Film Commentary has been an absorbing pastime for more than a decade. Since I graduated film school, I’ve posted almost 100 articles on the art of film, filmmaking, mass media, classic and global cinema. Amid these many dispatches there is an entire series featuring sci-fi masterworks entitled “Nature and the Machine – Sci-Fi Cinema.” There is another batch entitled “Seven Greatest Films Ever Made.” The latest series, still in progress “Films of Our Enemies,” features titles from places that our country considers a threat.
Each country’s films proves our common similarities are more than our differences, no matter what the cultural origins. One can not easily dismiss anyone in these movies as being very different from us. Otherwise, we could not watch their films and feel the way we do. We find empathy for the protagonists, and feel enmity for the antagonists, just like we do in the films made by folks closer to home.
We have been talking about Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 (2014). It’s been the better part of a year since the film’s release. Unless someone else has something to add, I will wrap up my analysis in this post. If I had to describe it to someone in a single line I’d say Vol. 2 unspools like one third act of contrition, another third true confession, shedding light in cracks on his persona, as well as a few embedded in the collective unconscious, and one third jabbing at the eyes of his audience.
Might as well digress at this important intersection, in regard to the most heinous images in the film. I keep ragging on about a reviewer in a local independent weekly that neglects the vital issues by simply pronouncing the movie “shit.” A more eloquent reviewer put it something like, “a singularly hateful two hours of movie watching.”Isn’t the issue how these images reverberate though culture over their lifetimes and in what ways they morph in meaning with age?
Imagine what an opportunity it is to make the first contact from your culture with a person from another completely different one. You are a doorway, their first impression, a shaper of his or her point of view. I ask myself, what kind of greeting or communication would befit such a privilege? I must confess, some self-righteous voice inside me answers, “Certainly not the ass-whipping we’re given in “Nymph()maniac Vol. 2.”
I will turn this question on the filmmaker, Lars Von Trier himself. What is your salutation to the world with these extreme scenarios in your latest release? Less educated people might not understand your illustrious cinematic ancestry, your omnivorous assimilation of art or rigorously Nordic conditioning. Did you keep in mind, when composing these frames, how the life of a one-eyed, illiterate, deaf, mute at the furthest outpost of the wired world might be changed?
Eventually the sequence of clips where your character Jo volunteers to be strapped to a sofa and savagely whipped may just take on a life of its own. That horrid little snippet could be stripped from your movie, maybe already has been, and be circulating like smack, among dark digital subcultures, touching down a million times more swiftly than our father’s girly magazines did last century.
I know, Maestro Von Trier, your heroine must be getting in touch with something very deep by asking for such punishment. We both hope you’re right-on about what kind of medicine your latest adventure in hyper-reality provides to millions of truth-starved, self-loathing, culture-shocked impressionable minds worldwide, don’t we? Because, there could be no excuse for being taken into their confidence and then poisoning them.
Over the lifetime of your movie in the digital universe, imagine all those that don’t speak any language at all, have never read a book or can’t, in any other way but literally, with eyes only, comprehend your artfully angled, eloquently sepia-toned intellectually ripe digressions? What’s the information contained in the image, stripped to its most basic? That’s your greeting to the world.
Sure, whenever the camera stops swaying and that eunuch and courtesan exchange gripes, they justify, in very mature and philosophical terms, the movie’s reason to be. Bravo! The night I went to see Vol 2, I couldn’t hear most of it because of sound problems in the theater, so all your talky second act was wasted, H. Von T. Without all that blabber it becomes a different movie altogether. Boo! Hiss!
You can’t control everything downstream of your creation, I grant you, but the image you make is your responsibility. As its maker, it has your intentions written all over it. What impression do you wish to leave behind and why, with that deranged footage of a woman’s bloody behind? I know its owner claims, in the last half of the last act, she might just be something God or nature put on earth in order to make society acknowledge its sickness, but who needs that? It’s what the nightly news is for.
The conclusion I took home is the girl can’t help it. She doesn’t know how to be normal and so she must accept herself as the other. A reluctant freak, she despises and belittles her embedded human failings because they are unfitting of the beast she identifies herself to be.
