Sunday, March 30, 2014

Noah

Okay, Christians, I've had it with you people.  You've had your chance to make religious films this month, and you've failed.  First there was "Son of God", a crushingly boring, painfully orthodox adaptation of the life of Christ, and then you made "God's Not Dead".  I don't even need to qualify the "God's Not Dead" bit.  You made "God's Not Dead", you should all be ashamed.  So that's it, Christians.  That's a six month ban from making movies about your faith.  I know you're making "Heaven Is for Real" next month, a fantastic exploitation of a little boy's near-death experience, but no.  I'm not covering it.  That's a little too despicable even for me.  I don't like watching movies that will make my skin crawl - even if the ban wasn't in place I wouldn't watch that.  So now that the Gentiles have thoroughly pissed God off, its time we Jews, the Chosen People of Adonai stepped up and made a religious movie of our own.

"Noah" is an epic biblical fantasy film made by Non-Christian director, Darren Aronofsky.  It is obviously based off the tale of Great Flood and Noah's construction of an Ark to carry a remnant of Creation to safety while God's wrath washed away the corrupt world below.  Since Noah's tale takes place in the nebulous Antediluvian world of early Genesis, Aronofsky has chosen to take the rather sparse Biblical passages and beef it up with various Apocryphal details and ancient legends mostly ignored by mainstream Judaism today.  So "Noah", for example, features huge hulking stone monsters which help Noah build Ark.  (Biblical Apocrypha is pretty damn weird.)  Aronofsky is not going to enslave his narrative to orthodoxy, he creates a dark, bold, and thoroughly unique movie based upon the Genesis narrative.

Aronofsky's "Noah" is part drama, part epic fantasy war film, and of things, part horror film.  For those unfamiliar with the Apocrypha, "Noah" is going to be quite a trip.  For those who are familiar - both of you - then you might be disappointed that it isn't quite weird enough.  It is certainly a spectacle to see one of the patriarchs of humanity and a prophet of God hanging around what are essentially stone Transformers in a post-apocalyptic landscape.  We have war scenes, trippy montages, and the blending of good and evil within the prophet himself.  Darren Aronofsky has created what might be the very first example of a cinematic midrash.  He is following the long rabbinical tradition of extending Biblical stories by adding details and defining characters, interpreting the text through what is essentially a very scholarly fan fiction.  That makes it one of the more fascinating and profound films to come out of the Hollywood blockbuster machine, one that meditates deeply upon man's place in the world, man's place with God, while creating a grey morality story with deep characters.

The backstory of "Noah" is based primarily upon details from the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal Jewish text that was left out of the canon of the Old Testament for being too insane even by Old Testament standards.  In this interpretation, the world before the Flood has been ravaged by wastefulness of mankind.  A group of fallen angels known as the Watchers (Grigori) came to Earth and mingled with mankind, teaching them industry.  Unfortunately the Watchers were mutated by getting trapped in the soil of the Earth, turning them into twisted stone giants*.  Of the humans, there are two races, the ruinous descendants of Cain, and the vegetarian, peaceful descendants of Seth.  The descendants of Cain have covered the Earth - which is at this point a single Pangaea-like continent - living in wasteful cities.  By this point the cities have fallen, as the environmental abuse hsa turned most of the world into a black-scarred desert.  Seth's descendants have been whittled down to just Noah, his three sons, and Noah's grandfather, Methuselah, a 900-year-old wizard living in a cave.  For some reason also the Sethites have a strand of snake skin, from the evil Serpent from Eden, which they wrap around their arms like tefillin, the exact symbolism of which escapes me.

And as for Abel's descendants... there aren't any, he was a little too dead.

Russell Crowe really pulls off the Old Hollywood Prophet look for "Noah".
At the beginning of the film, Noah (Russell Crowe) is a lone man living a righteous life, battling against the blood-thirsty descendants of Cain.  He is struck by visions from the Almighty, who annoyingly never simply comes out and tells Noah what to do, but instead prefers abstract visions and freaky music video imagery.  Noah has to take his family across the world to meet his grandfather, Methuselah, played by a particularly hammy Anthony Hopkins, in order to interpret the visions and learn whether his Focus is destroy Cocoon or save it.  They discover that God will cleanse the world with a great Flood, and that Noah must build an Ark to carry the animals of the world away to a reborn Earth.  Using a seed from the Garden of Eden, they plant a forest, and use the wood.

However, several years later, once Noah's sons have grown up, they manage to attract the attention of Tubal-Cain (who is actually a Biblical figure, but never expanded beyond his name (played by Ray Winstone), the king of humanity played by an intense Ray Winstone.  Amongst Noah's sons, only Shem** (Douglas Booth) has a female companion in the form of Ila, a girl Noah saved on his journey to Methuselah, but one who is barren thanks to her injuries.  She's also played by Emma Watson, so all you nerds can charge up your boners now.  Ham, played by Logan Herman who looks all the world like Christian Slater in "Noah", is jealous of his big brother, and his tortured by his compassion for the other humans.  Noah's wife, Naamah*** (Jennifer Connolly), begs her husband to get her sons some wives amongst the people of Tubal-Cain who have camped in the forests around the Ark.

The problems begin with Noah goes out to see the rest of humanity, and has a nightmare vision of people devouring each other, selling their children for meat, and bloody chaos in all directions.  He comes to the conclusion that his family must be the last of humanity, and that after the Ark lands, they will die out alone.

Just imagine the smell on board that thing.
The primary conflict of "Noah" therefore is not quite the fairy tale romance you would expect, of simply Noah working tirelessly to keep the animals alive.  But the animals are magically put to sleep with incense, leaving the human drama to take place.  There are actually some incredible performances here.  The huge battle for the Ark takes place only at the end of Act 2, its a bit of an indulgent CG war scene - required by law to be in every Hollywood film of this budget size, featuring the Watchers battling hordes of humans for Noah's sake, but that's put away relatively quickly.  The remaining of Act 3 is Noah separating himself from his family with an increasingly insane devotion to what he believes is his divine mission:  to wipe out humanity, which means dooming his own family.

