Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Art-Making And The Depiction Of Biblical Narratives: A Critical Review Of "Noah" [WARNING: THERE MAY BE SPOILERS!] ★★★

"Noah" 2014

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LordThese are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him. -- Genesis 6 (English Standard Version)  
The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days. -- Genesis 7:17-24 (ESV)
In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. And Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out. Then God said to Noah, “Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him. Every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out by families from the ark. Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” -- Genesis 8:13-22 (ESV)

Most of us grew up learning about Noah in coloring books, illustrated children's bibles, and Sunday School classes. In those stories, everything was cheery and sunny. Noah was always smiling. The animals were always smiling. And about the "wicked ones"? Well they just disappeared once it started raining. God saved the day and all that's in a child's mind is that Noah and his family survived the stormy weather and that God will never flood the Earth again. Everything is awesome! (I'm sorry, just had to add that in there. It's a catchy song.)
     However, the story of Noah and the Ark, told in the book of Genesis, is not always a happy, cheery tale, contrary to what we may have been taught. There's death. There's tragedy. There's personal suffering. In the Sunday School classes, these things seemed to have been masked or deflected (understandably so). It seems we were never really allowed to have an understanding of the sad dimension of the story. In amazing contrast, Director and producer Darren Aronofsky retells this iconic story in his film, Noah, and spares us little comfort. There's death. There's tragedy. And boy is there personal suffering.
     I went to see the film, which released on Friday, March 28, on April Fools at 10:05 pm, with a couple of friends. Noah has easily become one of the most controversial and discussed films of the year. Conversations have been had, articles have been written, and rants have been Facebook-ed, detailing a wide spectrum of opinions from various perspectives. Atheist's are cool with the film. Christian's, not so much. Creationists... get in the bunker 'cause they're gettin' the nukes ready! (I know I'm generalizing a bit).The all-too-common argument laid against the movie went something like "It's so unbiblical" or "It's theologically inaccurate" or "It's sacreligious". To hear these objections again and again and again, not just in this context but with any Bible story retelling, has been incredibly infuriating. For me, writing this review is not just about giving my opinions on this particular movie, but also my view on art and how faith is depicted. Having said that, I'd like to open with a couple, hopefully brief statements, then I will discuss the film itself.
Art Is Art

It was the same thing with The Passion of the ChristThe Bible series, Son of God, and many other previous Biblical movies. It was the same thing with the best-selling novel, The Shack, and it will likely be the same thing with the to-be-released movie, Exodus: Gods and Kings, about Moses' story and the Exodus account. Many people build up hype for the event when the whole world gets to be introduced to their beloved story and then they leave the theater disappointed. The image you saw on the screen was different than the one you've created in your head since childhood. This or that was added to the story. Boohoo. Then follows the relentless onslaught on the filmmakers for their misrepresentation of the Bible and Christian doctrine.
     I get it. I do, but if you're going to a movie to watch an academic regurgitation of a story, a History Channel documentary, prepare to be let down. You are going to see art, not a lecture. Prepare your brain for new, strange, unconventional ideas. With this being said, I don't believe for a moment that art's sole purpose is to merely educate the unbelieving audience and tickle Christians with their own private elitism and misplaced sense of we've-got-it-right. The purpose of art is not to dogmatically assert that this is how it really happened. The purpose of a film like this, like Noah, is to creatively portray a popular Biblical story so that it may both provoke conversation and incite to personal investigation. This is a film that has most definitely accomplished those tasks (well, at least the first one), and I applaud Aronofsky for that.
     One who is interested in this topic, or is as opinionated as I am, and has or will see Noah, should read the article written by Alan Thornbury on the Gospel Coalition website, which I think does a good job of giving us a context for the movie's creative aspects and a proper lens to see through. Some of my critique of the movie will essentially reiterate what Thornbury points out in his review.
A Different Kind of Noah

Now onto the movie itself. The writers added a lot. In fact so much had been added to the story that by the end none of us in our seats knew what to expect. It's a different kind of flood narrative. It's a different kind of world. It's a different kind of Noah. Aronofsky, an atheist, and his team, when reading the text, definitely pulled off some interpretive gymnastics to turn what is a rather implicit, simple story into a long, two-and-a-half hour movie that takes all kinds of weird, surprising and often unsettling twists. They capitalized on various opportunities to take creative license (you'll see, for example, some interesting interpretations of Gen 6:4 and 6:18). As a result, this version is not like anything anyone is used to. Whether the final result is good or bad, I'll leave up to you to decide.


