Roundtable: Noah (2014) Part 1

Anton: I wasn’t surprised to hear that Darren Aronofsky has wanted to make a Noah movie since he was a teenager. It actually fits into his oeuvre rather well. All six of his feature films involve an obsessive protagonist and Russell Crowe’s Noah, a man consumed by his belief in his divinely-appointed mission, is no exception.

Noah also displays Aronofsky’s interest in highly subjective narration, best exemplified by the visual repetitions that mirror his protagonists’ obsessions. His films are full of such patterns. In Requiem for a Dream, we repeatedly see a series of quickly-cut close-ups depicting the rituals of drug use. In Noah, both the hero and viewer are subjected to a pattern of three images depicting the Fall (more on this later).

Aronofsky also tends to have his obsessive protagonist’s constricted points of view influence the visual style of his films. This is even the case in his least-obviously “stylish” film, The Wrestler; its “gritty realism” mirrors the protagonist’s painful awareness of his own flaws. That film is self-consciously “warts and all.”

Noah contains an interesting variation on this characteristic. For Noah’s consuming viewpoint is his seeming awareness of the Creator’s perspective on creation, which he accesses most directly through the bizarre and haunting visions he experiences. Therefore, Noah’s subjective viewpoint is more in line with the cosmic viewpoint than the rest of humanity’s–that is, at least for much of the film. What’s interesting is Aronofsky’s alterations to the biblical narrative: he has Noah become progressively more “blinkered,” more like Aronofsky's other, more-obviously-delusional, non-heroic protagonists (such as a ballerina whose ambition unhinges her grip on reality, or drug addicts who spiral downward into degradation).

Aren: This obsessive filmmaking is part of what made me like Noah so much. As you said, the film fits into Aronofsky’s obsessive-protagonist mold. As the film progresses, Noah even transitions into one of the more delusional antiheroes of Aronofsky’s darker films. That shot of Noah witnessing a man who looks just like him, feasting on raw meat amidst the debauched crowds, could come straight out of Black Swan. But even though Noah is an Aronofsky character through and through, I can’t help but feel the film is at best an uneasy balance between the radical and the conventional. A traditional CGI-loaded blockbuster which obscures this obsessive, bizarre film focusing on sin and humanity’s relationship to the Earth, but I’ll get a bit more into that in a moment.

Anders: The other Aronofsky film that I think bears mentioning in connection with Noah is The Fountain. The Fountain again had an obsessive central character and, like Noah, was about discerning humankind’s place in the larger cosmological order. The Fountain also draws on Judeo-Christian motifs, such as the Tree of Life and the question of what right relations between humans and their creator should be (this is referenced obliquely in The Fountain, but more directly in Noah). Also, like all of Aronofsky’s other films, Noah’s point of focus is on character psychology in the midst of extreme situations, the filtering the world through the central character’s subjective viewpoint, as you both noted.

So, yeah, I’m with you that what is so appealing about this film is the way it takes a classic story and gives it a very specific authorial treatment. Noah is perhaps the best example of Aronofsky as auteur, in how he bends this tale to his interests and visual style, but as Aren notes, it’s also tempered by the more conventional Hollywood blockbuster elements. I agree that Noah is both Aronofsky’s most bizarre and most conventional film, often at the same time.

Anton: For me, the blockbuster conventions only partially detract from the radical, bizarre film, and that film is so powerful and strange, I can live with the somewhat divided work as it is.

Aren: Right now I want to focus on the cosmology of Noah. I think one thing that most everyone can agree on, whether they appreciated the storytelling or not, is that Aronofsky creates an evocative world in which to set his film. Instead of spending too long on exposition with regards to the world, he lets details hide in the frame, hinting at an expansive world. Notice how Tubal-Cain’s cities always exist on the horizon at the edge of the frame. We never get to see these cities up close, but their existence within the frame, at its margins, show us how humanity has created an industrial civilization out of the wasteland.

Anton: Or created an industrial civilization that created the wasteland.

