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Some Thoughts on “Noah”

Nicholas Jahr
April 4, 2014
by Nicholas Jahr NOAH_Movie_2014_2In case you haven't heard — and given the torrent of advertising that's hard to imagine — Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) has a new film out, a $125 million dollar take on the biblical patriarch Noah in the standard mode of the contemporary Hollywood epic. Aronofsky takes the least interesting questions posed by the story and comes up with the least interesting answers. If you were hoping that the director of Pi would have something to say about the line between prophetic revelation and paranoid delusion — you'll be disappointed. If you were hoping that the director of The Wrestler would have something to say about self-sacrifice — you'll be disappointed. If you were hoping that the pioneering digital filmmaker could unleash a flood worthy of the name and wring an image to be reckoned with out of the rainbow — you'll be disappointed. If you were hoping to see how Noah would manage the clamor of having all those damned (okay, blessed) animals on the ark — this is the film you've been waiting for. (Spoiler: herbal suspended animation.) If you were hoping to see how Noah would prevent everybody else from getting on board — Aronofsky's your guy. That last point actually depends on one of Aronofsky's more confounding choices, his decision to make a platoon of ass-kicking angels Noah's first line of defense against the godforsaken pagan hordes. He takes his inspiration from the first verses of Genesis 6, which begins the story of the flood. Depending on the translation you're reading, these verses refer to "giants" (King James) or "divine beings" (The Torah: A Modern Commentary) or the Nephilim or often just "sons of God" or even most of the above — it's not always clear from the text if they're more than human, but it is clear that the children they have with "the daughters of men" become "men of renown," heroic figures. Aronofsky interprets them as straight fallen angels and ignores the inter-species romance (which is odd, given how concerned his film is otherwise with procreation). Although when Aronofsky introduces us we're told they're allied with the children of Cain, they don't need much convincing to rally to Noah's cause and hold the line against the army which lays siege to the ark. In Genesis this mention of the Nephilim and the heroic age is followed by what to a modern reader seems like a non sequitur: God's determination that men were wicked, violent, lawless, and that their every inclination bent inevitably in that direction. Which seems an odd pronouncement on a heroic age. Reconciling these seeming leaps in logic — say, by recognizing the brutality implicit in ancient heroism — can be a productive challenge, but Aronofsky doesn't take it up (you could make an argument that his depiction of Noah does, but even if so it's isolated from any broader critique). Chalk up another lost opportunity. He does come up with a much more compelling take on one of the story's other non sequiturs: Noah getting hammered and ending up passed-out drunk after the flood. Aronofsky's Noah is tormented by the things he's done and survivor's guilt. One of the film's few arresting moments comes in an extraordinary, painterly long shot of people clinging to the top of a mountain as the rain pours down and the waves creep up. Noah and his family, safe aboard the ark, can hear their screams and cries for help. Up until this point in the film, the rest of humanity has been little more than an undifferentiated mass of evil; it's hard to say if that makes their suffering more powerful. Aronofsky doesn't stay with it, though: Noah's guilt is almost instantaneously displaced on his daughter-in-law's unborn child. He's convinced God meant an end to all flesh, that all humanity must perish: if it's a boy he'll let the child live, as he'll be the last of the race, but if it's a girl he'll kill her himself. He has to; it's the only way he can justify leaving so many people to die. While this is a neatly executed bit of psychological jujitsu, it has the effect of diverting our attention from the actual suffering outside to the potential suffering inside (both within the ark and Noah's family). It personalizes the slaughter in the form of a total innocent, an unborn baby. This unwillingness to stare suffering in the face, to listen to its howling lament and whimpering pleas, the need to incarnate it in a single blameless individual before we can really expect sympathy, is striking. Maybe it's just an inevitable narrative contrivance. But maybe that contrivance reflects and reinforces the failure of our imagination — to consider the casual slaughter wrought by a petulant God, or by our own hands. Noah fails to take up the challenge. Nicholas Jahr is a freelance writer and member of the editorial board of Jewish Currents.