Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Take Shelter (newly re-updated)

[A meditation on the 2011 movie, written and directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Michael Shannon as the mentally-assailed protagonist, and Jessica Chastain as his initially horrified, but later supportive wife... ]

Reposted because significantly updated.]

“What I fear in you  is something you don’t know is in you.”
What, I asked.
“It’s lurking somewhere about this house … In a way  we’re on the same side against it.”
-- John Fowles, The Collector (1963)

[Update 17 July 2013]  To work you up into a suitable state of terror, prior to reading the review, consult this factual article:

~   ~   ~

The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through.  You could feel it:  something terrible was going to happen.  … Gust after gust of disorder  … the whole northern religion of things  coming to an end.
-- Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001), opening paragraph

Dem Bürger fliegt  vom spitzen Kopf  der Hut;
in allen Lüften  hallt es  wie Geschrei.
Dachdecker stürzen ab  und gehn entzwei,
Und an den Küsten -- liest man -- steigt die Flut.
-- Jakob Davidsohn, Weltende.

Hard rain's gonna fall

We are so accustomed to the Nature-has-gone-crazy variety of disaster flick, that we expect this one to fall into the familiar mold.  It begins thus, with rogue storms dropping something like motor-oil rather than pure water, and with swirls of birds like sandstorms or the flights of jinn.

[For a spooky actual video of such birds,  along with a physics commentary, try this: ]

Such movies often have a frame-tale of a family drama, and this one does too;  only, it takes its own more seriously, and dwells there, without (frustrating to some audience) any reversion to mere special effects.
Also, this drama proceeds in a direction different from what is expected.  The run of the genre is:  someone heroic protects the family from surrounding peril -- a peril that had been predicted, but not believed (the Cassandra motif).   And so it seems to be here:  the husband becomes obsessed with building a storm-shelter that he can ill afford, yet seems justified when, of a night, the family is wakened by hurricane warning-horns.  Into the shelter they all go.

Yet there is no genuine shelter to be had -- not from what is really menacing them.  In the words of the old spiritual, quoted by psychiatrist Theodor Reik in Listening with the Third Ear (1948):

            I went to the rock
            to hide my face;
            the rock cried out,
            “No hiding place --
            no hiding place down there."

For down there, down below, it becomes clear, is what this shelter symbolizes.   It represents the defenses of the mentally ill, who, to guard a kind of self-cohesion or inward sanity, spin castles of imagination that protect them from worse ills.

Nun ist die Luft  von solchen Spuk so voll,
Daß niemand weiß, wie er ihn meiden soll.

The movie has been -- to its credit -- quite up-front about this angle; it's not trying to fool you, like "The Sixth Sense".  The husband is seen visiting his aging mother, long ago committed to an asylum for paranoia:  her son, it seems, has inherited the tare.  He himself voluntarily consults a psychiatrist.  But the movie keeps us hanging on  with a trope that itself is becoming old hat:  that even a paranoid may be right about the threat.

Upon learning that this film will feature a Little Deaf Girl, the seasoned movie-goer groans inwardly:  Glurge alert!   Yet -- not a bit of it:  she is not sentimentalized, and she turns out to play a key structural role.  
Firstly:   She seems to share her father’s perceptions of paranormal meteorology, not shared with her mother or anyone else.   For some time  the import of this is ambiguous:  

(a)  What he  -- and she, as corroborating witness -- perceive  is real;  as for the others, the more fools they.
(b) Just as he inherited his delusional make-up from his mother, so the blight has continued  down the family line.

Second:   Her deafness, so far from being a mere tear-jerker  irrelevant to the thrust of the plot, serves to echo her father’s condition.   They are both cleidoic within their respective disabilities.
And finally (this unsuspected until the last, and even then, subtle of interpretation):   She turns out to play a pivotal role between the sanity of the wife  and the madness of the husband,  until (as I shall argue)  her own mite of a weight upon the psychical balance-pan  at last causes the bar to kick the beam, as a folie à deux becomes a folie à trois, by infection.

The detective versus an unnamed evil thing:
A tale of madness, and of the uncanny --
uncannily available for only ninety-nine cents:
Available for Kindle or Nook


So!  Back to the shelter.
As the family takes refuge, a real storm seems to be on.  We have heard the sirens, and the soundtrack is awhoosh with wind.  So is this his vindication -- he was right all along, like Cassandra?   Not crazy, but merely disbelieved by the complacent townsfolk?
At this point, any normal movie would offer an intense enclosed-space Das-Boot-style mini-drama underground:  yet, again, not a bit of it.  The family exchange barely a word, and simply go to sleep on their barren plank beds.
The reason:  This shelter is the world of the husband’s pathology;  and as such, is a sterile world.

