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Cinephobia: To Wonder, To Worry

Sarah Keller



  In a universe where everything moves and changes, one risks losing all sense of rule, apart from those laws defining this mobility and change. […] The scholar, the philosopher, and the cineaste all wonder with deep worry what the power of the mind will be in worlds where permanent structures that seem necessary to any kind of knowledge are loosening, dissolving, and fading away. (1)   1. Jean Epstein, ‘To a Second Reality, a Second Reason’ in Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul (eds), Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), p. 324.

Jean Epstein’s later writings, from which the above quotation is taken, positively fixate on fluidity and the need for embracing flexible terms for comprehending the world and cinematic images wrought from it. His notion of our propensity to ‘wonder with deep worry’ over the loss of ‘permanent structures’ underlines at least one kind of cinephobia — a phenomenon that has had the opportunity to mark spectators’ encounters with the cinema over its history.


Related to the cinematic image, its messages as well as its appearance, cinephobia is bound to issues of spectatorship. Simply put, it concerns a diverse range of anxieties experienced by spectators. The idea of cinephobia is not at all new, but it has yet to be approached in any satisfyingly systematic way. Conversely, the complementary idea of cinephilia has enjoyed sustained or even increasing attention in cinema studies — mainly but not exclusively as related to exhibition practices and habits of movie going. Associating the pleasurable, often intensely personal experience of being ‘at’ the movies (whether in a cinema proper or in the comfort of one’s home) with the specific kinds of images encountered therein, cinephilia has flourished in cinema studies — particularly at specific periods of dynamic change in the nature of cinema — and rightly so. Recent books include Christian Keathley’s wonderful Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s collection of critical appreciations, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, and Malte Hagener and Marijke de Valck’s anthology, Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory. (2) In addition, many popular and specialist online cinema journals and blogs devoted to cinephilic explorations, from the amateur (3) to the professional (4) and everything in-between, provide the opportunity for greater immediacy and interaction with cinephilic activity. Historical accounts of cinephilia, for example the collections of writings in Cahiers du cinéma across the decades starting with the 1950s, further document the sustained interest in cinephilia (both then and now).


Cinephilia has frequently been marshalled to deal with a changing cinema culture, aesthetic and/or experience. It has functioned as a strategy to cope with a variable media environment from the very first stirrings of whatever experience, space or practice we might want to call ‘cinema’ (e.g., hovering above a Kinetoscope? Communally experiencing projected images in a space apart? Watching an Antonioni ‘film’ on one’s iphone?). Perhaps this helps to explain its constancy in the field, if sometimes the only consistent part of the cinema experience is the love one bears for the moving image, in whatever form. However, cinema’s shape shifting has been cause for celebration but also fear, and indeed cinephobia and cinephilia have never been set asunder for long, if at all. Like the tattooed pair of knuckles belonging to ersatz preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), on which the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ appear, love has its counterparts in hate and fear, and indeed a struggle between the two drives any number of narratives and may be useful for theorising fear in and of cinema.







2. See Christian Keathley, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006); Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); and Malte Hagener and Marijke de Valck, Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005).  

3. The amateur being particularly appropriate for cinephilia; as Maya Deren reminds us, ‘The very classification “amateur” has an apologetic ring. But that very word — from the Latin amator, “lover” — means one who does something for the love of the thing’. See Deren, ‘Amateur versus Professional’ in Bruce McPherson (ed), Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film (Kingston, NY: Documentext, 2005), p. 17.  

4. For example, the website, an initiative of the Flemish Service for Film Culture, edited by a group including faculty and postgraduate students from the cinema studies programs of Antwerp and Ghent universities.  



Considering a sampling of the multifaceted roles of cinephobia in cinema’s history and surveying some of the ways people have expressed anxiety about moving images more generally, I want to begin to outline certain categories of fear that consistently appear in the way people have discussed their encounters with cinema. Overall, I believe that embracing the peculiar and shifting set of relationships between fear and love provides a more resilient foundation for thinking about the cinematic experience in a climate of constant change (or, for Epstein, changing constants) than one predicated solely on love.


