copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

The end of everything

by Timothy Kreider

“…Artists are useful to society because they are… super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.[1] [open endnotes in new window]

Hollywood has always loved eschatology, especially when it’s photogenic. We’ve seen nuclear missiles incinerate LA, meteors incinerate Paris, and aliens incinerate Washington, New York, and LA; the world spectacularly trashed by glaciers, earthquakes, and megatsunamis; and the entire Earth anticlimactically popped like a soap bubble. Hollywood has rallied its concerted efforts, World War II-style, to keep the public vigilant against the ever-present threat of mass zombiism. This is all just good Thanatotic fun, a culture indolently contemplating its own extinction while eating Twizzlers, like teenagers daydreaming about their own funerals.

But recently a series of independent or foreign films have all addressed the same theme in a more urgent and serious way, either directly or allegorically. These are small, thoughtful movies, not high-concept blockbusters, with indie (or non-) actors instead of action heroes, low production values instead of CGI fireworks, and spare, minimalist scores instead of screaming parodies of Carmina Burana. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2007) shows us a modern prophet, an ordinary man who’s been vouchsafed a terrible vision of nature in revolt and neighbor turned against neighbor; Meeks’ Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010) is a parable about Western civilization led astray by its own misguided hubris, doomed unless it changes course; and The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, 2011) is a frankly apocalyptic fable of God’s covenant reneged on, His Creation revoked, the world corrupted beyond redemption and guttering out in darkness.[2] Taken together, these films seem to be telling us that a terrible storm is coming, that we are at a crossroads, that the end is already here.

Mad in America

Take Shelter opens with a man standing in his driveway, looking up at a dark, coiled bank of stormclouds fluorescing with lightning. It begins to rain. As he looks at the liquid pattering on his fingers, we see it is no ordinary rain; it’s a dirty yellowish-brown, slightly viscous. As he says later, it looks “like motor oil.” The dreamer is Curtis LaForche. He’s having recurring nightmares about a preternatural storm, a storm that not only rains motor oil but turns his neighbors and loved ones into predacious monsters. This storm, like most dream symbols, is multivalent, both terribly specific yet hard to pin down to any one meaning--too ambiguous to be read as an allegory for any particular ecological catastrophe but evoking several at once: acid rain, oil spills, el Niño, Katrina, and all the other destructive weather associated with global warming and climate change. (The weather is indeed getting funny lately; to cite only the current example, at the time of this writing whole swaths of Oklahoma City have been razed by tornadoes.) Its weird oily rain overtly recalls recent real-world environmental disasters, like the Deepwater Horizons spill, but may also allude to peak oil, the theory that warns of the imminent depletion of our petroleum supply, or to the burning of fossil fuels that’s raising the global temperatire. His dreams of catastrophes that threaten his family are echoed by events in the real world of the film; Curtis is absorbed by a local news report about a chlorine spill that killed a man’s wife and daughter. Another dream image, of birds dropping out of the sky by the dozens, flopping spasmodically on the ground, recalls several such freakish incidents in the news (such as when 5000 birds fell out of the sky over Arkansas on New Year’s Eve 2010),[3] but also serves as visual synecdoche for the mass extinction currently underway.

But the most terrifying thing about the storm of Curtis’s nightmares is that it somehow turns people against each other. Those touched by its polluted rain become deranged and vicious — pounding at Curtis’s door, clawing at his clothes and face, dragging his daughter out a car window. The figures in his dreams are always glimpsed dimly through fogged and rain-smeared windows, but we can see they’re dressed in the same jeans, T-shirts and nightgowns as his own neighbors, like loved ones turned into ravening zombies in a horror film. In Curtis’s first dream, his dog snarls at him and gnashes his arm; in a later one, his friend and co-worker gores him with a pickaxe; and, in the worst of them, his own wife Sam stands in their kitchen dripping with the telltale rain, staring at him blankly and fixedly, a sharp knife resting near her on the counter. Curtis glances down at the knife, then looks at her and shakes his head, as if pleading, No. This is the most frightening of Curtis’s dreams not only because it involves the person closest to him, but because its ambient feeling of incipient violence is left unresolved. The question is left open: will Sam turn on him? The question reverberates in real life, but in reverse: will Curtis turn on her?