This is undoubtedly Von Trier’s most personal and confessional film to date. I find its purpose more fascinating than the film itself. We encounter his subject when she’s toying with her self-image as a misfit. She embraces being a monster but at the same time resents it.
Gifted storytellers have always helped illuminate dark passages for us. Does that make artists freaks or monsters? Does Von Trier’s provide us a harmless, relatively healthy scenario to help us as a society embrace our inner freak or does it plunge us more hopelessly into self-rejection? I trust that he’s well meaning, but again, if that is so, I wish he’d think more in terms of the antidote when glorying in the sickness. We absorb more than enough toxins from screens as it is.
As an example, a movie that portrays extreme disease as “Nymph()maniac,” but provides more of an antidote, is David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” (1980). In place of graphic social deviance, in Von Trier’s film, we pan across directly to its grotesque physical twin in Mr. Lynch’s. The scene in which the beast becomes human is played with Dickensian sentimentality yet succeeds beautifully thanks to an acting duet tour de force between Anthony Hopkins as a compassionate doctor and John Hurt as the Elephant Man John Merrick. The exchange moves me to tears each time I witness this thing that resembles a giant corn fritter, as much as a human, turns out to be an intelligent, sensitive and lovingly-reared young man.
Antonin Artaud christened a trend in drama called the “Theater of Cruelty.” He popularized it, extolled its virtues and applied them to living. He also passed extended periods in an insane asylum. From inside hospital, at least, the Theater of Cruelty looked to a tonic for society’s ills.
Artaud’s instinct, it seems, was in conditioning the audience to push back, so we don’t loose that impulse and turn into hat racks. From that standpoint, I subscribe to the concept. Keep the muscle strong. Use it or loose it. But the counter-argument is, by subjecting ourselves to increasingly sensational experiences, in the movies and other entertainments, some of the audience will grow desensitized to violence, fall increasingly indifferent to moral order and ultimately become homicidal themselves in demand for the next big thrill.
I’m with Artaud, up to a certain point. In as much as drama is capable of it, I look for all sorts of ritualistic, shamanistic, initiatory possibilities in motion pictures, or any dramatic form. It has the potential to be good medicine. I think we need more of that.
I’ve never been surrounded by mental patients, nor the international media. Very likely Artaud and Von Trier know some things I don’t. I wonder, is “Nymph()maniac” supposed to work like some kind of homeopathic on the audience? With such a harsh lashing, Von Trier could be working toward a social cure, I suppose. In breaking the limits of our tolerance, he presumes to help us regurgitate something from the depths of the collective soul, shoving a finger down our throat, through our eyes, as it were. As a social study, I hope it works. At Vol 2’s climax, I chose to close mine.
In Vol 2, Jo offers a hypothesis poised as the existential crux of story and I paraphrase: “Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset; more spectacular colors when the sun hits the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.” When Jo confesses this, is this not the filmmaker here ruing his obsession with misanthropy?
Through his subject’s mouth, Von Trier bemoans having grown desensitized. A filmmaker is the archetypal magician, enchanter, seducer and creator of artificial realities. Some grow so accustomed to the hyper-reality, real life pales in comparison. An artist can become so wrapped up in artifice he gets addicted. We encourage this. The audience eats it up and pushes him ever further out in to space to find more. Call this, the filmmaker’s dilemma. We laugh about it again and again while watching that famous farce “8 ½.” by Fellini. In his hands, the impasse manages to warm the heart. In Lars Von Triers’ it breaks the skin.
Von Trier has courted controversy with his public personality while cultivating an illustrious reputation with his films. Let’s hope he will be remembered more for his cinematic contributions, than for being that naughty fool in the news.
We’ve been talking about Lars Von Trier’s “Nymph()maniac” Vol. 1 & 2.
