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More Tolkien than Torah, Darin Arinovsky’s “Noah” is a cinematic tour de force that combines breathtaking CGI-based imaginary landscapes with a film score by Clint Mansell that hearkens back to Hollywood’s golden age of Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner. Even without a single minute of dialog, the film achieves the mesmerizing quality of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, especially the last installment Naqoyqatsi, the Hopi word for “Life at War”.
Like other films that view the bible as a theme to riff on in the manner of Miles Davis improvising on a banal tune like “Billy Boy”, Aronovsky takes the material of Genesis 5:32-10:1 and shapes it according to his own aesthetic and philosophical prerogatives. As might be expected, the Christian fundamentalists are not happy with the film since it turns Noah into something of a serial killer on an unprecedented scale, acting on what he conceives of as “the Creator’s” instructions, namely to bring the human race to an end. Religious Jews who have a literalist interpretation of the bible have been far less vocal, no doubt a function of the Hasidic sects viewing all movies as diversions from Torah studies. (For those with unfamiliarity with Jewish dogma, the Torah encompasses the first five books of the Old Testament that are replete with fables such as the Great Flood, many of which have inspired some classic cinematography, such as Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea.)
Unlike the fable it is based on, Aronovsky’s Noah never received instructions about being fruitful and multiplying. His intention is to leave the planet to the animals and wind down the human race’s participation in the tree of life, to use the title of Terrence Malick’s overrated 2011 film. In my view, Aronovsky has much deeper thoughts and more sure-handed cinematic instincts than Malick could ever hope for. To pick only one scene, the massive moving carpet of animals headed toward the Ark is a CGI tour de force. Instead of a stately procession in circus parade fashion, it is more like a zoological tsunami that anticipates the great tsunami soon to follow.
Clint Mansell, whose orchestral accompaniment to this and other key scenes is so effective, has an interesting background. He was the lead singer and guitarist for the band Pop Will Eat Itself, a group that originated in 1981 and whose style incorporated hip-hop and industrial rock at one point or another. Mansell made the transition to film score composer in 1998, working on Aronovsky’s first film “Pi”, a surrealist thriller about a character named Maximillian Cohen who believed that everything in nature could be understood through numbers.
Speaking of numbers, Russell Crowe was cast perfectly as Noah given his past leading roles. As mathematician John Nash in A Perfect Mind, who suffered from schizophrenia, he played a man hearing voices after the fashion of Noah. The voices in Nash’s head told him that he had to save the world from the Commies, while those in Noah’s assured him that “the Creator” needed to kill everybody on earth except Noah and his immediate family. Which character was more insane? That’s the real question.
Another role that prepared Crowe for his latest was as Captain of the HMS Surprise, a British warship led on an Ahab-like pursuit of a French rival during the Napoleonic wars. As Captain Jack Aubrey, Crowe was ready to sacrifice his crew and himself for the greater glory of the British monarchy just as Noah was ready to do for “the Creator”, an entity that never makes much of an appearance in Aronovsky’s film, unlike the typical Biblical epic.
One of the two revisionist elements of Aronovsky’s film that have merited the most controversy is his inclusion of a character named Tubal-Cain who is a descendant of Adam’s bad son just as Noah is a descendant of the good son Seth. Played by Ray Winstone, Tubal-Cain is the warlord ruling over all those wicked people the Creator is bent on destroying, just like an artist who burns a painting from earlier in his career that he deems inferior to his latest. Unlike a movie based on the tale of “Sodom and Gomorrah”, it is not quite clear what got enraged God. After all, there are no sadomasochistic orgies going on in Tubal-Cain’s camp as he lays siege to Noah’s Ark (not that there is really anything wrong with sadomasochistic orgies). All we know from the Torah is that “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth.” If you read the bible carefully, you’ll understand that the deity gets much more pissed off at worshipping false idols than he does over murder, theft, rape, and other acts normal people consider far more wicked. Indeed, Tubal-Cain is convinced that Noah is a mad man since his fundamentally “deep ecology” views on the need to rid the planet of the pestilent homo sapiens is at odds with God making man in his own image and giving him ”dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” What’s wrong with that? Animal rights lovers and vegetarians need not apply.
