A Storm is Coming: ‘Take Shelter’ and Digital Cinema

A number of prominent filmmakers have gone on record to denounce digital cinema. Quentin Tarantino, for instance, claims that he “didn’t sign up for” the digital transition and may stop making movies as a result. Steven Spielberg is less dramatic, but does admit that he prefers to shoot his movies on celluloid.

George Lucas, on the other hand, is a prominent digital advocate, and argues that the new technology is beneficial for filmmakers and the industry. David Lynch, as well, notes that he “fell in love” with shooting on digital and could “never go back to film.”

The digital versus film debate is arguably the most lively conversation being had about cinema today, precisely because the transition to digital is inevitable. Filmmakers and moviegoers from the celluloid era understandably lament the passing of their beloved medium while others have learned to embrace digital for perhaps no other reason than that it will be all that remains. Digital shooting, projection, and streaming will become the dominant modes of production, exhibition, and reception, if they aren’t already.

Since cinema has always been a reflexive art form, one of the more fascinating aspects of this debate is watching filmmakers come to terms with the digital revolution in their work.

Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), for example, is shot on digital 3-D to pay homage to celluloid and the artists who gave birth to the cinematic art form. On the one hand, Hugo embraces digital technology and shows filmmakers and audiences that it can be used for artistic effect. On the other hand, the film forcefully argues that the digital revolution cannot supersede our knowledge of and appreciation for celluloid. If, Scorsese suggests, the transition to digital cannot be stopped, it is our obligation to preserve the cinematic art that was shot on celluloid for future generations to discover.

Three other films from 2011 similarly comment on the turn to digital. Spielberg’s War Horse, for example, is a WWII picture that pays tribute to the widescreen epics by John Ford and David Lean, and with the exception of a few digital effects, the images were captured on celluloid. Not only does Spielberg’s film visually mirror a bygone era of filmmaking, the tone of the picture–earnest and saccharine–comes across to cynical contemporary viewers as overly sentimental.

Spielberg’s intention, like Michel Hazanavicius who directed The Artist, is to remind filmmakers and audiences of celluloid’s magical beauty. The Artist is a contemporary film that recalls the silent cinema days, and similar to Spielberg’s approach, Hazanavicius shot his movie on color film and then transferred it to black and white. Both films are ultimately metaphorical middle fingers that Spielberg and Hazanavicius raise to the digital advocates.

If Hugo accepts the digital revolution and both War Horse and The Artist reject it, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter attempts to understand it from the perspective of both filmmakers who create visual images and audiences who watch them.

In order to understand the film, it is fruitful to turn to contemporary theoretical conceptions of digital cinema and its relation to realism and audience reception. According to Stephen Prince in “True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory,” a “perceptually realistic image is one which structurally corresponds to the viewer’s audiovisual experience of three-dimensional space” (277). For Prince, an “unreal” computer generated image is perceived to be real by the viewer, even though digital artists are “creating credible photographic images of things which cannot be photographed” (271).

Prince’s concept of perceptual realism applies to Take Shelter . I argue that the film can be understood as an allegory of digital cinema’s takeover, and that the characters represent the anxieties and fears individuals feel about digital cinema and the issues of authenticity that associate with it.

The film follows Curtis (Michael Shannon), a young father and husband who is plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions. To the dismay of his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), he builds a storm shelter to shield himself and his family from the end of the world he foresees. Most interpretations claim that Take Shelter is about mental illness, and that the apocalyptic visions represent Curtis’ delusional mental state. An alternate reading by Timothy Kreider claims that “it’s a distinctly working-class world that’s endangered in this film,” thereby implying that Curtis’ visions represent an economic and ecological apocalypse. These analyses surely raise a number of thought-provoking points, but they don’t fully grasp the cinematic relevance of Take Shelter.

