Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 24, 2011

Apocalyptic movies

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:49 pm

I am not sure if there is any social significance to this yet (and if I can’t find any, there probably isn’t any to be found) but there seems to be more than the usual “end of the world” type films lately. Recently I watched DVD screeners of two films released this year, courtesy of the film publicists’ trying to drum up support for Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” and Eva Glodell’s “Bellflower”–highly mannered and annoying works whose dubious charms I found easy to resist. As one of the few American films made in 2011 that I paid good money to watch in a theater, Jeff Nichols’s “Take Shelter” was worth every penny of my reduced-rate elder’s ticket and on my short list for movie of the year. Finally, there’s “Knowing”, a 2009 film by Australian director Alex Proyas and starring Nicholas Cage. I avoid anything that Cage is in like the plague but since it has been getting heavy rotation on the premium cable stations this year, I thought I’d give it a try. It is really quite good in its mindless way.

“Take Shelter” has a premise much like “Close Encounters of the Close Kind” but turned upside down in a malignant fashion. While the object of awe and wonder in Spielberg’s great movie was Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the future landing site of flying saucers piloted by benign creatures, Nichols’s main character is haunted by nightmares of an apocalyptic future as well as by hallucinations when he is awake. Birds fall out a blue sky while terrible thunderstorms produce raindrops with the consistency of motor oil and a brackish smell.

Like Roy Neary, the character played by Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, Michael Shannon is a blue-collar worker living in a humdrum Midwest town. Like Neary, Curtis LaForche has a completely normal life and enjoys all the typical pastimes of a workingman, including church on Sunday and drinking beer after his day is done drilling holes in a construction site.

At some point, the accumulation of dark omens convinces him that the world will end soon and he makes the drastic decision to build an elaborate storm shelter in his backyard that costs tens of thousands of dollars that he secures through a loan. Against all common sense, he recruits his co-worker to “borrow” heavy construction equipment to excavate the site for the shelter one weekend.

LaForche’s increasingly erratic behavior alienates him from just about everybody, including his wife. Like Roy Neary, he ignores friends and family since the imperative of his higher vision makes it impossible to follow any other course.

When Roy Neary quits his job and begins his odyssey toward the Devil’s Tower, there are no economic obstacles in his path, only a military bent on keeping intruders away from the UFO landing site. Made in 1977, Close Encounters reflects the expanding capitalist economy of the time. As a work of art that reflects its time and place (as all good art should), “Take Shelter” is all about the catastrophe that awaits a worker who takes out a bank loan he is no position to repay. While you are gripped by LaForche’s psychological dilemma (is he acting on insane beliefs?), it is his pending personal economic apocalypse that ultimately makes his drama compelling.

Like “Take Shelter”, “Melancholia” opens with the image of birds falling from the sky. In an opening montage whose arty pretensions are accompanied by the strains of the prelude to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, we see falling birds and other apocalyptic images including a planet called Melancholia careening into the earth, destroying all life. Unlike most films in this genre rely on the suspense whether such an cosmic collision will take place or not (“Deep Impact” and the aptly named “Armageddon” being typical) to sustain interest, Von Trier thumbs his nose at conventional expectations by including a “spoiler” at the very beginning.

The reason for this is that the film is not so much about Armageddon but about depression, the so-called “melancholia” that names the planet and the film. The first half of the movie consists of the dreariest collection of figures you have seen in an art movie since Luis Bunuel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”.

They are the assembled guests for a wedding party for bride Justine (Kirstin Dunst) and bridegroom Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) at Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) country manor. Unlike Kim Kardashian, Justine doesn’t waste any time, deciding to end her marriage on her wedding night. It seems that she is fed up with life and has no interest in anything, her career (she tells her boss to go screw himself the same night) or love.

In the second half of the film, we see Justine in a semi-vegetative state at Justine’s castle fixated on the planet Melancholia. Now that it dominates the sky during night and day, it is impossible to ignore. Claire soon becomes convinced that the world is coming to an end as well, ignoring the cheery assurances of her husband John—an amateur astronomer—that the planet will miss Earth.

During the entire time when all this is transpiring, you never see them watching television or connecting with friends or neighbors to share thoughts about the impending doom. What you see is Claire becoming as troubled as Justine, although her depression is a function of objective reality rather than a chemical imbalance.

