Clearing the decks for Noah (2014)

Hoping to go see Noah tomorrow night. I’m not expecting the film to be a blow-by-blow retelling and no one seriously should have expected it to be for a whole bunch of reasons. The Noah text of Genesis 6-9 consists of approximately 2000 words in the English Standard Version. You could read it in less than 15 minutes. There’s almost no speaking, except by God, and a bit from Noah at the end. To make anything other than a short film or a silent one, is going to require a large amount of creative licence. Every frame of (digital) celluloid and all the sounds you create amounts to some kind of ‘creative licence’. That’s what art is… no?

Two key criticisms of the film that emerged on various blogs and posts I’ve read are that 1. it isn’t faithful to the Biblical narrative, and 2. it features a strong environmentalist theme, i.e. values are defined by attitude to the environment.

This post is a rough sketch of my thoughts and other issues related to the above criticisms, prior to viewing the movie.

Hullabaloo – not surprising and not necessary

We knew from a long way out that Aronofsky’s vision probably wasn’t going to align with many viewers’ dream Noah movie (if such a category exists). One of the early quotes from Aronofsky was his statement:

“I think it’s really timely because it’s about environmental apocalypse which is the biggest theme, for me, right now for what’s going on on this planet,” Aronofsky told SlashFilm.com in 2008. “So I think it’s got these big, big themes that connect with us. Noah was the first environmentalist. He’s a really interesting character.”  (Christianity Today)

So Aronofsky’s Noah concept has been floating around for many years, at least as far back as 2008. Anyway, shortly before the release of Noah, Paramount added a disclamatory statement to the film and on marketing materials, following consultation with focus groups:

“The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.” 

Let’s be realistic: securing a good return on investment is paramount to Paramount. (See what I did there? You’re welcome.) It’s in their interest to limit negative press and persuade potential viewers to spend their entertainment dollar with them. As Erica Orden reported for the Wall Street Journal in 2012:

Paramount is hoping “Noah” will connect with religious Americans who “may not necessarily go to more than one or two movies a year,” said Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore… “There’s creative interpretation that goes into things that aren’t directly addressed in the underlying material, and so you always run the risk that people take exception to those stories,” Mr. Moore said. Once that process is complete, the challenge shifts to getting both mainstream moviegoers and religious audiences into theater seats, a process that relies both on specialized marketing to those eager for a faith-based film as well as marketing that appeals to those searching for a “popcorn” movie.

On the other hand, the movie (with or without the help of the disclamatory statement) might have actually encouraged people to investigate the story for themselves. For example, the Bible Society reports that online bible reading of Genesis 6-9 has increased since the release of Noah. Maybe not the result those critics were expecting or predicting. But whether the Paramount statement is accurate or not, the trueness of the story to the original text is clearly the source of contention for many. I will suggest some of those challenges later.

On one level, the criticism really shouldn’t be all that surprising - Aronofsky is culturally Jewish and he’s influenced by the Midrash tradition. In the past – I’m estimating around 1998 - he’s described himself as Godless but for the god of narrative filmmaking – by which I take him to mean it gave him ultimate meaning and purpose.

However, reading his interview with The Atlantic, Aronofsky seems much more open than that. And I encourage you to read the interview in full. It’s a great read and there’s heaps of great observations and clearly the result of much “wrestling” with the text. Whether Aronofsky is reading the texts any differently to the way, say, Joseph Campbell might, it’s hard to say and it remains to be seen where he goes with this. But Aronofsky’s interview with The Atlantic suggests his creative choices should be approached more positively than not I think:

The moment that it “grieved Him in his heart to destroy creation,” is, for me, the high dramatic moment in the story. Because think about it: It’s the fourth story in the Bible. You go from creation to original sin to the first murder and then time jumps to when everything is messed up. [The first three stories in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, are the creation, Adam and Eve, and the story of Cain and Abel, which is often referred to as “the first murder.”] The world is wicked. Wickedness is in all of our thoughts. Violence against man and against the planet. And so it was so bad that He decides that He is going to destroy everything and destroy this creation. So what we decided to do was to align Noah with that character arc and give Noah that understanding.