A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief

Again, a tale of madness --
yet now, ’tis not the man,
but the planet that has gone mad :
Murphy Makes a Mitzvah
(the tale of the magic pawnshop)
Available for Nook or for Kindle,
for less than the price
of a side of fries


The next day, the wife -- who has regained her empathy for her sick husband -- says:  It’s over.  Meaning not (as in so many a cruel movie), It's all over between us; but, literally:  The storm is over;  figuratively:  Your illness can begin to be over, if you will be brave.  -- He shakes his head:  the storm still rages, he says.  But we the viewers notice that the soundtrack is now silent, and begin to take her part.
-- “Open the door,” she says, not once but several times.  This works on several levels:

(i) Cinematic family drama (the lowest level, recalling schlock movies):  We are trapped with a madman.

(ii) Psychoanalytic metaphor:   Seek ye to be healed.

(iii) (something that goes beyond this particular movie, really, but:  The Doors of Perception.)

And then, something quite unexpected  happens -- something which, if you are by now interpreting the whole thing as allegory, for the first time turns you against the brave and suffering man.   The wife is adamant that the storm has passed;  the husband, that it has not.   The logical thing is to peek and see;  but that would be too flatly empirical.   Instead, the husband reaches out to the daughter, who  like him  may be a Sensitive:  bidding her, like him, to put her hand against the door, and feel the madness outside raging, as he can and as his wife cannot:  in short, recruiting the child into his illness.  Yet -- coup de théâtre ! -- she shakes her head:  she declines.
And so, he holds forth to his wife, the key to the door:  a pat solution to the dilemma in (i).  But, in line with (ii), she declines it:  You must open it, I cannot open it for you (else the illness will continue).  She then says (standing some distance back, and with her arm around her daughter -- their daughter -- her daughter):  “This is what you need to do, to stay with us.”  The simplest interpretation of this statement  is in line with the usual miserable cinematic divorce-drama,

i): Do this or I walk out on you and take the kid (and maybe the toaster too). 

 But the subtext is

(ii):  You must do this, to remain among the sane, represented  right now  by your wife and child.

She adds:   Yes, I could open the door for you, and you would emerge and indeed see that the storm has passed:  but that would not remove your underlying problem. -- Such an observation is explicitly psychanalytic, quite familiar within those circles.  The psychiatrist could blurt out the literal origin of the patient’s neurosis ("You thought your mom was hot!" or whatever), yet this bare statement, though given lip-service or intellectual assent, by itself breaks no bonds.  Neither is the neurosis thereby cured, nor are the symptoms abolished (although, caught in the act as it were, they might transmogrify).

For a mini-movie
of madness and salvation,
click here:

(During all this, the director plays with the lighting -- now this, now that face is lit, or in shadow, a question of cathexis and of shifting will.)

Then at last  he faces up to the challenge:  He pushes open the storm-door, and totters out  blinking  into the sunlight.   And sees -- really a quite funny scene, given the right context:  A yellow-helmeted workman on a cherry-picker, competently restoring the power-lines;  an elderly couple picking up downed branches.  So, yes, there was a storm, but not an apocalyptic or metaphorical storm, nor even a gully-washer.

(For an example of the humor of an oversold storm, click here:

By implication, the husband now accepts that he is mentally ill.  He and his wife then consult a more qualified and high-priced psychiatrist, who firmly recommends that the husband be institutionalized for a time.   This, of course, will entail separation from his (sane) family;  so as a last respite before this happens, the family is permitted its traditional vacation at the beach.
And now we see them in a typical bland ahistorical unpsychological American setting:  the wife busying herself in the kitchen, the husband and daughter making sand-castles (and not imaginative scary ones:  they use a mould to imprint cute turtles).  --  Perplexed, I glanced at the DVD time-bar, only a minute or two to go, no time for some huge plot-twist, apparently all is to end on this hopeful note.
Yet then -- something I really had not bargained for (and when you’ve reached my age, many movies under your belt, you have to hand it to a director who surprises you).
It is a small gesture, easily missed:  in the midst of their play, the young daughter looks up, viewing the horizon with mute concern.   Instantly, the blood chilled in my veins.
Nor does her father immediately perceive the gist of it:  He gives her a querying look -- himself (nota bene) evidently not yet noticing anything in the objective world  that she might be referring to -- and she makes (in readily interpretable sign-language) a swirling motion with her hands.   The obvious and literal reference is to tornadoes;  but perhaps with an echo of that gesture signifying madness, which Americans make against their temple, and which Egyptions (as I just the other day learn) make against their forehead.
The husband looks up, and espies, on the horizon, a skyful of clouds, and waterspouts.  Yet still the soundtrack offers no roar, nor do we see sand blowing about.
Then the wife comes out from their bungalow, looking perturbed.   There could be many reasons for this, but -- now, see, how her hair is blowing!  She feels it too!  And lo -- she stretcheth forth her hand, her frail pale hand, and upon it drop glops of that same sinister-amber motor-oil, or anti-manna, or id-juice, or whatever it may be.
Abruptly, the film ends.  The titles slowly scroll, against a sombre unrevealing background of black.