When Von Trier’s predecessor, C.T. Dreyer, placed his camera in the homes of Danish Luthern’s in the early 1900’s he was dissecting an emotional tumor in the prudish mentality of a bygone day. Von Trier sets his lens on the same view of the opposite end of the spectrum, our modern, sex-forward culture. His characters are no longer hounded by sin and forgiveness but by obsession and repression. A Christ-like character, the compassionate fisherman and good-Samaritan, Seligman, rescues Jo from lying beat in the street. It must be Christ himself that Seligman emulates. He’s a virgin and claims never to have met a bad person in his life. He turns out to be one.
With a protracted digression. at the mid-point of the Vol. 1, about the schism between the eastern and western Christian traditions, Seligman connects sex and religion and Von Trier finds an eloquent visual impression with which to introduce it. In this case he does with the solitary eastern orthodox icon of the Madonna hanging on the wall behind where our modern day harem girl and eunuch are arguing. Without wasting dialog, the filmmaker is commenting on how the iconographic trends in the ancient sacred arts have been hijacked in the presentation of modern movies and he draws a comparison between Madonna and the girly pin-up in one skilled stroke.
The icon and pin-up were one-in-the-same when they debuted on the cave walls that sheltered our earliest ancestors. Humans are compelled to fetishize, ritualize and sanctify the human reproductive process. It’s almost as old as the act itself. Ironically, it is the male and female organs on parade, not the persons having sex, that make modern porn what it is. What we see carved and painted in stone caves and on the modern porn screen is essentially the same content. Our taste hasn’t changed since the dawn of history. The ritual, visually speaking at least, revolves around the genitals. Because that pathway in the brain is so primitive, its going to appeal, in vastly different ways of course, to the widest range and largest number of people.
With this new movie, Von Trier is not making porn. He couldn’t even appeal to the writer at the small town independent newspaper that rebuked him. The reviewer I read, anyway, castigated Von Trier as if he’d pushed the gross-out film to new heights. I admit, that some of this movie was very hard to watch. You want to push back somehow. One way, I suppose is to label it perverse. The movie reviewer that I read did just that to “Nymph()maniac,” still, I seriously doubt he was even conscious of all the people he was insulting with his cry of misogyny.
He is implying, to name just one of the other artists involved, that Charlotte Gainsborough, the star of Vol 2 is diseased. I don’t see any evidence of it in her history. The leading lady in this movie made her name playing burly roles for women. I would think she took this job to expand her chops and meet a challenge with some other artists that she respects.
Von Trier is not breaking particularly new ground in these scenes of degradation. The tradition can be traced as far back as the late silent era classic, “Haxan” (1922), and hails from Von Trier’s home country by the way as well. The soil of cinematic excess is further amended with Pier Paulo Passolini’s “Salo, 120 Days of Sodom.”(1975), one of those movies about excrement that I already named. That film offended my senses a great deal more than “Nymph()maniac.”
There is some parallel being drawn intentionally by the director between himself and his protagonist in this film. I wonder if this is Von Trier’s attempt to make amends; not apologize, but answer for some trouble he got himself into with certain mischievous remarks.
One of the thrills supplied consistently by Von Trier is his penchant for wit and sarcasm when he knows he’s being quoted. He fancies himself like Oscar Wilde and this trait often devolves, over time, into a lust for controversy. The press scoops it up and prints it. Who is the nymphomaniac here? The press, audience or director? Whoever remains least satisfied, of course.
I’ve written about how some filmmakers worship the female form and archetype with their films. Ironically, some of the same one’s reputations are tainted by scandal for doing the opposite. Misogynistic scenes have gotten other filmmakers in trouble in the past, so Von Trier must have anticipated the hot water he’s plunged himself into with this one. He knows history tends toward extremes.
Judging from the outcry, movies such as these serve to prove that social restrictions and taboos, are not at risk of being loosened when they are scrutinized in the arts. On the contrary, they are reinforced. Is it because Lars Von Trier has brought so much surprise and novelty to modern movie making that he is being singled out for his depictions of misogyny?
Martin Scorsese’s most successful movies graphically portray a woman being physically abused by a man and it is usually her husband. So, if we say the guy that whips the stuffing out of Jo in “Nymp()maniac” Vol 2 is her husband, will that bring the movie back in line with acceptable standards?
