Thursday 30 October 2014

A Very Weird Story: Deconstructing Darren Aronofsky's "Noah".

An Heretical Work: Darren Aronofsky's Noah is an attempt to reconstruct from the ill-fitting fragments of the much older and more finely textured myth of the Great Flood, a religious homily about human power, human guilt, and human redemption. That he failed matters much less than that he tried at all.
NOAH is a curious movie. Conceived as a biblical epic, it’s target audience was originally the millions of Americans who regard the Bible as "the inerrant word of God". With the sin-filled works of Hollywood forbidden to these true-believers, Christian movie-makers have developed a lucrative niche market for church-backed big-screen offerings that faithfully reproduce the scriptural plot-lines.
But if fidelity to the Genesis story was central to Director, Darren Aronofsky’s, original pitch for Noah, the final cut presents the viewer with something altogether different. Essentially, Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, have taken the biblical tale and re-worked it into a homily on the human urge to dominate and the damage it inflicts upon both the social and the natural world. Not surprisingly, when Paramount Pictures attempted to secure the support of the Christian distribution networks for Aronofsky’s final offering, the response was less than enthusiastic.
The ease with which Noah’s screenwriters’ were diverted from their original intentions is understandable because, read closely, the Book of Genesis is a very weird story. What, for example, are we supposed to make of this?
“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.”
Or this?
“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”
These verses are just there in the sixth chapter of Genesis – apropos of God knows what! One thing, however, is clear: that in the years following Adam’s and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden some very peculiar things were going on. Odd enough for Aronofsky and Handel to incorporate these fallen sons of God, these angels, into their movie’s plot-line. They called them “The Watchers”
Exactly what America’s stern guardians of evangelical Christian orthodoxy made of this plot device when asked to view the final cut of Noah one can only guess. In all probability they did not want the younger members of their congregations speculating about why angels might want to “come in unto the daughters of men”. Aronofsky’s and Handel’s use of the expression “The Watchers” posed even bigger problems.
Any good dictionary of religion (not to mention Google!) will lead any person curious to learn more about the Watchers to another very strange collection of stories about what happened in the years between the expulsion from Eden and the Great Flood. The Book of Enoch is, if possible, even weirder than Genesis. So weird that for more than 2,000 years both the Judaic and the Christian religious authorities have thought it best to keep Enoch out of both the Torah and the Bible.
Because, according to Enoch, the Watchers didn’t just content themselves with seducing the daughters of men, they had a much bigger agenda:
“It happened that when in those days the sons of men increased, pretty and attractive daughters were born to them. The Watchers, sons of the sky, saw them and lusted for them and said to each other: Let’s go and pick out women from among the daughters of men and sire for ourselves sons”.
To these, the offspring of the “sons of the sky”, the Watchers passed on all manner of useful knowledge. Enoch helpfully vouchsafes to us the names of some of these Watchers and what they taught:
“And Azâzêl taught men to make swords, and knives, and shields, and breastplates, and made known to them the metals of the earth and the art of working them, and bracelets, and ornaments, and the use of antimony, and the beautifying of the eyelids, and all kinds of costly stones, and all colouring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray, and became corrupt in all their ways. Semjâzâ taught enchantments, and root-cuttings, Armârôs the resolving of enchantments, Barâqîjâl, taught astrology, Kôkabêl the constellations, Ezêqêêl the knowledge of the clouds, Araqiêl the signs of the earth, Shamsiêl the signs of the sun, and Sariêl the course of the moon.”
If you’re beginning to think that all this is beginning to sound like the script of one of those Ancient Aliens “documentaries” that infest the History Channel, then you’d be entirely justified. That Aronofsky and Handel declined to take their screenplay in that direction was, perhaps, a mistake. It would have made a lot more sense to re-tell the story of Noah as a terrifying example of what happens when ordinary human-beings get caught up in the quarrels of horny “Sons of the Sky” bearing gifts.
As it is, the screenplay of Noah is neither fish nor fowl. It’s certainly not a biblical epic in the tradition of The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told, but neither is it a work of science fiction like Stargate. Instead, Noah is that rarest of things in this irreligious age, an heretical work.
Sensing that the biblical version of the Great Flood is but a fragment of a much older and more finely textured myth, Aronofsky and Handel have attempted to construct from its ill-fitting remnants a story about human power, human guilt, and human redemption. That they failed, producing a film so filled with gross failures of logic, motivation, and theology that not even the participation of Russell Crowe, Emma Watson and Sir Anthony Hopkins could save it, is not to be wondered at. Myths are generally the work of many literary hands, refined over centuries. It’s takes a scholar of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stature to make a believable myth from the contents of a single mind.
What can be said, however, is that Aronofsky’s and Handel’s Noah possesses the power to set those whose temperament leans towards the mystical on a fascinating path of inquiry. It also reminds us that the world depicted in the Bible is a very strange one. A world choc-full of all manner of supernatural beings – only some of whom are benign (or even decent!)
No wonder the Christian Right refused to endorse it.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Thursday, 30 October 2014.