Fortunately for me, about 25 percent of my DVD was damaged so I missed large passages of this largely unwatchable film. I have taken a brief gander at other Von Trier movies over the past five years or so and cannot understand how he can be taken seriously. As a member in good standing of the Dogme 95, Von Trier insists on the use of a hand-held camera, whose jarring shifts were on display throughout “Melancholia”. I have never seen such a radical disjuncture between technique and artistic goals—granted that such goals were attenuated to begin with.

Clarifying his filmic intentions, Von Trier once said:

I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations. Thus I make my vow of chastity.

Well, that explains everything, I guess.

The only other thing worth mentioning about “Melancholia” is the trouble that Von Trier got in during a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival when he wisecracked about Nazis, as the Telegraph reported:

Asked if his Germanic roots had influenced his work, Von Trier replied: “What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes… but I sympathise with him a little bit.”

He ended by laughing: “Okay, I’m a Nazi.” Festival organisers declared him “persona non grata” and banned him with immediate effect. Von Trier issued an apology but retracted it earlier this month.

This led to him being ejected from the film festival and being interrogated by cops in Denmark. Frankly, the only thing he is guilty of in my eyes is making boring movies.

But the fact is that Lars von Trier was a red-diaper baby. His mother was a Communist, his father a Social Democrat, and both worked in Denmark’s social-services ministry. According to a NY Times (Apr. 30, 2000) profile of von Trier and Dogma 95, they met during World War II in Sweden after fleeing the Nazi occupation of Denmark, “my father because he was Jewish and my mother because she was in the resistance.” Of course none of this matters when it comes to the holocaust industry trying to make sure that nobody makes a wisecrack that might be interpreted as a threat to Jews, particularly those in Israel.

Like “Melancholia”, the main characters in “Bellflower” are repellent but in an entirely different manner. Unlike the tuxedo-clad specimens in Von Trier’s opening scenes, we are introduced to a bunch of slackers in Los Angeles whose speech consists almost entirely of words like “Dude, that’s awesome” or “Sweet” and whose actions revolve around getting drunk, having sex, and fighting. Yes, I was young once myself and indulged in such pastimes (largely trying to avoid fights) but who wants to see a 90 minute film with such unremarkable events being depicted dramatically? By now, you might have figured out that “Bellflower” is the latest entry in the mumblecore genre, a sorry attempt to make art that is as futile as Dogme 95 but in its own downscaled manner.

“Bellflower” was made for $17,000, filmed on location in Los Angeles, and includes friends of first-time director Evan Glodell who plays Woodrow. Woodrow shares a run-down house with his pal Aiden (Tyler Dawson) who has come out to LA from Wisconsin to make the scene. Neither has any visible means of support but is never short of money for booze or gasoline. I guess in Glodell’s world, it is still 1977.

So you might be asking at this point what all this has to do with Armageddon? It turns out that Woodrow and Aiden are fixated on Mad Max movies and spend their spare time (which they have plenty of since they don’t seem to have jobs) building a flame-thrower and a scary looking car they call Medusa. The end of the world is not so much a literal one but one taking place in their minds, as they resort to a bloody vendetta against man and woman alike in the film’s climax. Jilted by his lover Milly (Jesse Wiseman), Woodrow is ready to kill and be killed. Most critics feel that the film’s violent second half is a departure from mumblecore norms. I suppose that is true, but this does not make it a good movie.

“Knowing” features Nicholas Cage as an MIT astrophysicist named John Koestler. Only I know how ridiculous this is since my good friend Les Schaffer who is technical coordinator of Marxmail is a real astrophysicist who graduated from MIT and—trust me—Nicholas Cage is poorly cast in this role.

That being said, he does a good job at scenery chewing, which is his forte after all. When his son brings home a sheet containing what appears to be a random string of numbers that was buried in a time capsule with other mementos of a grade school class from 1959, his scientific curiosity is whetted. What can they mean?

It turns out that the numbers were predictions of calamities such as 9/11. The student who wrote the numbers was in a kind of trance that people at the time regarded as a kind of temporary mental illness. When Koestler’s young son begins to display signs of the same kind of instability, he becomes worried. But he is even more worried about the possibility that the numbers portend something graver—the end of the world.

As is the case with “Melancholia”, the threat is astronomical in nature. A massive sun storm threatens to penetrate the earth’s atmosphere and burn everybody and everything to a crisp.

The best thing about “Knowing” is the creepy mood that is sustained throughout and the CGI special effects of one disaster or another. I can’t call this movie memorable but the 121 minutes spent watching it will be a lot less playful than the pretentious Dogme 95 and mumblecore works described above.

