mother, after all, is a paranoid schizophrenic. He reads some books on mental illness trying to determine if he is following his mother's path. He's not sure. More dreams prompt him to expand the shelter at considerable expense, requiring him to take out a home improvement loan to do so.

Curtis's wife is angry about the expense. His neighbors and relatives think he is crazy. His boss is upset because Curtis borrows equipment from work without permission which he uses to help expand the shelter.

Take Shelter provides an excellent description of a man, susceptible to the messages that nature is sending him, but unable to articulate those messages to others. He senses danger and formulates a plan to protect his family. He does not, however, have the slightest idea how to explain or justify the danger he senses to people in his town. And, even if he knew what to say, his fellow citizens think he is crazy; so why would they listen?

The fears, the difficulty in articulating them, the attempts at preparation, the ridicule by family members, friends and neighbors, all this should be familiar to those involved in the peak oil movement and even still to a certain extent those working to arrest climate change. And, then there is the depression. I believe that if you haven't experienced depression to some degree or another related to these issues, then you haven't grasp the seriousness of our predicament.

These films tell me that filmmakers are beginning to give voice to the emerging emotional turbulence in the collective unconscious arising out of our ecological predicament. Whether Lars von Trier, who also wrote the screenplay for Melancholia, understands the implications of peak energy or climate change or the myriad other ecological challenges we face, I do not know. But clearly he has passed through the emotions associated with a very similar journey of awakening. The director and writer of Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols, obviously understands climate change. The severe weather depicted in the film can have no other physical referent.

Strange as it may seem to some, watching both films has enlivened me. Here are two movies that give substance to my depression and my nightmares--reaffirming that these flow not from mental disease but from an acute awareness of the human predicament on a planet that is sending us messages about how to heal both our damaged biosphere and our damaged souls.


Mary Logan said...

I just saw Take Shelter this week; it was good. Psychiatrists have overextended their reach with the latest Diagnostic Standards Manual, even proposing to medicalize useful, normal traits such as introversion, shyness, and pessimism, in addition to the many existing varieties of depression. One could make all kinds of analogies between a bon vivant culture of growth and how it crushes any mood that threatens to get in its way. Our monoculture for growth promotes cognitive and emotional specialists such as psychopaths, cock-eyed techno-optimists, and left-brained surety about the importance of focus on the drive for more. Broad vigilance is out, go, go, go is in.

Are we happy yet? And just because we can build something doesn't mean that we should? And sticking to my own self-interest doesn't assure that it will further the needs and protect the whole culture?

Mary Logan said...

I provided psychological examples of how the growth monoculture crowds out diversity above, and here's a socio-cultural component. From Richard Senett, Together; The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation:

The 19th century historian Jacob Burckhardt spoke of modern times as an "age of brutal simplifiers." Today, the crossed effect of desires for reassuring solidarity amid economic insecurity is to render social life brutally simple: us-against-them coupled with you-are-on-your-own. But I'd insist that we dwell in the condition of "not yet." Modernity's brutal simplifiers may repress and distort our capacity to live together, but do not, cannot, erase this capacity. As social animals we are capable of cooperating more deeply than the existing social order envisions, for Montaigne's emblematic, enigmatic cat is lodged in ourselves (p. 280).

Global paradigm shifts; a fascinating time to be alive and taking it all in.

Khani said...

Try "children of man" and "the road" for more necessary bitterness.

Also the various zombie movies, specifically the last dawn of the dead and the walking dead TV series show how utterly helpless people are when cut of from modern society, yet how some few continue to push through.

P.F said...

Well Kurt, great post as always. I have to admit that I didn't watch either Melancholia or Take Shelter, but what I've heard from them is enough to understand what you mean.

I think anyone who knows about our situation has had these phases of depression, good to see someone writing about it in such a way, indicating that we might not be that crazy nutheads that many think we (people in the PO-movement) are.

However While thinking about this, we should be careful not to adress any way of mental or physical discomfort to modern society, as some people seem to have a romanticised image of pre-industrial life. As a buddhist teaching says :" Old Age if painful, illness is painful, death is painful, life is painful" (it goes something like this).

P.F said...

However Melancholia did not make me afraid of Rogue-Planets, funnily enough^^