So, what are the kinds of cinephobia that appear in accounts of experiences with cinema? To begin, let us consider four categories. Anxieties about what cinema represents, what it is, and what it can do have been present from the beginning. I discovered this past year after teaching a seminar entitled ‘Cinephilia / Cinephobia’ just how many discrete categories of phobia might be accounted for under that rubric. (5) Not all of these fit comfortably together, and it is more than possible that no overarching theory of cinephobia could contain them all (or even most of them). Indeed, I readily admit here that it may be impossible to approach cinephobia in any other way than to respect the surprisingly wide range of anxieties prompted by cinema. However, recognising the presence of anxiety in so many disparate nodes of cinema experience leads me to believe that something essential about the medium depends on it. Importantly, these tentative categories operate both within cinematic depictions (which regularly play out these anxieties in dramatic or documentary contexts) and in the spectator’s experience and/or the scholar’s theorisation of it.



Categories of Cinephobia






5. I am indebted to every one of the members of that seminar at New York University for a semester of intensely exciting, illuminating and sometimes wholly discomfiting discussion: Alicia Byrnes, Alex Davis, Jen Drissel, Jared Eisenstat, Lena Frey, Michelle Hamada, Jaz Herron, Adam Khatib, Jon Lisi, Diana Ritter and Brian Welesko.  

1. Anxiety about being captured on film


The first category of cinephobia stems from the idea that the camera might capture people on film who would prefer not to be there, for whatever reason — for example, out of shyness, a desire for privacy in general, or because they are misbehaving in some way. Early narratives depicted the latter two in ‘through-the-keyhole’ dramas, featuring subjective shot patterns that persisted well beyond this period and for different but related purposes (e.g., Norman Bates looking through the peephole at Marion Crane in Psycho [Alfred Hitchcock, 1960]).





The early keyhole dramas depended on these subjective views through a keyhole; a husband or wife upon hearing of their partner’s infidelity goes out in search of him or her. The spectator is treated to views through the keyhole at hotel rooms strongly indicating a voyeuristic look. The offended party seeks out the offending party until he or she is revealed, as Noël Burch has noted, in flagrante delicto. (6)


While these are narrative films, they play on the idea that one might be captured on film in one’s own life in a similar way. Films like Ladislaw Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) thematise a related type of phenomenon: that of itinerant cameramen going from town to town, filming the local populace during the day and screening what they shot that night.

  6. Lauren Rabinowitz notes that such dramas depend on the attractions model of spectatorship described by Tom Gunning, and the development of a string of narrative moments. She cites Burch in her argument. See Rabinowitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998), p. 84; and Noël Burch, Life to Those Shadows (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 222.



For some, the idea of being on film was a delight (indeed, a form of cinephilia), but the possibility of being filmed unawares and whilst doing something one would not want anyone to see was (and still is) a real fear. Part of the tension that inheres in this type of anxiety has to do with how one thinks of the prospect of seeing oneself on film: is the cinematic image a friendly mirror, an uncanny experience, an intrusion on one’s privacy? Is one’s own image Narcissus, a doppelgänger, or something else entirely?


Further, anxiety evolves out of the question of whether cinematic images might be distributed against one’s will or otherwise used against someone. Recent calls for legislation to allow someone to remove unseemly, libellous, or otherwise undesired content about him- or herself from the Internet — a concern especially extended to images of children — attest to the reality of this fear. (7) Moreover, the question of the appropriateness of sharing people’s private lives in moving images (e.g., personal tragedies played out in a public forum, such as the Newtown, Connecticut shootings) adds an ethical dimension to this aspect of film phobia. The ownership of a person’s personal ‘story’ or life events substantiates the idea that we feel a need to protect the right to privacy on both a real and a narrative level. Note, too, that the signs in YMCA locker rooms banning phones are there to prevent the filming of ladies in (or out of) their skivvies. While these examples relate to real-life anxieties, a number of films have explored this fear on some level as well — e.g., a recurring scenario in comedies such as The Best Man Holiday (2013) where someone’s wife is filmed in a compromising manner and the film is uploaded to YouTube (or put on video and watched by the children, a politician’s potential voters, the wife herself, etc.).






