Time for another of our legendary WOOF film reviews, gentle readers! Yes, the world is falling apart so rapidly, we are ignoring it this week and focusing instead on the last time it fell apart this completely! (Only it was much wetter that time.) Faithful readers already know that WOOF maintains a tradition of reviewing films from time to time—films that strike us as commentworthy from our unique sociopolitical perspective. Seasoned readers also know that we have a firm rule of limiting our reviews exclusively to films we have not seen. We believe that actually seeing a film before reviewing it might prejudice our remarks, and Lord knows none of us wants that, right? And what film is more important right now, meaning during this current nanosecond of pop-cultural disemboguement, than Noah? And, of course, Noah comes to us with an additional layer of significance because the story’s roots are manifestly biblical, thus going to see it might or might not constitute a kind of blasphemous complicity with the Godless glitterati who created it. Mindful of this, we took care to miss it for that reason also, anxious that our individual shots at salvation not be infringed by exposure to director Darren Aronofsky’s widely criticized and quite possibly heretical narrative eccentricities. But millions of our fellow Americans, seemingly unburdened by such pneumatological concerns, flocked to first-week showings of Noah, earning the film 44 million dollars in its first week. Subsequent box office has been markedly lower, but with competition out there like Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and Oculus (did they spell that right?) one has to expect some leveling off as April matures…and as word of mouth spreads!
Noah and the knowledge vacuum:
Many Americans, even Christians who consider the Old Testament historically true as well as an inspired source of religious guidance, have scant walking-around knowledge of what scripture contains on the subject of Noah, the man, the prophet, the shipwright. In fact, even though confirmation of the Ark’s presence atop Mount Arafat in Turkey seemed forthcoming from the CIA in 1973 when Agency spokesman George Carver, a respected CIA official of the Colby era, responded to a question during a conference in Florida by acknowledging that satellite photos existed in which “there were clear indications that there was something up on Mount Ararat which was rather strange,” the secular set has long specialized in flouting Noah as exemplary evidence that the Old Testament is palpable bushwah. How, they ask, does one guy build a gigantic vessel in so short a time and get every animal on earth to file aboard? In fact, to be a scriptural literalist is to have been asked on innumerable occasions, “But—you can’t possibly believe Noah built an ark and saved all the animals, can you?”
For the record, the CIA subsequently released photos under the freedom-of-information act (no, we are not making this up) but dialed back its enthusiasm for Ark spotting, suggesting instead that the enigmatic object depicted in their photos was probably just rock and ice. Myriad private expeditions have attempted to reach the Ark, and most have either failed or based their claims of success on some discouragingly paltry representations. Then, too, some searchers have been kidnapped by Kurdish rebels who frequent the area, which high jinks recently caused Turkey to prohibit further exploration—at least for the time being. For the most part, Americans know what they know, or think they know, about Noah’s Ark from picture books, Sunday School songs, and previous dumb movies about the man who beat the deluge. In one respect, this seems forgivable. You can laugh at someone who thinks Washington cut down a cherry tree, or that Custer was a genocidal buffoon, or who maintains (as almost 100% of the college professors we’ve confronted on the topic maintain) that Joe McCarthy somehow helmed the House Un-American Activities Committee. Such misapprehensions result, obviously, from lazy scholarship—a simple failure to peruse available sources or digest the ample histories of those eras. Not so with Noah. The Bible’s discussion of Noah is positively miserly, leaving us to imagine our own details if we desire additional context.
This is the part you can skip if you read Genesis a lot.
From the Bible we know only that Noah was the son of Lemech, that he begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth when he was around 500 years old, and that he “found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8). We are also told that he was “just a man,” but one who “walked perfect in his generations,” and that Noah, like Enoch, “walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9). Even communists know the bones of the story from this point. God tells Noah that he is fed up with mankind’s evil ways and intends to “destroy them with the earth.” So, on that note, Noah begins to do what God tells him—which is to build a three story tall ark out of gopher wood and pitch, with a window and a big door in its side, famously 300 cubits long, fifty cubits wide, and 30 cubits tall. God explains that he’s going to wipe out humankind with a deluge, but covenants with Noah because of his righteousness to spare him, his wife, his sons and his sons’ wives. Besides its role as a lifeboat for Noah and his kin, the Ark of course shelters and preserves animals of every sort who miraculously “come unto” Noah, and file obediently aboard.