It would be interesting to know what most audiences make of this.
The standard big-budget Hollywood line would be:  Omigosh the guy was right all along!!!! followed by a delicious hour of scenes of escalating destruction, townsfolk reaction-shots, perky pets (sensing looming disaster before their owners do), doomed heroics by jut-jawed heroes and jut-busted heroines,  so pleasing to the folk.
Yet the movie shows none of that, nothing like that:  it just ends, leaving you to your own thoughts.
Mine being:   These paranormal events, while fittingly symbolical of the realities of our troubled times, are intended ultimately to be understood, in a coolly realist framework, as imaginary.  This is not a horror flick, nor even a family drama in the usual sense:  it is a psychological thriller, and quite sui generis.   The fact that no-one else on the beach stands up to notice this Walpurgisnacht of a storm -- that no physical evidence is offered but her blowing hair -- proves it:  this is but an inner wind.  The storm is shown far off on the horizon, so the oil drops from what must be a clear sky.
What has happened is an ending out of Ibsen’s chilling “Ghosts”:  from the mother to the son, from the son to his daughter, the family curse, the inherited tare, has been passed down.  For at the end, it is not he who pulls his daughter in -- he tried, in the shelter, and failed -- but she, him.  (Or rather -- It, them.)

All that said, I must confess, I didn’t so much enjoy this movie, as appreciate it.  Intellectually, analytically, I respect the heck out of it;  but it is nowhere near so engrossing as, say, “North by Northwest”, “Memento”, or (dare I add) “March of the Penguins”.   When push comes to popcorn, I still do enjoy a really good car-chase.  (The effect, no doubt, of archaic urethral eroticism.)


By mere happenstance, a week earlier I saw another movie with psychological aspirations, though unlike “Take Shelter”, this one wears psychoanalysis on its sleeve:  I refer to “A Dangerous Method.”   Yet though its pretentions are greater, its depth is less.
The movie turns upon the Godzilla-meets-Frankinstein or Batman-cum-Robin premise  of the personal relations between Freud and Jung.   These did indeed historically take place -- it’s not like that movie ("The Seven Percent Solution") with the interesting premise of a partnership between Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes.   Yet between them comes the equally historical figure of Sabina Spielrein (sometimes transliterated “Shpielrein”, after the Cyrillic original).   And she manages to quite spoil the show.
We meet her in a fit of florid overacting, as she is brought screaming and writhing (in a sort of copulatory parody) to an asylum.  Yet  the next thing you know  she is helping nice Dr Jung with his clever experiments, and becoming a full-fledged analyst herself.  Now, these things she in fact did, nobody doubts it;  but give me leave to doubt the conditions of her arrival.  As is well known, raving maniacs and florid narcissists do not make good candidates for analysis;  and as we meet Ms. Spielrein, she is both.
The cloyingly self-indulgent antics of that actress  stand in the starkest contrast to the laconic stoicism of the protagonist of “Take Shelter”.   He realizes that he seems to be getting sucked down the rabbit-hole;  yet such is the force of his hallucinations, and such the rock-like instinct of protection for his family, that he must in any case act upon them, carefully building a highly workmanlike shelter (to build which  he has to take out a loan, both from the bank  and against his account with Lady Luck -- she forecloses on this one  and he loses his job). He is making the best of a bad bargain, by his lights.  And buttressing our sympathy for him is our knowledge, as old hands on the popcorn circuits, that he may (in magical movieland) turn out to have been right all along, when The Big One hits at last.
Still, essential to this sympathy  is the fact that, neither as an actor nor as a character  does he indulge himself.  The integrity of the role requires that he underact :   for the character, a strong and decent man with a slipping grip on reality, is constantly thinking, “Get a grip on yourself.”    Such understated acting does not typically garner Oscars;  but, gratifyingly, the critics were not misled, and praised Shannon’s performance to the skies.

[For a more recent example of magnificent underacting, gratifyingly appreciated by both critics and audience, click here:   Discretion and Ben Affleck.


