A few thoughts about ‘Noah’

I was sad that I didn’t like “Noah” more than I did.

It was so dark, so humorless, and so void of hope that it was almost impossible to enjoy. But I don’t think it was supposed to be the type of movie that you enjoy.

Despite how much I didn’t

enjoy watching it, it has definitely stuck around in my thoughts much longer than I anticipated. It’s the kind of movie that is probably more enjoyable to discuss or theorize about than to actually watch. Which makes perfect sense, since the only other movie I can think of that fits that description as well as “Noah” is Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” which felt like it took place in the same spiritual universe as “Noah.”

A lot has been said about Aronofsky’s atheism. In fact, way too much has been said about Aronofsky’s atheism. Ben-Hur was written in large part by Gore Vidal, who was also an outspoken atheist, but that didn’t seem to get in the way of him adapting a compelling story that explored faith.

The focus on Aronofsky’s religious beliefs seems to stem more from people who are giddy at the idea of transforming the film into part of the Culture Wars  than how he actually depicts the events of the Old Testament. The fine young lads over at Breitbart, for example believe the film to be “a brilliant, compelling, beautifully-mounted, beautifully-acted piece of storytelling conceived for the sinister purpose of leading people to believe that Christianity and Judaism [they seem to have forgotten Islam, which also accepts Noah as a prophet] are something they are not.”

The folks at Breitbart are concerned that atheist Aronofsky has made a film worshipping “the pagan God Gaia,” who was basically a personification of Mother Earth. So what worries them is that the God Aronofsky is exploring is inconsistent with their personal conception of who the God of Noah was. Even worse, this God is worried about the environment.

Aronofsky’s blasphemous claim that God is some kind of tree-hugger who wiped out humanity in the Flood to save the planet and punish Man for hunting animals is a bald-faced lie.

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It’s strange to me that the folks at Breitbart interpreted the film that way. There are strong environmentalist themes in the film, there is no doubt about that. But the director also shows some pretty horrific scenes of the depravity of mankind. Man is not treating man kindly, and that comes up more than once in Noah’s explanation of why the people must perish.

To his credit, Glenn Beck seems to have taken the film for what it was. He didn’t like it, but his reasoning actually makes sense, though I still disagree with him. “I believe that it is not a godless climate change movie” he said. “It’s more take ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ meets ‘The Shining’ and ‘Friday the 13th,’ with a sprinkle of ‘Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.’”

And that is how I hope most people will engage with “Noah,” observing it for what it is without attempting to find some sinister subversive message behind it. There are worse messages than “lets stop hurting the environment and  killing each other,” anyway.

But as I said, I don’t completely agree with Beck’s whole “Thunderdome” meets “Sinbad the Sailor” thing. “Noah” says a lot of interesting things about man’s relationship with God that I think are at least worth considering:

First, Aronofsky shows two interesting approaches to believing in God. One, represented mostly by Noah (but also some in his family) is that God in relation to man is a teacher. This is pretty consistent with probably what most religious people think. Noah is a descendent of Adam who has had religious teachings of the “The Creator” passed down from each generation to the next. Noah, like most religious people, is primarily concerned with the meaning and purpose of his life, cultivating a relationship with the divine (in this case respect for nature does play a big part. But suggesting that isn’t consistent with the Bible is absurd ) and avoiding sin. To him the ultimate sin is to abuse the gifts that The Creator has bestowed on mankind.

The second approach to belief, as represented by the villain Tubal-cain, is to believe that the Earth is indeed yours and not God’s. Tubal-cain repeatedly expresses his frustration that God will not talk with him, and constantly justifies his bad behavior by repeating “I was created in His image,” therefore he can do whatever he pleases. God gave us what we need, so we are not at fault for using it to our advantage, the thinking goes.

So as an atheist, it looks like Aronofsky is showing what he admires about religious conviction (humility, belief in a power that advocates for harmony) and what makes him uneasy (prideful “dominion” because we are God’s chosen creation). Both characters speak in quotes from the Old Testament, so Aronofsky seems to believe that both styles of believers had a hand in writing the Old Testament.

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The second thing I found interesting about “Noah” is how Aronofsky depicts communication with God. The Bible simply states “And God said unto Noah,” but they never state how God said it. In “Noah,” God speaks to the patriarch in dreams that “Noah” himself interprets. Those dream sequences are some of the best parts of the film.

Because Noah’s communion with God is cryptic, it also leaves room for him to misinterpret what God is trying to tell him, which is the case toward the end of the film. The most controversial part of the film — the part that made Glenn Beck compare it to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” — occurs because when Noah seeks guidance from “The Maker” over something he believes has altered the divine plan, he receives virtually no answer. He interprets the lack of an answer to mean that he must do what he initially thought was necessary. At the end of the film, his wife gives a different explanation. She believes that God left it up to Noah to decide, so he could make the right choice on his own. In this case, so he could feel love for humanity again.

This whole concept is a perfect example of something that was utterly disturbing to watch, but powerful to think about after. He filmed “Noah” in such an abrasive way that it was hard to ever stop and wonder at some of the profound implications of the story.

So, to Aronofsky, if God does communicate with man, it is in man’s best interest to always search for the right lesson. Our own thoughts and biases can influence us for the worst, especially since God seldom speaks to man in a clear, easily understood way.