It seems to me that Aronofsky is really fascinated by the story of Noah - it speaks to him in some meaningful way and is interested in these rather universal, timeless questions of the problem of evil, the role of humanity. That’s a good thing. As far as it goes. The “violence… against the planet” represents his particular way into the story, but more on that later.

Based on the background information, then, I question whether the hullabaloo is necessary. People shouldn’t be surprised and act all outraged if Aronofsky’s interpretation is not the Christian one. He’s not a Christian and he didn’t set out to make a Christian movie. And that’s not shocking. The more surprising thing would be if Aronofsky had made a version of the story that was pleasing to 100% of believers, with the story explicitly placed within it’s complete theological context. But what exactly would a “biblically faithful” version look like anyway? It’s not as simple as getting the order of events right.

The Bible and stories and stuff

Movies and stories typically involve a protagonist who wants to achieve something but an internal flaw and an adversary keep him back. In the course of overcoming the flaw and adversary, the character learns a lesson (or not) about how to live or not live life. That’s simplistic I acknowledge. There are a whole bunch of different story shapes, but many stories contain these elements. That’s Story 101.

Good readers in general and good readers of the Bible in particular will recognize that Biblical narratives are highly structured too and in similar ways to ordinary stories. For example, the Noah story might be structured like this:

  • Situation: humanity has become increasingly violent and evil
  • Inciting incident: God is grieved at humanity’s rebellion and graciously chooses Noah and his family to establish a covenant with them to renew the earth
  • Rising tension: as Noah builds the ark, will anyone repent? as flood waters approach and rise, will anyone survive?
  • Climax: God remembers Noah. Ultimately, only Noah and his family are saved, and God reaffirms the creation blessing/mandate, to be fruitful and multiply. A new creation and a new humanity, right?
  • Resolution: Soon after the new creation, problems begin again, with Noah and his family indicating that humanity is yet in need of restoration and the promised saviour is yet to come.

So there’s the bare bones of a story there. But the problem is I’ve introduced a whole lot of stuff from earlier parts of the Bible – the backstory. Stuff like sin, that God is interested in doing something about it, that a redeemer was promised. Hence, the whole story of the Bible could be expressed as follows:

  • Main characters: one supremely good character (God) and a whole bunch of flawed ones (humanity)
  • Situation: the good God creates a good universe for humans to enjoy and steward under his rightful, loving rule
  • Inciting incident: humanity rebels against God but God promises a redeemer
  • Rising tension: What will God do to fix the sin problem? Where is the promised saviour? why can’t Israel be faithful? Can God and man be friends again? [<- Noah fits in here]
  • Climax: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for sin, for sinners, for salvation brings the opportunity for reconciliation between God and humanity
  • Resolution: With Christ as King, humans can properly love God and love neighbour now and into eternity

The Biblical account of Noah, then, is seen as a story within a story of salvation history, which connects the beginning of the creation, the fall, to the redemption won by Jesus, and an ultimate new creation. This is why Christians care about the treatment of the text. Ultimately, in some way, it points us forward to Jesus. As salvation history, the Bible’s primary focus is theological and Christological.

How does one express those theological aspects on screen and transmit the message faithfully? It’s certainly not just a simple matter of putting the events up there in the right order with historically accurate details, or someone reciting reams of text. There’s the question of back story, aligning competing views, particularly problematic for a story like Noah in which only a handful of characters – God, Noah, Noah’s family, the rest of humanity – are mentioned.

A prima facie reading of Aronofsky’s interview suggests to me he gets a lot of the background work right – even if tracing the story through and beyond the Old Testament we would eventually land at different places as to what is the solution to the sin problem - Jesus. People might question the whole basis or reason for doing such a film in the first place, but I’m interested to see how much of this background work is developed in the final film. This can be engaged with fruitfully.

The environment

Now to the big non-controversial thing. Thematically, Aronofsky chose the theme of the environment. And again, it shouldn’t be that surprising. It’s a relevant topical theme of the last 40 or so years and will continue to be for the next century. If we’re still around, and not drowned or hit by an asteroid or stuck in some kind of Matrix. But then how would we know? Even if environmentalism as a theme dominates the movie Noah, it need not be totally repudiated. And it can still be a decent movie either way, or not.