The other element is “the watchers”, who are Ent-like creatures that help Noah and his family ward off Tubal-Cain’s warriors while serving as carpenters on the Ark. Instead of being tree-like monsters, they are giants made of stone who happen to be “fallen angels” trying to get on the Creator’s good side after their past transgressions. Unlike the characters in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, these angels seem perfectly reasonable and no threat to the established order. As is persistent throughout the film and the Old Testament itself, the Creator’s moral compass often seems more broken than those he holds dominion over.
That fundamentally strikes me as the underlying philosophical issue of Aronovsky’s film, namely the impossibility of living a “good life” on the basis of biblical myths, legends, and fables. The moral relativism of “Noah” was likely to have angered those who believe that the bible was literally written by God, even if it was close to the mark.
The film also resonates with current-day concerns over a new threat to the continued existence of humanity, namely the climate change that is capable of a new Great Flood that will unfortunately only kill the innocent rather than the wicked. What the bible never makes clear is that god is merciful to those who have capital rather than pure hearts.
Unlike the past five extinctions, the sixth that is posed by climate change and other looming environmental disasters will be as a result of human intervention rather than a deus ex machina like a meteor.
Interestingly enough, there is some scholarly support for the idea that a great flood occurred in the distant past, one that is evoked not only in the Torah but in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and Plato’s Timaeus as well.
In an article titled “Noah’s Flood Reconsidered” for the autumn 1964 issue of Iraq, a scholarly journal, E.I. Mallowan concluded that the flood depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh—the obvious inspiration for Noah—occurred some time prior to 2650 BC.
Indeed, archaeologists working in the ancient city of Ur in 1928-29 found evidence of two deep pits that exposed a stratum of “clean water-laid clay”, proving in their eyes that a Noachian-type flood had occurred. However, neither the Epic of Gilgamesh nor the archaeologists viewed the flood as impacting all of humanity, only a great city and civilization that existed at the dawn of history. Despite Iraq’s reputation as desert-like, it is also subject to powerful storms that wash away everything in its path—a natural catastrophe rivaling the man-made catastrophe of George W. Bush.
It has been many years since I looked at Plato’s Timaeus—48 in fact, when I was avoiding the draft in the New School Graduate Philosophy program—but I took a quick look in preparing this article.
Like the rest of his work, this is a Socratic dialog in which the principals are sounding boards for Plato’s idealism. One of them, an Athenian named Timaeus, describes a Creator who is a lot more human than the cruel and capricious figure of the Old Testament: “Why did the Creator make the world?…He was good, and therefore not jealous, and being free from jealousy he desired that all things should be like himself.” And, like the hero of Darin Aronovsky’s “Pi”, Plato’s creator sees the natural world as one based on numbers. After creating three major entities of the existing world—body, soul, and essence—god proceeded to divide the entire mass into portions related to one another in the ratios of 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 8, and 27.
Once Timaeus establishes the ratios that govern the known universe, he drills down into the less than perfect reality that govern our daily lives, such as those inflicted on our bodies: “When on the other hand the body, though wasted, still holds out, then the bile is expelled, like an exile from a factious state, causing associating diarrhoeas and dysenteries and similar disorders.”
Critias, another Athenian, weighs in on the ever-present danger of natural catastrophes including the one that befell Atlantis:
Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia….But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.
Perhaps someday archaeologists will discover evidence of a great flood that destroyed Atlantis just as they have found evidence of the flood depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In late January divers discovered perfectly preserved stone-age tools that were between 10 and 11,000 years old in the Swedish bay of Hanö. Södertörn University’s Björn Nilsson, the leader of the research team, was annoyed (by comparisons in the popular press made to Atlantis:
Nilsson admitted that “lousy Swedish tabloids” had blown the story out of the water by labelling the find “Sweden’s Atlantis”, even though the remnants never belonged to an actual village. The people were all nomadic at the time, he explained, so there was no village. He trumpeted, however, that the finds so far were “world-class” and “one-of-a-kind”. He added that was extremely rare to find evidence from the Stone Age so unspoiled.
We’ll probably never know what caused these nomads to be swept away by floods but we will know what might cover Manhattan under the Atlantic in the not too distant future. We cannot go back in history to change the circumstances that led to such disasters but we can control our own fate in order to save both animals and the human race. For that effort we need to rely on science and radical politics, not the Creator.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.