It’s important to understand that nearly every delusion or hallucination from which Curtis suffers in the film is depicted visually through the use of digital effects. He literally sees these apocalyptic events happening, but as the clip below demonstrates, his wife and daughter don’t share his vision. However, the visions are perceived to be authentic, both by Curtis and the audience. Therefore, just as the characters in the film confront the reality of Curtis’ visions, viewers are forced to face the digital image’s authenticity.

Take Shelter (2011) Clip HD - Michael Shannon Movie

Things become complicated in the final scene (below) of the film in Samantha and Hannah join Curtis in acknowledgement of the storm. Throughout the film, the audience has been led to believe that Curtis’ visions were limited to his own delusion. However, this scene clearly suggests otherwise, as all three characters see the same storm on the horizon, and the storm is even reflected on the windows of the house.

Take Shelter 6 No Shelter ......

A number of users on IMDb debate about whether or not this scene is another of Curtis’ hallucinations, or if the storm actually exists. Essentially, viewers want to know if the storm is “real.” I want to propose that Nichols answers this question for us, and that the computer generated storm at the end of the film is his attempt to show that digital is here to stay, and that its realism has the potential to be accepted by ambivalent viewers through the power of perception.

If there is one thing we must be careful of doing, it is placing the construction of cinematic realism and the perception of cinematic realism under the same umbrella. Artists certainly create digital images differently than celluloid images, but this does not automatically make the viewer’s audio-visual experience different. Even if celluloid captures objects that exist in real life and computers have the ability to generate objects that never existed, the viewer is going to perceive both kinds of images to be real. Take Shelter is not the only film to tap into this. The majority of the mise-en-scène in Zodiac (2007), for instance, is computer generated, as is the Colosseum in Gladiator (2000), but most viewers don’t know this unless they are told. It is this tension that Take Shelter investigates so interestingly with its use of computer generated imagery.

The film’s final scene showcases Nichols’ ability to use digital effects to construct a reality for viewers to imagine and believe. As Curtis, Samantha, and Hannah watch the coming storm in the sky, it’s as if they are looking at a movie screen, and they, like us, are unable to determine whether or not the storm is real or a computer generated image. Why does it matter, the film asks? Imagination is real, and throughout history cinema’s success has counted on the viewer’s ability to believe in that which doesn’t exist.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/.
Edited by Misagh.

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  1. A sense of foreboding is well-maintained, it’s quite slow-paced, so I was conciously wondering where it was all going at times. I wouldn’t say I was on the edge of my seat, but it did provoke interesting questions prior to the final act: Is it principally a study of a descent into mental illness? Is there to be a major twist? Would the supernatural events in Curtis’ dreams/visions manifest themselves in the “real” world? Would Curtis’ instinctive fears turn out to be justified?

    In some ways most of those turned out to be sort-of true, depending on how you look at it. The ending will be seen as a cop-out or mis-step by some, however I was at the LFF Q&A with Michael Shannon, and he implied that the ending was perhaps intended to be figurative, rather than literal: whatever lies ahead, the family are once more united, and will face it together. Whether the ending works is down to the individual viewer really.

  2. CriticalOtaku

    Definitely an enjoyable read. While I certainly don’t think the screenplay writer’s purpose was to present the film as an allegory with this particular message in mind, it’s nonetheless an interesting take on the film. Then again, I believe a film like Take Shelter lends itself to various interpretations so you may be right.

    • I would concur with this; I think that it may read a bit too much into things. Personally, it really doesn’t matter whether digital technology or celluloid is used as long as it makes sense in the context of the film.

  3. Sounds a bit like ‘Field of Dreams’. And I hated that film

  4. Ian Scott

    The film is cold but somehow also sympathetic, which suited the tone.

    What bothered me was that the build-up of tension in the movie seemed to be the wrong way around. The first 30-45 minutes of the film are punctuated by the nightmare scenes and hallucinations, which are exciting, otherworldly and frightening. But they pretty much disappear from the rest of the film, the pace slows down, and the tone of the movie becomes more observational and less impressionistic, at least until the final act. That inevitably makes the middle of the film drag, no matter how good it may be in and of itself.