These dreams echo Curtis’s mother’s paranoid-schizophrenic delusions—“I thought people were watching me and listening to me,” she whispers to him at her assisted living facility—but they also distortedly prefigure things that happen to him later in the film: his neighbors start talking about him behind his back, his best friend assaults him, his boss fires him, his wife slaps his face. Of course these are self-fulfilling prophecies—Curtis’s friends and wife have been frightened and alienated by his increasingly bizarre behavior. His dreams of his own dog and wife turning against him reflect his fear that he is becoming a dangerous stranger. But people really are being subtly turned against each other by a declining economy, which, like a narrowing ecological niche with a scarcity of resources, inexorably pits its inhabitants against each other. Everyone’s anxieties are about money; Curtis’s friend is angry because he’s been kicked off his work detail, his boss is appalled at the prospect of an uninsured accident, and his wife is furious at what he’s spent on his storm shelter without her knowledge. The onset of Curtis’s mother’s schizophrenia may have been triggered by economic stresses: “Your father was gone a lot and I couldn’t handle things on my own.” Curtis himself is secretly worrying about the price of his medication while his wife is dreaming of a $900-a-week beach rental.

It’s a distinctly working-class world that’s endangered in this film. The settings are middle-class homes with eagle plaques on the aluminum siding, offices in trailers, the generic white corridors and offices of civic buildings, Lion’s Club dining halls with ersatz-wood-paneled walls. We see Curtis operating a drill in a quarry whose sound transitions to the whir of Sam’s sewing machine as she makes a set of curtains for her own home business. Sam haggles over the price of a hand-stitched pillow at a flea market (she initially asks fifteen dollars and settles for eight in change); Curtis forks over forty-seven dollars for medication because the co-pay on his insurance is so high. The film is explicitly set in the post-crash economy: “Banks aren’t loaning money the way they used to,” the loan officer tells Curtis; “You take your eye off the ball one minute in this economy, you’re screwed,” his brother advises; a high-end psychiatrist acknowledges, “I know times are hard.” The phantom lightning storm Curtis sees over an empty lot is captioned by a weathered sign: “FOR SALE: PRIME COMMERCIAL.” The vertiginous sense of a general collapse is evoked by the dream in which Curtis’s living room seems to go into free-fall—the furniture rising into the air, hovering in anticipation of a terrible crash--as if his whole world were in an elevator whose cable has snapped.

But note that, despite an unforgiving economy and indifferent institutions, there’s not a heartless bureaucrat or foreclosing banker to be seen in the film. A harried insurance agent braves the bureaucratic labyrinth of voice mail to get one straight answer that resolves Sam’s problem; the loan officer at the bank urges Curtis not to take out a risky loan against his house; Curtis’s boss is a decent enough guy who seems sick at having to fire him. These are all overworked, underpaid people trying to do the best they can in an inefficient and dilapidated system. When the counselor Curtis has come to trust disappears and is replaced by a new one who tries to start over from square one, it isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s just how things are. As in Curtis’s dream, it’s the system, the storm, that’s forcing these people to fight one another. (In a deleted scene, when Curtis’s counselor asks him why people are attacking him in his dreams, he shrugs: “it’s in the air.”)

The one stable element in Curtis’s world is family. This is a portrait of a happy marriage. His best friend tells him, “You got a good life, Curtis. I think that’s the best compliment you can give a man--take a look at his life, say: ‘That’s good. That guy’s doin’ something right.’” Curtis signs “I—love—you” to his deaf daughter, Hannah, before he heads to work; he teases his wife out of being angry at him when he turns up late and smelly from work to Hannah’s ASL class. As the couple stands in their daughter’s bedroom doorway at night, we see a sampler on the wall of three bunnies huddled with a gray cloud hovering over them, raindrops falling, and a heart inscribed in the air above them, their love a frail umbrella against the storm.

Curtis is afraid he may be going crazy but fears, even more, that he isn’t; we see him methodically reading up on the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia, quizzing his mother about the symptoms of her own onset, and seeking professional help, but also, simultaneously, preparing for the apocalyptic storm foretold in his visions by expanding and fortifying his storm shelter, buying canned goods and gas masks. It’s a painful portrait of a man methodically pursuing cross-purposes. His last name, LaForche, means “the fork,” alluding to both his bifurcated behavior and the decision he faces.