One has to wonder to what extent such films reflect an underlying insecurity about our future, which has much less to do with colliding planetary orbs than it has to do with economic and ecological distress. The sight of falling birds in both “Melancholia” and “Take Shelter” in fact has a lot to do with current events:


More birds fall from sky – this time in Louisiana

LABARRE, La. (AP) – State biologists are trying to determine what killed an estimated 500 birds that littered a quarter-mile stretch of highway in Pointe Coupee Parish near Baton Rouge.

The birds, including starlings and red-winged blackbirds, were found Monday along Louisiana Highway 1, about 300 miles south of Beebe, Ark., where more than 3,000 blackbirds fell from the sky three days earlier. Authorities said examinations showed the birds found in Arkansas suffered internal injuries that formed deadly blood clots.

Louisiana state biologists are sending some of the dead birds to laboratories in Georgia and Wisconsin for testing.

Large numbers of bird deaths are not uncommon.

In January and February 1999, an estimated 3,000 birds died in Morehouse Parish in northern Louisiana, many of them falling from the air. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Service laboratory in Wisconsin diagnosed the cause as an E. coli infection of air sacs in their skulls.

The U.S. Geological Service’s website lists about 90 mass deaths of birds and other wildlife from June through Dec. 12. Five list deaths of at least 1,000 birds and another 12 show at least 500 dead birds.

The largest was near Houston, Minn., where about 4,000 water birds died between Sept. 6 and Nov. 26 from infestations of various parasites.

That’s the way the world is likely to end, from E. coli rather than runaway comets or asteroids. And it is up to us to prevent this from happening.


  1. “Threads”, a 1984 BBC TV drama is my favourite apocalyptic film. Have you seen it? If not, you should, because it is genuinely chilling.

    Comment by revolutionary1830 — November 25, 2011 @ 7:39 am

  2. I am not sure if there is any social significance to this [Apocalyptic movies trend] yet (and if I can’t find any, there probably isn’t any to be found).


    Like Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the horror genre that thrived in the 30’s during the Great Depression apocalyptic movies feed off not only the economic collapse of globalist capitalism today but also the spectre of global environmental catastrophe at the hands of the profit driven system, not to mention the mass paranoia of religious kooks who predict the 2nd coming or New Age nuts reading Mayan calenders.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 25, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

  3. I am not a giant Von Trier fan by any means, but his movie with Bjork (Dancer in the Dark) is excellent and very political. If you haven’t seen it you really should. Like any Trier film it can be difficult to watch, but it is a great film, makes me cry every time I watch it, intensely moving performance by Bjork. The way the musical interludes is done is brilliant. I still remember clearly the first time I saw it, walked into the State Street theater after I got off my shift, had heard Bjork was in it but otherwise was completely unprepared. The feeling after the film was over was like having been shot in the gut. Took me hours to walk it off.

    Is there a connection between late capitalism and the apocalypse? abso-fucking-lutely. It has everything to do with the apparent closure of political (and human) possibilities under neoliberalism – TINA – and and the inability to imagine any way out besides the total destruction of civilization itself. Mike Davis has written some great essays about this btw.

    Comment by dave x — November 25, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

  4. “it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than to imagine the end of capitalism” (paraphrasing Frederic Jameson)

    Comment by pete — November 26, 2011 @ 2:33 am

  5. @ #3 conclusion: [Mike Davis has written some great essays about this btw.]

    While I agree that Davis is a brilliant writer and somebody I’ve met and would allow utmost sanctuary even in my own home — my critique of him is that he undoubtedly voted for Obama in the last election and would unboubtedly vote for Obama in the next 2012 election, just like every other distinguished old fart CPer I’ve ever met, which are legion.

    Bottom line is voting for Obama, especially twice, that’s just terrible politics that in the eyes of the average OWS activist is fortunately anathema, meaning, an unpardonable sin.

    Those who vote for Obama twice will deserve the shit they get shoved into.