The stakes are quadrupled in Vol 2. Jo returns for punishment repeatedly, under her own power. This is not domestic violence. No one hurts her without her consent. Excuse me, but isn’t this is a slightly softer position than domestic violence. Aren’t Jo’s circumstances, if we were to come across them in real life, superior, in theory anyway, to those of say Ginger’s in Scorsese’s “Casino”? So, rather than being an unwitting victim of someone’s abuse, Von Trier’s heroine puts herself there and he gets called for misogyny?
The small town free press film reviewer who’s review I read said the end of this movie was totally predictable. On thing for sure, his reaction was. I felt sympathy. Watching Jo’s predicament unfold to that extreme extent made me fret that suicide would end her story. I was glad to be wrong about that.
I hate some of the images in this movie. It makes me sick to think of such things but I suppose that’s the point in showing them. If the reviewer I’m referring to saw that Jo’s ordeal on screen, in any way, condoned the torture of women or, in any way, rewarded the exploits of nymphomania, then that was his movie not mine. The story I watched flat out warns us that violence breeds violence, as we watch Jo seesaw from being the punished to punisher in Volume 2. In the movie I watched, the protagonist finally learns to accept herself for what she is. That was not a predictable ending for me. It made sense afterward, but I was surprised. Of coarse we don’t know what exactly happened, in the end because it happened in the dark.
While that movie reviewer that I disagree with and I, as well, have had our rear ends in chairs and our eyes glued to screens, either writing about or watching films, Von Trier and his company and others like them, have met, agreed to organized, prepare, craft and release a feature film. They chose a story with a social dilemma at its core, just so we can identify and talk about critical dysfunctions, like the effects of misogyny in our society.
The movie I wish everyone to watch before reading this post begins with a man and woman in bed. It is impossible to experience today the same movies that American moviegoer’s saw in 1963. This is especially true in the opening scene of “Contempt.” First of all, it was risqué to introduce his leading lady in full-length nude. Godard raises visual parody to a high order, using the image to distract the audience from comprehending the critical turn in the heroine’s life that is transpiring before our eyes on onscreen. It’s intentionally and cleverly misleading. The director presents her posed like a sex pot, but she’s really more like a piece of stone sculpture. It’s the pivotal moment when Camille’s love for Paul begins to go cold.
Camille is played by Brigit Bardot. Under an assortment of candy flavored light temperatures, the naked secretary is tucked into a hairy chested hunk. Godard presents her, hind-end up, across a shaggy spread. There jiggles a perverse mix of raw materials for exploring the range human instincts. Camille’s body marks the crossroads between classic sculpture and pop pin-up. The man she is talking to is no less than her boss, her lover, a celebrated writer Paul. Because of Paul’s bland dialog and the fact that Camille’s naked body is taking up ninety percent of the frame, its an effort just to apportion even a little attention to Paul’s presence.
They’ve just had sex. That much is obvious. Why else would Paul be so sedate in the company of this naked goddess? It wasn’t until the third time I watched that I suspected the sex they had must not have done it for Camille. More to the point, the most audacious filmmaker of the French New Wave collaborated with the most identifiable international sex symbols of the early 1960’s to test the emotional IQ of their audience. “Do you like my nipples more or my breasts?” she asks. “I like them both the same,” Paul murmers like some satiated pussy cat.
Camille sounds like she’s trolling for compliments, but this is actually an interrogation. Paul soars on auto-pilot through the afterglow. The blatant way she feeds it to him would have woken me up, had I been he, I hope. See if you agree. Once you are privy to Camille’s inquisition, do you sense her contempt and how it changes the entire movie?
On the one hand, Godard jokes with us here about how sex short-circuits long range planning. With Bardot’s behind exposed in pin-up pose,we’re being played with too. Camille toys with her audience, when she twists her boyfriend in knots, exposing every infantile bone. The man she’s talking to is supposedly an artist. He only ever responds with a word or two and never gives away his thoughts. Even though he’s gazing at a golden goddess and she volleys one opportunity after another to demonstrate his powers, he responds without attaching the slightest personal touch. When she’s had enough of his limp flattery, she says, “So you love me totally?” He answers yes and its all downhill from there.