Curtis begins having waking dreams. He hears claps of thunder out of an empty sky. He sees flocks of birds describing undulant arabesques in the air, as if the universe is trying to tell him something in sign. The question he asks, standing on the roadside watching an eerily beautiful lightning display crackling blue and purple over an open field, might be that of any clear-eyed man in a world blind with denial: “Is anyone seein’ this?” Neither he nor we know until the film’s end, if then, whether these are symptoms of incipient schizophrenia or supernatural visions. This ambiguity calls on the audience to decide whether we’re going to interpret the film as psychological portrait or political metaphor--as a naturalistic story about a man losing his mind or a parable about a modern seer with a vision of our world in peril. When Curtis loses it at a Lions’ Club dinner, thundering at his neighbors like a wild-eyed Old Testament prophet, “THERE IS A STORM COMING LIKE NOTHING YOU HAVE EVER SEEN AND NOT A ONE OF YOU IS PREPARED FOR IT!” our reaction is a litmus test: do we cringe in embarrassment or exult at hearing the truth spoken? Is Curtis a schizophrenic in need of medication or a prophet without honor in his hometown? (It’s not unlike the tension in the The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) between the realistic likelihood that Jack Torrance is losing his mind and the supernatural possibility that the ghosts are real.)

The film’s crucial moment comes when Curtis has to make his own choice between the personal and the social: to keep himself and his family barricaded in the dark or open the shelter’s door and risk letting in the outside world.

This tension is intensified to the breaking point by the film’s ending, when the storm finally appears. On first viewing this seems like a deliberately ambiguous coda, one that can be taken as literal reality or yet another nightmare. But we never wake up from this one. And Curtis’ wife and daughter don’t act like the people in his dreams, ravening or affectless; they are themselves. It’s also the first time in the film that we see the storm from a point of view other than Curtis’s. His daughter Hannah sees it first—she makes the swirling sign for “storm” that she learned early in the film—and then his wife sees it, too--we see it reflected in the sliding glass doors behind her as she emerges from the beach house, and over her shoulder as she looks out at the vast roiling storm front, its multiple waterspouts reaching like tentacles toward an iron-gray ocean This isn’t an ambiguous ending; the film’s title turns out to be an imperative. Sam nods wordlessly at Curtis; he nods back. It is an inversion of the awful charged moment from his dream when she stared at him with implacable menace and he shook his head beseechingly. The family will not turn on itself; if they are to die they will do it together.

When we first saw Curtis and Hannah on the beach he was digging a moat around a sand castle, another fragile barricade like the fantasy of security he was buying with his storm shelter. There’s a last shot, as Curtis picks up his daughter and runs, of their abandoned castle crumbling on the beach. What we’re going to have to leave behind in order to survive was never going to last anyway.

Broken logic

The ending of Meek’s Cutoff comes so suddenly, leaving its story so unresolved that first-time viewers may start in shock and something like indignation. We’ve devoted a lot of time and concentration and forfeited a lot of the cheaper, more immediate rewards of movie-going to follow the film to this conclusion. We’ve sat through long, silent sequences, strained to see action in near-total darkness and to overhear faint dialogue recorded at a distance. The film builds its narrative tension with meticulous slowness, withholding obvious payoffs, investing everything in the question: will the settlers find their way? When the credits roll and we realize we’re never going to know, we feel less disappointed than betrayed.

Everything else about Meek’s Cutoff—its austerely beautiful photography, precisely measured pace, the restraint and assurance of its acting–is the product of such obvious seriousness of purpose that its abrupt ending can’t be ill-considered. In retrospect, Meek’s Cutoff is most intelligible and rewarding read as allegory. Although based on an historical episode, in Kelly Reichart’s hands the story becomes an extended metaphor about Western civilization having lost its way. (One of the first images in the film is someone scrawling the word LOST on a fallen tree, like the inscrutable word CROATOAN left behind by Virginia’s legendary lost colony.) This wagon train heading westward on the Oregon Trail, at the very end of the frontier, is a microcosm for expansionist capitalism running low on resources and reaching the limits of a plundered world. The men have been in charge so far, taking one wrong turn after another, stubbornly compounding their disastrous course, while the women have watched helplessly and with decreasing confidence from a distance. Their leader looks more and more like an incompetent blowhard, and their situation is growing dire. They appear to be doomed.