7. The Court Justice of the European Union passed legislation in May 2014 that has been termed ‘the right to be forgotten’. For further details, see Julia Fioretti, ‘How far will EU citizens’ “right to be forgotten” extend?’, Reuters, June 5, 2014. Legislation concerning content related to minors, litigation related to anti-defamation cases, and the enforcement of copyright laws have shaped nonfictional and fictional content available online as well.

Moreover, the fear of being captured on film somewhat perversely corresponds to the attraction of such titillating images. The spectator within the film (Norman Bates) and outside of it (observing Bates observing Marion Crane as well as, perhaps, the film’s maker) appreciates such views and even demands them. From the wholly unaware or unwilling object of the camera’s gaze (e.g., Dziga Vertov’s capturing of ‘life unawares’: I would prefer to have my coffee first before being roused from slumber by an intrusive cameraman, myself) to the semi- or fully-complicit reality television’s ethos of apparently unrestricted views of people who are only too willing to provide intimate life details — and everything in between — there is a market for such full-access images, both fictional and nonfictional, if not (why not?) total pleasure in them. This curiosity begets a cinephilia predicated on privileged views, often at the expense of those filmed (that’s why not, and that is the cinephobic side of the matter).


It is worth mentioning that this anxiety of being captured on film also functions as the foundation for medium’s use in court, whether by deploying surveillance videos as evidence or using footage from an enterprising bystander nearby at unfolding newsworthy events who uses his mobile phone’s camera to capture footage (e.g., the incident on which the film Fruitvale Station [Ryan Coogler, 2013] is based). Wrongdoers beware: you may be on film! Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) thematises the idea of film as evidence, something that can provide incriminating proof when other means of justice do not work (although, in Fury’s case, that evidence also jeopardises Joe Wilson [Spencer Tracy] because his knowledge of the film allows him to exercise his most vindictive, un-Joe-like self and become nearly as lost to humanity as the criminals). The ubiquity of film — its propensity to capture anyone at any time — suggests there is no escape from it. The idea that someone might want to shake the law or an oppressor but cannot, because of video monitoring of every kind — see the Bourne trilogy, for example — finds expression in this category.


Related to these categories is a more abstracted version of a fear about what appears on film. Perhaps one is not recognisable to oneself or to others, or one’s spirit and self are separated by being filmed, or even perhaps that some unimaginable but fearful something is just off-screen, its presence palpable although absent. This category demonstrates the limits of cinema as well as its enormous powers of abstraction and suggestion. I’ll call it:


2. Anxiety about what film is actually capturing (and maybe, too, about authenticity)


This category goes well back before moving images. It relates to the power or taboo of icons, graven images and photographs, with the belief, for instance, that photography might capture the spirit of a person, diminishing the power of the real thing in favour of the depicted thing. In a more positive light, depending on how you feel about the possibility of ghosts among us — and whether they spark happy anticipation or weak-kneed anxiety — spirit photography claimed to make evident things that were not visible to the naked eye but which were nevertheless present: the spirits of the dead. The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999) draws on this tradition when it depicts the young boy who can see dead people who are captured in a series of photographs, represented by a little star of light (i.e., the trace of a dead person, a ghost) next to him. Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), drawing on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Oval Portrait’, depicts the phenomenon of film taking away life by interposing a live woman with her life-like portrait. Epstein replaces the ‘still’ image of her painting with an insert of a moving image of Madeline mildly blinking at the camera. Trying to represent her as accurately as possible brings about the demise of the real person — a cinephobic depiction.




Elsewhere, pursuing a similar notion, Epstein writes eloquently of the way film makes familiar, living things strange. Yes, that characteristic underlines the power of photogénie — an essentially cinephilic trait (‘I will never find the way to say how much I love American close-ups. Point blank’ [8]) — but it also betrays the power of cinema to horrify through its cool, ‘inhuman analytic properties’. In ‘The Cinema Seen from Etna’, after describing his descent down a staircase lined with mirrors (‘I had never been seen this way before and I regarded myself with horror’), Epstein remarks that the cinema likewise (even more so) attains that horror, with great alacrity and widespread effect:


8. Jean Epstein, ‘Magnification’ in Richard Abel (ed), French Film Theory and Criticism 1907-1929 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 235-41.  