When this crucial turning point is missed, the movie seems erratic. It seemed sudden, at least to me, on first viewing, when Camille starts acting mean. I admit Paul’s not making much sense by then. In place of his feelings for her, he talks about their flat. The flat is where they hold up and argue for the entire second act.
That clash in “Contempt” became much more interesting when I realized that she was holding back, even before Paul urges her to get in the car with the crass movie producer. Their life and times together had been about Paul’s talent, Paul’s career, Paul’s priorities. The shift of power becomes clear in the crash of dishes, tugs of war and slamming of doors. Things remain unspoken that none-the-less ring loud and clear. Camille was just a mere typist before they became romantically involved and she turns out to be the one with the requisite drive, self-esteem and ear. She simply insists on being treated seriously, not just some dish. I’m such a clod, I confess, I saw it three times before I realized this.
In Act III they no sooner arrive in Capri then Paul flirts with some other kitty. Camille busts him in the act. She retaliates by undertaking an affair with the movie producer for whom Paul harbors some contempt. Then Paul strikes out completely by leaving it up to Camille to decide whether he should return to Rome immediately with her or remain in Capri and work for the great Fritz Lang.
As a writer of film reviews, the person that reviewed “Nymph()maniac, Part 1 & 2” in a local weekly that I read is like the character of Paul in Godard’s “Contempt”. As a reader of his reviews I am like Camille. Well get back to “Contempt” in another post, for now, proceed with me to where we left off in the last one.
I have now seen “Nymph()maniac” Vol. 2, and read the same small town movie reviewer’s blithe dismissal. He called both Volumes of Lars Von Trier’s new movie shit. Lets talk about the subject of shit in motion pictures because, in a movie like, “Salo: 120 Days of Sodom,” there is a different variety of deviance on display but what’s worth mentioning about it is the relevance of excrement in the third act of “Salo” serves the same purpose as the whip in the third act of “Nymph()maniac” Vol 2. If anyone in the audience were, up to this point, able to surf around the unseemly circumstances of the characters in the movie and cling to some shred of erotic stimulus from the earlier setups, both filmmakers rake them out of your grasps, in the Act III climax, when human actions grossly escalate to defy common sense. Not surprisingly, those kinds of images stick in our heads more than any other. The reason why? Memory switches to long-term mode whenever it things venture out of bounds. Brain is caring for our survival by not letting us forget a threat. So I wonder if both films serve to heap more forbiddance upon the very taboos they examine.
Anyway, it is a curious mix of amazement and disgust that sticks with me after watching this new movie of Von Trier’s, “Nymph()maniac,” but that’s not a bad thing. The film is merely churning up some of what’s under the surface of this modern, media-mad culture. Contrary to the movie reviewer I read’s claim of misogyny, Von Trier’s clearly weaving a spell of sympathy for his protagonist and while she’s no role model, anyone that sticks with this movie is going to relate with Jo at some point.
Like Jo, we of the wired world would be wise to beware of becoming numb to ordinary stimulus. Jo’s premature and extreme exploits bleached her senses to such an extent that she could feel nothing without subjecting herself to extreme pain and degradation. Call it shit if you want. Anatomy of self-hate comes closer to it for me. Lots of folks suffer with it. Von Trier exposes this condition so sensitively, he’s practically admitting to be one of them.
to be continued…
This post is a response to a movie review for “Nymph()maniac” Vol 1 that I came across in the local free press, I am writing, not to defend its director, as much as position legitimate film commentary out of reach of lazy reviewers such as himself. To pronounce the filmmaker a woman hater was the work of an inquisitor, not a critic. He is employed to increase the understanding of cinema and yet he rants as if he would condemn the film never to be seen. It’s not Lars Von Trier’s best film. I grew weary of watching it too. He’s repeating himself after so many outings. You notice fewer tricks and more ticks, but he’s still a master.