    For all the social & poitical science activists who pontificate about “gray areas” and subtelties and their “uncomfort” with “vulgar” Marxism — I say fuck you all, there’s way more black & white, like it’s not so complicated who the fuck gets what these days and defenders of the status quo deserve snuffed once & for all?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 26, 2011 @ 5:19 am

  6. Karl, did Mike Davis advocate a vote for Obama? I suppose it wouldn’t surprise me, but he should know better, after all he wrote ‘Prisoners of the American Dream’. His recent ‘advice’ to the occupy movement doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of the Democrats (at least post FDR) although I suppose it doesn’t preclude an Obama vote ( http://socialistworker.org/blog/critical-reading/2011/11/20/mike-davis-advice-occupy-movem ). Certainly I agree with you in regards to voting for Obama and the Democrats, I think it makes sense to draw a class line there. Having said that, I think it important to recognize that most of the working class (and its vanguard) in this country is in the Democratic Party and will eventually need to be won away from it. Being sectarian towards your average Obama voter is probably bad politics if one eventually wants to do that (though I am fine with being sectarian towards Democratic Party ideologues). As for Mike Davis, I think he is a good essayist, occasionally profound, usually entertaining, certainly worth reading, and whether he voted for Obama or not, his relationship to Democratic and mainstream liberal politics has always seemed to me largely critical.

    Comment by dave x — November 26, 2011 @ 8:52 am

  7. In fairness Dave I don’t have any evidence, just a hunch.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 26, 2011 @ 2:56 pm

  8. I was going to see this movie at a so-called Art House. Instead, I opted for an On-Demand TV viewing as it was cheaper. No amount of money saved could earn back the terrible waste of time spent in watching it, waiting for something, anythng to happen. What an overblown piece of nonsense! You could pour liquid gold on a dead monkey but it would still be a dead monkey. No matter how pretty the picures, the movie as a whole was terrible and not worth the time it takes to talk about it. Von Dreary, I mean Von Trier, must be having a horse-laugh listening to artsy folk and the accolades they ahve attributed to this movie.

    Comment by Jim Vecchio — November 29, 2011 @ 7:37 pm

  9. Taking Shelter: one of the few movies I’ve seen in a theatre this year. (Can’t justify spending money on culture). The social significance of the film is the same thing that made me want to see the film: underneath a tough and worsening daily life, there is an even greater, gnawing anxiety about the future. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out but through the trailer I thought maybe there was going to be some sort of “blessed break” at the end. Like most working people, the main characters in the film are scrambling for money, worried constantly about money, have an asshole boss, have trouble with their health insurance and their kid needs an operation, etc… . This is how most of us live now. The choices made by the film-maker to show this are well-thought out.
    BTW, I thought in the film that the main character did NOT like going to church. Anyway, the basic, every-day pressures and anxieties are mirrored in the coming storm. I thought the film was at least addressing possible scenarios of environmental distruction or maybe the storm as metaphor for drastic change whether or not we’re ready for it. The film is haunting. Worth seeing. A product of our times.

    Comment by Leon — November 30, 2011 @ 8:58 pm

  10. Just saw “Melancholia”…..It started immediately after “The Descendants” so I figured to myself “Why not…It’s better than going home and watching TV.” Having heard or read nothing about it, I thought it was beautiful, painful, dark and had commendable acting. It certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, your review pretty much sucked royally. The moment that you deemed the opening scene a spoiler, I should have stopped reading….And yet I was still tempted to leave a comment…sigh…..

    Comment by David — December 1, 2011 @ 5:50 am

  11. I think you get Take Shelter wrong, or at least miss a vital dimension of the film. The impending doom is not to be read literally (SPOILER ALERT: just as the final scene should not be), but signals the irrevocable mental disintegration of Curtis. These are his (private) delusions, which of course have enormously hurtful and ruinous consequences for those around him and dear to him. Which allows the film to function also as a parable of a society, obsessed with a sense of ubiquitous menace (almost all of it overblown, and much of it sheer delusion), that is effectively eviscerating itself as it tries to erect bulwarks and defences. In its flailing panic, it becomes the very menace it claims to be defending against. This is not your garden variety End-of-the-world flick.

    Comment by Hein — December 6, 2011 @ 10:29 am

  12. Hein, I am inclined to agree with you but in that final scene his daughter sees the ominous skies over the ocean. At any rate, this is really a portrait of a mind becoming unhinged rather than a “Knowing” type literal end of the world so I basically agree with you with that qualification.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 6, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

  13. In the final scene both the daughter and the mother see the huge, impending storm. It is clearly NOT all in the main character’s head. The end is meant to be literal. There is such a prejudice against naturalism and realism among the elites… a hangover of post-moderism. Can’t wait to be rid of it.

    Comment by Leon — December 6, 2011 @ 10:48 pm

  14. […] And then there are those like Jeff Nichols, who march to the tune of a different drummer. My last Jeff Nichols film was the 2011 “Take Shelter” that I picked for the best of the year. I described it: […]

    Pingback by Mud | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 25, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

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