What I Liked

One concern that was brought up by a colleague viewing the film with me was whether Russell Crowe, playing Noah himself, was going to be able to meet status quo and deliver. Admittedly, I was caught questioning as well, but I had faith in his performance from the start. Overall, he didn't give the same physical, beat-him-up display that we've seen in his previous roles as an ancient Roman gladiator, Depression-era boxer, and medieval-English Robin Hood. However, he certainly gave the same grinding, emotional performance and I think that he gave one of his best in that respect. I would definitely say that Crowe, as an actor, brought the presence and tools needed to fit a complicated and multi-dimensional Noah-character. No disappointments in this area. The same could be said of all the Big-Name actors including Jennifer Connelly (Naameh), Emma Watson (Ila), and even Anthony Hopkins (Methuselah). They all, nearly equally, gave convincing demonstrations as their personages, giving wonderfully raw displays of their respective character's joy, trauma, and spiritual dynamism. Their dramatic execution amplified the effectiveness of the film's thematic elements.  
     The film has a slow start, but takes it's first big step in one of the earlier scenes when Noah receives a vision which displays a horrifying image of the Earth's citizens laying lifeless beneath flood waters. "He is going to destroy the world." Noah feels that he is being called to do something, but is uncertain. He approaches his grandfather, Methuselah, for some insight, and is then incited through another vision to create a (gigantic) boat. In this scene, Noah makes an interesting, metaphorical statement, that water is a cleansing agent, unlike fire. There's a redemptive aspect to flooding. Water doesn't just destroy. It creates newness. Aronofsky, though subtly, gives the audience a framework in which to understand the narrative. This proved to be pretty vital, because after this moment there is a lot of painful, near-agonizing events that occur right until the end of the movie. If the audience does not understand the redemptive aspect of this narrative, then I would think it would be pretty difficult to get on board with many of Noah's (and God's) decisions and properly understand what goes on. There will be tragedy - we understand this - but it's not the end.
     I very much appreciate the thematic layers that were woven into the plot. For example, the focal tension towards the end of the movie and the climax was the balance and play between justice and mercy. This moral question is made apparent in the many conversations between Noah and his family, all of whom are thrust (at times, almost dragged) into what on the surface seems to be a morally questionable quest to preserve the Righteous and to allow the annihilation of the Wicked. Noah is so obsessively bent on ensuring that only the Creator's will is fulfilled that he precautionarily disallows any from the line of Cain to enter the boat, even those who seem to be good. It even reaches the point where he questions whether he or his own family should be allowed to live because everyone, including them, is inherently evil. Called into question, then, is whether someone can be truly evil or truly good. Spurning from this is an emotional climax where Noah shows desire for God's judgment to not only pass onto Cain's descendants, but also his own. The reason why I like this as much as I do is because I honestly think it's reasonable and comprehensible for a dude in that situation, appointed with such a task, to go through that emotional and spiritual crisis. I've been through a similar process myself, so maybe there's a bias.
     [Spoilers ahead! Spoilers ahead!] Towards the climax, Noah is abruptly made aware that his son, Shem, and his wife, Ila, are expecting a child. At this point, they are floating aboard the Ark, and birds are being sent to search for land. Noah is infuriated because he doesn't want human existence to continue on (because of its wickedness), or at least he thinks his family should be the last of their kind, and so once the conflict progresses to the point where Ila is about to give birth, Noah actually threatens to kill the baby (which turns out to be twins). Noah believes that this is the Creator's will. I'm not in total agreement with this idea (it's a gutsy move on the part of the filmmakers), but I can't help but be reminded of the story of Abraham and his sacrifice of Isaac, and all of the emotional turmoil that went on there. As I watched this climactic scene unfold, me and my buddies were holding our breaths because none of us knew how this would turn out (but at the same time, we sort of did). Noah's wife, Naameh, several times questions 'how is this just?' Again, the justice and mercy thing. Eventually, Noah bent in the knees and did not destroy the babies, out of pity, and understandably he was kind of guilt-ridden and regretful, for multiple reasons. He "disobeyed" God and put his family through incredible duress. Eventually, in the closing scene, Ila affirms that this was God testing Noah all along to see if he had a concept of mercy and if he could deem life worthy of salvation, as God does. I think it's fair to say that if we have a problem with this aspect of the story, as new and unexpected as it is, then surely we must have a problem with the story of Abe and Isaac, which is actually in the Bible.
