By Govindini Murty. Hollywood has been taking on the canonical mythological, historical, and religious stories of the West these past few years in movies like Troy, 300, Beowulf, Robin Hood, the Clash of the Titans remake, and the upcoming Immortals. These films tell the stories, respectively, of such Western heroes as Achilles, Leonidas, Beowulf, Robin Hood, and Theseus. In almost every case, the filmmakers have substantially rewritten or reversed the meaning of the original myth or story. Several Hollywood studios and production companies have also recently announced plans to make big-budget movies out of the stories of Moses, David and Goliath – and now, Noah.
Indie director Darren Aronofsky has announced plans that his next film will be Noah, an “edgy re-telling” of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark. Deadline Hollywood reports that Aronofsky “wants $130 million to make it and that New Regency is eyeing a co-financing role. Suitors considering stepping up for the other half include Paramount and Fox, as well as Summit.” An update indicates that Paramount is nearing a deal to finance the film
A $130 million dollar version of Noah’s Ark does not seem an obvious follow-up to the modestly-budgeted Black Swan, but Aronofsky obviously wants to use the capital he’s built up with Black Swan’s success to direct a big-budget, special-effects project of the kind he hasn’t been allowed to touch since The Fountain debacle (with the exception of his brief attachment to Wolverine earlier this year.)
In an exclusive interview with Aronofsky on the subject of Noah, IFC reports:
“The multi-denominational yarn has fascinated religious scholars and archeologists for millennia, and if Aronofsky has his way, he’ll be the first to bring the legendary figure to the big screen in a big way. But don’t peg it to the scriptures.
“I don’t think it’s a very religious story,” Aronofsky told us at the 2011 Provincetown International Film Festival, where he was receiving career-spanning honors. “I think it’s a great fable that’s part of so many different religions and spiritual practices. I just think it’s a great story that’s never been on film.”
“As for the recent rumor that he’s aiming for Christian Bale for the lead role, Aronofsky remains sly. “No comment,” he says with a grin.”
First of all, the story of Noah has been told on the big screen before, most notably in John Huston’s superb film The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), in which one of the central episodes tells the story of the Ark with Huston himself playing Noah. The Bible features an all-star cast of Ava Gardner, Peter O’Toole, George C. Scott, Richard Harris, and Stephen Boyd. Huston’s retelling of the Noah’s Ark story is stylish and insightful. A real warmth and joy pervades the scenes in which Noah runs around the ark caring for and soothing the animals during their long voyage. This kind of warmth and humanity is notably lacking in Aronofsky’s coldly neurotic films. Casting the surly Christian Bale as Noah would simply reinforce this problem.
And the problem extends into Aronofsky’s basic conception of Noah, who to him is not the “just” and “perfect” man of the Bible who finds “grace with God,” but a guilt-ridden drunk. As Aronofsky says to the UK Guardian:
“Noah was the first person to plant vineyards and drink wine and get drunk,” he says admiringly. “It’s there in the Bible – it was one of the first things he did when he reached land. There was some real survivor’s guilt going on there. He’s a dark, complicated character.”
In another interview with the LA Times (in which the Times warns readers “Don’t plan on bringing the family to this biblical epic”), Aronofsky says:
“I was stunned going back and realizing how dirty some of those stories are,” Aronofsky says. “They’re not PG in any way. They’re all about sleeping with your brother’s sister who gives you a child who you don’t know. That kind of stuff got censored out of our religious upbringing.”
I don’t know what ‘censoring’ Aronofsky is referring to here, when all one need do is pick up a copy of the Bible – the most readily available book on the planet, with well over two billion copies in print – and read it for oneself.
As for the story of Noah, it is indeed complex, but emphasizing only the ‘dark’ or ‘dirty’ aspects of it and depicting Noah as some sort of tormented drunk is an evasion of the Bible’s description of him as “a just man and perfect in his generations.” The stories of the Bible are compelling because they contain both light and dark, good and evil, the spiritual and the material in a highly condensed, symbolically rich form. If you abstract one element out of the mix in order to fulfill some ideological or propagandistic purpose, you actually rob these stories of the sublime mystery that makes them potent subjects for art.