    Certainly worth seeing, though.

  5. All the investment of empathy with the characters is just thrown in the bucket at the end.

  6. I loved Take Shelter and did not read it as being about digital cinema at all. It is an extremely interesting point to address, particularly in the choice to show his hallucinations as seeming so real to both Curtis and the audience. While the movie seems slow, it is so tense and the atmosphere is amazing. I do wish there had been a different ending; to me it undermined what the rest of the film had been building since the beginning. However, I do agree with Terrup’s comment and it does finally establish a sense of unity we did not have throughout the film.

  7. The final scene is a message to the viewer and can be read outside of what has happened to the characters. There is a storm coming!

  8. Fantastic performances and brilliant tension-building but I was very surprised by the ending. It was very abrupt and rather crude, I thought.

    There was an enormous amount of potential wasted when nothing significant took place inside the shelter. The introduction of gas masks, the gloominess and Curtis’ intense hesitation to unlock the door had me practically passing out with expectation of some dark twist. It cannot be exaggerated how superb performances and camera work were to create this effect, but it really was a missed opportunity in my view.

    Perhaps, though, I’m taking too superficial a view and am failing to fully appreciate the allegorical nature of the film. Maybe I went along expecting a more classic ‘mad man turns bad’ story and would have been satisfied with nothing less. I can, of course, grasp the links to current unease and anxiousness alluded to by Xan Brooks and others. American critics seem to have almost universally endorsed this view and so perhaps this had some extra, US-specific significance.

    The blindingly obvious link between Curtis and the story of Noah’s Ark, is very interesting. This was particularly striking in the scene when Curtis (Noah) warns his neighbours of what is to come, angry with being thought of as ‘crazy’ and telling them they should be preparing like he is. Is Jeff Nichols trying to suggest modern America is a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah?

  9. E. Esparza

    This film has huge depth and massive ambition. it’s written, shot and acted with an intensity and confidence that is very rarely seen in the cinema these days.

  10. Giovanni Insignares

    Great read. Very good analysis of both digital cinema and the classic celluloid technology. Digital is obviously here to stay, but as you pointed out, most viewers cannot even tell what is created by a computer and what is real. That’s how convincing the technology can be. As a result, I feel that as long as digital technology is used as a way to tell a better story, there’s no reason to criticize it.

  11. Tie Phan

    It’s a brilliant, moody, challenging, and unique film.

    It had the chance to end 5 or 10, or 15 minutes earlier than it did. Really interestingly, I think all options would have still made it a satisfying narrative overall and I wouldn’t have complained… but I favour the choice taken, and given everything that went before I think it was a logical one.

    The storm shelter scene is one of the most tense I have ever seen. It could have gone a few other ways, and the talented director obviously knew this.

    Brilliant and honest acting by all concerned, we get put in the family’s very difficult plight, and sympathise fully. Their love is ultimately cast-iron sealed by complete trust/understanding, which gives them an adamantium-strength fortitute by the end.

  12. An intelligent, demanding and beautifully played film we should be supporting from the US independents. It reminds me of Tarkovsky’s immense last film ‘The Sacrifice’ – not as emotionally wrecking, not as poetic, but a bloody good stab at capturing an atmosphere and a moment with a powerful, believable personal story.

  13. Fantastic film and interesting article. I also didn’t interpret the film this way on first viewing, but the reading presented here is thought-provoking, and whether it was Nichols intention to help bridge the film/digital divide is ultimately unimportant; such a superb film naturally lends itself to multiple interpretations and seeing it this way makes a compelling point, and one which I think would be rather easy to support with secondary literature on perception and reality/realism in film.

  14. AugustaChavarria

    I think there are several elements to Take Shelter that could make it a companion piece to the Cohen Brother’s A Serious Man.

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