Even more than this kind of play with tilted mirrors, cinema produces similarly unexpected encounters with oneself. The uneasiness experienced in front of one’s own filmed image emerges suddenly and is widely shared. By now the story of the little American millionaires who cried after seeing themselves on screen for the first time has become a commonplace anecdote. And those who do not cry are troubled. (9)

  9. Jean Epstein, ‘The Cinema Seen from Etna’ in Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul (eds), Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), p. 292.  

While elsewhere Epstein discusses his profound cinephilia in no uncertain terms, it is important to remember that he also represents cinema’s power to generate a more cinephobic response. In a particularly forbidding frame of mind, Epstein echoes the idea that film might be used as evidence of a truth not fully comprehended even by the individual subject, and with deleterious impact: ‘And I see very clearly new inquisitions drawing overwhelming evidence from films in which a suspect is captured, flayed, and meticulously betrayed in an unbiased way by this very subtle mirror’s gaze’. (10)


Even so, what ‘evidence’ does the film capture? The trouble is that the filmic image both reveals certain truths and readily allows prevarication. One of the more elaborate and interesting depictions of this phenomenon comes in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), in which the hope of solving and providing evidence for a murder is dissolved by the abstraction of the blown-up image: capturing something on film does not, in Antonioni’s film, translate into a clear relationship with truth. The inability to recognise the image — undermining the ‘truth claims’ of photography — underpins ideas of digital (or analogue, for that matter) manipulability as well. In these cases, an inability to recognise something — a lack of iconicity of the filmed object — reveals the underlying anxiety about what film can and cannot capture. The inability to tell what is on film demonstrates the range of cinema’s powers of abstraction and suggestion.



10. Ibid.  





Blow-Up rehearses the backwards path from cinematic motion to still images. It suggests the fallibility of the moving image when broken down into its basic building block of a still frame, threatening to undermine the basic ontology of that moving image. The loss suffered as a result of that path within the film has profound implications for its plot: the murder is unsolvable, the evidence is invisible even when we know, having ‘witnessed’ the murder in cinematic time, that the blob at the bottom of an image is a body, etc. And speaking of murder and its rampant appearance in motion pictures, let us also consider:


3. Anxiety related to moral values (and how the cinema degrades them)


This anxiety relates to spectatorship and the impact of cinema on its audiences. The attempt to argue the negative effects of cinema-going goes very far back, for instance in the perceived hazards inhering in early cinema spaces. Tom Gunning has discussed the fact that after the mayor of New York closed movie theatres in 1908 due to their apparent disreputability, the Motion Picture Patents Company, which was formed to help regulate the film industry in the same year, required there be enough lighting in the screening space by which to read a newspaper. (11) Such lighting was deemed necessary to thwart ‘mashing’ and protect the young people and ladies who frequented the cinema. The uplift movement, upon which D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) draws in order to make its own argument about old prudes trying to regulate modern behaviour, similarly represents a fear about what kinds of effects the cinema might make on an impressionable audience. Later, the Hays Code, the current ratings system and Common Sense Media (which publishes information about the content of movies’ appropriateness for children) have also attempted to intervene, in a very different way, to help determine how moving images might affect their audiences and what kind of cinematic fare might be acceptable for different constituencies. A distrust about the values imparted by the medium of cinema has been a part of the cinematic institution from the beginning, and the sort of behaviour — violent, sexualised, demoralised, etc. — that might result in a persistent movie patron strikes fear in the hearts of a number of its detractors.

  11. Tom Gunning, ‘Weaving a Narrative Style and Economic Background in Griffith’s Biograph Films’ in Thomas Elsaesser (ed), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Edited by (London: BFI Publishing, 1990), p. 338-39.  

4. Anxiety about the loss of something — e.g., an aesthetic value — as the cinema changes


This category deals with the changes wrought by major shifts in technology, which have a tendency to command nostalgia for an aspect of cinema that seems to be on the horizon of disappearance. Change is met with apprehension about the tried and/or true nature of cinema which, by undergoing a major (or even a minor) shift or development, is besieged by the threat of annihilation in terms of what makes it unique, worthwhile and/or lasting.