The specifics of mental illness (as Otto Fenichel remarks) do not take place in a vacuum of untethered human nature, but are socially situated.   So -- What is the Sitz im Leben of this particular neurosis, in this particular film?
Critics, to their credit, picked up on two things:   

(1) The utterly justified, but nonetheless existential-dread-inducing, fear, in this age of the Bush Recession, of being downromneyed -- of losing your job.
(2)  The background anxious dread connected with Global Climate Change -- our generation’s counterpart of the nuclear spectre that haunted humanity during the Cold War.

Now, (1) is not much used in this movie;  it serves simply as a historically realistic and familiar background, so that we know that, when the protagonist loses his job, it is a really big deal, since jobs are scarce these days;  and, when he must take out a loan to build the shelter, that no-one is tugging illegitimately on your heartstrings, credit these days is stretched tight.
(2) is potentially meatier;  yet in fact is never explicitly exploited in this remarkably self-restrained film.  A lesser director would have regaled us with pictures of offshore oilspills (indeed, see the Comments below), or of Mister Polar Bear  atop his melting ice-floe, gloomily contemplating his end.  Such things we never see.
And so -- in the spirit of Freud and Jung and their associates, who offered up their own most intimate fantasies, in the interest of science, I shall now reveal my own innermost feelings about Global Climate Change.
[Hm!  This is a good place to leave the reader in suspense.  Tweet out the link, folks, and maybe more will follow. -- Really, I ought to sell tickets …]

*     *     *
~ Intermission ~
Relief for beleaguered Nook lovers!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *

[Update 2 Sept 2012]
[Meta-hmm…. Let us, instead,  continue the analytic foreplay, resorting later  to the Big Reveal.]

Few reviewers will admit to having merely skimmed a book;  and  in the past  there was physically no way to ‘skim’ a movie.  But now there is: the blessed gift of Fast-Forward (gratias agimus tibi, domine).   And in any case, I am not reviewing “A Dangerous Method”, but simply pissing on it. (Vide "urethral eroticism", supra.)
I thus FF’d over most of the movie -- noting, in passing, in bafflement, some Hot Bondage Action between Carl Jung and his illustrious rump-up hussy.  Where did that come from?  It is as though the direction of the movie had become intermediately outsourced to Monty Python (that excruciating "Spank me!" -- "Spank me!" scene in "M.P. & the Holy Grail".).   The scene is mere pandering -- and indeed, less to male fantasies, than to female (of the sort now familiar from Fifty Shades of Gray).   

Countertransference can be dangerous
As for Miss Spielrein, she doesn’t even rate a note in Jung’s memoirs (Memories, Dreams, and Reflections/ Erinnerungen, Träume, Gedanken);  her prominence in this movie  is mere narcissism.

Note:  I have no idea how prominent a role Miss Spielrein actually played in history, as opposed to the histrionic one in this movie, as depicted by a particularly hapless and annoying actress.  The Wikipedia entry for Jung (the fuller, German version) makes no mention of her -- yet tellingly, describes a countertransferential role  quite like that depicted in the film, -- yet filled by a different woman, Toni Wolff:

Antonia Wolff war  ab 1912  Mitarbeiterin von Jung  und wurde  ab 1913  seine engste Vertraute, und  ab 1924  für viele Jahre  seine wichstigste Mitarbeiterin und Geliebte.  Jung blieb mit Emma Jung verheiratet, und oft traten sie zu dritt auf.

Likewise Jung’s sympathetic depicter Anthony Stevens (Jung: A Very Short Introduction (1994), p. 27) describes her role as femme inspiratrice as “brief”, and decidedly inferior to that of Wolff; she does not otherwise come in for mention in the book.

Falls Sie im Doktor-Justiz-Sammelsurium
weiterblättern möchten,
Bitte hier klicken:


A hint of the phoniness of this flick  comes already in the title, “A Dangerous Method” (echoing such better movies as "A Beautiful Mind" and "A Simple Plan").  That is intended to titillate the audience, as is almost everything else in the film.   But surely the analytic “talking-cure” (as one of Freud’s anglophone patients  herself dubbed it), with the patient recumbent on a comfortable couch in a quiet room, and facing away from the analyst (who is thus denied the influence of his Svengali eyes), is the least dangerous method ever invented.  After all, the basic insight of psychoanalysis is that awareness of certain conflicts is deeply suppressed, and difficult if not impossible to bring to the surface.  It’s not like pressing the Red Button -- like saying “Niagara Falls” in the classic Abbott & Costello skit, upon hearing which  Abbott’s cellmate instantly becomes homicidal.  (“Ni-AGGGG-ra Fallllls…. !!!  Sloooooowly I turned …”)  A patient who, innocently, recounts a dream which, upon extended analysis, might point towards incest-leanings, is not, by the mere fact of having recounted it, going to light upon that analytic insight, unassisted and with traumatic results. (“Omigosh, the woodchuck really means Mom! -- Mom was so hot!! --  Think I’ll go kill myself.”)

