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From Nico Henrichon's graphic novel "Noah," an early take on Aronofsky's project.

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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.

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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.

A grim, apocalyptic landscape.

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.

Scenes of violence.

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?

Director Darren Aronofsky.

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.

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13 Responses to “Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Edgy’ Retelling of Noah’s Ark”

  1. SeeSaw says:

    Aronofsky wouldn’t know subtlety if it broke character, leapt up and smacked him in the kisser. If someone wants to make films about love and longing for nature, why, of why, would he not take at least a few cues from Tarkovsky? (And can you imagine if Tarkovsky had decided to do Noah? Yeesh – I get goose-bumps just thinking about it).

    Perhaps Aronofsky won’t learn from the master for the same reason he will never understand how to send a message except by HAMMERING it. He’s LIKE A COMMENTER WHO WRITES EVERYTHING IN CAPS. And even more than most of these wanna-be Nietzsche’s in Hollywood who confuse bleak nihilism with depth of soul, Aronofsky “makes films with a hammer.” Except the hammer is actually made of plastic and what we get is a ridiculous meta- spectacle of being shocked by the utter banality of the brutality that can emanate from a monomaniacal brutalist (I use the term advisedly). We’re disturbed by the man’s mindset; his movies are one-dimensional snoozers. Oh, we need a Swift for the irony.

    You know, you would think that if folks like Aronofsky prefer the brutal and pulverizing, as they seem to, it would occur to them to maybe, just maybe, take a stab at the completely neglected gold mine of Greek tragedy. How hard is it to re-imagine “Ajax” as a Western? Not too hard, evidently, because I just did. That would be a freaking amazing film. And brutal. And psychologically exhausting. And profound. And, moreover, adapting it as such wouldn’t require urinating on publicly cherished symbols and stories. Is Aronofsky really too lilly-livered to bring us Oedipus Rex? His whole career points to it (as does Gaspar Noe’s, for that matter), but instead of taking the opportunity to examine the twisted knot of the human psyche in its full entwinement with the eternities and immensities, he’d rather do another “piss Christ.” It’s not even offensive anymore; it’s just lame and not a little pathetic.

    Maybe Aronofsky and his ilk can’t stand art that is truly brutal – brutal because true. Or maybe, as Govindini suggests, adapting the already brutal would be beside the point, which is to take the sacred and profane it. Or maybe they just don’t get it – brutality resonates when it implicates us all as human beings, when it lances through the gut and slithers in and wraps around and reveals the tenuousness of our mortal coil. Filmic brutalism doesn’t do that for the same reason porn doesn’t reach eros – it aims for the nerve-endings and the DNA. Real horror and real eroticism aim for the psyche in the original sense – the animating breath that also escapes and leaves us lifeless, the stuff that trembles before beauty, the spirit, the soul, call it what you will.

    Ok then. Now that everyone knows what my spleen looks like, I’ll stop before I vent something else.

    • Govindini Murty says:

      SeeSaw – thank you so much for your articulate, erudite, and impassioned comment! I too am a tremendous fan of Tarkovsky. I agree, it sends chills up the spine to think of what he might have done with the story of Noah or with any of the other stories of the Bible. To get a sense of what a Tarkovsky Biblical film might have been like, one just has to look at “Andrei Rublev.” It’s still extraordinary to me that Tarkovsky was able to make such a profound meditation on faith and the creative spirit right under the nose of the atheistic totalitarian Soviet state.

      There’s more I want to respond to you about, but it is rather late and I’ve been extremely busy today with a TV appearance and a number of other engagements, so let me get back to you on the other points you raise in the morning. I just wanted to let you know though that Jason and I really enjoyed your comment and appreciate your readership!

      • SeeSaw says:

        No rush, and let me return the sentiment by saying I really appreciate how you and Jason (et al.) take the time to reply to your commenters. It provides just the right amount of fellowship to hold our little dacha together (a little dacha which, nonetheless, like Kelvin’s in Solaris, comprises a far larger island on some loftier plane).

        I wanted to add that I noticed your comment below on Frazer, and it just so happens that I’m doing some academically-related work that involves good ol’ Sir James G. I was wondering if the shorter version you snagged was the lovely “Illustrated Golden Bough,” blessed with a short introduction by the great Mary Douglas? If not, you can find it for quite a steal at Amazon (at least I did – apologies if it’s now $9,000, as sometimes freakishly happens). At any rate, it makes the reading spring even more to life being able to see (literally) what Frazer was talking about.

  2. johngaltjkt says:

    I can’t wait! This inspires me to quote some lines from 2012 and for me sums up what I think of this potential movie.

    [Ark Computer: Impact warning. Thirty degrees west. Forty-five degrees east. Target elevation, 29,035 feet]
    Carl Anheuser: 29,000 feet? What the hell is at 29,000 feet?
    Captain Michaels: We’re headed straight for the north face of Mount Everest, Mr. Anheuser. And if we can’t start our engines, we will not survive the impact.

    2012 was so laughably bad that I actually enjoyed it.

    Based on Darren Aronofsky’s quotes for this potential project hopefully it has a worse fate than 2012.