The current digital revolution is what some, like Philip Rosen, have called utopian in its possibilities (12), but in several corners it has been the target upon which more than one film scholar or cinephile has fixed to express her anxiety about the future of cinema, or rather about the demise of the medium’s earlier qualities. Gunning has described how much of this anxiety toward the digital turn in cinema seems to stem from a mistaken notion about the indexicality of the photographic image. (13) The more momentous shifts in cinema’s technological aspects have prompted significant anxiety for a variety of reasons, and the changes in technology of the cinema have happened over the whole course of its history: the digitising of effects, projection, cinematography, editing, and so forth; changes of the dimensions and scale and set-up of the screens used to view moving images; the coming of sound and of the widespread use of colour; and even the shift from pre-cinematic technologies like still photography, lantern slides or phenakistoscopes, made to seem moving once run on flexible film stock through a projector at 24 or so frames per second.


From change to change, dread has been a factor in how theorists, scholars and filmgoers have characterized cinema. Dread over the possibility of losing the object of one’s affection, dread over cinema’s death. The digital turn has been viewed with a similar distrust as that of the filmmakers/theorists of the 1920s who addressed the coming of sound in terms of the way in which the new technology would alter the aesthetics of cinema irrevocably. Many of these fears are well-documented by makers of cinema from transitional periods — after all, radical change has the potential to render their art to that point obsolete. This cinephobia is strongly tied to cinephilia and fosters nostalgia for an about-to-be forgotten cinematic past. As several scholars have shown, this nostalgia also extends to cinema-goers, critics, other members of the film industry, and film and media scholars of all persuasions.


12. Philip Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (University of Minnesota Press, 2001).  

13. For example, that a photograph made photochemically also requires manipulations of several sorts — lenses, light, chemical processes — so both require an ‘intermediary form’ to register the object imaged. That the truth claim of photography depends on the possibility of falsehood — manipulation of photographs just as possible as with digital, though the latter is easier. See Tom Gunning, ‘What’s the Point of an Index? or, Faking Photographs’ in Karen Beckman and Jean Ma (ed), Still/Moving: Between Cinema and Photography (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 23-40.

The loss of films on film is only one particularly noticeable part of the anxiety digital media provokes. Alongside this fear of loss and nostalgia for the past are several anxieties concerning the storage of information, the transmission of images and the ubiquity of their use. If anyone can interpose in the transmission of digital images, then the status of authorship, the ‘truth claim’ of images, and the integrity of unaltered images are at stake. The status of images is compromised by the ease with which such images are changed, the way reality is challenged by false images, and how the origins of images can no longer be definitely determined. Related to this anxiety about change, then, is the anxiety about authenticity. The fear of inauthenticity in some way is the fear of too much potential changeability in the status of the image. Even so, again, the idea of change is a foundation upon which much of our understanding of cinema in whatever technological form is based.



Love and Fear, Hand in Hand



That love is weak where fear’s as strong as he. (14)

  14. John Donne, from ‘The Dream’.

A recent film, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011), draws on some of these specifically cinematic anxieties for its thematic and narrative complexity. Composed of some remarkable, vivid images, and slipping subtly between imagination (or hallucinations? or visions of the future?) and the hard-scrabble reality of living on the margins of middle-class respectability, Take Shelter draws on both euphoric beauty and immobilising anxiety to tell its story.


Set in Elyria, Ohio, the film follows Curtis (Michael Shannon), who has apocalyptic dreams that he keeps hidden from his family and co-workers. When, one evening, he cannot come out of the dream and his concerned wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), calls an ambulance, Curtis is compelled to explain. He describes his dreams to his wife (which we as spectators have seen unfold cinematically prior to this moment) as follows:



They always start with a kind of storm … dark thick rain like fresh motor oil. And things, people, it just makes them crazy. They attack me sometimes. […] It’s hard to explain, because it’s not just a dream. It’s a feeling. I’m afraid something might be coming, something that’s not right. I cannot describe it; I just need you to believe me.


The anxiety both prompted and provoked by the dreams unravels Curtis’ life piece by piece but, in fact, this moment of contact with his wife is the beginning of the story’s arc toward resolution. She just needs to believe him, and so do we. Curtis’ only request is that we understand the feeling, the fear of these night-time visions —not that we decide what they mean.


