Oh, Noah. I actually just really wanted to care, one way or the other, really. And I don’t. I’m not sure I can gen up enough emotion or opinion to say more than meh
I can, of course: I can have thoughts about not caring, while not caring, because if I can’t get engaged one way or the other about a Noah movie, then, there’s something wrong – possibly I’ve been lobotomised… But I wanted to be able to engage with it in a sensible way, because I am actually interested about how big budget movies and popular culture do God. And honestly, I can’t: there were moments where Noah was silly, and many more where it was just clunky (especially the dialogue, omigosh, my ears), and I just want to roll my eyes – which does not lead to strong intellectual engagment.
So. Insert standard issue groan about the fact that Mrs Noah isn’t allowed to have a name in the film (she does, though, get one in the cast list), and Ila’s sole important characteristic is her fertility, and babies must or must not be girls depending on whether or not you want more babies later on, because girls are all about Teh Wombz, people.
Ok? That’s that done. Infuriatingly, however, the patriarchy is probably the most pre-historically accurate bit of the movie.
Before going to see Noah I was all Little Miss Snarky about the complaints and stories about whether or not it was going to play fast and loose with Genesis or be a faithful retelling of the story, because by the time you’ve done a year of studying theology on top of a decade-plus of studying ancient history, you’ve fully imbibed your ‘why is this story being told, by who, in what context?’ approach to any ancient literature, including the bible. You’ve spent time thinking about what is going on in Genesis 1–11 with the stories of creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and Babel, and what they’re telling you about God, and you’ve stopped worrying about whether or not they’re literally true because you’re more concerned with whether they’re emotionally true and make sense of the world in a way that resonates with you.
So I wasn’t worried about things like where the Watchers and the Nephilim, how long Lamech lived after Noah was born, whether or not the three sons of Noah all had wives and families who made it onto the ark or not, and whether or not Noah was a ‘gentle prophet’ and not the sternly righteous (and ultimately conflicted) man in this film (though, really, ‘gentle prophet’ – pretty much an oxymoron isn’t it? Given that most of the biblical prophets whose words have survived and joined the canon are speaking out into their cultures, often with quite a lot of anger?). I was more concerned what Aronofky’s film wanted to tell us about God and God’s relationship with man and creation.
Side note – if you are interested in biblical literal-ness these two pieces are pretty good on the subject:
* Who Gets to Decide if Noah is Biblical (by Annette Yoshiko Reid)
* Sorry Conservative Christians, You Don’t Get A Monopoly On Noah (by Jack Jenkins at Think Progress)
However, it turns out that when you stop worrying hugely about whether the Noah story is literally true, you may start caring about the historicity of the portrayal of the story. Given that I now understand the story of Noah as one told by an ancient – still oral – culture about its history, explaining what was probably a giant flood that did inconceivable damage to their world (the kind of damage that you come to terms with by trying to explain why your god would destroy you and your world), but with a perspective different to that of the Atrahasis story or Gilgamesh, because this perspective is about a God – Yahweh – who has a different relationship to humanity and the world than the other ancient gods, I apparently now care about how that world is represented.
So, just as I found myself watching Troy and being utterly baffled by the fact that Sparta somehow has a harbour, I’m now watching Noah and wondering about whether the pre-historic middle east really had such neatly created armour, or fitted trousers and knitted tops, and where Mrs Noah found the time to make all the nice clothes, in between the foraging and cooking, because being an ancient vegetarian would have taken a lot more time, sourcing food, than being omnivorous, and the Noah family are not eating enough berries to be strong enough to fell some trees and build and ark (and also, why are they all white, and since when did the pre-historic middle-east look quite so much like Iceland? They couldn’t find any actual desert?). The world of the movie just all felt terribly contemporary, but with grungey hair and clothes and weaponry, and terribly distracting.
So much so that I am, currently, really struggling to engage my brain with what Aronofsky’s Noah says about God, and what I think about that…
Aronofsky’s God in Noah is the Creator (with a capital C) and therefore concerned with creation and humanity looking after that (Noah and Tubal-Cain personify the question of how to respond to God’s command to Adam in Genesis 1:28 – is it about having dominion over creation and getting to do what you want – Tubal-Cain – or about living in it and preserving it -Noah – which Aronofsky maps directly onto contemporary debates over environment and creation care, coming down hard on Noah’s side) – but it doesn’t seem to see God as concerned with humanity beyond this idea that being ‘righteous’ is about looking after creation. In this picture it’s not just that man isn’t ‘above’ creation to dominate it, as Tubal-Cain asserts, man is almost lower than the rest of creation (not even an equal to it, in God’s eyes) – and that, feels wrong to me Tubal-Cain may be misinterpreting what it means to be made in the image of God when he starts having his rant about that, but Noah seems to forget entirely that he is made in the image of God and that he and his family are worth something as people.
It takes Ila, at the end, to point that out to him:
“He showed you the wickedness of man. He gave you the choice of whether we would continue. Help us to do better this time. Help us to start again.”
But did God give Noah the choice? Is that what I think?
I don’t really struggle with the idea that pre-Abraham, pre-Exodus, pre-Incarnation in Jesus Christ, the heart of a loving God wouldn’t necessarily be clear – in a cultural context where loving gods of that kind were not really part of the firmament. I can understand that a people trying to understand the devastation wrought by a great flood might interpret that as God regretting the creation of man. I do struggle with the idea of a God who either decided (as Noah spends much of the movie thinking he has) that all humanity should be destroyed, even those considered righteous, or gave that choice to a man who, righteous or not, is still flawed. But then, I don’t think that’s God, in the story of Noah in the Old Testament.
Because whatever you’re doing with historical analysis or textual analysis or literary analysis, it remains the case that it was considered important to include in the story this line, that God utters to Noah, at the beginning of the story.
“But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark – you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you”
That is, it was understood to be important that the wrath and justice of God was tempered by mercy and love, even at that stage – way before the full extent of it was revealed – and that Noah and his family were chosen to survive into the new world: that God pledged to make a covenant with them before the flood. Ila, I think – and I think that Ila is the ‘voice’ we’re meant to identify with in the film, as the outsider in the Noah family – is wrong. Yes, Noah should help humanity do better this time – but this isn’t because he proved himself by making the right decision or not in the ark – his ability to do this, as he’s been doing with his family already, are the reason God chose him in the first place.
Maybe that makes for a less dramatic movie, because you’d lose the nail biting ‘BUT WHAT IF NOAH KILLS THEM ALL’ tension. But it also shows a less capricious God – one who cares for humanity, as well as the rest of his creation, and who chooses to preserve them, up front. Aronofsky, I think, sells God short.