The imputation is the more absurd when one considers the practices that commonly went before, which consisted  less in treating the madness  than in punishing the madmen.  (Fashionable citizens used to visit the asylums  to witness the tortures, as one might a bear-garden.)  Nor even with later treatments of the liberal age, involving swallowing hallucinogens at the edge of a cliff, or evoking -- nay, creating the very pathologies they pretended to cure, as with the American feminist excesses of recent decades, conjuring up multiple personalities, and fantasies of Satanic rituals -- dangerous  not only for the patients, but for the bystanders who wound up getting prosecuted, their lives destroyed, in places like Florida, by zealots like Janet Reno.

(For a survival of drastic pre-analytic therapeutics, click here:) 

Certainly Freud himself  did not consider that his talking-cure was dangerous to the patient (to the analyst, possibly;  see below):

Schwere, dauernde Verschlimmerungen des Krankheitszustandes  sind  nach meinem Urteil  auch bei ungeschickter Anwendung der Analyse  nicht zu befürchten.  Die unerfreulichen Reaktionen  klingen  nach einer Weile  wieder ab.  Neben den Traumen des Lebens [“Traumen”, note, not “Träume”] welche die Krankheit hervorgerufen haben, kommt das bißchen Mißhandlung durch den Arzt  nicht in Betracht.
-- Sigmund Freud, “Die Frage der Laienanalyse” (1926)

Für psychologisch tiefgreifende Krimis,
in pikanter amerikanischer Mundart,
und christlich gesinnt,
klicken Sie bitte hier:

The only times I pressed Play, resuming the soundtrack, was when it was Freud  speaking (or even just frowning), played by an eminently watchable Viggo Mortensen.  Mostly he just chomps his cigar, though even that was fun to watch, such is his charisma;  but one quite interesting scene did arise, where Jung is visiting Freud in his study.   This incident is quite accurate historically -- or at least, it is in accordance with Jung’s own account (Chapter V of the memoir mentioned).   A loud report  is heard from the bookshelves;  Jung calmly reports that this is no more than a “catalytic exteriorization” of the tension between them -- an explanation that upsets Freud no end.  So far so who-cares; but then Jung predicts a second éclat -- which duly comes. -- Highly interesting is Freud’s reply.  He does not deny the incident, nor attempt to sweep it under the rug as a coincidence (do we? do you?), but rather holds up a metaphorical bunch of garlic in the face (the grinning face) of the paranormal, and (in the movie) says (and this is true) that many out there are looking for any handle with which to beat down psychoanalysis, and embracing the paranormal would give them a big one.  In Jung’s memoir, Freud instead says, more enigmatically, that, in staving off the paranormal, he is defending against the “black tide of mud”, a phrase that Jung finds highly interesting, given the sort of subnoëtic muck Freud notoriously wades through.

Note:  I have not seen Freud describe this specific incident, but he implicitly denies that it, or anything like it, ever happened to him, in this somewhat suspiciously droll or disingenous denial that he has ever come within spitting distance of the paranormal:

Ich muß leider bekennen, daß ich zu jenen unwürdigen Individuen gehöre, vor denen die Geister ihre Tätigkeit einstellen  und das Übersinnliche entweicht, so daß ich niemals in die Lage gekommen bin, selbst etwas zum Wunderglauben Anregendes  zu erleben.

The movie also depicts (following Jung’s account) Freud’s fainting, as an apparent effect of Oedipal fears -- Jung being the imagined parricide.  This incident occurred at a conference in Munich, in 1912;  but there was an earlier such incident in 1909, in Bremen.  And there too, Freud’s fantasy (or insight) was that Jung harbored “death-wishes towards him”.


The thing about psychoanalysts -- these guys play for keeps.  Again, Jung:
I tried to fall asleep again, but a voice within me said, “You must understand the dream, and must do so at once!”  The inner urgency mounted  until the terrible moment came  when the voice said:
“If you do not understand the dream,
you must shoot yourself!”
In the drawer of my night-table lay a loaded revolver, and I became afraid.

Now, I must confess:  in my own desk drawer  lies no revolver, loaded or otherwise.  Nor a stiletto, nor a dagger of rare Oriental design;  nor a slingshot;  not so much as a peashooter.  (Though, were I to rummage, I might manage to come up with a rubber band or two -- the weapon of choice among 8-year-olds.)
Linguists live a comparatively lead-free life.