Jennifer Connolly and Emma Watson breath plenty of life into their characters - quite an achievement considering that the Genesis account does not bother giving their figures names.  As the story transforms, its the women who wind up becoming the moral center, not the bearded man getting visions from God.  The film slowly transforms from an already bizarre unorthodox adaptation into a Torah-bound "The Shining".  Its quite a feat to somehow make the savior of mankind, Noah, into a less sympathetic character than Tubal-Cain, even as one is furiously ranting against the Creator.  We have three competing visions of God's plan, one where God has placed mankind above all of creation, one where God has decided to save humans and animals, and Noah's extreme plan to wipe out humanity.  Ham, despite being considered the wicked son of Noah in the Bible****, is incredibly sympathetic, heroically trying to save at least one innocent person amongst the Cainites, but Noah spoils even this in a downright villainous turn.

Again its the women who seem to be the real soul of the story - in a film with fantastic acting essentially across the board, the wives steal the show.  Connolly and Watson make for strong emotional figures standing against Noah's Jack Torrence-like downfall.  What brings Noah back from the brink of madness?  Ila is the one who saves Noah from his chosen destructive  Her offspring wind being the origin of all mankind.  Noah, Ham, and Tubal-Cain are all broken people, obsessed with violence.  Ila and Naamah are creators, the lovers, and the protectors who prove humanity is worth saving.

Spoilers:  Noah's family survives the flood and humanity survives.
Since "Noah" has a rather complication plotline based upon personal conflict, the movie is going to get an uneven reception amongst its audience.  Boring people - the kind of wretches who could convince themselves that "Son of God" was an entertaining experience - who wanted nothing more than to see a straight Biblical epic will be horrified.  Darren Aronofsky's filmmaking skills clearly have not gone anywhere since his days of making "Pi", "Requiem for a Dream", and "Black Swan", and this movie is probably just as edgy as anything that has come before.  We have a diverse unusual adventure that takes very an unexpected and fascinating look at the trials of a Biblical Prophet.  Noah sits back on his Ark, hardening his heart against the wails of the doomed drowning all around him in the rising seas.  But Noah's character arc might be too much for audiences.  But if shit like "God's Not Dead" is what passes for religious artistry these days, we really did need a movie that could discuss the dark side of faith, and the tribulations of following God's design.

But even if the movie's story choices are things you disagree with or if the characters go places you do not like, you cannot argue that the characters within "Noah" are characters.  They had realistic steps forward, their personalities evolve, and their actions are realistically built.  Its a great literary style of story telling, one which is sadly missing in the majority of movies.  "Noah" is brilliantly shot, featuring absolutely stunning montages, such as a showstopping retelling of the Creation Myth featuring a sped-up sequence of the scientific model of the birth of universe, our world, and our species.  The acting is fantastic across the board, the tone is dead-on.  Aronofsky maybe be coming from a more secular perspective to the Bible, he worships the power of the story and the humanity of the people within.  And for that reason, "Noah" is the one of the best movies of 2014.

Now, Christians?  Have you learned anything?

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* Aronofsky seems to have mixed the story of the Watchers with the story of the Nephilim.  The Nephilim, who are referenced off-hand in Genesis without explanation, were said to be half-human half-angel monster created when the Watchers lusted after human women and copulated with them.  (The details are not explained, but considering that Old Testament angels are usually six-winged fiery beings or chimera creatures with the face of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle, I'm betting the women did not enjoy the copulation much.)  The Nephilim were terrible giants, unholy abominations, which according to several midrashim were the reason God chose to flood the Earth, forever locking the creatures away in deep canyons until the end of the world.  Aronofsky turns the Nephilim and the Watchers into a single, oddly benevolent, race.

** Shem is, according to legend, the ancestor of the Semitic peoples of Asia.  More directly, in the Bible, it is his line that gives rise to Abraham, and thus the entire Jewish race, and thus Darren Aronofsky and more importantly, me.

*** Weird point here, the Biblical Naamah is actually Tubal-Cain's sister, and a descendant of Cain.  There is a midrash that states that Naamah was Noah's wife, so Aronofsky did not make this detail up, but its weird that her relation with Tubal-Cain is ignored.  Of course, nobody really knows the names of the women in Noah's family, and there are about a dozen options from across history.

**** Ham may or may not have raped his father (the passage literally says "saw his father's nakedness" which might be a euphemism) after the Flood after Noah got massively drunk on wine.  Its one of the weirder passages.  For whatever reason this causes Noah to curse Ham's son Canaan, which probably means this passage was just a political invention written by the Israelites to justify their conquest of Palestine in the Book of Joshua.

4 comments:

  1. I agree with you Blue. This is my kind of bible movie. I enjoyed that the Aronofsky took the characters and shaped them into actual people instead of the smiling cardboards from sunday school that refuse to leave my mind. I hope this movie encourages other film makers to brake the mold and try something new with bible stories.

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  2. The problem with most Christians is that the biblical characters they have in their heads are close to perfect human-beings with hardly any faults. In a world of good and evil, this person was chosen by God so he must be good. A lot of the bible is actually pretty grey. Can't wait to see this flick.

    Regards,
    CG

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  3. The movie co-stars Jennifer Connelly, whose mother is Jewish, and Logan Lerman, who is 100% Jewish.

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  4. And that's indeed Logan Lerman, not HERMAN. And he doesn't look like alcoholic aging ape-like Christian Slater, ugh.

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