Catholics put together the first Bible and with what we know about how corrupt the Popes were, I doubt the infallibility of its texts. Its been a tool for manipulating the masses ever since. It’s not a bad book. It’s still a good book to me. It may be my favorite read of all time, but it’s been stepped on and tinkered with a zillion times. People abuse it everyday. Its not perfect, but I don’t reject any story that’s been around for this long.
Every storyteller rewrites as they go along, adding and subtracting, incorporating fresh wisdom and prejudice, conforming it to their own limited comprehension and agenda. Stories loose definition and accumulate baggage as they age. The older the story, the larger the blocks with which they are built. They expand and contract over time but their foundations are surprisingly well preserved.
Case in point, the new “Noah,” flick released last week. An ancient tale of humanity faced with cataclysm is given a vivid updating in the hands of Darren Aronovsky. The director had a hit with his “Black Swan” in 2010. His latest outing is even more daring. With quite decent performances from his cast and a bit of deft swapping of story elements and special effects, it is quite easily the best Hollywood bible epic in decades. The characters’ arty haircuts, costumes, make-up, porcelain teeth and British accents all lend romantic splendor to the gathering gloom. Stylistically, there are some brilliant mash ups, embedded quotes of ground breaking films ever so worthy of quoting, such as “Breaking the Waves, (1996), for example, in the way the light and color is applied, like a Thomas Kinkade postcard, to highlight the already deeply enshrined associations we harbor from certain stories and songs. The specific sequence in “Noah” starts out face-to-face with a snake in the grass, proceeds to a ripe fruit being plucked by hand and concludes on with a fist and stone as Cain caves his brother’s head in. This device grounds a very post modern movie in the very old story of its namesake, repeating the sequence through all three acts like a major chord anchoring a symphony, increasing its resonance each time. Reaching into Aronovsky’s distant past, it recalls the dope fix ritual sequence in his second feature, “Requiem For a Dream” (1990), which I wrote about here last month.
In “Noah,” the way the story is updated becomes part of the story itself. There are visual passages in this movie that convey the march of time and the influence of the elements upon a landscape as successfully as anything else I’ve seen. The filmmaker’s out on his edge as an artist, with a huge budget, an outstanding line-up of talent, entrusted by investors and audiences alike to seize the zeitgeist.
It’s a bit of a high-wire act the way Aronovsky takes liberty with the tradition, then inserts Hallmark card-like chapter headings in between, accepting memes that are most sacrosanct and inviolable to the Christian way of seeing, while hopefully entertaining believer and unbeliever alike with something thought provoking on the screen.
Coming attractions that we watched before the movie began made abundantly clear that movies this summer will be dominated by another heaping helping of ecological apocalypse for blockbuster season. Aronosvsky anticipates this and doesn’t weigh us down with too much battlefield angst. The future is in the boat. Noah’s demons are driven inward under the pressure of his immense task. As the occupants are closed inside the ark, it becomes a cannonball that knows not where it flies.
Life in the ark is presented like going under anesthesia for a high-risk surgery, Noah’s determination is tested, to bring its occupants through God’s wrath, and reboot the ecosystem and reintroduce nothing evil. The timing of the boat’s landfall is so perfect that it suggests God’s not dead. Good thing too. By then Noah’s stubborn resolve has made him ruthless and obsessed, but compassion gets the best of him again.
In so doing, he succumbs to selfish love and loyalty to his own, letting in something unpredictable and therefore dangerous to earth’s re-creation. Noah reaches that far shore convinced that he has let God down. The first thing he does, after disembarking, is retreat to a cave, make wine and drown his sorrows. His sons discover him passed-out, naked. They put some covers on him. This detail from the Bible is set up brilliantly in the preceding acts, by repeating the image of a snake coming out of his skin. This accomplishes as much as any other scene in the film to bring the famous floating fortress builder down to the scale where we can relate to him as a human being. While the rain beat down and the rest of the world was shedding its skin, the hero remained vigilant and duty bound. Not until they reach dry land was he able to slough off his own.
Stories chosen for wide release on the big screen are selected by the filmmakers with ultimate care and consideration, so lets’ examine why they gambled on an adaptation of Noah’s flood for movie audiences of 2014. How does Noah’s dilemma reflect our current existential landscape? Might Noah’s spirit reside in every person alive today that assists in protecting nature and humanity from obliteration? Noah charts a path to where no one has ever been before and leaves behind a world that will never exist again. We as humans are faced with precisely this turn of events t0day. Through the old stories, this latest motion picture and a lot of other fine arts and media endeavor to help us prepare.