Meek’s Cutoff is a Western told, for once, from the point of view of its women; near the film’s beginning we hear a girl reading aloud from scripture a passage about the naming of Eve. Again and again we are placed in the women’s frustrating position, excluded from the action and decision-making, forced to spy on their menfolk from a distance, eavesdropping on their faint dialogue over the shirring of insects. 

Women are visually relegated to the status of chattel, framed with the livestock and wagons as they wait during the men’s convocations, carefully carrying a caged bird across a river (a bird identified with the twittering Lily, whose mustard dress dully echoes its yellow feathers). They’re also associated with slaves and oppressed races: “Working like niggers once again,” one of them grumbles as they fetch water and grind coffee in the predawn dark. And it’s a woman, our heroine Emily Tetherow, who will eventually forge an uneasy alliance with a captured Cayuse Indian.

During a circumspect confrontation between the film’s two antagonists, Emily Tetherow and their guide, Stephen Meek, Meek waxes philosophic on the war of the sexes:

“Women are created on the principle of chaos — the chaos of creation, disorder, bringin’ new things into the world. Men—created on the principle of destruction. S’like cleansin’ order and destruction… Chaos and destruction, the two genders’s always had it.”

Meek’s Cutoff undercuts this bombast, depicting most men as inept braggarts or dithering fools. We first see Stephen Meek crawling out of his teepee in a red union suit and buckskin jacket to the sound of buzzing flies, a bedraggled travesty of Wild Bill Hickock. He’s a gunslinger of bullshit, full of colorful bluster and milk-and-honey guarantees. He tells tall tales to children and only slightly less implausible stories to their elders: “You won’t want for riches,” he promises them about their destination. “Someday you just plunge your hands into the ground!

The wisest man in the film, named Solomon, is distinguished by the trust he places in his wife Emily. Emily Tetherow is intelligent and decisive, second-guessing the men’s fumbling judgment under her breath. “We should never have left the main stem,” she mutters. “We shoulda taken on more [water] at the river.” After dark, in the privacy of their wagon, Solomon tells Emily the men suspect Stephen Meek might be paid to mislead American immigrants.

“It has a logic,” he admits.

“I suppose,” she snaps. “A broken one.” She’s exasperated by her husband’s “optimism” about their progress and halfhearted faith in Meek’s leadership. “I don’t blame him for not knowing,” she clarifies. “I blame him for saying he did.” It’s his hubristic certitude she despises, the empty pretense to expertise and authority. The first time we see a close-up of Emily, she is listening, visibly un-wowed, as Stephen Meek tells a child about a fight with a bear.

Emily is the first to see the Indian tracking them, standing on a ridge like a vision, as if her disillusionment with their ostensible leader has summoned a new guide. Stephen Meek is alarmed and tries to alarm the rest of the group, browbeating them with stories of the Cayuse Indians’ savagery and mercilessness: “I’ve seen ‘em strip the flesh off a man while he’s still breathin’,” he rhapsodizes. “I’ve seen ‘em cut a man’s eyelids off and bury him in the sand and leave him just starin’ at the sun.” There’s really no reason we should take these stories any more seriously than the one about Meek’s acquaintance who was scalped by a bear. Like certain other leaders who come readily to mind, Meek uses dubious atrocity stories and scare tactics to persuade his followers they’re surrounded by inhumanly cruel enemies from whom only he can protect them.

After they capture the Cayuse, the men try abuse and bribery to get him to lead them to water, but Emily takes him a cup of water and fixes a split in his moccasin. This isn’t sentiment so much as pragmatism: “I want him to owe me something,” she tells Lily. Emily isn’t some anachronistic heroine of p.c. cultural sensitivity.“You can’t even imagine the things we’ve done,” she tells their captive in scorn and wonderment, “the cities we’ve built.” But on some gut-empathetic level she also recognizes their captive’s humanity. We see her listening to him praying in the night. Theirs is the unwilling kinship of servitude. When Meek regales the settlers with a story about massacring unarmed Indians, she is unimpressed. “Vanity,” she pronounces. “That’s all I see.”