Stocked with quadrupeds, fowl of the air, every creeping thing, some extra “clean” animals for sacrificing, and plenty of chow, the Ark endures the flood and delivers Noah’s clan to Ararat, or maybe not. What we know from the Bible is that “the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat” (Genesis 8:4). Whether this means Mount Ararat, or the range of mountains in its vicinity, or some totally different place (inasmuch as some scholars argue that the word “Ararat” derives from a Hebraic term for mountain) is a matter of considerable dispute. Indisputable, at least from a scriptural standpoint, is that God dried the land, brought Noah’s Ark to safety, and promised never again to destroy mankind with a flood. Noah planted a vineyard and got drunk testing his product. His son, Ham, looked upon him, sprawled naked in his tent and was cursed by his father. Theories, of course, abound about the nature of this curse, and about why it was so awful to see Noah naked—or naked and drunk—in the first place. But we depart now for Hollywood, that contemporary Babylon where so many are naked and drunk and, well, other stuff, and which is recently risen to an awareness that religious films often draw floods of ticket purchasers.
Noah goes Hollywood
It was somewhere in the ethereal proximity of Hollywood (as much dark matter as municipality, after all) that our other lead character, Darren Aronofsky, became inflamed with the idea of transforming the ark story from Genesis into an epic motion picture. And why not? Cecil B. DeMille made Bible-based blockbusters inspiring others to do likewise in the days of the major studios. Ben Hur really starred Jesus as much as Charlton Heston, and then there was The Robe, and King of Kings (the latter starring Jeffrey Hunter, whose boyish demeanor inspired critics to refer to the film as ‘I was a Teenage Jesus’). More recently came Mel Gibson’s uber-successful Passion of the Christ, which contemporary Hollywooders scorned, denounced, and then sought frantically to emulate once it out-earned all of their standard fare.
Hollywood subsequently explored many possibilities in its endeavor to make “Christian” films, but most flopped because Hollywood couldn’t get over being too cool to make films about something as square as Christianity. Instead it tried to make movies about how religion could be changed into something cool and hip if properly re-engineered—how Christianity could become more “native American,” or Buddhist, were popular themes. The greatest success to date may have been the Disney treatment of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia fables, because Jesus is present only as an analogous lion named Aslan, and that didn’t seem too Bible-belty for professional Hollywood’s sensibilities; thus the movie was faithful to the stories and Christians went in droves because they already knew who Aslan was (and everybody else thought it was a film about a magic lion). But all this time, and apparently all the while he was churning out such secular oddities as The Wrestler, Black Swan, and Requiem for a Dream, motion picture director and screen writer Darren Aronofsky says he wanted to make a film about Noah.
One can find some plausible grounds for such an ambition in Aronofsky’s past, he having been raised by conservative Jewish parents in Brooklyn, but Aronofsky recalls his upbringing as socially Jewish, not spiritual. It should probably be said in Aronofsky’s defense that fate also decreed he attend something called Edward R. Murrow High School. WOOF has no doubt that such a traumatic association would take a severe toll on anyone’s sense of perspective, and further damage was undoubtedly inflicted on Darren’s young psyche during his subsequent years at Harvard. In fact, when you think about it, it is remarkable that Noah exists at all, and avoids most of the most awful perfidies its writer might have imposed on the story—say, deconstructing it as a metaphor for, say, Trotsky’s Fourth-International message surviving the Stalinist purges. (Just for instance.) But we digress.
More Old Testament than the Old Testament?
Aronofsky talked to a variety of studios about getting Noah launched on film, and after considerable campaigning he received Paramount’s blessing. He produced, finally, a movie that performs an interesting inversion of norms, being roundly criticized by Christians for butchering the Genesis account of the deluge and almost uniformly praised by liberals as a religiously significant flick. Odd, isn’t it? Perhaps Aronofsky’s secret purpose was to apply reverse psychology so deftly that leftists customarily predisposed to mocking scripture would find themselves ardently defending the film and the significance of its protagonist—hardly what one expects from a demographic customarily affiliated with that party whose last convention booed God off the stage. But let Jon Stewart rave against a mélange of bottle-blond FOX foxes paying insufficient homage to Aronofsky’s vision. Let the Huff Post zealously put forth James Tabor’s view that “Noah’s family represents the last remnant of hope for humankind’s peaceable ideal in which violence toward humans or beasts is quelled and warfare ceases.” (Got all of that?)