While it’s not the whole focus of the Bible’s storyline, the Biblical writers have quite a few things to say about the environment. Things like

  • God’s creation is good
  • God’s creation is God’s
  • we are part of it as God’s creatures
  • we’re to take care of it
  • we’re to enjoy what it has to offer
  • God’s judgement is against those who destroy it
  • There will be a final new creation

It’s a gift of common grace by which we all physically live. We care for the environment because it’s God’s and it’s good for people when we do. And it’s bad when we don’t. For example, the disposal of computer and mobile phone parts by incineration releases deadly toxins into the air. A dreadful cost of our technological lifestyle. Or transportation emissions leading to respiratory conditions and possibly death. [rant] It annoys me when political conservatives display a lackadaisical attitude to the environment, or fear of espousing environmentalism. Preserving stuff is the core business of conservatism right? Let’s get the conservation back into conservatism. [/rant] Perhaps a Venn diagram will help:

venn

Diagram not to scale.

Now, some worldviews place the environment equal to humanity or above it in the place of God. And when they do, things get out of order. Not only is this view of the world skewed, either the environment or people end up suffering. Humans are more valuable than the environment, but abuse of creation is an affront to the One who made it too and it is detrimental for humans when we mess it up.

Conclusion

So this leaves me with the questions I will bring to my review: To what extent does Noah succeed as a film – is it entertaining, emotionally engaging, characters, acting, or exhibit artistic or technical merit? What is Noah’s goal, flaws, the antagonist, how does he change in character between the beginning and the end? Is the depiction of humanity true? Does it say anything worth saying?  Does Aronofsky’s ground work for the film come across on screen? Not too different from questions I’m asking here ordinarily. How uncontroversial.

Review ahoy.

Priest (2011)

Paul Bettany as Priest

Paul Bettany plays Priest, a vampire hunter who learns his niece has been captured by vampires. The problem is the Church, which fully controls his city, believes that vampires have been completely eradicated. They warn him that “to go against the Church is to go against God”, yet out of love goes rogue after her anyway, much to the Church leadership’s fury. The Church enslaves the masses in this big fort, with surveillance, militarized police, and rampant pollution. After Priest leaves on his quest, the Church send 4 other priests to hunt down and stop our man, but they end up siding with the Priest because of the way the Church treated them, nearly destroying their faith. Together with a sheriff, they plan to hunt down the vampires and save the niece.

Overall, the movie was more curious than anything. It felt like a bunch of movies you have seen before fusing the fight scenes and long coats from The Matrix with the aliens from Doom with the score from Batman and Paul Bettany channelling Christian Bale’s Batman voice, and futuristic, jet-powered motorbikes from a recent Star Wars movie. I guess this what is meant by the term ‘derivative’. Wikipedia describes it as a “post-apocalyptic dystopia science fiction action horror film”!

The main characters of the Priests and the sheriff were the best part, and apart from the game of movie bingo I was playing, just managed to keep my interest throughout. The Church people basically were angry with the Priest and kept saying the same thing over and over. And as for the vampires – well, not a whole lot going on there, right?! Still, there were a couple of interesting scenes that were pleasing on a thematic level.

The Priests, even though they were persecuted by the Church, they still maintained their faith, relying on the power of God for their strength and to do what they needed to do to save the city (despite the supposed warning about going against Church = going against God). It wasn’t as though they just magically cast a spell and all of their troubles disappeared. They still had to fight. And so it is in life, that God doesn’t just make all our troubles go away. We’re called to work for the good of people, expose falsehood, and most importantly sacrifice. In this way, we follow in the way of Jesus whose life was a ransom for many - actually he’s the high priest that sacrifices himself – I can’t see any of those Church leaders doing THAT! In the same way, we see here that characters are also prepared to sacrifice ultimately. In contrast, the villain of the piece was tired of the notion of sacrifice, and only wanted to live as he desired without restraint and without any authority telling him how to live.