     Another aspect that I appreciated is the emphasis on the moral condition of civilization at the time. The people that God was judging weren't just bad people. They were bad people, who had deliberately rejected God and refused to worship Him. Let's take for example the head-honcho of a sinful tribe and Noah's arch-nemesis, Tubal-Cain, who poses a threat. He seems to know of God and who He is. He knows of miracles. He believes. In one scene, he calls out to God, the Creator, for some sort of answer or revelation but receives none, and I think it is implied that it is because his ways are so twisted and his heart is so hard. This, I think, is a moment that every Christian, including myself, should pay thought to. I think that this has applications in many Old Testament accounts that one reads, especially the book of Judges, and even when reading the epistles. I liked the repetition of his line that he will "make Earth into his own image". I think that just thickens the line Aronofsky was already trying to draw between who is "righteous" and who is "wicked".      There's a particular scene that caught me off guard. Only, it caught me off guard in a delightful way. Unfortunately, I think the preciousness of the moment was drowned in the angst of the following scenes (pun slightly intended). Ham needs a wife, but Ila is the only girl in town and she's taken. While the Earth is not yet flooded, Ham decides to go against Noah's advice and look for a wife in the enemy camp, hoping that amidst the evil that pollutes and crawls there, some good may be found. Indeed there is. Ham finds a girl bearing a stone in a paranoid, frightened, defensive stance, expecting an attack. Ham, to show he is not like the other evil men in the camp, offers her food. Perplexed, the girl asks what for, and in what I believe to be the most heartfelt instance of the film, Ham responds, "nothing" and invites her to go with him (it's implied he'll bring her onto the Ark). What a moment of sheer grace that aptly reflects the way Jesus Christ deliberately went into the camps of the wicked to offer a love and salvation that no one else would (or even could).
     On a slightly different note, there were a couple of statements that were made (or not made) in this film which I found pleasantly refreshing. The most interesting, to me, was delivered using the Creation story as the vehicle. On board the Ark, while storms raged and dying hordes wailed, Noah tells his family the Creation story, that it may justify the necessity of the flood. While Noah gives the narrative, we are given, in mesmerizing style, a visual picture of the six days of creation. "On the first day, God said 'Let there be light' and there was light." We then see galaxies and stars sprinkle the black void in an short instant. During the subsequent days, we see the Earth being formed, tectonic plates shifted, and mountains erected. So far it looks like the Creation Story, as it appeared, came out of a science textbook. Further into Noah's discourse, he talks about God creating the water-animals, land-animals, and aerial beings, and it's in this sequence that Aronofsky commits the greatest blasphemy of life. The animals evolved! At this point in the movie, every hermeneutical literalist, Baptist and young-Earth creationist is on their feet and prepping the warheads they had already set up from the start. All of the uproar, lead by Ken Ham. If you're me, you're laughing the whole time. Not because Evolution is blasphemy, but because even an atheist is suggesting, whether or not he himself chooses to believe in a creator-God, that evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive. I'm glad this statement was made because in flies in the face of all who think of Evolution and Creation as singular ideas rather than collections of arguments, who think that 518400 seconds is the only logical time-period for which the creation story to make sense, who think that the means in which God created the Earth, humans and our current society is as essential to the Christian faith as the Resurrection. It's a deviation from tradition that I think is needed.
     The second statement that I appreciated was one of restraint. In this movie depiction of a classic story that's been traditionally used to teach respect and care for the environment, there were no Avatar-esque shenanigans. There was no green-peace, save-the-polar-bear, quit-using-oil-campaign propaganda. Of course, there is the necessary undercurrent of Earth-care, but it's not embellished to the point of blatancy, unlike how James Cameron put together Avatar. Props to Darren!
     The third statement that I appreciated was, in the same sequence as the Creation-Story-scene, where the inherent sinfulness of man is explained and made abundantly clear. We are visually, still with Russell Crowe's cool narration, spoon-fed the knowledge and truth that we effed up and we effed up hard. We are reminded, hence, that our evil nature has carried through until today where, even now, we rape, mutilate and condemn each other. It's an ugly image that we're given. And in strange way, I think it's beautiful because of it. I would hate for the audience (particularly humanists) to leave the theater thinking that society has become good since those primitive days.