Aronofsky also declares of the story of Noah: “I don’t think it’s a very religious story.” This implies that his version of the Noah story will downplay or eliminate the religious aspects altogether. (A similar approach was taken in the 2005 film Troy, which told the story of The Iliad but removed all the gods, rendering it merely a dull historical action film.)
What kind of Noah’s Ark story is left if God is removed from it? Shorn of its metaphysical dimension, the story becomes one that simply dwells in the world of sheer materiality – the Cartesian res extensa – with the result that the focus becomes the various ways in which this materiality can be altered or destroyed. The epic account of Noah and the Ark is thus reduced to just another disaster story – and Hollywood already makes plenty of those. One thinks here of the 2009 Roland Emmerich disaster film 2012, with its cataclysmic earthquakes and floods toppling office towers, sweeping away cities, rupturing continents, and blotting out millions of human lives. This may make for arresting spectacle, but it is an empty spectacle that is rapidly consumed and rapidly forgotten. Aronofsky indicates in the IFC interview that he is leaning toward just this kind of Emmerich-style disaster movie.
It’s a shame, because the story of Noah and of the world’s many other flood myths would make terrific films. It’s the very religious dimension of these flood myths – their elevation from the world of everyday history to the world of supra-historical metaphor – that makes them fascinating subjects for art. These flood myths also have an important humanistic message: that the virtue of even a single human being can save life on earth from being completely destroyed by the wrath of the gods.
For example, in the Mesopotamian Epic of Atra-Hasis from the 18th century B.C., it is the goodness of the hero Atrahasis that wins the sympathy of the god Enki, who warns Atrahasis in advance of the god Enlil’s plans to send a flood to wipe out humanity. Atrahasis saves his family and animals and places them in an ark. After they survive the deluge, the gods reward Atra-Hasis for his faith by granting him and his wife immortality. It is as these immortal beings that Atrahasis (renamed Ut-Napishtim) and his wife enter the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the epic, Gilgamesh travels to the end of the world to discover the secret of immortality. Finding Uta-Napishtim and his wife on the Isle of Blessedness, Gilgamesh begs the wise man to tell him how to live forever like him. Uta-Napishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the great flood, but then tells him that immortality will never again be given to humans, and that Gilgamesh should instead embrace life and fulfill his duties as king.
In the Greek version of the flood myth, Deucalion (the pious son of Prometheus) and his wife Pyrrha are saved from a massive flood sent by Zeus that destroys humanity. Deucalion and Pyrrha take refuge in a chest and survive the flood. Afterward, in order to regenerate humanity, they are instructed by an oracle to pick up stones and throw them over their shoulders into a field. The stones thrown by Deucalion become men, and the stones thrown by Pyrrha become women.
And obviously, we’re all familiar with the story of Noah. The Bible states that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord,” and “was a just man and perfect in his generations.” Noah walks with God and is chosen by God to build an ark and fill it with his family and with representative samples of the world’s animals to repopulate the world after the deluge. After the deluge, God instructs Noah and his sons to “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth,” and He makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants that life will thenceforth be protected, and “neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.”
Once again, with God or the gods removed from any of these stories, the entire vivid drama that plays out in the flood myths between the gods and humans is eliminated and the myth becomes an empty shell. But perhaps that is the purpose behind secularizing efforts like Aronofsky’s Noah?
Carl Jung writes in Man and his Symbols about what happens to a culture when its central myths and symbols are systematically denuded of their meaning. Jung states:
“They are important constituents of our mental makeup and vital forces in the building up of human society; and they cannot be eradicated without serious loss. Where they are repressed or neglected, their specific energy disappears into the unconscious with unaccountable consequences. … Even tendencies that might in some circumstances be able to exert a beneficial influence are transformed into demons when they are repressed.”
