Tuesday, April 8, 2014

NOAH (2014)

I don't know why I wanted to see Darren Aronofsky's version of the Noah's Ark story. Maybe I still had some leftover good will from BLACK SWAN, which I loved. Maybe I just wanted to see that big ass boat and the CGI flood.

What makes it odd for me to see this movie is that I don't like biblical epics. There's just something about them that throws up an especially daunting obstacle, an obvious artificiality that is trying so earnestly to be real. Biblical epics are campy in the worst way. The actors speak in English accents no matter when or where the story is set. They walk around in clothes that always seem too clean and too machine-made. Worst of all, despite their absurdity, the films tend to take themselves too seriously. 

For their core audience, though, this balance of absurdity-to-seriousness is the key component. The biblical epic is to cinema what the Easter passion play at a Baptist church is to live theater--it sucks, sure, but for its audience it's essentially quality-proof. The message matters more than the form.

Yet NOAH is an interesting piece of work. For one thing, it's an adaptation of the story of the flood as found in the book of Genesis rather than a wax museum recreation of events. Aronofsky and his longtime cowriter Ari Hendel use the biblical account as a jumping off place for a fantasy story. (This will be a problem for people who consider the story of Noah to be a literal historical fact that must only be recreated with a certain precision--though since the story in Genesis is little more than a sketch of preposterous events, notions of precision here are subjective.) What the filmmakers have produced here is quite interesting.

Aronofsky's Noah is very much in keeping with the obsessed protagonists of his earlier films, from the math genius gone mad to the ballerina, uh, gone mad. Noah chases his vision of the end of the world, which is rendered in some powerfully effective scenes. The filmmakers also do a fine job of teasing out disturbing elements of the Noah story that rarely get much play. There's a great scene of Noah sitting, cold and silent, among his animals in the dripping ark as his family begs him to let in some of the screaming people being dashed to death by waves outside their doors. In the last third of this film, he becomes the de facto villain of the piece (though the film lamely keeps a real bad guy hidden in a storage compartment for no good reason other than to have a fistfight at the end). Convinced that mankind must die and that only the innocent (the animals) must survive, Noah determines to murder the child of his pregnant daughter-in-law. It's pretty dark stuff, but it seems fitting. Aronofsky's Noah is seized in an "end of mankind" fever--which makes him a perfect protagonist in our eschatological age.

Most biblical movies stink for the simple reason that they tend to be geared toward audiences more interested in biblical fidelity than dramatic impact or cinematic ingenuity. I'm reminded of a something Roger Ebert once said about some Civil War movie--that it was made for people more interested in the Civil War than in movies. That nicely sums up the problem with most biblical movies. The conventional wisdom that "the book is better than the movie" is never more true than for people who consider the book to be the unerring Word Of God. One wonders, then, what the point of the movie could possibly be.

The only reason to make a biblical movie, it seems to me, is to take an ancient story and try to see it with new eyes. Love them or hate them, movies like Pasolini's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW or Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST or Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST were startling interpretations of biblical texts that reframed the central story of Christianity in different ways. (Pasolini used it as a Marxist parable. Scorsese used to to explore the fraught relationship between body and spirit. Gibson cast it in almost psychotically fundamentalist terms.) Say what you will about Aronofsky and his new film--taking the story of Noah and using it to explore our current day obsession with the end of the world is a daring experiment.   

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