Nope. We still suck at life. We still deserve damnation. We still need Grace.  

What I Didn't Like

This is a film, as I've mentioned before, that tries new things, and in the process, tries an artistic interpretation of the flood account. While their attempt at it is bold (and commendable), I'm not sure I like the story-line nor the way that it's presented. There are some weird ideas that they incorporated into the story that I'm also not sure I like. And, of course, there's the theological disagreements I have with Aronofsky's Noah (am I contradicting myself? No, and I'll explain why in a bit).
     For starters, let's talk about the much-scorned inclusion of the Watchers. I don't blame people for being a little weirded out by these rampaging stone-beasts. They're kind of awkward to look at. They're like these Lord-of-the-Rings-meet-Transformers monsters, though supposed to be fallen angels, that are kind of mindless and seem to be an unnecessary addition to the plot. In a way, they are unnecessary. Though I don't mind them being in the story, necessarily, however I do wish they had a different role than the one they were assigned. The Watchers, early on, served as guides for Noah and his family, and later on served both as co-builders of the Ark and protectors of it. Though they made it possible for Noah and company to evade enemies and traps, and to build their yacht, their distraction crowded out their usefulness. There are certainly ways of "writing" around this so that there isn't the prevalent awkward distraction. At times in the story, it felt like the Watchers, also known as the Nephilim, were taking God's job, even though they weren't really. The one part I cringed at was where early on, Noah is confronted by bad-guy Tubal-Cain who declares his rebellion against God and distaste for Noah and his mission. Noah defends his quest and stands his ground amidst the opposition. Tubal-Cain responds to this saying, "You would stand alone and defy me?" Noah boldly responds saying, "I am not alone." At this point, I'm thinking this is God's time to shine. Nope, instead the Nephilim enter in and get all big and brash. One might say that God used them to protect Noah, but it certainly didn't appear that way. The big figures in the Bible often talked about how they were not alone, like Daniel or Paul, but they were almost always referring to God or the community of believers. So this scene was one of the big cringe-moments for me. Another cringe-moments was where it finally starts to rain and the Earth is about to be flooded. Tubal-Cain and his fellow tribesmen were attempting to violently seize the Ark in desperation while the Watchers fought them off. Personally, I think that the battle that ensued was more of another distraction and was really unnecessary. It felt like that scene was more of an injection of violence for the sake of having a super cool, action sequence alone without having any greater purpose. I do like the Nephilim portrayal (referenced in Gen 6:4 and in the book of Enoch) in one way, and that is because they remind me of the green ghosts in The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, in the sense that they are beings who made a bad move in the past, were punished for it (fallen angels vs accursed men), and through their devotion to Noah's quest were forgiven (becoming angels again vs being allowed to die). This is the only merit I accredit the Nephilim with, though.
     Another, bigger disagreement I have, which Alan Thornbury talked about as well, is that God wasn't really present much in the story-line. You hear him referenced a couple times as the Creator, but His involvement is usually very indirect and implicit. God's involvement that is known by the audience and is both direct and explicit is basically a couple of visions in the beginning and one part in the end where Noah has a chat with God  though we don't hear or see God like in the old movies. Of course there's the flood and the rainbow, obviously, and there's other miracles too but even then it's not too too obvious whether God is the orchestrator or if it's just some Narnian magic. It's definitely frustrating, watching this particular movie, because all along you're waiting for God to interact and you're waiting for more involvement and revelation and I do believe that there is more of that in the flood narrative and I do believe that you need a clearer sense of God's presence in the story, because otherwise it's easier to become sidetracked both as a filmmaker and as a film-watcher when God isn't focal. God is an actual dude and He can't be restricted to just a couple of visions and an off-screen conversation. He can't always be implied to have done miracles. It must be blatantly obvious that it's Him at work.
     Just as an example of the issue I described in the previous paragraph, let's discuss what I think was a botched character in Methuselah. I do not like the filmmakers representation of him mainly for one reason. Usually when someone does a miracle, God says 'Do this' or 'Go there'. Methuselah in almost every one of his scenes does a miracle. The problem is that you never hear God tell him, 'Do this' or 'Go there'. Methuselah always just pulls tricks out of his sleeve whenever he wants. Of course, it's not to say that he wasn't necessarily prompted by God to perform awesome miracles - at one point, he lays hands on barren Ila, Pentecostal-style, and causes her to supernaturally be able to give birth. It's just that it's always implicit and you have to assume that God is behind it all. Because of this, Methuselah seemed to be more of a magician than simply God's servant. He seemed to be more of a soothsayer than a prophet. This, I'm against. Again, I don't have a problem with including the character into the story, I just don't like the portrayal and I think the filmmakers could have done a better job.
     Finally, I want to discuss my theological disagreements with the movie. Now, before I get into it, I know that in my introduction, I clearly asserted that this film was a work of art and should not be discredited if there are theological discrepancies and if the story isn't told exactly the way it is in the Bible. I still support the claims made. The reason why I now choose to bring up what I think are theological discrepancies is because there are a couple that are significant enough that they alter the meaning and value of the story altogether. There a many debatable doctrinal and hermeneutical questions that the film brings up, but the one that hurt me the most is that at the end of the movie, there's a rainbow but no promise. This is an issue because the covenant God makes with the Earth's stewards that He will not causing a global flood again is paramount. I don't know about my buddies who were watching the movie with me, but when the rainbow flashed and the credits hit the screen without some kind of covenantal statement, I couldn't help but think, "Well that was awkward." It was an awkward end to what was altogether a strange movie to watch.