[To be continued, inshallah.
Meanwhile, a couple of other movie reviews, that likewise probe beneath the surface:
            The Passion
            In Bruges

[The comparatively few pageviews  do not warrant  taking the time, to build the rest  into an extended essay.  But I shall post some notes, either to be worked up later… or as Nachlass.]

Back to "Take Shelter".
The daughter does not Play Well with other children;  as her mother reports, “she can’t connect”.  At first  the viewer assumes that she is shunned for her deafness -- but it soon turns out that she attends a friendly, well-run school for deaf children.   No, deafness is not her problem, not in this respect.
Socially, the wife is much more connected to the daughter than the husband is.  As:  He comes to the breakfast table, whence the daughter is feeding the dog;  says -- in English, sans ASL -- “don’t feed the dog”, and, not even glancing to see if she has read his lips, sits down and addresses his meal;  the little girl continues (unnoticed) to feed the dog.
Later the mother notices this, and tells the girl  in sign language  to stop;  she stops.
And yet the subterranean connections between father and daughter  run deep, through the genes -- underground rivulets, not to be stanched from the surface.

This is not a tale for a novelist or dramatist.  What happens to the protagonist  is not a matter of character.  He has no tragic flaw;  hubris does not bring him down;  you cannot predict his end from his beginnings.  He has a frigging genetic defect, just like his deaf daughter.  You can’t make a novel out of that;  but you can make elegy, and allegory.

My reference to madness being “catching”  was no speculative invention, but is in line with long experience. Freud on “psychische Infektion”:

Der Mechanismus ist der der Identifizierung  auf Grund des sich in dieselbe Lage Versetzenkönnens … Die anderen möchten auch ein geheimes Liebesverhältnis haben, und akzeptieren  unter dem Einfluß des Schuldbewußtseins  auch das damit verbundene Leid. 
Es wäre unrichtig zu behaupten, sie eignen sich das Symptom aus Mitgefühl an.  Im Gegenteil, das Mitgefühl entsteht erst aus der Identifizierung.
-- Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse (1921)

This possibility is applicable here even though the wife is not simply the consort, but in a sense (towards the end) the therapist of the protagonist;  for many an analyst has remarked upon the danger of extended exposure to the madness of one’s patients, comparing the latter to Roentgen rays.

A particularly gripping account of such a scenario  occurs in the essay -- or analytic memoir, or perhaps more of a short-story or sotie -- “The Jet-Propelled Couch”,  by the psychiatrist Robert Lindner, in his best-seller from 1954, The Fifty-Minute Hour.  (A great title, that,  referring to the standard duration of a session with your shrink --- at least, back in those days, the American heyday of psychoanalysis.   Nowadays  all that has gone by the board, for better or worse.  You see your physician for more like fifty seconds, so that he -- or these days, almost certainly she --  can refill your prescription for Zombistatin or whatever, kthxbai.)  In that narrative, the doctor gets drawn in to the elaborate science-fiction fantasies of his narratively gifted patient, much as the wife  in "Take Shelter"  in the end gives in  to the libidinal tug of her consort.

As:  the patient is stymied in space-travel calculations involving various imaginary planets.

“I don’t understand it,” he said.  “I could swear I copied those maps exactly from the originals at the Institute.
“Maybe” I suggested “you made your mistake in translating from Olmayan measurements to miles.”
“That’s not it,” he said, “there’s something fundamentally wrong.”
“Well,” I comforted, "it’s not very serious, after all…”
“Not serious!” he exploded.  “Why, man, these maps are used by my pilots.  No wonder I’ve lost so many ships!”

That is quite funny to read, and must have been much more entertaining to listen to (plus getting paid for it) than the usual droning kvetching of the narcissists, nerds and neurotics  that typically wind up on the couch.
But not without its dangers, the more deadly for their attractive sheen.  Lindner confesses:

In the beginning  it was a game.  My wholesale acceptance of the fantasy was no more than a pretense …But eventually it ceased to be a game. … The materials of Kirk’s psychosis  and the Achilles heel of my personality  met and meshed  like the gears of a clock.

As we have remarked in another context:    If you sup with the Devil, use a long spoon.