Let Christopher Orr write in The Atlantic of “the fierce moral intensity of Aronofsky’s vision, which is, if anything, more Old Testament than the Old Testament.” In contrast to such spiritual encomia we have Aronofsky’s gob-smacking assurance that Noah is “the least biblical film ever made.” So take that, Christopher Orr et confreres! It seems Aronofsky strove to keep well clear of a biblical ethos—even though everybody knows that the least biblical film ever made was actually 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians–no, really–and even though everyone knows that the big brains on the left will make the rounds for weeks to come explaining that Aronofsky obviously meant the opposite of what he appears to have said. (Leo Strauss, please call your office!) Just as problematically, Aronofsky has variously described Noah as “the first environmentalist” and a man wracked with survivor’s guilt (really?) and the embattled director has at times said of himself that “I think I definitely believe,” and yet emphatically protests his atheism on alternate days. Somewhere in the Book of James (we’re too lazy to look it up, but it’s there, trust us) it is written that “a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways,” and while WOOF cannot pretend to know Mr. Aronofsky’s ways in their entirety, we are pretty certain his script and his continuity editing reflect a schism between the director’s inherent candle flame of faith and his desperate need to make Noah relevant in all sorts of archly predictable ways to his peeps in the Hollywood hoi aristoi. Double-mindedness may by equal degree account for the film’s plot whenever it wanders from the original text, which is to say almost always. As evidence, here is the plot of Noah’s ark in a nutshell—readers prone to vertigo should take a firm hold of something solid:
Noah, the lost years…
Above, gentle readers, you have already been offered the chance to refamiliarize yourselves with the brief scriptural account of Noah in the Book of Genesis. We now present for your reading entertainment our brief synopsis of what Darren Aronofsky and scriptwriter Ari Handel believe to be—the rest of the story. We begin in the venerable tradition of the spaghetti western and neo-spaghetti westerns with a flashback in which our protagonist (young Noah in this case) witnesses the brutal murder of his father (Lamech in this instance) by the arch villain (Tubal Cain in this instance) over a land dispute…rather as though Sergio Leone had filmed something called ‘Once Upon a Time in the Middle East,” which of course he never did. We now fast forward to the “present” and find Noah, a middle aged guy of about 500 years, living peaceably with his wife, Naameh, and his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Noah isn’t up to much, it seems, but suddenly he sees a beautiful flower sprout from the earth and blossom in full glory in a matter of seconds…remember those old Walt Disney nature shows with the stop-action footage of the flowers sprouting? This miraculous event persuades Noah that he must gather up his family and go visit his Uncle. (Wouldn’t you?) His uncle is Methuselah, whose character is written rather as a kind of bargain basement Gandalf, but who bears a disconcerting resemblance to Hannibal Lector—possibly because he is played by Anthony Hopkins. But before Noah and his brood arrive at Uncle Methuselah’s they come across a batch of freshly slain corpses—yuck–victims of the insensate ravagings of the aforementioned Tubal Cain, who is a hard man to love.
The lone survivor of this pitiless massacre transpires to be a young girl named Ila played by Emma Watson, formerly Harry Potter’s love interest at Hogwarts. We are made forcibly aware that Ila is barren, although this seems an odd factoid to broach in the circumstances. But nobody has time to ponder it because Noah’s family is chased by Tubal Cain’s men, who are bent on killing them and finishing off Ila, who, as we mentioned, is barren. Noah and family run for their lives, but it looks dicey because Tubal Cain’s gang is fleet of foot and hell bent on committing mayhem, as is their wont. Just when we think our heroes are bound to meet a ghastly fate, they stumble perchance upon—have you heard about these guys?—the rock people. Yes, rock people. This bears some explaining, we guess, so as a visual aid, picture those goofy “rock monsters” in the Veggie Tales pirate movie (photo thoughtfully supplied for those who do not watch Veggie Tales movies) mixed together with the Transformers, and you have a pretty good mental image except that the rock monsters in the Veggie Tales movie were funny on purpose, and the Transformers were less laughable in that, all things considered, they required less suspension of disbelief. So the rock people turn out to be the Watchers (check your handy book of Enoch) who were hurled to earth by a wrathful God and forced to dwell there as fallen angels. You may justifiably protest at this juncture that fallen angels are not supposed to resemble rock people, but these particular fallen angels explain that they were turned into rock people by “the Creator” because they disobeyed their orders and helped humans after Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden. The Watchers explain that humans once staged a massive operation to enslave them, but they were befriended and saved from captivity by Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, remember?)