Aren: True. Also notice how the stars and nebulas are visible during daylight. Or how the film never follows up on the history of Methuselah—it just has that stunning shot of him saving the Watchers by plunging a sword into the earth and unleashing a fireball upon the hordes of humanity. Aronofsky is giving us small hints at the scope and history of this world, but never outright explaining it beyond how it pertains to the current story. It’s a delicate feat of worldbuilding.

Whether people admit it or not, the stories from Genesis are bizarre, especially everything that takes place pre-Flood. What Aronofsky wisely does is defamiliarize this all too familiar story, so that the viewer has to engage with it in a new and perhaps meaningful way. By removing the feeling that the story of Noah and his Ark is just another Sunday School story that you already know the meaning and particulars of, Aronofsky forces you to actually engage with what he’s saying about the story, and what the story is saying about us in the present day. By entirely rejecting the impulse to depict Noah in a historical manner and instead reveling in its mythology, I believe Aronofsky is actually getting closer to the story’s theological understandings as well.

Anton: I also think Aronofsky’s act of defamiliarization reminds us that the Flood is an utterly terrifying act of punishment. Whether the viewer is uncomfortable with a God who exacts punishment, or whether they accept, following the traditional Judeo-Christian view, that the Flood is an entirely just if terrifying act, Aronofsky absolutely shreds apart the presentation of Noah’s Ark as a nice children’s story, something reserved for that cute poster of rainbows and all the animals in the Sunday School classroom.

Anders: The aspects that are most exciting to me about the film are exactly what you both identify as the ways that the film returns a sense of wonder to these ancient stories through making it strange. The world of Noah seems even more foreign than Middle Earth or Westros; it is a scarred and barren landscape that less resembles a primordial Earth than another planet in some kind of science fiction film. It was a risky move, though probably motivated in part by the desire to film in Iceland, but it works for what Aronofsky is trying to do.

Anton: He wanted to vacation there?

Anders: Tax breaks?

Aren: Iceland is a booming shooting location at the moment. Game of Thrones shoots there. PrometheusOblivion, and Thor: The Dark Worldshot there. Apparently the upcoming Interstellar shots parts there as well.

Anders: However, there are times that I feel that this barrenness  serves to keep the world from feeling truly expansive or real to me. I would have liked to see more of the cities and human civilization.

Aren, you noted the presence of the nebula and stars being visible in the daylight, and though the film never explicitly states this (from what I can recall on a single viewing), I feel like it’s a nod to the different cosmological structure of the antediluvian world. From my limited knowledge of ancient Hebrew cosmologies, the very structure of the sky was conceived of differently; the early Biblical texts talk about the sky as being a firmament, a solid structure, and another layer of water being up above as well as below. Some accounts hold that the Flood resulted when the waters of the firmament came pouring down meeting the waters of the depths. While Aronofsky’s film never quite literalizes that idea, the notion that the sky and land looked different is preserved in the film, as the continental layout is different as well in the brief shots of earth from space, resembling Pangaea.

So, interestingly, Aronofsky tries to combine the mythic elements with our modern understanding of the Earth as a planet in space and theories of continental drift. (I’m reminded here of Tolkien’s approach, where the structure of Arda is actually changed from flat-earth to round during the Second Age). It’s an interesting gambit that actually emphasizes the mythic nature of the story, preventing a clear reading of the film as either historical materialist interpretation or pure fantasy. It’s both. And neither. And to dwell too much on the question is to miss the larger thematic interests of the film.

Anton: I think Aronofsky is highly attentive to the nature of myth. He understands that in essence myths are a series of particular events, narrative patterns. This is why you can retell a myth endlessly. All that matters is the narrative pattern, the correct series of events.

I was particularly fascinated by how Aronofsky relates the myth of the Fall as a pattern of three images. We see a snake (approaching the camera), a beating fruit that a hand plucks, and a silhouette of a hand enclosing a rock, striking. Temptation, Transgression or Disobedience, and the Consequence (Violence, Hatred, Murder). The movement from vivid colours (the green snake, the red fruit) to silhouette conveys humanity’s descent into darkness.

But if myth is tied to the pattern of events, then as soon as you change the pattern, you destroy the myth.

The Three Brothers' Noah Roundtable will continue with Part II tomorrow.