Monday, August 4, 2014

The Politics of: Noah

Darren Aronofsky's Noah is now available on Pay-Per-View Cable where middle-aged people with no lives and small children can maybe watch it. THE OMNIVORE HAS SEEN IT! The first part of the post is a regular movie review. The second part discusses the politics (and in this case, the theology) and assumes you have already seen it (spoilers!).


Noah tells something approximating the biblical story of the Ark, the Great Flood, and God's reboot of the earth. It stars Russel Crowe as the glowering, doom-laden Noah. It has Emma Watson as his adopted daughter (he rescues her from evil men) and several other people (notably Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah--Noah's grandfather).

It takes place in a world permeated with Jewish mysticism: everything is just a little surreal (the daytime sky contains stars, the animals are all pre-flood creatures--similar to real ones ... but not the same, there are fallen angles walking the earth). It is a film of grand vision and Aronofsky works to deserve the big screen. Everything from the churning super-ocean to the massive size of the ark gets a CGI treatment that aims for 'awe inspiring' and often reasonably delivers.

The story is a dark one--it shows us, rather than telling us, the evil of men and the destruction of the world. It introduces a non-biblical element into the equation: unlike in the bible, Noah and his sons board the ark without wives. The only young woman (Emma Watson) is left barren from a wound when she was a child. Noah concludes that mankind is, perhaps, meant to die out. He tells his sons all of man is being punished.

When the deluge comes (from above--and from the deeps--as in the bible) the family can hear the desperate screams of the people outside seeking higher ground and then, ultimately, drowning in the flood. The pallet of Noah is equally grim: it has grays and browns--the unspoiled areas  of the earth (Methuselah's mountain) are a shocking green--but little else is. These people, after all, do live in a desert--and after being ravaged by men's greed it is more like the wastes of Mordor than Egypt.

Crowe brings a powerful--almost over-powering performance. Only Watson gets a chance to really stand up to him in terms of screen presence--and then, only for one scene. Ray Winstone as the antagonist, Tubal-cain (descendant of the biblical Cain), was chosen to match Crowe's physicality, which he does, and he gives a descent speech (a speech about the ability of man to choose his fate--what would be an uptempo moment in another movie has a different cast in a film about The Flood). Ultimately, though, it's all Crowe and if you find is dismally powerful glower trying you'll be tired of the movie by the half-way mark.

Religious audiences had, largely, some serious problems with the script (which I will get into below). I'll say this: it doesn't paint The Creator (it doesn't use the term 'God'--but while some saw that as a message of some sort, I didn't) as, necessarily, a 'bad guy'--but it certainly makes Noah pretty unsavory and for no very good  reason at that. On the other hand? It really does capture the grandeur of God's Judgment on mankind and does at least a little of the work to make us see why that judgment happened (well, kinda). 

Noah is not a story that a main-line Christian will easily identify with (it delves a bit too deeply into mysticism for that, adds the mankind-will-die-out plot, has Tubal-Cain play the role of the villain, and so on) but it also isn't a pure, un-nuanced attack on the faith either. It does misstep badly with its central conflict (explained in detail below) but the feel of the flood holds out. If you really like Russell Crowe or want to see what a global catastrophe of truly biblical proportions would look like? Noah's your movie.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of  Noah

So okay--the very worst thing you could do is have a quick re-read of Genesis to brush up on the story before going to see it. Why? Because while not everything in the Old Testament is necessarily entirely obvious to the modern reader, the story of Noah is totally crystal clear about one thing: the Noah-clan brought their wives.

The central conflict in the story isn't man-against-man (Tubal-Cain is the token antagonist but he's doomed from the outset not to make a difference). It isn't man-against-God (Cain rails at the heavens to no answer or indeed, any net effect). It isn't man-against-angel (even the fallen angels, the Watchers, who appear as giant rock monsters--yeah, there's a battle but it's meaningless and we all know it). It's man-against-himself. When Noah, who has misunderstood God's will--he believes mankind is to die out so that the earth will be innocent again, populated only by animals--is faced with a suddenly pregnant Emma Watson, decides he has to kill her twin daughters to stop man from propagating.

He, of course, can't do it, and they become the wives for the other Noah-Clan sons and all's well (except for Ham who gets heads off in a kind of self-imposed exile--but hey). The problem is that this isn't anywhere in Genesis. It doesn't seem to be in the Islamic version either. It's an entirely original addition to the story.

Well, no--it's not entirely original. Aronofsky wants to explore the question of man's fallen nature and deservingness of grace. He re-purposes The Flood to ask whether mankind is worthy of salvation at all. This is a legitimate question (at least in the sense that the Bible does, in fact weigh in on it and it's a major theme) but his choice to have Noah make the decisions (even if, in fact, Noah is misguided in trying to do so) is pretty bold--and maybe not in a good way.

There's also the question of the 'dressing' around the main plot-line in terms of messages about man's destruction of the environment. A lot of people found Noah to have a left-wing Hollywood environmental message:Humans are industrial and bad--Noah is ... ehh ... apparently kind of a vegetarian or something and isn't going to eat animals at least until after the flood. The Omnivore was not entirely swayed by this assessment but there is something to it. Let's take a quick look.

Noah Has A Crypto-Vegan Message!

Well, you admittedly don't have to look all that far: we see the evil technology (taught by the fallen angels) spread across the globe and then, when we zoom in to Noah, we see barren wastes where all the trees have been cut down by evil men. When Noah sets out to build his ark, he has to magically grow a forest with a seed from the Garden of Eden to get the wood ('gopher wood'--a term that has nothing to do with the animal and is untranslated. It might refer to a kind of wood that existed only in the first world).