The further adventures of Noah…
Snatched from the clutches of Tubal Cain, Noah is handed a seed from the Garden of Eden which he duly plants and from which (immediately of course) grows an entire forest. Beat that, Walt Disney. Without ever consulting “the Creator,” at least on camera, Noah declares that the forest will yield wood from which an ark will be constructed. This is good enough for the rock people and Noah’s family who construct the ark without undue difficulties because when you have fallen angels who have been turned into giant rock golems helping out, ark building is a lot easier. Nevertheless, the vessel takes eight years to complete. No sooner are the finishing touches in place than animals come from everywhere and obediently board the ark. The cinematic complicatedness of advancing a narrative that incorporates thousands of growling, bleating, howling and jostling animals is finessed by the use of a special animal-sedating incense that Noah prepares. When the incense is wafted through the ark, the animals all go conveniently into suspended animation. Luckily, people do not appear to be affected. And you might think that at this point the flood comes and the ark delivers its cargo safely to Ararat, but no, further antediluvian adventures ensue aforehand…which syntax actually makes sense in this instance. Noah’s sons need wives to perpetuate the race and in all the commotion they’ve neglected to acquire any—so Noah ventures into a neighboring village to recruit some likely candidates, but en route he discovers that a famine has beset the land and humans, led by the indefatigably sinister Tubal-Cain, have begun eating one another.
Seemingly it is only upon making this discovery that Noah is privy to another of his oddly intra-psychic hunches from God—and it is only now that he declares the Creator fed up with mankind. The Creator, he announces, is determined to cleanse the earth of man’s vileness by unleashing a global flood. Fortunately for Noah, he spent the last eight years building a gigantic boat, so there’s kismet for you! And we should probably insert here, because it may be apposite in some context we’ve overlooked, that Methuselah blesses Ila at this point with the result that she is no longer barren. (Never saw that coming, right?) And Noah’s son Ham decides to go get his own wife, infiltrating the village and talking a young lady into accompanying him back to the ark by using the old “there’s a planetary deluge coming and my dad has the only boat” line. Sadly, the engagement is cut short when the bride-to-be steps in a trap and dies at the hands of Tubal-Cain—or rather at the feet of his followers who trample her while assaulting the ark. Once again, Noah’s destruction seems certain, but at the last moment the fallen-angel-stone creatures swing into action, wiping out the opposing force at the cost of their own lives. Not to worry, though, because every time a rock creature dies we see him zapped up to heaven because God likes it that they are being helpful.
The Wackiest Ship in the Pentateuch
Sheet loads of rain—in fact, what appear to be heavenly shower heads pouring rain– pummel the weary earth; the ark is lifted on the tide, and the epic voyage is begun—absent Methuselah who elects to remain behind because he is weary of his mortal existence, out of wild berries, and evidently believes that committing suicide will unite him with the Lord. Meanwhile, (brace yourselves) Ila reports in pregnant—she and Shem having been busily copulating in the wake of her “cure.” But a painfully obtuse Noah, who still does not grasp the nature of his mission, insists that God wishes humankind to vanish (Really, Noah? Really?) and tells the family that he plans to kill Ila’s child should it be born female. This graceless revelation understandably upsets Shem and Ila who try to escape in a jury-rigged dingy, but Noah catches them, burns the boat, and asks the Creator for guidance, which guidance is not forthcoming, which is hardly astonishing since God has not said a mumbling word throughout the entire film. (One can’t really blame Him.) On sails Noah’s Ark (or drifts, more exactly) and once again the reader may be tempted to suppose the remainder of this tail is a known commodity, but no. Picture this:
Ham is wandering around below decks after months at sea when up pops no less a reprobate than the infamous Tubal-Cain (gasp!) who has stowed away on the ark. Tubal-Cain is possessed of a silver tongue with which he dissuades Ham from turning him in and convinces him, for reasons too insipid to recount, to help him murder Noah. Thus, Ham’s great sin is re-imagined as tricking his dad into joining him astern so that he and Shem (who is still mad about his baby and his burned dingy, but who never manages to get a curse named after him) can team up with Tubal-Cain and toss the Patriarch into the drink. But Noah is too fast on his sandals for his assailants and a fight ensues. The fists fly furiously and with the odds stacked heavily against him, Noah yet again appears doomed; but apparently he left Mrs. Noah (Naameh, right?) at the wheel, because at that very moment the ark rams into a mountain. (Whew!) And Ham suddenly repentant of his treachery, takes this opportunity to strike down Tubal-Cain. Somewhere about here, also, Ila has twin daughters, and Noah decides they’re too cute to sacrifice and spares them, thus evoking God’s blessing upon the entire crew. The ark lands its complement upon dry land, God spreads a rainbow across the sky in token of his pledge to spare mankind another deluge, and the animals wake up and offload. Roll the credits.