The third thing I found really interesting is that probably for the first time ever (at least that I’m aware of) a film has displayed — and taken seriously, I might add — the possibility of theistic evolution. As Noah recounts the story of Adam and the fall of man, he begins with “In the beginning, there was nothing” and works his way through the familiar creation story in Genesis. As Noah speaks, he uses the word “day” to describe the periods of creation. But what’s being displayed onscreen clearly interprets “day” to be thousands if not millions of years. Noah says that God created sea creatures “many of which still likely lure beneath this ark” and that after he created the sea creatures (we watch the sea creatures evolve as he speaks) God created the birds of the air. As he speaks about the birds of the air, we see some sea creatures evolve into birds. Then he says God created the beasts of the field. We see one of the fish climb out of the water with primitive but functioning legs. As the creature walks we watch it evolve. The evolution process follows a pattern I remember from science class: from fish, to lizard, to a four legged dog-like mammal, to a relative of the chimpanzee.

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The depiction of Cain slaying Able evoked the imagery of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001:A Space Odyssey.” Both films seem to have a lot in common. That might be a good blog post for another day.

 

Then, he says, God created man. However when man (Adam and Eve) is revealed, they appear celestialized. There is a golden glow around them. Aronofsky then walks us through the fall of man. It all reminded me of how B.H. Roberts understood the idea of pre-Adamites and dispensationalism:

That there were pre-Adamite races in the earth, and that man’s habitancy of it is of greater antiquity than the period which begins with Adam, is quite generally accepted by the scientific world, and for them, admits of no doubt; but if the account of things through the Bible revelations begins with Adam, and merely the opening of a dispensation of God’s providences with the human race on the earth since that time, then matters take on a form much more understandable, and makes possible the solving of many problems.

As a Mormon, the concept of evolution is a profound one to me. Mormon theology claims that man is destined to progress through the eternities, ever learning and growing in grace and understanding.  Joseph Smith, in the King Follet discourse explained a vision of the afterlife that included the continued growth of the spirit:

When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.

Growth, then, is a vital element of the gospel. There is something profound about understanding celestial growth as having begun in the simplest form possible to our understanding. That mankind began and ascended from prokaryotes isn’t profound to everyone though, and unfortunately a lot of people feel very threatened by it. I’m sure that’s one reason so many believe Aronofsky’s film to be atheisitic; any Bible film that suggests evolution could have played a part in creation must be Godless. But luckily, I don’t have to believe that. Brittany bought me Faith of a Scientist, Henry Eyring’s book on how he balanced belief and the scientific method, for Christmas.  In it, he pushes aside any notion that science’s modern understanding of how the world works organically isn’t consistent with faith:

The scriptures record God’s dealing with His prophets and they are as accurate as He, in his wisdom, requires. They are spiritual guides to religious questions and treat only incidentally scientific and other non-religious questions. In these areas, they should be be supplemented by all relevant information. Viewed in this light, most problems disappear.

So to me, “Noah’s” ambition is the real selling point. This is a film that almost belongs in an art-house as much as it does in the block buster file. It is about family, tribal conflict, and man’s relationship with God. All of those topics are very appealing to me. It’s just too bad the package wasn’t tighter.

“The Fountain” was also one of the most ambitious films I’d ever seen, and it too just didn’t live up to it’s own ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised if Aronofsky eventually makes a third spiritual movie. It would have similar themes to both “Noah” and “The Fountain,” such as conquering death and achieving a sense of communion with  the divine (whatever divinity he chooses to tackle next time. “The Fountain” had plenty of Christian themes, but it also had pretty clear Hindu and Buddhist imagery). Then they can all be called “Aronofsky’s God Trillogy” or something like that.

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The shame of all of this — and my real beef with Glenn Beck’s new self-appointment as a culture critic —  is that people in religious communities constantly clamor about how cinema is Godless, but ignore films that attempt to explore religiosity. They want to see things like faith and spirituality have more of a presence in mainstream entertainment, but not just any faith and spirituality, a specific  brand that focuses not on man’s relationship with God, but on an us v. them mentality.

In theaters right now is a film about an evil philosophy professor who forces his students to sign something that says God doesn’t exist. It looks pretty awful. The acting, writing, everything. But the reason religious communities are so excited by it is because they see it as their contribution to an argument. Forget the fact that it’s probably a lousy film, what matters is that it’s a film that not only vindicates a certain worldview, but vilifies another. It doesn’t do it through parable or metaphor, it just comes right out and says it, lest anyone be confused.

Meanwhile, Daron Aronofsky, a self-proclaimed atheist, has successfully made his second spiritually themed movie, which despite what many critics have said, has overtly religious overtones. In recent years, Terrence Malick made two films, “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder” that are also explicit in their religiosity. Roger Ebert called “The Tree of Life” “a form of prayer.” The same can be said for P.T. Anderson’s “Magnolia” and countless other films that go ignored by critics like Beck.

So was “Noah” perfect? No. In fact, it wasn’t even very enjoyable. There were a lot of things I didn’t mention here, like how the Rock People were an interesting idea, but really distracting and probably just should have been left out. But what I’m most interested in right now is how much “Noah” has me thinking. If nothing else, it’s got me interested in the Old Testament again, and that isn’t an easy thing to do.

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