Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, April 4, 2014

Noah's choices

Movies are the myths of the new age. The stories that are told on the big and small screens not only reflect contemporary attitudes - those of their directors, storytellers, actors. They also inform the values and ideas that we hold true; and shape the ways that we respond to what's happening in the world. It's what ancient texts like creation stories, the bible and other books, have always done for us: reflected the world with the information at hand; provided direction - even urging - for the way forward.

Yes, the human story is always circling back in order to move forward. It's a dynamic process, this retelling of old stories, seeing them with different eyes and interpreting with up-to-date information. And so, the old myths are made relevant to each age. The personalities, the icons are polished with the symbolism of every retelling, embellished with the patina of recent knowledge.

There are flood stories in cultures around the world. They all tell of a great flood that swept across the land. Many have a moral undertone: that the creator was displeased by man's disobedience (or wrong doing, or overpopulation, or evil). Many include the story of an ark, whose survivors peopled the world anew; among these the Sumerian is thought to be the oldest, but you can find arks in the Roman, Masai, Mongolian, Burmese, Tahitian and Hawaiian myths. The Lakota, among many other North American tribes, have a story of a flood out of which was created the Turtle island/ continent because the turtle was the only one able to dive deep into the flood waters to bring up the land.

None is as retold, or familiar, as the story of Noah, which occurs in the first book of the bible, Genesis chapters 6 to 9. Included in the Genesis story are the instructions for the size and structure of the ark. All of this occurs when Noah is over 500 years old. He has a wife (called Naamah according to Jewish tradition rather than named in the bible) and together, they have three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth. Noah is the grandson of Methuselah who is as old as the hills!

So maybe time was different then. Or maybe that's how stories that make a point have to be told. The time frame of an ice age is geologic. The time frame for a catastrophic event - a flood, a nuclear explosion, a tsunami, an earthquake - is measured in the few seconds it takes a human being to live or die.

Darren Aronofsky's 2014 Noah stays true to the central biblical story: Noah and his family build an ark and survive a great flood. Upon this interpretation, however, - Aronofsky wrote this version of the Noah myth with Ari Handel - introduces an ecological conscience, the element of magical surrealism, and puts Noah at the centre of the psychological drama of the family.  Here we see a man who is more than the creator's tool. He is husband to a wife who would be his equal. He has a grandfather with the wisdom of a thousand years. He raises brave sons who would challenge the father's view of right and wrong, even as they struggle to assert their own humanness. He raises an adopted daughter Ila, and shows he is capable of compassion, generosity. He feels responsible for the survival of other species. Russell Crowe brings to the role of the patriarch a rock-solid certainty with which he faces moral and ecological dilemmas.

His insight (a dream, a vision) must be sanctioned by grandfather Methuselah before he acts upon it. It is from Methuselah, played appropriately by Anthony Hopkins, that we expect the unexpected, the trickery, the wry wisdom. Indeed, it is Methuselah who provides the seed from Eden to bring forth a lush and fruitful forest; and Methuselah who ensures the future of the family.

If Aronofsky sought to tell a non-religious story, he could not avoid it being something we might want to believe and therefore truthful at an emotional level. With all the science at our fingertips, we cannot help feeling that there is something "more" out there, some architect of a grand design - call it creator or god or life force or the expanding universe. We also, most of us, don't believe that we control our own lives. On the other hand, we barely perceive our individual selves as cells in the migration or evolution of a single species. So Aronofsky's Noah is yet myth, but on a larger, more persuasive, "blockbuster" scale equal to the tools that he commands - digitized animals (did you see the pangolin hunted by the tribe of Cain?), compression of time, the magic of cinema that creates forests, streams, epic battles and movement through time and space. And the viewer in the middle of all.

This version of Noah and the flood springs to life in the most dramatic means possible, in 3D. We see the fallen angels - the Watchers - who have been turned to stone, working and fighting alongside Noah and his family until they are redeemed and return to the creator as beings of light. And we see the world as we know it - this sphere in a celestial orbit - not as the people to whom the whole world may have been a valley or a continent.

The watchers - however novel the idea, however ingenious to imagine them as molten light encased in rocks that move - are as biblical as fallen angels, as mythic as the garden of Eden. Aronofsky acknowledges that Noah and his family need outside help in the age-old battle of good and evil.  The writer/director may not have invoked Genesis, but his meaning is abundantly clear. Be good, or eco-conscious, or in balance with nature, or else the creator, the earth, the universe will surely effect a cleansing.

Afterthought: The Ark changes dimensions through all the flood myths. In some, it is little more than a basket to hold a few household survivors. Only in Noah's case, is it so explicitly detailed to carry mated pairs of as many animals as possible. The horror of Tubal-Cain's slaughter within the ark, therefore, is more than the need to eat, for when he kills one of a pair, he is likely murdering a species. On reflection, the ark of humanity is carried by the women; and Noah's final decision determines the survival of his own kind, or not.

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