The final scene was particularly relevant to our modern discussion on the place of evidence in religious belief. In the beginning of the film, the Church believes that vampires had been eradicated, and maintains this throughout, though secretly you must wonder what they are scared of with these big walled cities. I guess that’s part of the control mechanism on one level, but on another level, if they were so confident that the Priest would find nothing, why bother sending someone to stop him? In the end, the Priest brings a vampire’s head into a Church meeting, the evidence that proves that vampires still exist despite the Church saying so. The Church leaders are shocked and in the face of glaring evidence to the contrary, still maintain their position. Finally, the Priest leaves the Church – probably the best course of action if the Church was so consumed by their desire for power. The Church will lose credibility and thoughtful people will leave the Church if it closes its eyes to the evidence before it, though I think it’s also clear the Priests (the vampire hunters) retain their faith. In painting one faith institution as failed, does Priest paint all institutions in that colour?

But the sad irony for the Church-Folk in this movie, is that Christianity is fundamentally an historical religion based on Christ’s life, death and resurrection – historical events occurring in space-time history. As we read in 1 Corinthians 15:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me… 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

To conclude, Priest had a couple of good scenes and themes, and surprisingly for me characters were not just supernaturally superpowered in and of themselves. At 87 minutes, it’s borderline whether you should watch it: the film isn’t long compared with other movies, but the final battle eventually left me wanting it to end. If you don’t like horror films, give it a miss. The gore was stronger than the M / PG-13 rating but in saying that I don’t generally watch horror(-ish) movies. Even if you do like horror films, you might give it a miss anyway. Maybe try church instead.

Will Gravity sweep the technical awards?

It’s Oscar time again! As I write Gravity just won Best Visual Effects! I’m expecting great things for Gravity today. Director Alfonso Cuaron created a film that was also an experience; that was, apart from several physical issues, perhaps more science fact than science fiction, such was the sense of presence and realism the director imbued.

The Academy has never awarded Best Picture to a science fiction film, but I’m expecting Gravity to at least sweep the technical awards categories, perhaps cinematography and Best Director.

Anyway, what do you think? Who do you expect to win the top prize?

Alfonso Cuaron Q&A: ‘Gravity’ Director Reveals Early Influences

Matthew:

As a child, Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron wanted to be an astronaut. As a student, he studied philosophy. As a filmmaker, he creates a perfect marriage of the two. Director Alfonso Cuaron discusses his early influences and personal philosophy with Variety.

Originally posted on Variety:

Darwin, philosophy, ‘Lost in Space’: The DGA-winning filmmaker talks about early influences, many of which resurface in the emotional core of “Gravity” in a Q&A with Variety’s Tim Gray.

Growing up, did you watch much TV?
All day long, television and movies. I loved “Lost in Space,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Mr. Ed” — remember “Mr. Ed”? — “Bewitched,” all those. And in Mexico at that time, these were blended with Japanese anime and monster shows.

Films?
My mom and grandmother were cinephiles. We loved to go to the movies. The first great film I was exposed to was “The Bicycle Thief.” I was probably 8. I was at a sleepover with my cousin, and they announced on TV that they were about to show a film only for adults. I thought I was going to see boobs or something. I didn’t see any boobs, but by the end, I was weeping…

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Songs of 2013: I Will (Andy Gullahorn)

Part three of a three-part series featuring significant songs of my 2013. Read part one hereRead part two here.

I WILL
Nothing. All you hear is silence
Feels like you’re alone and
Drifting off of the map
But many souls have gone
Down this road you’re on
At least I have
Sometimes people think its better
Feeding you an answer
To what you can’t understand

But if you want someone who
Will just cry with you
I can

Some say there’s nothing they’re ashamed of
They cover up the tracks from
The hell where they’ve been
But if you’re looking
For something broken
I am

The truth is we’re all gonna take a last breath
That’s not the only sad death
We are meant to feel
If you need a friend to
Do some dying with you
I will

I Will paints a picture of the perfect friend and I’ve been deeply blessed to have been surrounded by friends like that this year.

Sincere, humble, generous.

Friends like Jesus.

We need friends like this – not just in our private lives, but in our public life too. Our world needs friends like this. Life is more tolerable, more productive, more pleasant, with friends like that. I’d like to be that kind of friend.

But I’m often tempted to hide who I am, how I’m going, withdraw or just talk about stuff that doesn’t matter to avoid talking about stuff that does. Perhaps if we were to open up and be genuine with people, we might find that those whom we think are different to us, aren’t as different as we might think.

A happy and enriching 2014 to you all.