Gnossienne said...

The comparative mythologist John Lamb Lash believes the West suffers from the lack of a central myth. He has used the Gnostic myth of Sophia to construct a myth that fits our reality drawing from the Coptic codices known as The Nag Hammadi Library which were discovered in Egypt in 1945. Lash takes the alien 'watchers' in his stride. His book 'Not in His Image' is scholarly and fascinating. A rallying cry for all those made weak by centuries of influence from curious 'commandments' and turn the other cheek stories, to say nothing of the politics of fear and disaster beginning with Noah's flood.
If we want to move from the ridiculous, polarised left and right, in relation to the leviathan god of capitalist industrialism, Lash's book would be a good place to start. Can't imagine the myth of Sophia and the way Lash relates this story to deep ecology ever being the subject of a Hollywood blockbuster though. A true heretic he kicks all Hebraic influence to the dark side of the moon.

Chris Trotter said...

Ah, Gnossienne, it would appear that I have found, at last, someone who knows whereof I speak.

If you're ever in Auckland on a Friday night, please, drop by Galbraith's Alehouse and allow me to buy you a drink!

Anonymous said...

Here's the plot. God creates our world sets man upon it, gives him dominion over it and the choice of relationship with himself. Man then by popular consensus shoves off doing whatever evil appeals to him and fills the spiritual guidance void by inter-reacting with the nether spiritual world. God regrets making man, decides this crew are beyond repair; He needs to scrub them and start afresh with a remnant. Enter Noah and the ark, but since man is nothing if not predictable, rinse and repeat is the theme. As example King Saul rejected God, did what he wanted and the guiding presence departed. He then turned to the occult witch of Endor to conjure up the off-course substitute and was destroyed.
At the Crucifixion of Christ, the great curtain that cordoned off the presence of God in the temple Holy of Holies was torn apart. The presence departed to reappear later on the disciples at Pentecost, the new remnant.
But the unbelieving Jews still tried to prop up the old order with their traditions plus a void. This has been plugged by appealing to the mystical, the writings of the Kabbalah, the 'Secrets of God'. Predictably many of the leading exponents of this counter culture have a habit of going troppo.
Some things are not mysterious. They are just as depressingly obvious as they appear. Mankind still says 'gimme two dollars worth of God and I'll have a pick'n'mix of the rest.
Secular Jewish Hollywood filmmakers look in dismay as the shekels roll in for low budget christian themed films whilst their own blockbusters run up bills, and bomb.
The story is the same; the obvious is rejected and the imitation accepted. They turned to plug the void with mythological, mystical cabbalist tripe. The remnant sniffed bullshit. The movie has bombed.
"Just as it was in the days of Noah (and Lot) so will it be in the days of the Son of Man" -Jesus

What we have here is a failure to communicate.


Gnossienne said...

Now we approach the Well at the
End of the World. What is that
Xenos who dances and sings
To the sky? in the distance a
Flood of crazed dolphins and surfers
Ride over the agora drowned
In a high tide of gold.