The film includes spectacular digital effects of the storms Curtis sees, as well as his visions of gravity-defying furniture, strange formations of birds in the sky, and characters (including Samantha) who act in ways that pose a threat to Curtis and, sometimes, to his deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), whom he tries to protect.




Take Shelter treats the question of an image’s authenticity in terms both of the narrative and the way the film constructs that narrative through these spectacular digital effects. (15) In short, the film plays with audience expectations about that imagery, toeing the line between authenticity/reality effects and falsity/imagination for both the film’s characters and its spectators. That is, Curtis sees what we also undeniably see in filmic images, but we cannot be sure about the status of those images, at least in terms of the narrative’s ends. Are we meant to see Curtis’ dream images as visions of a true, coming apocalypse, as the dawning of psychosis in a man whose family possesses a history of mental illness, or as just some particularly intense dreams? Are they friendly images (a real warning so he can prepare himself) or unfriendly images (figments of a troubled imagination)? The images operate in a cinephobic realm: it is impossible to discern whether these images are meant to be taken as realistic depictions or as something of cinematic or psychotic genesis. The lines between Curtis’ semi-diegetic world of dreams, the diegetic world of the film in which he can wonder about their status, the non-diegetic world of effects production, and the reception by the spectator of all three of these levels blur the way one must think about the self-contained narrative and what one sees (as effects, as images of the world). Curtis is the fulcrum between the visions and realities; the audience is the fulcrum between Curtis’ world and its manufacture and reception.


15. For an incisive and elegant reading of the way such digital effects work for recent films, see Kristen Whissel, Spectacular Digital Effects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).




The film playfully blurs these lines. Twice Curtis asks whether someone else is witnessing what he witnesses. The first time, he sees birds forming patterns in the sky and asks his partner at work: ‘You ever see birds fly like that?’ We do, even if his co-worker does not. The drill they are working is too loud for his partner to hear, so the question goes unanswered for the time being, the reality of the birds remaining inconclusive. The second time, Curtis seems almost to ask the audience. He stands looking in the camera’s direction as he witnesses a strong storm on the horizon, and asks, ‘Is anyone seeing this?’ Samantha is sleeping in the back seat, so he could seek confirmation within the narrative arc, but chooses to ask the audience instead — and again we do (at least I do!) see it.


The level of disconnect between the film’s world for Curtis and for all the other characters besides Curtis is sometimes more bald than this, and sometimes less so. When he hears violent cracks of thunder and ducks for cover, Curtis’ partner clearly does not hear the same thing (although we do) and wonders what might be wrong with him. However, when the film transitions, without signalling the shift, between quotidian activities (drying his child off after a bath) to the dream world in which bad things begin to happen (his wife, whose eyes are ‘not right’, stands contemplating a knife on the counter), the paranoid images and the ‘realistic’ narrative become inextricable. The whole film’s visions of the end of the world depend on the obscurity of that line between real and not-real, with the two blending into each other at moments such as when Curtis feels his arm still hurting long after dreaming his dog attacked him, or when he flinches when his wife touches him after his unsettling dream of her, or even when he slowly destroys everything important in his life based on his inability to shake the reality of the dream visions.


Experimental filmmaker and theorist Maya Deren writes about the power of reality in engendering new, specifically cinematic realities, marshalling the power of ‘show-it-to-me’, the heft of the real tree in a film shot to creatively manipulate the terms (temporal or spatial) of reality. (16) Something like this happens in Take Shelter, by virtue of it showing in spectacular detail the visions witnessed only by Curtis. Being introduced to these images just as if they were part of the same reality as the rest of the film (only in retrospect do we know for sure whether they were meant to be Curtis’ dreams or further happenings in the film) — not unlike the remarkable sequence in Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947) when Louise Howell (Joan Crawford) pushes her daughter-in-law down the stairs in a pique of jealousy, only to realise she imagined it when, some short time later, the girl comes bounding home after an evening out. Seeing is believing, and films that present their version of a self-contained truth draw on that maxim to make the spectator invest in that world (and to startle the spectator when she realises that investment was made in vain). Not to mention the startling, disturbing beauty of the world created by the film’s dream sequences.