Can we not see these demons in the much-lauded ‘edginess’ of Aronofsky’s films? Films like Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan are replete with masochism and bodily mutilation. (See Patricia Ducey’s Libertas review of Black Swan, in which she describes those elements.) Aronofsky seems possessed by a Manichaean viewpoint that sees the world and the flesh as fallen and subject to mortification of a kind usually only seen in medieval art and literature. Demented, self-flagellating figures are the villains in movies and books like The Da Vinci Code - but in Aronofsky’s films, they’re actually the protagonists we’re supposed to identify with. The madness and self-mutilation in Aronofsky’s films takes the place of any serious exploration of character or story and has only one motivation: to transgress life with violent images that abuse the human body.
Here’s a telling quote from Aronofsky about his excitement over portraying the ripping of human flesh in The Fountain:
“”I wanted the skin to actually rip. We had this type of latex that shreds if you stretch it and throw water on it. We had bladders coming out, and this whole puppet bursting open.” You would swear he’s almost smacking his lips.”
A commenter on the Deadline Hollywood site sarcastically noted about this ‘edgy’ element of Aronofsky’s Noah:
“That’s so we can REALLY feel the self-mutilation that Aronofsky knows and LOVES!
Half of the film is Noah talking to himself and digging splinters out of his hands with a dull spoon. Can’t wait!” Jack
I laughed when I read this because it’s probably not far from the truth. Is this what we will be treated to in Arinofsky’s Noah? A number of sites have posted these images from the comic book Noah, drawn by Nico Henrichon, which the LA Times says is created from Aronofsky’s story for Noah. These images certainly convey the kind of mordant, gloomy world-view that looks likely to inform the project.
Finally, it must be said despite Aronosky’s declarations to the contrary, there is indeed a hidden religious viewpoint here. You see, according to Aronofsky, Noah was the world’s first environmentalist. As Aronofsky says in this iFilm interview from 2008:
“It’s the end of the world and it’s the second most famous ship after the Titanic. … It’s a really cool project and I think it’s really timely because it’s about environmental apocalypse which is the biggest theme, for me, right now for what’s going on on this planet. So I think it’s got these big, big themes that connect with us. Noah was the first environmentalist. He’s a really interesting character.”
So here we get to the crux of the matter. This is not going to be a non-religious telling of the story of Noah, it is going to be an environmentalist telling of the story. This is sounding a great deal like the disastrous The Fountain, Aronofsky’s mystical ecological-time travel love story. Now, I’m all for the environment – I love nature, hate pollution, and I recycle everything I can because it makes common sense. However, there’s a rational approach toward protecting the environment that I support, but there’s also an irrational approach to the environment that denigrates human life that I very much do not support. Why do so many major movies today have to espouse the latter, anti-human environmentalism?
The sub rosa worldview behind the radical environmentalist movement and behind filmmakers like Aronofsky is that humanity is fundamentally guilty and alien to the world. James Cameron’s environmentalist epic Avatar excoriates humans, defining them as ‘invaders’ and depicting them as better off abandoning their human bodies and being reborn into alien ones. This strain of environmentalism believes that humans don’t belong on the planet, are akin to a disease or virus on the planet (as numerous environmentalists, including Prince Philip, have stated), and indeed, that the planet would be better off without us.
Isn’t that a religious viewpoint akin to the religious viewpoint that Aronofsky derides in the story of Noah? Doesn’t the story of Noah – and of the world’s other flood myths – feature a God/gods who want to destroy humanity for its crimes? Now it’s the environmentalists who believe that humans should be punished for their crimes against the earth. Interestingly enough, this means that in an environmentalist version of the flood myth, the environmentalists would be placed in the position of the condemning gods. What a telling reversal.
The secularization of the canonical religious and mythological stories of the West is actually no such thing. It is simply an effort to replace the traditional gods with new gods – in this case, filmmakers, celebrities, and political activists with an ideological axe to grind who wish to co-opt the arts in order to grab power over humanity.
Posted on July 7th, 2011 at 9:58pm.