In the beginning we see evil men hunting a scaled-dog which whimpers piteously where they have wounded it. Noah fights and kills them but it's clear that at least part of their evil is being hunters. The Cain-clans are driven by the need for the element Zohar which they mine (this is Jewish mysticism for 'light' or radiance and the element is golden, glows, and can be used to create primitive firearms). It's also easy to see as a stand-in for oil.

Basically? This is rock-standard meat-eating, animal killing, forest cutting technologists are the evil men and the world is most definitely out of balance narrative. In contrast, the biblical story has several potential interpretations for why mankind had to be wiped out--but none of them are for putting nature out of balance.

This is purely Hollywood messaging.

Against A Crypto-Vegan Message!

The problem with the above reading is that while it's literally in there, it isn't all there is. Firstly, while Noah doesn't believe in killing animals let's remember that the story, which everyone even nominally Christian is told as a child, has him caring for all the animals. While we can argue that for all we know he might've been a butcher prior to being called to the ark, it's at least plausible that he holds animals in general in great regard (as a merciful master, to be sure--but he would not countenance the cruel killing of animals--which is what we are shown).

In this sense, his altercation with the hunters who, uhm, were also going to kill him just makes him generally kind rather than expressly vegan or vegetarian (okay, Crowe doesn't display a lot of kindness later in the movie--but he's traumatized by that point). Secondly, humans were biblically punished for seeking forbidden knowledge (the fruit in the Garden of Eden), and building technology to challenge God (the Tower of Babel, which was pitch-proofed against water to allow humanity to survive a second flood!). 

The weapons that Tubal-Cain uses are certainly there to challenge God (quite explicitly) and you don't need to do theological back-flips to see how that could be evil without casting out all technology in general. Secondly, while the mineral Zohar might as well basically be oil, the problem isn't, again, with its use but rather its greedy exploitation.

Christians are expected to master the world but also to steward it--Gluttony in the sense of waste is still a sin. Tubal-Cain makes explicit in his speech that he will take what he 'needs' but it's clearly 'whatever he wants.' A Christian doesn't just clear-cut a massive forest just because he can.

The Balance

On the balance, far more than an environmental message (after all, it is not mankind's manipulations of the environment that bring on The Flood--but rather their judgment--something that the movie is relentlessly clear about), is the question as to whether mankind is evil or not at heart. Noah decides that, yes, mankind is evil, deserves to die, and therefore he must be chosen to be God's executioner (which, again, does have a biblical precedent--just not in this story and not in this way). 

When he can't bring himself to do it, he decides he has failed, gets drunk (and naked) and, until his wife comforts him and tells him that God left the choice to him--and he chose mercy--and that was okay--he remains in exile from the family. This--the question of mankind's fallen nature and deservingness of mercy is a legitimate biblical question that's just been imported into the Noah story.

Now, notably, God's decision not to use another flood to reboot the earth--but rather to send His Son so that such a thing never needed happen again (and the rainbow is, in fact, a reminder to God, not to man--and the term 'bow' means both the shape of the rainbow but also the literal weapon-of-war which God will now no longer employ)--is answered ... and not by Noah--but for Noah to question whether mankind, with its fallen nature, deserves to live?

That's not an out-of-band question. The movie mashes things together but it isn't purely getting them wrong.

After all, it was one whole testament later before anyone would've had that answer for certain.

The Rest of The Story

The story of Noah in the bible actually appears to contain two narratives that are simply placed next to each other  in the verses and, sometimes, subtly differ (the length of the rains, the exact nature of humanities's sins, God's take on the whole thing). While for some people that's a smoking gun ("It's a MYTH!") for other's it's just a stylistic difference. Apparently when the King James bible was being drafted different factions felt very strongly about what story should be told and rather than cut one they just used both. Whether that's actually how it happened, The Omnivore isn't sure (or qualified to guess).

When it comes to making the movie Aronofsky has done his homework (Noah's wife isn't named in the bible--but her name and lineage comes from, apparently, Rabbinical speculation) and it's hard to condemn his choices as simple ignorance. Certainly he's telling a story he wants to tell--and it's a dark and sometimes riveting one--but where it differs from the biblical account it, at very least, holds to a biblical sensibility.

The Omnivore was impressed with the singular breath-taking view of a globe covered in hurricanes as well as the stow-away Tubal-Cain eating slumbering animals to stay alive until the ark finds land (The Omnivore guesses he ate the unicorns!). The story of what happened after the ark--whatever came between Noah and his son Ham isn't entirely omitted (we see a distant naked face-down Noah) but isn't spelled out either (some of the options are ... unsavory).

The Omnivore also wants to point out that killing a global population is a very different thing to God than to man. Kill-them-all, let-God-sort-them-out is horrible morals for mankind but it actually isn't bad theology. If we assume that there were innocents (babies, a few good people here and there, if not as good as Noah) that were drowned in the flood, for an omnipotent creator, it is easy to simply reinstate them after or do whatever else to eliminate the horror of killing them.

Of course the Old Testament being the Old Testament, we can also assume that maybe entire bloodlines can be guilty and maybe there were no innocent descendant-of-Cain babies--but either way, the global horror of The Flood looks very different through the lens of the Old Testament than it does us on the movie screen. Given that, Aronofsky does a decent job of not condemning God: while not personified in the movie, God--even at His most vengeful--has not condemned all of man and what we've mostly seen of man wasn't really worth saving anyway.

Noah is an interesting movie if not an entirely pleasant one. It is doom-laden and gray and its message is at best complex. It is, in fact, not biblical--but it isn't entirely secular-Hollywood either.

No comments:

Post a Comment