Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Depicting angels

In a recent interview, Ridley Scott said:

But I didn’t like the idea of an angel associated with wings. I wanted everything to be reality based….  
The writer I chose to finally polish it said, “You couldn’t have asked a worse person to do this because I am a dyed in the wool atheist. I simply don’t believe in this stuff.” I said, “Well, on the contrary, it’s a bit like being in science fiction. ‘Cause I never believed in it, I had to convince myself every step of the way as to what did make sense and what didn’t make sense and where I could reject and accept.  
When you take into account the reality and feasibility of those “rock men,” which really should be part of the hobbits. I’m serious. Listen, I think [“Noah” director Darren Aronofsky] is a great director, but rock men? Come on. I could never get past that. The film immediately kicked off as a fantasy…that was a problem. If you begin that way, it’s hard to get past that without saying, “I’m going to build a boat and on it’s going to go creatures two by two, and make that credible.” 
But that’s what we do for a living. So I have to part the Dead Sea and I’m not going to part the Dead Sea because I don’t believe it. I don’t believe I can part the Dead Sea and keep shimmering water on each side. I’m an absolutely very, very practical person. So I was immediately thinking that all science-based elements placed come from natural order or disorder–or could come from the hand of God, however you want to play that.
Any liberties I may have taken in terms of how I show this stuff was, I think, pretty safe ground because I’m always going always from what is the basis of reality, never fantasy….So the film had to be as real as I could make it.
And a Christianity Today review said:
no “staff-to-snake” scene 
The controversial choice to depict God’s mouthpiece as a young boy called Malak (11-year-old British actor Isaac Andrews), who is only visible to Moses, actually works. Before you shout heresy, ask yourself: If you were a filmmaker, how would you visualize God’s voice? In a story where Moses has frequent conversations with a rather garrulous “I Am,” what are the options? A booming, James Earl Jones-esque voice from the clouds? Morgan Freeman in an all-white suit? Any visual artist telling this story must make an artistic decision, and though it may not be perfect, I found Scott’s choice to be compelling and interesting, in a good way.
i) At the risk of stating the obvious, Christians can't expect secular directors to make movies about the historical narratives of Scripture that are faithful to the text, or the worldview of Scripture. If we think that should be done, then it's something we must do ourselves. Of course, the catch is financing. 
ii) At the same time, there's no reason why Scott shouldn't have theological advisors. Or, for that matter, Christian screenwriters. There are basically two audiences for a film like this: Christian moviegoers (including some Jewish viewers) and moviegoers who like spectacular, panoramic action films. There's no reason for him to gratuitously snub a major market niche for his film. 
iii) The problem with his definition of realism is that what's realistic given naturalism is different from what's realistic given supernaturalism. Yet he's adapting a narrative that's explicitly supernaturalistic, in general outlook as well as specific incidents. 
That's presumably why he filmed the plagues, but not the metamorphosis of inanimate objects into snakes. He could depict the plagues naturalistically, but there's nothing naturalistic about the metamorphosis of inanimate objects into snakes. 
iv) Now let's shift to the question of how to depict God on film. There are, of course, "Puritanical" Christians who think that's wrong in principle. I'm going to ignore that because I've discussed that repeatedly.
v) In Exodus, there are different kinds of theophanies. There's an angelophany. There's the Shekinah. There's the pillar of fire. And there's the Sinai theophany.
In principle, CGI could simulate a representation of the Shekinah and/or the pillar of fire. An artistic interpretation of the narrative descriptions. And that could be visually impressive. 
vi) In Scripture, angels manifest themselves in roughly three different forms:
a) Humanoid angels. These are angels who can pass for humans. They look human. They have solidity. The only thing that gives them away is their supernatural power (e.g. Gen 19:11).
Humanoid angels don't have wings. A human actor could depict an angel like that without any special effects. 
b) Luminous angels. Sometimes, angels have a humanoid appearance with a nimbic aura. They glow. But they don't have wings.
You could use a human actor, then enhance the image with a nimbic aura. That could be impressively done. 
c) Cherubim and seraphim. These have wings. Indeed, they have two or three pair of wings. 
Given the association between wings and fire or lightning, are these wings that look like flames or flames that look like wings? In any case, it's probably no feathers, but something like flickering firelight or electricity. 
Assuming that Isa 6 and Ezk 1 & 10 are representative, the basic distinction seems to be that seraphim are the angelic retinue for the stationary heavenly sanctuary or throne room whereas cherubim are the angelic retinue for the God's mobile throne (cf. Ps 18:10). 
It's not clear if these are different kinds of angels. Since angels are essentially incorporeal, this is merely how they manifest themselves, not how they naturally subsist. 
The cherubim are tetramorphs. They don't have the appearance of a winged-man. Rather, they are hybrids. In principle, CGI would simulate a representation of a cherub. An artistic interpretation of Ezekiel's description. That could be breathtaking. 
Based on Biblical iconography, there's no reason to assume the Angel of the Lord had the appearance of a winged-man. Audiences raised on science fiction films are conditioned to expect and appreciate inhuman figures, so long as that's skillfully and imaginatively executed. According to Biblical exemplars, there's nothing comical about the appearance of angels. 

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