The film reviewer denounced Von Trier’s latest movie as lazy, contrived and boring then went on to write a review that I would characterize the same way. Anyway, lots of good movies are boring the first time I watch them. I have edged into boredom looking at hundreds of them and then was glad that I watched them again.
There was an 11am showing of the new Von Trier flick at “The Mayan,” a lovely, antique movie palace in old south Denver. I had been driving for hours and could have used a nap, but I still laughed all the way through the film. Von Trier’s most enduring quality is on display, his wit. I must admit, the dozen or so in the theater around me didn’t seem to laugh as much, so perhaps I’m a misfit. They were probably cringing, for which my response was just one alternative. We were all experiencing the same unease for the characters. Perhaps the only difference was, I enjoyed it because it was a movie and not real life.
The reviewer in question had one compliment for “Nymph()maniac”, praising Uma Thurman’s work, which was good but might have worked better before an audience, on a live stage. On the other hand, I was most amused by something the reviewer condemned as contrived. I suppose he’s right, but contriving the lighthearted obsessions of a fly fisherman with the world weary gripes of a courtesan past her prime sounds like something out of a Lubitch or Noel Coward play.
The reviewer’s accusation, of non-acting by the ingénue, is misguided as well I believe. An understated performance was the director’s call. I thought the actress modulate beautifully within the confines of her role. I’d dare to guess she was protected from waxing pornographic by stealthy direction. While the nude scenes were somewhat erotic, the screenplay is too multidimensional to be porn. Instead of exciting, it becomes interesting. It comments on porn.
As an interesting side note, my lady and I enjoyed a comedy starring Scarlett Johansson, involving porn addiction at the Sundance Kabuki in Japantown, San Francisco last fall. It’s directed by and also stars Joseph-Gorden-Levitt.
In direct contrast with mainstream internet adult content, in “Nymp()maniac” Vol 1 we are shown the dark side of a disease and acquire compassion. The maker of this film is depending on our social corrective instincts to kick in, not to sexually gratify his audience with one more exposé of skin.
We are already inundated with porn in the media. Responsible members of society need to undertake more and more of these kinds of debates. The moving image in “Nymph()maniac,” Vol 1 makes a forced entry into that frame, imposes on its cheap set-ups with talented actors instead of porn stars, then surrounds them with the very consequences which are customarily omitted in porn. Von Trier is not glorifying Jo’s exploits. He is coming out against the subjugation of women. So, hurray for Mother Nature if we feel obliged to stand up for the victims of sexual predation after watching his movie. Many a movie maker has inspired less noble sentiments in an audience.
Another worthy inquiry embedded in the script, which the reviewer I read never bother to address, is how we rationalize our denials to sooth our egos, like Von Trier’s protagonist. You can’t lie to yourself forever. It’s a universal theme, one that might as well be taken away, even if you didn’t care for the rest. That’s the kind of attitude I prefer, from journalists at free weekly newspapers when writing about films by accomplished filmmakers. The future of many crucial social debates is in the hands of filmmakers. They can have a massive, positive impact on society if they are allowed.
With regard to my own film commentary, I have decided that a person that sits at a desk for hours writing about movies after sitting at the movies for hours thinking about writing about them is engaged in a considerably more lightweight enterprise compared to the dedicated filmmaker that gets out there and gets their films made. We should show some respect.
If the reviewer thinks the Von Trier derived prurient pleasure making this or any of his films, why doesn’t he ask the actors. I’ve never heard anyone accuse this director of rubbing their noses in it. Von Trier just might be aiming his light to penetrate shades of ignorance and denial where we all wallow from time to time.
Lars Von Trier’s movies have, for the most part, compassionately portrayed the ordeals of women. In the meantime, I don’t know of another director that has helped advance the careers of so many female artists.
He’s a trickster, just as his countryman Carl Theodor Dreyer was. If you’re bored, maybe he’s not the one that’s lazy. The man’s fighting for our survival, using everything he’s got to make us think and in one limp, clichéd phrase a careless reporter sinks the boat? That stinks.
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.