As their circumstances become increasingly desperate their journey ceases to be about some myth of opportunity and is purified into a struggle for survival, a sort of spiritual pilgrimage. We see Solomon and Emily casting their possessions overboard to lighten their load, family heirlooms become ballast. When a boy finds a bit of gold, the settlers “stake a claim,” leaving a post with a cloth tied around it to mark the spot; we see it receding from their point of view, a little stick lost in the vast sameness of the landscape, like a monument to the folly of Land, Possession and Treasure.

In the end their bid for fortune becomes a death march. We see a black vulture drifting overhead, biding its time. A settler falls, exhausted and dehydrated. The Cayuse sings a funeral chant over him. The other settlers look on not with the Christian contempt we’ve come to expect but a numb resignation that might be respect.

Then the party comes to a lone tree in a dell. The music shimmers with portent; it’s a dream landscape. In its last scene, like those of 2001, La Dolce Vita, or Barton Fink, Meek’s Cutoff shifts levels from the naturalistic to the overtly symbolic.

“A tree can’t grow without water,” says one of the men hopefully. And indeed the tree at first seems like a symbol of hope; Solomon holds a branch with berries tenderly in his hand, reminiscent of the branch the dove brought back after the flood. But the tree is also an eerily ambiguous image: only its lower half is alive and green; its upper branches are dead and bare. Is it an omen of salvation or ruin? Is the Indian leading them to water or a slaughter? “We’re close, but we don’t know what to,” says one settler. This is not just a story about one lost wagon train, but a parable about a dying civilization come to a moment of fateful choice, a fork in the road, like Curtis La Forche’s.

When someone appeals to him for advice, Stephen Meek says a bizarre and utterly unexpected thing:

“I’m taking my orders from you now, Mr. Tetherow, Mrs. Tetherow. And we’re all taking our orders from him [nodding toward the Cayuse], I’d say. We’re all just playin’ our parts now. This was written long before we got here. I’m at your command.”

He seems to speak with a voice and a wisdom not his own. His braggadocio is emptied out; Meek finally lives up to his name. The film’s title doesn’t refer to the place-name in Oregon or some movie-Western maneuver, but the point at which Stephen Meek’s power is revoked. After all his boasts and threats and promises, our patriarchal leader, having led us to the brink of extinction, has finally admitted failure, ceding his authority to those who’ve so far been kept subservient and voiceless: a woman, who’s assumed moral leadership of the party, and an aboriginal, who goes on ahead, little caring whether we follow. Those long relegated to the margins now assume center stage. Emily, in charge at last, debates her course, her face framed in the tree’s branches as she turns to look after the Cayuse. In a reverse shot we see him pausing to regard her impassively. The music and all other sound cuts out save for the soft tread of his footsteps as he turns and walks away from us, into an uncertain landscape. The open question posed by the film’s last images is: will we follow?

Everything debased

The apocalypse that is economic and ecological in Take Shelter and historical in Meek’s Cutoff becomes mythic and universal in The Horse of Turin. “At the beginning of my career, I had a lot of social anger,” says Bela Tarr in an interview.

“Afterwards, I began to understand that the problems were not only social; they are deeper. I thought they were only ontological… afterward, I could understand that [they] were not only ontological. They were cosmic.”[4]

The film takes as its text and point of departure a very short story by Laszlo Krasznahorkai that re-imagines the episode of Friedrich Nietzsche’s collapse in Turin, when he famously threw his arms around the neck of a carriage horse that was being flogged. Nietzsche deteriorated into catatonia even as his philosophy detonated like a depth charge, collapsing two thousand years of Western faith and intellectual tradition. But “of the horse,” Krasznahorkai’s fable concludes, “we know nothing.”