    • Govindini Murty says:

      Johngaltjkt – that’s hilarious! I didn’t know the dialogue in ‘2012′ was that bad! I mean, really, of all the directions they could go in, they wind up headed straight for Mount Everest?! Let’s see what they do to the story of Noah …

  3. K says:

    “I don’t think it’s a very religious story.”

    Deja vu. This is quite close to what the producers said about the 1985 “King David” movie. Which also stressed those “censored” elements. As this one will, it bombed miserably.

    • Govindini Murty says:

      K – I’d forgotten about the 1985 ‘King David.’ When I think of King David, I always think of the movie with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. No-one could top the Golden Age Hollywood stars in bringing the great classics to life.

  4. Vince says:

    That piece captivated my attention … brilliant. The importance of the canonical and mythological stories has fascinated me since I first picked up a copy of “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” when I was in high school.

    I’ve also just finished “Brave New World” and “That Hideous Strength”, two books that examine what happens when the “effort to replace the traditional gods with new gods” as you put it … well, wins. I can’t tell if it’s scary or comforting to know that people as far back as Aldous Huxley and CS Lewis predicted these forces would mass.

    Aronofsky is clearly an agent of this chaos — whether he knows it, or is just a dupe to his collectivist overlords. Either way, he has chosen sides, and what makes this so sinister are what he and his allies have chosen to oppose: individuality, freedom, family, faith, and truth — all with the state as its muscle and the ultimate champion.

    You are right to frame Aronofsky’s efforts as a concentrated effort to overturn traditional values and destroy their sources. The horrifying book “The Black Book of Communism” offers in great detail just how systematic the attacks on Western culture are.

    I wonder if The Frankfurt School will be credited in this film.

    • Govindini Murty says:

      Thanks so much for your comment Vince! And thank you also for your kind comments about my TV appearance a couple of weeks ago. I was on Canadian TV again yesterday, and we will post a link to that online clip when it’s up.

      And I absolutely love Joseph Campbell! His four-volume series “The Masks of God” is indispensable reading for me, even better than “The Hero With the Thousand Faces.” Though of course, Campbell himself was simply following in the footsteps of Sir James Frazer, whose “The Golden Bough” is one of the all-time great mythological studies. I’m reading the condensed version right now, since the original runs to over twenty volumes!

      I read “Brave New World” some years ago, but will have to check out “That Hideous Strength.” Even prior to them, Romantic poets like William Blake and German philosophers like Nietzsche were making the effort to toss out the traditional gods and replace them with a variety of alternatives. It’s quite an interesting theme to study. These efforts are as old as human history. Aronofsky is just another propagandist for this effort. Whether he does it consciously or unconsciously, the effect on the culture is still the same.

  5. Robert Etherington says:

    There have been other treatments of the Noah’s Ark story beyond Huston’s: Michael Curtiz’s in 1929, an ackward part sound, part silent film but the Biblical sequences have special effects that were remarkable for the time. Noah also shows up in “The Green Pastures” (1936) with Eddie Anderson as Noah and Rex Ingram as De Lawd. It is certainly sad, though not surprising, that Aronofsky is so stupid about film history.

  6. Govindini Murty says:

    Robert – thank you for your comment. I was actually researching the Michael Curtiz “Noah’s Ark” the other day. Jason has seen it, and says it’s marvelous. I note the lovely Dolores Costello is in it, along with other fine actors. I will have to look for it. And I will have to look for Noah in “Green Pastures”!

    You’re right about Aronofsky. The state of film history teaching today is really shocking. Jason went to a major cinema school and couldn’t believe how few of the classics his classmates had seen, and how little they were required to see by the faculty. I remember myself meeting a film critic for one of the major networks, and being shocked to hear that he’d never seen a Marlon Brando film. That’s what it’s like out here in the industry. There’s no respect for the classics. That’s why we try to remind people of them here at Libertas.

  7. [...] at Libertas, Govindini Murty offers an incisive preview/critique of what we can expect from Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” project.  It’s one of [...]

  8. Govindini Murty says:

    SeeSaw – I wanted to get back to you, though it’s been a few days! Thanks for your nice comment above – I agree, we here at Libertas are a merry band, and we too enjoy the fellowship and the debate with you our terrific readers. As for the “Illustrated Golden Bough,” no, I’m afraid I’m not fortunate enough to own it. I’ve been reading the regular edition, but now I’ll have to look for the illustrated version on Amazon.

    By the way, I thought this was a great (and funny) comment of yours:

    “How hard is it to re-imagine “Ajax” as a Western? Not too hard, evidently, because I just did.”

    You’re so right that they can’t handle Greek tragedy in Hollywood right now – or Shakespearean tragedy either, for that matter! The problem for the modern film industry is that classic tragedy doesn’t allow for any easy social or political answers. It requires dealing with the human condition as it is, not as various utopian ideologies would wish it to be. I would love to see some great Greek tragedies on screen.

    I imagine Werner Herzog would be one of the few directors who could handle something like Euripides’ “Bacchae.” His “Aguirre” contains many of the same themes of man driven mad by pitiless, Dionysian nature.

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