Saturday, April 12, 2014

What Darren Aronofsky Knows

Biblical narratives vivify communities and traditions and in turn, lend themselves to deserving vivification. 

Movies based on books are always going to be compared to their antecedent texts. In the case of Darren Aronofsky's Noah, discussing the movie means discussing not just any book but one of the most important texts in all of human history. This film does incredible things with the story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis 6-9, and it does them in a way that is probably foreign to most people who consider the Bible to be important for their religious lives. But there is a long history in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (!) of reading the text with imagination. The practical effect of the messy 16th and 17th centuries--a mess made by all parties with any stake in the debate over truth and knowledge, mind you--is that we tend to read the Bible in an incredibly "flat" way. We read it like a newspaper article, expecting to find what we need to justify our beliefs and actions in black and white. The problem is that we can no longer read these stories in any way except as "textual evidence" for whatever faith we hold. But ancient interpreters, especially the rich rabbinical tradition in Judaism, understood that when we say that the text is "inspired," we have to be ready for it to be constantly foreign, in a way not unrelated to how foreign the Divine can be.

We do not simply get stuff "out" of the text; the text is alive with the breath of God, in the shape of its letters, in the spaces between the words, and--perhaps most importantly for Noah--in the details the story leaves out. It is in these very (absent) details where we are invited into the story, to supply our own speculative and imaginative ideas, not as if we know the answers but to try many of them on and then reach the conclusion that we absolutely do not have them. Noah provides many illustrative examples, including daytime stars evocative of the Abrahamic covenant, snakeskin-tefillin that stands in as both a reminder of and movement away from the Garden, and an entire civilization with many, many gory details which rises from the descendants of Cain.

When modern people hear a story about a guy saving all of the world's animals on a boat, they think they are faced with two choices: read as history, or dismiss as childish lore. Many, as self-proclaimed Enlightened people, opt for the second. Biblical literalists, thinking their faith hangs on the Bible being factual (not the same as "true"), opt for the first. Ancient interpreters (and the makers of Noah, I think) opt for a third way: stepping further into the text, allowing it to come alive and actually draw us into the mystery of both humanity and divinity.

While the liberties Aronofsky takes with the biblical text are too much for some, I think Noah is a beautiful re-telling of a story that has lost most of its resonance and been sequestered to nurseries and children's picture books (which can be awesome but usually are not when it comes to the Bible ones). Some of the artistic choices of Noah may not be my taste, but I'll take them over stickers of bloated, pink and blue animals and rainbows in a baby's room any day. What Aronofsky did right (and tends to do right) is to recapture Noah's story in all of its complexity, darkness and mystery. It is essentially the story of the relationships that are pertinent to justice itself: humans to humans, humans to the rest of creation, and humans to the divine. What we do to this story when we turn it into a story about rainbows and pink elephants is to dull ourselves to the demands of justice. In the story of Noah, Jewish scholar Bernard Och says, the relationship between God and humanity is stretched to its thinnest, held onto by just one man and his family... but it's still there. One can say the same about the relationship between humanity and animals in the story, as well as between humans themselves.

It is not a sin to enter imaginatively into a biblical text; it is a sin to flatten it into obscurity. I want characters in the Bible to have emotions, faces, affects and defects. I want the settings to be detailed, three-dimensional and to make me think. And I want a thick understanding of "inspiration," one that expects from the text not facts to justify myself but mystery to draw me away from myself, to others and to the divine.


Some favorite things from Noah:

- Naameh turning to Noah when the snakes are coming: "The snakes are coming too?"
- The depiction of the Sons of God
- The creation sequence, which I think is even better than Malick's.
- A beautiful but tragic scene between Noah and Naameh about their (future) grandchildren
- That they mine zohar (Hebrew for "spark") to make fire
- The hairless golden Adam and Eve
- The beating heart inside the fruit
- The shadow sequence of war, leading from Cain up to present day warfare (!)