The Consensus

Like any other movie, Darren Aronofsky's Noah has it's Arc de Triomphe and it's Titanic. Where the movie was triumphant, I think, was in it's representation of God and it's inclusion of Biblical values. I thought the film did a decent job of staying altogether true to Scriptural morals and themes, and it did not belittle God nor significantly alter God's character, as it is reflected, unlike a lot of other films that discuss the Judeo-Christian God and faith in some way. I don't mind that they portrayed Noah and God as violent beings. For these things, I say that the film has merit. On the other hand, I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to say that this movie is an aesthetically strange depiction of Noah's story and the global flood. It is purposely very unconventional in it's telling. With all of my dislikes, plus some emotional dead-points in the story-line, I will not hesitate to say that this is artistically not the greatest movie I've ever seen. In fact, it's just not great. This is a film that I probably won't buy, as it is rather forgettable. I will probably end up making the purchase anyways, just for the heck of it, but this is more of a movie that you go to see in theaters with a group and have a conversation about afterwards. Overall, I give the movie 3 out of 5.
     Shortly after watching Noah, I decided that I would write this review. Not necessarily because this is a movie worth spilling my two cents of opinion over, but because this was a means of entering the larger conversation of what art is and it's relationship with the Christian faith. As we all know, there are a lot of nay-sayers throwing mud at the film because of it's doctrinal flaws alone. I wholly think that this is a wrong understanding of what art is. Art does not need to be absolutely infallible, doctrinally, to be of use and to be worth admiration. Art does not have to be a literal interpretation of reality to be theologically coherent. Art does not have to be historically accurate to send an accurate message and, for some reason, most of us seem to have been tilting the scales. Appreciate art for what it is.