The Horse of Turin tells us not what became of that particular horse (the film seems set not in Italy ca.1889 but in some blasted and timeless existential landscape) but the fate of all the mute suffering creatures of the earth in the aftermath of Nietzsche’s deicide. The film’s protagonists are two peasants who, no less than Nietzsche’s poor whipped nag, have slaved at unrelieved, plodding labor their whole lives. The respect Tarr pays these people is in the sheer screen time and rigorous scrutiny he devotes to their quotidian routines. The Horse of Turin is a pitilessly slow, repetitive film, with long passages recapitulated with incremental variations, as in its minimalist score. We see father and daughter going about their daily chores in the grueling tedium of real time, in uninterrupted shots that last as long as eight minutes. They eat the same meal day after day: one massive boiled potato per person, skinned with bare fingers and devoured still steaming. As the punishing wind outside whips up stinging dust storms, collecting water from the well becomes an undertaking to set your teeth against. Even dressing is a laborious ritual because one of the father’s arms is limp and useless. All this is less ennobled than simply beheld, honored, by Tarr’s ascetic attention. Fred Keleman’s cinematography is almost devotional, making fine-grained art of weathered wood, rude stone, earthen floor, swirling mane and rippling horseflesh, faces lashed and bodies spraddled by time and work. Throughout, the wind moans and rages without respite and Mihály Vig’s mournful score saws on, as though playing music were another grueling chore.

As if in some dark fairy tale, a series of curses befalls the two peasants. On the first night the Deathwatch beetles stop ticking, leaving ominous silence. Then the titular horse refuses to budge or to eat, obstinate as Melville’s Bartleby, and it’s clear, by the middle of the film, that it is moribund. As in Take Shelter, the death of an animal seems a portent. Next the peasants’ well runs dry. Finally the lamps will not light, even though they’re filled with oil, and even the sun goes dark. The Turin Horse is a Book of Genesis in reverse—like a black Mass, read backwards—telling the story of Uncreation. The film is divided, like the Biblical Creation, into six days, in the course of which we see God’s gifts taken back one by one. Its sequence of mysterious privations inverts the order of Creation in Genesis 1:1-25: first the “living creature[s]” and “beast[s] of the earth,” created on the sixth day, sicken and die; then the Waters, which were separated from the land on the third day, recede and vanish; and finally light, the first of God’s creations (“fiat lux”), fails. Throughout these successive losses the windstorm relentlessly rises, supernatural in its wrath, like a scouring judgment on the earth. God rebuked long-suffering Job from out of a windstorm, and here, as in Take Shelter, the rising storm is the voice of some universal sentence upon Man’s offenses.

The only explicit explanation or hypothesis we ever hear for these escalating misfortunes comes when a guy named Benhard barges into the hovel demanding booze, and, halfway through a film in which scarcely a word has been exchanged, delivers a long, lugubrious rant about human corruption, the death of God, and the well-deserved destruction of mankind. Like many a barroom diatribe, it goes on for a while and tends to ramble, restating its main points several times. The gist is that humankind has brought about its own damnation through its insatiable lust for possession. And that those decent few who once knew better lost faith in goodness and so abandoned the field, bequeathing the earth to vermin.

“Because for this perfect victory it was also essential that the other side... that is, everything that's excellent, great in some way and noble, should not engage in any kind of fight. There shouldn't be any kind of struggle, just the sudden disappearance of one side...”

In other words, The best lack all conviction/While the worst are full of passionate intensity. Bernhard isn’t a spokesman for Nietzsche, who saw in the advent of nihilism a crucible for the forging of new values; he sees nothing in God’s absence but a feeding frenzy, the world left prey to rapacious avarice. The father dismisses all this as “rubbish,” but it’s significant in light of this tirade that it’s his own “good” right arm, as opposed to the “sinister” left, that hangs limp and useless. He is a living embodiment of Bernhard’s text, Man crippled by the failing of his better side.

A second intrusion comes with the appearance of a wagonload of gypsies bound for America. When the father brandishes an axe at them they curse his well and move on, leaving behind, as backhanded thanks for the water they’ve stolen, a book Tarr calls “an anti-Bible” (like the film’s anti-Genesis). The daughter reads aloud a verse that echoes Bernhard’s anti-sermon, about priests closing down the churches because of people’s sinfulness. The next day, when their well runs dry in fulfillment of the gypsies’ curse, father and daughter decide to abandon their homestead and make their escape to someplace not utterly devoid of hope where the wind is not howling desolately 24/7. We watch them haul their carriage up the hill, disappear over the horizon, and then, after a long minute, return. There is never any explanation for their turning back. It seems possible that the outside world has ceased to exist, as if this Godforsaken place is the fallen world to which humanity has been condemned, and they’ve been repelled by the flaming sword at Eden’s gate. The world we see in The Turin Horse is dramatically Fallen, like the landscape of dry grass, cracked mud flats, and alkalai lakes in Meek’s Cutoff, suggesting the land east of Eden. Neither Meek’s’ settlers nor the Father and Daughter can find any way to escape. Stephen Meek’s odd refrain--“Hell’s fulla bears, Jimmy,” “Hell’s fulla Indians,” “Hell’s fulla mountains,” makes him sound like some grizzled frontier Virgil. Both these films seem to posit Earth as Hell, desolate and inescapable.