~            ~            ~
A critic writes:
The strength of the movie is that Curtis himself sees the problem. When he was ten years old, he watched as his mother (Kathy Baker) drifted away into the dreamland of paranoid schizophrenia and had to be institutionalized. Now he is afraid that the terrible dreams he is having portend a similar fate for himself, which would be scarcely less horrific than the alternative peril, namely that he is getting some kind of supernatural warning of impending doom to his family. Methodically, manfully, he pursues both explanations simultaneously, consulting his doctor, reading books from the library (Understanding Mental Illness), and visiting a counselor at a mental health clinic at the same time he is taking out a risky home improvement loan to build an elaborate storm shelter in his backyard.
All this is rather touching on Curtis's part, though not so much on that of Mr. Nichols who, it seems to me, really does have to make up his mind between the two alternative explanations. Trying to have it both ways, as he does, is a cop-out, a lapse of verisimilitude, which may be no big deal to those who live comfortably in our age of cinematic fantasy but which to me devalues and cheapens all the hard work he has done up to this point to make the movie look real. The movie's ending, which is bound to provoke a great deal of unprofitable discussion, seems to me to serve no other purpose than to indulge that tiresome adolescent profundity about the ultimate uncertainty of the boundary between reality and illusion. Thus he avoids breaking with Hollywood magic and comfort the audience with the reflection that we are still in movieland after all.
Beneath the surface of Take Shelter, I'm afraid, there lurks a trace, or maybe more than a trace of the '60s belief in the truth underlying madness -- that old sophistry associated, perhaps unjustly, with the names of Norman Mailer or R.D. Laing that the insane are not delusional but merely in touch with different realities from the rest of us. There is a half-hearted attempt to relate Curtis's fears to those that we all have of natural and environmental perils, but anyone with any experience of madness knows that there is a huge and unbridgeable chasm between the fears of mental health and those of mental illness. The movie is much better when it focuses on what almost emerges as the central matter of trust between husband and wife, but even this loses much of its impact in the face of the author's ill-considered agnosticism about what's real and what isn't. He only succeeds in reminding us that the movies, nowadays, are what isn't.

I share this critic’s distaste for “the '60s belief in the truth underlying madness”; but contend that, in this film, no such illusion or agnosticism exists;  and that madness, so far from romanticized, is seen as a grim and gruesome thing.   As a thinker, I believe, Nichols is aware that birds don’t act like that outside of Hitchcock, and that the sky does not rain oobleck, particularly the sort of oobleck that only this one spooky guy can see.  But as a director, he must maintain a light and polysemous touch -- leicht schwebend, in Freud’s phrase.  For he refuses to shallow-out at the end  and rise above the characters in whom he has invested all, gazing down at them from some smug cloud-shelf and snickering, “See?  They’re bonkers!”  Instead, he shows us the hellmouth, leading through the downswirl  into the merging unconscious of these three intimately interlinked souls.
So, what to make of that ending?  The chilling and perplexing moment comes when the wife looks down and sees the oily drops on her hand.  Now, her husband has not told her the details of his fantasies.  But she does not now just suddenly start worrying about global warming, or peak oil, or something:   she has his visions in detail.   So, these self-same drops do signify an extra-individual reality of some sort.  But it is not a meteorological reality, shared by any competent observer on the planet.  It smacks rather of archetypes and the collective unconscious:  and thus, is more Jung than Freud.

(The distinction may, however, be one   more of style than of substance:  cf. Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959) p. 200:  “Jung, Freud warned, solved nothing by introducing the idea of the collective unconscious.  ‘The content of the unconscious is collective anyhow.’”)


An afternote  about cinematic craft:
There is no objective correlative to the protagonist’s visions, apart from ambiguous signs from  the enigmatic deaf daughter, and the dream-dog, until the very end, when the wife (seemingly) sees them too.   Otherwise the director scrupulously refrains from giving you any ratification.  At the same time, for purposes of suspense (he is, after all, making a movie, not writing up a case-file) he must not make it obvious that the protagonist is hallucinating.  Thus, the latter hears a thunderclap from a cloudless sky, and asks his work-buddy if he heard it too;  but the buddy is operating loud machinery, and thus heard nothing.   When he is beholding strange events in the sky, no neighbors come running out of their houses to watch, but neither does the postman come blithely down the sidewalk, whistling.
In the same way, “The Sixth Sense” plays fair: after the surprise ending, you replay the movie scene by scene in your mind, and notice, Ye-es, that was somewhat strange but it didn’t strike me at the time; now all is explained.  Likewise “Calvin and Hobbes” -- notice that, whenever adults are present, the towering tiger Hobbes  resumes his mute form as a small stuffed toy.

