Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Deluge Delusions: Darren Aronofsky's Noah

Russell Crowe in Darren Aronofsky's Noah

If you want a spiritual understanding of the story of Noah and the Ark, I wouldn't recommend Darren Aronofsky's Noah any time soon – or any time at all, really. The mythical tale of the Deluge from Genesis communicates many truths, ultimately God's power over sin and saving of creation. Aronofsky grasps this basic idea, but then muddies it with New Age extra-biblical concepts, half-baked aesthetic choices, and excruciating melodramatic acting. Hollywood's track record with adapting the Bible isn't great, and Noah's not going to do much to change that. It's a missed opportunity that will leave many scratching their heads, believers and non-believers alike.

The story of the Great Flood is not (contrary to contemporary archaeologists and Christian fundamentalists) a factual account of some historical event. Several cultures in the Ancient Near East contain flood stories (the epic of Gilgamesh being the most famous after Genesis), and the themes are fairly constant: the waters represent chaos, which the gods defeat so as to usher in a renewed creation. Some personify the waters as monsters that the gods literally battle, though Genesis tempers that impulse. It certainly personifies God, however, as all the stories do. And it's God's behavior that causes hangups for contemporary readers – they balk at his impulsive anger, which drives him to blot out his own creations. But Genesis actually presents God more positively than its neighbors. There, the gods wipe out mankind because people are too noisy, disturbing the divine realm with their activity. Once the gods re-create society, they make people to serve them as slaves. Genesis, in contrast, envisions God creating humanity autonomous and in his image – giving it a blessing of goodness. The obedience he asks for is not that of compulsion, but of freely chosen righteousness. It isn't man's activity that bothers him, but his wickedness. He wants people to live with him in the Spirit, but when they don't, he loses it and destroys them. Only Noah, the one just man alive, and his family are spared.

Emma Watson and Douglas Booth
Aronofksy conveys merely the barest outlines of these dynamics in his film. He reads the tale as that of man's desolation of nature – the setting has the feel of a post-apocalyptic world. While most of humanity gorges the Earth's resources, Noah's family coexist with the non-human realm in sustainability. Man's sin is summed up in his wanton killing of animals for food, which the vegetarian Noah (Russell Crowe, who somehow comes out of this debacle with integrity) looks on with revulsion. “They think it makes them stronger,” he tells his son when they come across a mammal wounded via arrow. But he's strong without such a bloodthirsty diet, as he proves by dispatching three hunters who come for their prey. In Aronosky's mind, killing animals is worse than homicide. It isn't that this environmentalist take on the story is illegitimate – the question of man's relation to creation (and God's as well) is embedded in the Noah story. But Aronofsky's aesthetic is so blunt, crude, and underdeveloped that you end up feeling bludgeoned. He adds mythic elements to the setting, but in a half-hearted way. Noah's story should absolutely be told like a myth, in the genre of fantasy. But the design of Noah is only a partial attempt at this – it feels like a spartan, alien world rather than a fantastical one. And when the director does go for all out fantasy, it's bizarre: he has Noah meet the Watchers, great stone giants inhabited by angelic spirits. These monsters tried to help man after the first sin, for which, in punishment, God imprisoned them in rocks. What? Of all the ways to heighten the mythic dimensions in the Noah story, this is most strange. And it's not even done impressively – the Ents that Peter Jackson creates in The Lord of the Rings are far more interesting in terms of design, character, and narrative purpose.

The movie entertains when it hews closer to the biblical story and imaginatively renders the flood narrative. The entrance of the animals onto the Ark is impressive, as is the ship itself – rather than a curved boat, the Ark is an enormous wooden box. The surging flood waters are momentarily astonishing. But Aronofsky keeps distracting you from the spiritual undertones of these elements – water, sin, new life – with his idiosyncratic interpretation. Once the animals bed down below decks, we barely interact with them, but are instead dragged into a battle between Noah and an evil king who creeps on board. For an environmentalist movie, there's very little sense of wonder in its vision – of God or of creation. Certainly not of man. Noah comes to regard mankind as so wicked and perverse that he declares it God's will to totally extinguish them. He and his children are to be the last people on Earth. And it's not enough that all humanity drowns – Aronofsky has them flayed and brutalized by the Watchers for a good while first, a truly crass moment. This is a much darker view of humanity and God than Genesis. Not once in Noah do we learn that the titular character is saved because of his righteousness.

It's true that there's an ethical dimension to the biblical story – Noah has to confront the evil inside himself, and the fact that he hides behind the walls of the Ark while his fellow man perishes is problematic. He follows God's will too slavishly, never arguing to save other people the way Abraham and Moses do later. But when Aronofsky has Noah face the choice of killing his own grandchildren in obedience to God or choosing mercy in disobedience, he thoroughly confuses his patriarchal stories. That's the Isaac tale creeping in, and it not only renders God cruel, but puts the audience through as much torment as the actors. It's hard to tell whether Jennifer Connelly (as Noah's wife) or Emma Watson (as his step-daughter) is served worse by the histrionic screaming that Aronofsky asks of them. During the movie's second half, I felt so trapped by the bombastic psychodrama going on in the Ark I wondered if the folks outside had got the better deal.

I'm pretty sure that's the opposite experience we're meant to have of the story. The Ark is a bubble of creation – human and non-human – floating through the waters of chaos under God's protection. It's a mini-world, a place of magic among man and beast, like Eden. Outside is all tumult and strife, inside all harmony and integral goodness. That's how the ancient Israelites envisioned their society and how the Christian church continues to envision the ecclesial community. The sacrament of baptism is full of Noah imagery: water cleansing sin, dying and finding new life. The Noah tale is a creation story, as are so many in Genesis and Exodus – the making of creation in six days, the Hebrews deliverance through the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land. For the ancient peoples, creation stories were about a divine activity akin to human acts: God is personified and molds the world like a potter with clay. And the result of the process is not just the natural realm, but human society, ordered and living in God's law. In contrast, modern ideas of creation envision physical processes over eons that result in a material universe. Aronofsky tries to square these perspectives: He has Noah recount the first creation story while we see images of the Big Bang and evolution of life on Earth. While I appreciate the impulse, he's barking up the wrong tree. The biblical tales do not conflict with science because they're precisely not about historical events. They're meaning-making narratives, conveying the relationship between the creation, humanity, and God.

There's little magic in this movie, though, and few genuine relationships. Certainly not between God and Noah. Aronofsky takes the anthropomorphic deity of the text and abstracts him into a distant, mute force. He's never referred to as God, in fact, only the Creator. Rather than conversing with him as one person to another, Noah intuits his will through dreams and hallucinations (another patriarch mix up – it's Jacob who has the dreams of God, not Noah). Again, these ideas fit well with modern notions of the divine and religious experiences, but in rendering the tale this way, we lose the sense of God as a character we can have intimacy with. Aronofsky may smooth over the problematic aspects of God's behavior in the story by abstracting him, but it's a cheap evasion of those troubling parts and the questions they pose. We're supposed to wrestle with this difficult God, not rewrite him. The Noah tale asks us to understand that God's love for creation is so passionate that he get's angry when man sins. And that God's power over evil will result in its destruction, along with those who give into it. But it also shows that God can change: he learns to love his creation for all its flaws, promising never to destroy it again. God comes to understand that man, while having evil inclinations, still bears the fundamental goodness of the divine image. Noah learns to see both these aspects as well, at least in the book. In the film, he – like the movie itself – lacks taste.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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