Having read the book…
Apart from being a priori absurd in most of its depictions, to what extent is Aronofsky’s film an offense against biblical writ? Examples throughout defy quantification, but those that especially stand out are worthy of mention. Students of scripture will probably have the following top-ten complaints:
- Tubal Cain is not the villain in the Biblical account—he doesn’t even know Noah or live at the same time as Noah—he is a descendent of Cain’s who is briefly mentioned as an artificer of brass and iron. He definitely didn’t stow away on the Ark, or do any of the other rotten things imputed to him by Aronofsky.
- Noah’s wife in the Bible is unnamed. Naameh is the name given for Tubal Cain’s sister in Genesis, so if she is also Mrs. Noah (for which not a shred of biblical evidence exists) that would make Tubal Cain Noah’s brother-in-law…which might explain a lot if it were true, but in fact explains nothing, because it isn’t.
- Ila doesn’t exist in the Bible. Yes, Shem has a wife, but she isn’t barren, doesn’t get healed by Methuselah, has sons, not twin daughters, and remains nameless.
- Speaking of Methuselah, he has nothing to do with the Ark in the bible and Noah has no interaction with him whatsoever in the flood story, thus he never gives Noah any magical seeds. And if Methuselah died in the flood, which on consideration seems plausible, we can probably rule out suicide.
- Ham didn’t need to go looking for a wife—the Bible says his wife was on the ark the whole time. The idea of a girl who agrees to marry Ham but sticks her foot in a snare and gets trampled to death is pure nonsense.
- Noah knew there would be a flood because God spoke to him, not because he had some weird water dreams and inferred the Creator’s will however inexactly. God was very exact with Noah, right down to the blueprints for the Ark. Why He plays peek-a-boo with Noah and the audience in Aronofsky’s film is anybody’s guess.
- Magic incense is not mentioned in the Bible—the animals did not get put to sleep for the voyage.
- Fallen angels are certainly mentioned in scripture, but they have no role in the story of Noah building the Ark, and the idea that cast-out angels were somehow turned into rock creatures is absurd.
- It takes Noah eight years to build the Ark in the movie, even with the rock-angel-people helping out, He gets it done in a week in the Bible, no rock people required.
- And the sin of Ham—long debated by theologians, seems murkier than ever in the film, where yes Noah gets drunk, and requires covering up by his kin; but Ham’s and Shem’s earlier efforts to murder him seem a bit more problematic and deserving of censure.
So what is the message of Noah, finally, that we can leave the theatre contemplating? That an atheistic Hollywood director can make a monumentally solipsistic knock-off of the scriptural story and Christians will nevertheless flock to theatres to watch? No, that’s the message Paramount wanted to get from Aronofsky’s work, and to an extent, at least, that message was received. Aronofsky’s own vision was clearly to produce a film that would succeed for Paramount on that basis, while at the same time earning high-fives from his co-irreligionists among Tinsel Town’s creative elites. To this end, Noah became a movie about environmentalism, vegetarianism, and to a largely unnoticed degree (we notice) about the Kabala (still among the favorite hip religiosities of the stars—currently holding its own against Zen Buddhism, long the perennial faith of record in Tinsel Town). Or is the profoundest message intended for the nation’s ever expanding spread of families without spiritual or moral foundations (except for environmentalism and vegetarianism, maybe)? As Esther Zuckerman writes in the entertainment forum of The Wire: “…take away the ark and the fact that there’s no one else left on Earth, and it could simply be a story about how a family copes with a man who doesn’t know how far to take his beliefs.” Indeed, this perfectly describes the protagonist of Aronofsky’s film, just at it appears to perfectly describe Aronofsky. It also describes the exact antithesis of the biblical Noah, who was just a man, but a man who walked with God. Aronofsky’s Noah, by contrast, doesn’t really seem comfortable with God—certainly doesn’t walk with him, or, for that matter, talk with him, and refers to him only by a cozy, new-agey sobriquet.
Maybe for all these reasons the tartest and least intentional of jokes steals (and closes) the show as it sweeps perfunctorily past us in the final credits—we refer here to that most familiar of Hollywood disclaimers, the routine assurance that, “The persons and events in this motion picture are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons or events is unintentional.” For WOOF’s part, our minds wandered to John Prine’s old classic from the album “Sweet Revenge,” inasmuch as our attitude toward Mr. Aronofsky’s opus can be summed up tidily in Prine’s first verse:
I got kicked off Noah’s Ark
I turn my cheek to unkind remarks
There was two of everything else but one of me
And when the rains came tumbling down
I held my breath and I stood my ground
And I watched that ship