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.
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.
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.