Take Shelter — the birds are falling (again)

2012 opens with news of blackbirds falling dead from the sky in Arkansas — again. 

Thousands of dead blackbirds rained down on a town in central Arkansas last New Year's Eve after revelers set off fireworks that spooked them from their roost, and officials were reporting a similar occurrence Saturday as 2012 approached.

Police in Beebe said dozens of blackbirds had fallen dead, prompting officers to ban residents from shooting fireworks Saturday night. It wasn't immediately clear if fireworks were again to blame, but authorities weren't taking a chance.

Officer John Weeks said the first reports of "birds on the streets" came around 7 p.m. as residents celebrated the year's end with fireworks in their neighborhoods.

"We started shutting down fireworks," he said. "We're working on cleaning up the birds now."

Such was an image in two films this year, both contemplating environmental disaster. (Without the fireworks, admittedly.) The first being Melancholia, where blackbirds fall from the sky, and people plenty of good reasons to look to the heavens, as they contemplate the end.


By contrast, 2011 also featured a beautifully understated dramatic examination of oncoming disaster, called Take Shelter. In this movie a devoted father, plagued by delusional nightmares of a storm the likes of which has never been seen in Ohio, turns his life upside down. He alienates his brother, frightens his wife, and loses his job — all in the attempt to save his family. 

Despite being devastated by blackbirds falling from the sky, he wonders if he's going crazy. 

Describing what motivated him to make this film, the writer/director Jeff Nichols said:

I wrote TAKE SHELTER because I believed there was a feeling out in the world that was palpable. It was an anxiety that was very real in my life, and I had the notion it was very real in the lives of other Americans as well as other people around the world. This film was a way for me to talk about that fear and that anxiety. I hope there is an answer to this feeling by the end of the film. I believe there is, and it's the reason that this wonderful group of people came together to help me make TAKE SHELTER.

Yes, there is a palpable sense of disaster about to descend — no? For better or worse. Perhaps we're all wrong, but the fear is there, among us. 

Leave aside the much-reported record twelve billion-dollar climactic disasters of the U.S. in 2011. You can hear in the rhetoric of Ron Paul and his followers, remarked on by leading conservative Ross Douthat. You can  read it in frightened Tea Party economic analysis. You can hear it in the serious music of today, such as Holocene, by Bon Iver, and in A.O. Scott's superb encapsulation of the film's central drama:

Is Curtis mad, or is he prescient? You can debate this question when the movie is over — the brilliant final scene invites as much — but you are unlikely to find a comfortable answer. The real question is what difference it makes…in “Take Shelter,” [Nichols] has made a perfect allegory for a panicky time. There is no shortage of delusion and paranoia out there in the world. There is also a lot to be afraid of.

Once our culture located God in the skies; now we wonder if we can trust Him — or them. 


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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