Saturday, March 29, 2014

Petrified angels

I'm going to comment on a positive review of Noah:
I haven't seen the film. I don't plan to. To judge by reviews, I'd find it irritating to watch. Also, I've seen lots of disaster flicks with fancy CGI. 
Noah is another entry in this filmography. It asks big questions: Are humans worth saving? What is the place of justice and mercy in existence? How ought people relate to both powers greater than themselves and to the world in which they dwell?
Are those questions posed the same way we find in Genesis?
But what makes Noah work, even in its more messy bits, is that it usually avoids asking those questions pedantically. Instead, it embeds them in a story shared by the world's major religions (most ancient mythologies as well). 
To say it embeds them in a story shared by the world's major religions (as well as most ancient mythologies) is, if true, decidedly pluralistic. Owes more to the spirit of Joseph Campbell than the Spirit of God.
And it retells the story with a startlingly fresh imagination, generally strong writing, and great acting talent—Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins.
Hopkins is at that age where he's becoming typecast as the generic authoritative patriarch. 
The Bible often leaves out things that make for good storytelling, like dialogue and scene-setting sensory details, because that's not its genre. Even the gospels tell us that Jesus performed many more miracles than are recorded, because there simply isn't enough room in the books for everything.
Noah respects the human's imaginative capacity by thinking of itself as a story about how it could have happened. Where the text says something, Noah does that thing. But where it is silent, the filmmakers worked hard to examine tradition, other texts, and what they know of people to think about one way the story could have worked out. (Even the most controversial of their narrative choices—something I won't spoil for you—has echoes of other Bible stories in it; it's probably not what happened, but things like it happened later, so it's not inconsistent.)
It's true that Gen 6-9 is insufficient to make a feature-length film. If that's the aim, then the screenwriters have to include a lot of filler. 
However, that's not the only way to film the Bible. If you film Bible stories as part of a continuous TV series on the historical narratives of Scripture, then a cinematic version the flood account needn't be 139 minutes long (in the case of Aronofsky's Noah). It doesn't require all that additional padding to turn it into a stand-alone viewing experience.    
Reportedly, the good folks at Industrial Light & Magic (the special effects company founded by George Lucas) did some of their most complicated work on this film, and it shows. The ark is enormous. The animals are fantastical, but plausible. The rock giants (Handel and Aronofsky's rendering of fallen angels, one interpretation of the Bible's "Nephilim") are emotionally resonant in the manner of Peter Jackson's rendering of Tolkien's ents. The account of creation is pushed into hand-drawn animation, which fits its place in the narrative.
I admit it: at first, I found myself raising an eyebrow and wondering how much I should have to suspend my disbelief at some of the things that happened in Noah. For instance: rocks that glow and, when hit, start fires. Giant lumbering fallen angels encased in rock. Plants that sprouted from the ground.
Then I remembered something very important: this is a depiction of an antediluvian world, a world that is both very young and different from the post-flood world. In this world, it has never rained. Snakes apparently had legs, only ten generations ago (see the account of the fall of man in Genesis). Men live for centuries and centuries, something that changed after the flood, according to the Bible. And miracles happen a lot, both before and after the flood.
So when things happen in the movie that seem "magical," I have to remind myself that I'm a modern American living in the twenty-first century, for whom "magic" means "sleight of hand" and "enchantment" is part of fairy tales, not reality.
It would not have been so in the past. And, frankly, as a modern who is also a Christian, I believe in some fairly "magical" stuff—such as the idea that baptism does something significant, or that there is some sense in which the Eucharist is a particular means of grace, or that speaking to an invisible being through prayer makes sense.
The problem with ransacking ancient Near Eastern mythology, 1 Enoch, Middle-Earth, &c., to flesh out the plot is that Noah's world suddenly becomes indistinguishable from Clash of the Titans. You might as well as Marvel Comic Book characters like Thor to liven up the action.  
That makes it less believable, not more believable. That reduces it to generic mythology, interchangeable with spare parts from other myths and pious fictions. 


  1. Your final remarks there are exactly what I was thinking when I watched the movie yesterday. It made the Noah story feel like folklore. The snake which was the tempter didn't look like a real snake. It looked like a cartoonish snake. Either that's unintentionally bad CGI or it's intentionally unrealistic to communicate the unrealistic nature of the fall narrative. A lot of it made absolutely no sense. Adam and Eve are bald, have golden skin, and glow.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. According to many sources Hollywood is making many Biblical films because Bible stories are in public domain and they don't have to pay royalties to the owners of famous characters. I think Christians should wait for the DVD of Noah so that it becomes a box office flop and Hollywood will be forced to either 1. stop making Biblical movies, or 2. make them more Biblically faithful. If we Christians are willing to spend money on Biblically unfaithful films, then Hollywood is going to keep churning them out.

    That will just lead to 1. Christians wasting their (really God's) money as poor stewards, 2. Hollywood making money thinking we're chumps and laughing at us behind closed doors, and 3. Biblical illiterate non-Christians getting a wrong impression of the Bible and being fed anti-Christian messages as if they were Christian.

    The problem is that we Christians are so eager to accept anything that is remotely Biblical that we're actually hurting the cause. We think we'll be able to use movies like Noah as apologetics/evangelistic bridges. But at what cost? If the reviews of Noah are right, then the movie is anti-Christian. So, such movies will end up being more hurtful than helpful.

    We need more movies like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur with Heston. Ironically, Heston's Ben Hur was controversial because it was much less Christian than the book. Yet, compared to Noah and other modern Hollywood "Biblical" movies, Ben Hur is overly Christian and pietistic.

    I encourage my fellow Christians to wait for the DVD if they really want to see NOAH and then rent it at your local library so that you can view it for free (or at a minimum cost). That's what I do with these types of movies.

    1. Full disclosure: I will be watching Noah in the theater because I promised my cousin months ago that we would. I will be paying since he paid last time ($4.50 a ticket). But I don't think it's (too?) hypocritical since I know his heart was SET on watching this movie (he's a special effects freak). He's a young Christian and at least I'll have an opportunity to tell him what's wrong with the movie afterward. But I won't be able to if he watched it with someone else.

    2. If anyone is interested here's a LINK to two Luther Movies online. Here's a LINK to a John Wycliffe movie. Obviously, some historical liberties have been taken in such movies.

  4. I remember an atheist on youtube wondering out loud about how Noah's ark, if the pitch applied to it kept out the water, then how would the animals have been able to breathe? In other words, wouldn't the fact that it was watertight also meant that it would have been airtight? Especially considering that the top of the ark would probably have to have had the same treatment as the sides. What do you guys think?

    1. Although the precise terminology is somewhat obscure, the ark apparently had clerestory windows ("skylights") on the top deck for ventilation and illumination. There were no glass windows back then, so that would be open to the elements.