If there is one thing I've learned from taking a film class, it's that there is a very sharp difference between art cinema (such as the works of Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman) and classical cinema (the types of movies being made in Hollywood between the 1930's and 1950's, such as the works of John Houston, Howard Hawks, John Ford, etc.), and both have made an impact on contemporary film.
For those of you not familiar with these terms, art cinema is distinguished largely by its surrealist structure: the overall story is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Meanwhile, classical cinema is identifiable as being centered on creating a comprehensible story, with every scene being used to help further advance the plot. It is possible for elements of both classical and art films to co-exist together in a specific work, but it is also possible to rework specific conventions in terms of narrative and structure, to allow components of one to work more in the context of the other.
We can see some of this blending in Jeff Nichols’ independent movie Take Shelter, which clearly draws influence from the art film in its themes of alienation and uncertainty, but is primarily classical in structure and plot due to its coherent linear progression and causality. There are several elements which are clearly taken from the structure of an art film, but they are transformed in such a way as to fit them within the formulaic structure of a classical film.
Take Shelter is a 2011 drama centered on a young man named Curtis, who begins experiencing a series of strange vivid dreams of a large storm. These visions motivate and drive him to build a bomb shelter in an effort to protect his wife and daughter from the perceived threat of the aforementioned storm, but gradually his actions begin to have huge impact on his relationship to his wife Samantha, along with everyone in his community.
Two of the most common themes in art cinema are alienation and uncertainty, and both are present in Take Shelter. In fact, both these themes are central to the plot, during which Curtis’s gradually shifting behaviour causes him to be alienated from everyone in his community. Curtis becomes increasingly uncertain about whether his visions are real or merely hallucinations.
This is notable several times in the film, such as near the end when he and Samantha have spent time in the bomb shelter following a tornado warning, and he is unsure if the storm is still happening. He touches the door and claims to be able to feel it, but when Samantha does the same she feels nothing. Take Shelter makes use of the themes of art cinema, but instead applies them to a narrative that would otherwise be entirely classical.
Take Shelter does make use of surreal dream sequences, but where an art film might gradually blur the lines between reality and fantasy, Take Shelter always makes sure to clearly distinguish the dream sequences from the scenes set in reality. Throughout the film the difference is primarily indicated through jarring cuts, with little obvious change in sound, lighting, or cinematography. This can even be seen in the opening scene, where Curtis is watching a storm come in.
The shot of Curtis standing in front of his garage and watching brown-coloured water fall onto his hands has a surreal quality to it. However, the viewer is immediately snapped into reality when the scene cuts to Curtis standing in the shower before quickly cutting to a more realistically-grounded scene in which he has breakfast with his family.
The subject matter of Take Shelter could theoretically have worked if it were structured as an art film. The story of Curtis’s battle with schizophrenia could have been presented in a non-linear and ambiguous format. Perhaps Curtis’s dreams could have begun to blur with reality, raising questions about his sanity as it becomes harder to tell where his reality ends and his delusions begin. Instead, using the framework of a classical film, the plot is made as comprehensible and straight forward as possible. The story progresses in a linear fashion and there is no “dead time”—periods where scenes happen that do not in some way advance the story.
Much like the structure of a classical film, the plot is mostly driven by causality; everything that happens is a consequence of something that happened before. The dream sequence, which opens the film, sets the plot in motion as it causes Curtis to begin feeling uncertain about his reality as well as the overwhelming need to protect his family.
Building a shelter is what starts to alienate Curtis from society. Getting help from his best friend Dewart leads to Curtis becoming uncomfortable at work and eventually asking to have him transferred. Getting Dewart transferred causes him to betray Curtis. Dewart then tells his boss that Curtis has been using equipment from work, which gets Curtis fired and in turn causes further stress in Curtis’s relationship to Samantha. Spending time in the shelter results in Samantha finally persuading Curtis to see a psychiatrist.
The meeting with the psychiatrist subsequently leads to them going on vacation just in time for a large storm to arrive. Very few scenes happen that do not in immediately advance the narrative. Even when the dream sequences do not provide a clear advancement of the plot, they still have a clear function: to emphasize Curtis’s deteriorating mental health and his growing uncertainty about the nature of his visions. In this case, the components lifted from art cinema are able to enhance the otherwise entirely classical narrative.
Both the art and classical film usually center with a personality, a goal, and a motive which influences their actions over the course of the story. The difference is that in a classical film, the inner thoughts of the characters, along with their motivations and ultimate goals would be made as clear to the audience as possible. An art film may show the thoughts and fantasies of the protagonist, but will usually refrain from explaining their deeper meanings. In Take Shelter, Curtis clearly wants to ensure the safety of his wife and their daughter, and very few, if any, of his actions are left to interpretation.
One of the key components of the classical formula is that the movie should appear to be real, and in Take Shelter there is no indication to the contrary. Curtis acts like someone battling with schizophrenia, a mental condition which causes delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech. It is also known to affect the patient’s perception of reality and as well as any meaningful relationships in their life.
To look at a specific example, we can examine the final scenes of Take Shelter, as while an art film will usually deny the audience closure, the classical film will ensure all loose ends are tied up. At this point, Curtis has finally emerged from his homemade bomb shelter to find that the storm he had experienced visions of has not happened, as he discovers when he opens the doors of his darkened shelter to a find the blinding light of a clear sky.
Though some minor damage has been done, it is not of the magnitude he had expected. Finally realizing these may be merely delusions, Curtis agrees to see a psychologist. The psychologist suggests that Curtis and Samantha go on vacation as far from the shelter as possible. When they return Curtis will start extensive therapy.
In the next scene, Curtis and his family are staying at Myrtle Beach. Curtis is playing with his daughter, helping her to build a sand castle while Samantha is inside cooking. The daughter laughs in excitement as they finish the castle, but her excitement slowly fades while Curtis maintains a smile. Suddenly the daughter stands up and looks over the horizon. Curtis asks if she sees something. She makes a gesture to indicate something which upsets Curtis.
Typically, an art film usually denies the audience any form of closure and ends on a subjective note, while a classical film would opt to tie up any remaining loose ends. The ending of Take Shelter is interesting as it provides a middle ground between both extremes, though leaning strongly toward the classical style. Rather than ending abruptly, Take Shelter does take the time to resolve the story of Curtis and Samantha. The two are seen to finally get help from a psychiatrist and it is explained that Curtis will eventually begin extensive therapy in an effort to overcome his illness.
However, there is also one element left open: the storm coming in suggests that Curtis’s visions may have been real after all, a possibility that seems to be supported by the parallelism invoked when rain of a brownish colour lands on Samantha’s hand in a similar manner to Curtis’s dream at the beginning.
The movie ends before this possibility is explicitly confirmed or denied, leaving that one detail open to interpretation—it could be real, but it is also still possible that Curtis may be delusional and simply misinterpreting a large storm, or it could be another dream and he'll wake up in a few minutes. The ambiguity of the ending might ordinarily fit it into the context of an art film, but as this is the only component to the story without a clear resolution it still fits within the classical model.
While Take Shelter clearly draws influence from both the art and classical style, it is hardly a straight hybrid of both. In most areas the film appears to be almost strictly made within the classical model, and fits in with the style of a classical film. Whereas an art film relies on ambiguity, Take Shelter prefers to rely primarily on causality and clarity, even if the common art cinema themes of uncertainty and alienation are in fact present.