On the last day, the day of darkness, the father urges his daughter to eat, despite everything, but even he has no appetite. He says they’ll try again tomorrow, but as the film fades to black they sit there slumped and unmoving, dumbly enduring, like chattel, in the Hell of hope abandoned. In Take Shelter and Meek’s Cutoff we are confronted with a choice, left with some chance to turn back, but compared to the utter desolation of Tarr’s black fable even the futilitarian heroism of Beckett’s I’ll go on/I can’t go on is a needlepoint sampler homily. Light, the first creative act, the one by which we behold all others—and the one most beloved of artists and cinephiles—has been extinguished. Tarr claims this will be his last film. The rest, presumably, is silence.


Each of these films can be read as a warning; one immediate and urgent, one taking a longer view of a civilization in crisis, the last a damning Old-Testament prophecy. Read together, through a kind of film-crit haruspication, they form a disquieting pattern. Since I started thinking about this essay, several other end-of-the-world films have come and gone from both arthouses (4:44 Last Day on Earth, Abel Ferrara, 2011) and multiplexes (Seeking a Friend  for the End of the World, Lorene Scafaria, 2012). An apocalyptic comedy, This Is the End, (Evan Goldberg, 2013) comes out in two weeks. As Curtis says in Take Shelter, “it’s in the air.” Maybe even those big dumb blockbusters about comets and zombies and the Mayan apocalypse are symptoms of some unconscious recognition, as even the stupidest jokes reveal our most deeply buried fears. Just as the alien-invasion cycle of the 50s coincided with the Cold War and Red Scare, and the superhero cycle (ca. 2002-present) reflects 9/11 and War on Terror fantasies of omnipotence and moral certitude, this current cycle of apocalyptic films seems like an expression of some pervasive anxiety that our present society can't possibly last.

Of course it’s easy for a critic to connect any arbitrary dots to form some portentous constellation. And artists aren’t necessarily any more prescient, or less prone to alarmism, hysteria, or crackpot theories than anyone else. People in all eras have proclaimed some great crisis or reckoning imminent; it’s perversely cheering to believe that we live in some exceptional, crucial historical moment, even if it’s the End Times, rather than that we’re just ordinary people occupying another unremarkable corner of existence, soon to be forgotten. But I would just suggest that, when a lot of a society’s best artists start urgently signaling, independently of one another but in disquieting concert, that something awful is coming, that we need to change course or die, that we are doomed, we should probably, at the very least, pay attention. You might read these films together as a sign, like a flock of birds moving in unison, inscribing a cryptic but deliberate pattern in the air, as if they were trying to tell us something.


1. "Physicist, Purge Thyself" Chicago Tribune Magazine (22 June 1969)

2. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia also seemed as if it might be pertinent to this essay, and the author violated a personal vow of sixteen years’ standing never again to see another Lars von Trier film in order to watch it, to his (the author’s) regret, since for von Trier, not unpredictably, the destruction of the Earth and extinction of the human race turns out only to be a misanthropic wish-fulfillment and vindication of his own pessimism and clinical depression, a big told-you-so/good riddance to us all.

3. Josh Levs, “Officials probe 'unusual' mass deaths of birds in two states,” CNN.com, January 4, 2011. http://articles.cnn.com/2011-01-04/us/arkansas.bird.mystery_1_greg-butcher-red-winged blackbirds-national-wildlife-health-center?_s=PM:US

4. “An Interview With Bela Tarr: Why He Says ‘The Turin Horse’ is His Final Film,” http://www.indiewire.com/article/bela-tarr-explains-why-the-turin-horse-is-his-final-film (February 9 2112)

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