The ending of Take Shelter, in particular, shows how building on anxieties about the arresting cinematic image might create narrative sense. Curtis and his small family have gone to the beach for a vacation before he commits to serious treatment for his apparent illness. He and Hannah sit on the beach making sand castles, when she looks up and begins to make the sign for ‘storm’. Indeed, a CGI storm is brewing on the horizon. When Samantha emerges from the house to see what is going on, we see that storm reflected in the windows flanking her.


16. Maya Deren, ‘Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality’ in Bruce McPherson (ed), Essential Deren; Collected Writings on Film (Kingston, NY: Documentext, 2005), p. 110-128.  






This mediated view of the storm signals again to the spectator the possible registers of authenticity being mobilised by the film’s image circuits. Further, we see her seeing and we see what she is seeing (a kind of collapsed shot/reverse shot); as such, we gain a less limited access to the visions that first only Curtis but now also Samantha experiences. While we might well take this scene as confirmation that Curtis’ visions are ‘real’ (i.e., for the whole diegetic world, not just Curtis’ inner experience, which always leaked over into that world anyway), the only thing we know is that now the vision is real for at least both Curtis and his family. To confirm this reality, Curtis and Samantha look at each other. She nods; he nods. We see the now-familiar, oil-like rain falling on Samantha’s hand which, up to this point, has always signalled a shift from the film’s world to Curtis’ inner visions, thus making her privy to the apocalyptic sight. Curtis says, ‘Sam?’ She says, ‘Okay’. They are now sure of the alignment of their vision, as is Hannah (but does her exclusion from the audio register of the storm further complicate the experience of the split between reality and vision?).


But what about the spectator? The mitigated views of the storm, the oil-rain’s harking back to the moment of shift to a semi-diegetic register, and the clearly CGI spectacular effect of the storm in the distance, all point to a much more ambiguous way of reading the film that leaves the question of whether we can trust what we see unanswered. Nor can we, in any way, be certain about the status of these as authentic images for Curtis or for the larger world of the film. That they inspire awe only further complicates the matter: becoming absorbed in the splendour of these visions — wanting them, so to speak, really to be there — happens at the expense of the characters. If Curtis is right about the apocalypse, and the storm itself is as real as his awe and terror of it, then we are rooting for doomsday. The ending is ambiguous, so that both possibilities may be sustained through the final images. They see and they believe, and the consequences of their visions may be great indeed.




Take Shelter depends on ambiguity and unresolved questions specifically to explore the nature of anxiety in cinematic terms. Nichols claimed in an interview shortly after the film’s release that he centred it on exactly that idea: ‘[I’d] been thinking a lot about anxiety, so I decided that might be an interesting idea or feeling to make a film about’. (17) The CGI effects — sublime, dangerous landscapes — contribute to that anxiety, even while they solicit the spectator’s admiration. In short, the film counts on evoking cinephilic and cinephobic responses in order to work out the narrative and extra-narrative meanings engendered by its images.



17. Matt Singer, Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols clears the air’, IFC. Posted Sept 29, Sept 2011.

My desire to consider this topic has stemmed from a recognition that we are currently in a state of heightened cinematic fear as a result of change. Change has been, of course, a constant in the history of cinema, even at the very foundation of the nature of cinema itself: still images transforming through movement into movement before our eyes. The love of cinema — which inspires longing and appreciation — also involves fear, both of an abject, suspicious, worried sort and of a sort that dreads and pre-mourns the loss of the object of one’s affection. Recalling the epigraph that began this essay — ‘In a universe where everything moves and changes, one risks losing all sense of rule, apart from those laws defining this mobility and change’that risk seems worth taking, toward sorting out some of the stakes of cinephobia’s hold on the cinematic imagination as it both withstands and becomes shaped by another significant technological transformation. The nature of extraordinary digital images such as the ones that drive Take Shelter forward puts the shifting relationship between cinephilia and cinephobia into a tentative balance, in order to explore the ambiguous but very real feelings within and created by the film.


from Issue 5: Shows


© Sarah Keller 2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.