Tell me not in mournful numbers... said...

One cannot but help recall the angst of the chaplain in Catch 22.

"...after the chaplain had tried to persuade Colonel Cathcart to rescind his order increasing the number of missions to sixty and had failed abysmally in that endeavor too, and the chaplain was ready now to capitulate to despair entirely but was restrained by the memory of his wife, whom he loved and missed so pathetically with such sensual and exalted ardor, and by the lifelong trust he had placed in the wisdom and justice of an immortal, omnipotent, omniscient, humane, universal, anthropomorphic, English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon, pro-American God, which had begun to waver. So many things were testing his faith. There was the Bible, of course, but the Bible was a book, and so were Bleak House, Treasure Island, Ethan Frome and The Last of the Mohicans. Did it then seem probable, as he had once overheard Dunbar ask, that the answers to the riddles of creation would be supplied by people too ignorant to understand the mechanics of rainfall?"

Every tribe and super-tribe on the planet has a set of projections of its own sectional perceived world, from Maori fishing myths to the equally, literally, down-to-earth sea-less journey myths of the desert wanders of Australia, to the squabbling myths of the infighting Jewish tribes. There are many overlaps naturally: no one had copyright on utu!

All such projections are evolving frames of reference, held close to blot out the chaos of Darwin's 'tangled bank' of existence; to find meaning in one's own patch of it. The idea that such sectional perspectives can be more than relatively valid is clearly false. As Socrates soon found, his 'experts' were also equally in the dark about the 'the mechanics of rainfall'! It follows that the only hope for humanity is in creative aggregation of elements of such myths, realising all the time that the created aggregate is but another sectional perspective, albeit, with a wider and longer perspective than its antecedents.

The bottom line, as the Noah film seems to show, is that stewing in the internal machinations of the embroidery of the past is a pain in the arse!

Gnossienne said...

The blurb for 'Inside the Neolithic Mind' by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce says:

"This brilliantly argued and elegantly written book examines the intricate web of belief, myth and society in the Neolithic period, arguably the most significant turning point in human history, when agriculture became a way of life and the society that we know today was born.Drawing on the latest research and recent discoveries, the authors skilfully link material on human consciousness, imagery and belief systems to propose provocative new theories about the causes of an ancient revolution in cosmology and the origins of social complexity. In doing so they create a fascinating neurological bridge to the mysterious thought-lives of the past and reveal the essence of a momentous period in human history."
Reviews were naturally mixed but most agreed that the authors broke new ground with the synthesis of neurobiology and archaeology. Lewis - Williams and Pearce proposed that early on in history humans experienced altered states of consciousness very likely through shamanistic practices including the use of psychoactive plants. Religion and myth followed such experience. John Lash with his long study and experience in shamanistic practice would concur with this.
Candace Pert was a American neuro scientist and pharmacologist who discovered the opiate receptor, the cellular binding site for endorphines in the brain. She deduced that the mind is not just the brain it is also in the body. Molecules called peptides are found in the brain, stomach, muscles, glands and major organs and send messages back and forth. The body is wired in ways we may not have imagined and still do not imagine. Pert's breakthrough led to a revolution in neuro science which led to increasing acceptance of the information -based brain model away from the more rigid structuralist model.
What is so glorious exactly about the "mechanics of rainfall"? Understanding such mechanics has not prevented humans destroying their environment. A half way decent myth might have made a considerable difference to say nothing of the fluid and ever changing experiences gained in ritual application of such a myth.

Rick said...

The film had me reaching for my ancient sources to check up on. Including the final drunken scene. Which side did they come down on in terms of how Ham so offended Noah? No side really. And there are some interesting sides.

I agree this could have been more impressive. Mythical and magical as the twinkling CGI sky,scaled hound, and Avitar walking-army misled me into hoping for.

Do not agree we need a Central Myth for our culture (especially not an ancient Assyrian one!) How about a Central Virtue? Reason.