In the course of the past generation or so, the very idea of “shelter”  has undergone a significant and darkling shift.
In its origins, the word shelter had a casual, even rustic flavor.  The earliest citations in the OED are as follows:
[1585] thatch sheds or shelters
[1590] a hat of straw like a swain/ shelter from the sun and rain
[1610 -- Shakespeare’s Tempest]  alas, the storm is come again. The best way is to creep under his gaberdine;  there is no other shelter hereabout
[1611 -- Cotgrave’s dictionary] a cote, cottage, thatched shed, or shelter; a covert,  shroud, shelter or shadie place.

Originally,  the ideal shelter or refuge consisted 0f a fortress on the high ground.
Such was true, not only for the militarily, but for the psychologically besieged:  witness that of the troubled young Carl Jung, as described in Anthony Stevens, Jung: A Very Short Introduction (1994), p. 7:
On a rock rising out of a lake  sat a well-fortified castle with a tall keep, a watchtower, surrounded by a small medieval city … The need to create a citadel in which to hide … is characteristic of people with schizoid disposition.

All that basically changed with the London blitz, when air-raid shelters became the iconic symbols of dread.  Here, you didn’t take the high ground;  you sought refuge beneath the earth.
Still, these subterranean shelters were still  at least  communal.  Another sea-change occurred with the boom in personal fallout shelters during the early ‘sixties.

Prior to these, protection had been collective, institutional:  the city walls, or asylum in a church.  Only with the craze for personal fallout shelters in your own back-yard  did it become individual -- indeed, anti-social.  (Along with the soup-cans, you stocked your shelter with a shotgun, so that you could shoot your neighbors  when they tried to break in.)


(Analogy between analyst, and analysand; in "Take Shelter")

As we see him out on his laborer’s job, he is not building anything, -- let alone selling anything, or pushing paper around -- but Drilling Down -- like a patient in analysis.
Compare, indeed, the analyst, as well as the analysand:

Freud’s greatness seldom elevates.  This was not his purpose.  He was a digger, not a builder.
-- Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), p. 322

(Die Traumdeutung)
Dog is Sensitive to storm;  bites Curtis, in what turns out to be a dream.  A dream so plain, so pat, so patent, no comment is necessary.

Tales like these  lead us to think of depth psychology.  And yet,  unlike phobias or neuroses or hysterias,  it does not readily lend itself to analytic exfoliation. 
The tare-taint here -- It runs in the family -- runs down the bloodlines -- and there is little that talk-therapy can do.  I have seen it myself -- God help us.

There is a depth to all this, that you do not intuit.
At this very moment, my own mother (now deep into her nineties), has issued a plea, that she might be allowed to die:  the impetus being ... Global Warming.
[Clinical note:  The patient in question  lives in a notably temperate town, in an air-conditioned room  in a  well-run assisted-living center, not far from the cooling breezes of a large park...]

For a somewhat related psychoanalytic peek-under-the-hood,  re the noted British TV series "The Prisoner", click here:

      Gimme Shelter

For the complete roster of our psychoanalytically-inclined postings, try this:

[Update 24 Jan 2013]  A new movie, "The Impossible", is based entirely on the terror of the elements, in this case a tsunami.  The special effects are said to be excellent;  it otherwise "tells a rather banal story", according to David Denby in this week's New Yorker.

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[Update 25 Jan 2013]  You might think that extreme weather, being objectively dramatic, is no subject for psychological investigation  if people are emotionally deeply affected.   That such at attitude is blinkered becomes clear if we contrast the differing national attitudes to exceptional meteorological events.   Thus, from today’s edition of the Swiss newspaper, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, putting into perspective the current cold snap there:

Es ist zwar derzeit recht kalt und winterlich in der Schweiz. Doch so kalt, dass die grossen Seen zufrieren würden, ist es bei weitem nicht. Vor genau 50 Jahren war das anders. Damals waren die meteorologischen Voraussetzungen für die kumulierten 350 Minusgrade - also zum Beispiel 35 Tage mit einer Durchschnittstemperatur von minus 10 Grad - gegeben, die es braucht, damit ein Gewässer von der Tiefe des Zürichsees zufrieren kann. Die Seegfrörni geriet zu einem gesellschaftlichen Grossereignis. Es begann ein langes, fröhliches Volksfest.

This is a common enough attitude among those who deliberately moved to live in a cold climate:  They almost revel in it.   The real anxiety and kvetching occurs rather among those who fled to Florida and cannot understand why everything does not just absolutely go their way.

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[Update]  The dreary post-apocalyptic movie "The Road"  has some of the atmosphere of "Take Shelter", but none of the depth or interpersonal interest.

[Update 28 March 2014]   And now this new movie, about the archetypal meteorological apocalypse:

   Russell Crowe in ‘Noah’

[Update 10 May 2014]   Adventures in fluid dynamics

You do *not* want to be located near a singularity of one of these suckers.

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