Greydanus on Noah

Steven Greydanus, a film reviewer I respect above all others in the world, has done me the honor of asking my opinion of the movie NOAH and offering his own in return. He also asked a number of pointed questions about my review, which was considerably more negative than his.

Here I am out of my league. He is skilled and insightful when it comes to film, and I am not. Nonetheless, since he had done me the honor of taking my opinion seriously, I will answer  the questions he raises — when time permits. One hopes I will have the leisure to answer in days to come.

His letter is reprinted below:

Dear Mr. Wright,

I am sorry for your excruciating experience, and that of your daughter. (How old is your daughter, if I may ask?)

I must say, I meant my review to be intriguing to some and a warning to others. I was disconcerted by how consistently people responded to my review by saying “I wasn’t interested in Noah before, but now that I read SDG’s review, I want to see it!”

I kept saying to people, “You saw that I said the film ‘stretches the text to the breaking point’, right? You saw where I wondered whether the movie had an audience at all, whether it was too secular for religious viewers and too religious for secular viewers? Where I said its provocative flourishes would be a bridge too far for many pious viewers? Where I called it ‘the work of an uncompromising filmmaker who makes dark, divisive, personal films without concession to audience expectations’?”

Eventually I wrote a second piece exploring some of the controversial questions around the film, including issues dealt with in your essay. However, the review is meant to stand on its own, and I think it does.

I enjoyed reading your essay. Unsurprisingly, I especially appreciated the appreciative first part. In addition to being fair and generous, it was insightful and, of course, well written.

The middle part, critiquing the movie’s drabness, calls out a concern I am sympathetic to, and in fact have often made myself. In this case I think there is some defense to be made for it, but I shan’t quarrel with you on this point.

Even the final, most critical section contains much of what I reliably enjoy about your writing. To do justice to what you have written, I would have to write a magnificently long essay comparable to your own. However, I have already written so many magnificently long essays about this movie (here is a third) that I am now pressed for time, so I will unjustly confine myself to contradicting you on some basic matters of fact, some of them quite central. (I will not, of course, attempt to persuade you that the movie is actually good, only that some of the arguments you have marshaled against it are in error.)

Needless to say, spoilers ahoy.

My most crucial disagreement is with your claim, perhaps never quite as explicitly stated as this, that the film not only adds environmental concerns to the catalog of human sin for which God sends the flood, but essentially reduces the entire catalog of human sin to this single charge, essentially omitting anything else. Thus you say:

Ah, but the filmmaker did condemn mankind for something. It was just not for man’s wickedness.

Really? Let’s look at the evidence, starting with…

In the first scene, Noah’s son, Ham, plucks a flower smaller than his fingernail because is it pretty. Noah upbraids him, saying that everything in nature has its place, and we can only take what we need.

Ah, but this is not the first scene. It is the second. In the first scene, young Noah watches horrified as a band of Cainites casually attack and murder his father.

Kind of sinful, no? Right in the first scene.

On a side note, it seems to me that this murderous opening scene puts a rather different light on the obviously parallel scene that immediately follows, in which father Noah and his own son Ham are confronted by a band of Cainites (déjà vu) over an animal they want to kill. You assume Noah kills the men to protect the animal, but it’s not clear to me he isn’t at least partially acting to defend himself and his son from killers who would (or at least might) do to him and his son what he saw them do to his own father.

However, this is open to interpretation, so I don’t press the point. Let’s turn to the most important evidence:

At this point in the story, what was required was for the audience to be shown that all the Children of Cain were so vile and wicked in their behavior that the judgment of the Deluge, if Draconian, was at least understandable. The camp should have shown acts of mayhem and torment and harlotry and sodomy and cannibalism and drunkenness and idolatry and brutality and violence, or at least usury.

Well, now.

In the camp scene I saw, screaming women are being dragged around and bartered, as chattel sex slaves for the raping pleasure of men, in exchange for meat.

We see people apparently being led to slaughter. Watch closely and it appears that, yes, cannibalism is taking place.

Near the camp, Ham stumbles into a pit of corpses, many of which appear to have died violent deaths.

In the pit he discovers a girl who is clearly terrified that Ham will attack her. I don’t suppose you will contest that this attests how she has been treated in the past and/or seen many other girls treated.

Later, we see that the less physically fit are being systematically starved: Tubal-cain instructs his men, “Feed only those who will fight.”

Was all of this not vile and wicked enough?

Granted, there is no drunkenness. However, we may presume that Aronofsky wants to save drunkenness for Noah himself, since that’s the first time the Bible mentions the subject.

Nor is there idolatry as such — although the Nietzchean deism of Tubal-cain, who acknowledges the Creator’s existence but considers him irrelevant (“A man isn’t ruled by the heavens, a man is ruled by his will”) would certainly be classified in Catholic moral theory as a sin against the first commandment (if the Ten Commandments had been given at this time). Bear in mind that the death and burial of Adam and Eve was an event in living memory for many people, including Noah’s father Lamech. It makes sense that belief in the Creator would be universal, even if, for those like Tubal-cain, God’s silence “since he marked Cain” suggests that he has abandoned man to do as he sees fit.

As for harlotry, that would seem to be a step up from chattel sex slavery and rape. Harlots, or sex workers as they say nowadays, have at least some modicum of control over the transaction and are at least somewhat compensated for the abuse of their bodies (whether in money, drugs or some other form of tender). If harlotry doesn’t exist in the Cainite camp, it’s because women aren’t accorded enough dignity to be harlots.

Added to all this, there is the repeated motif of Cain killing Abel, clearly presented as emblematic of human wickedness.

I’m not sure from your review whether you somehow glossed over all or most of this while watching the film. Perhaps you were distracted by how drab and ugly the art direction was to notice the greater ugliness of human behavior. Perhaps you were so appalled that you blocked out much of the movie later.

At this point I can imagine someone taking refuge in the claim that, however evil human behavior might be in fact, nevertheless it is not for wickedness in general, but for man’s crimes against the environment, that the film presents God punishing man — or, at any rate, that the movie does not clearly indicate that God is punishing man for anything other than ravaging the environment.

Against this view, however, we have Noah’s official interpretation of the reason for the flood, given to his family on board the ark, after recounting the six days of Creation after Genesis 1:

For ten generations since Adam, sin has walked within us. Brother against brother, nation against nation, man against creation. We murdered each other. We broke the world. We did this.

Clearly environmental concerns are in the mix there, but they are far from the whole story. Violence and sin in general is also part of the picture.

It is of course possible to question Noah’s interpretation. Noah’s understanding of God’s will in the film is far from infallible — indeed, at this moment he believes God intends the postdiluvian world to go on without human beings.

Even so, this statement seems to me the closest thing to a thesis statement from the film on the reason for the flood. (And, while I don’t accord binding interpretive authority to extra-textual statements from the filmmakers, the fact that the filmmakers supported this interpretation when I interviewed them doesn’t incline me to take a different view.)

On a related note, while you complain in your review about Ham’s seeming puzzlement over the Cainites eating meat (“The boy has never heard of such a thing before. Eat meat? Why would anyone do such a lunatic, crazed, outrageous thing?! Clearly the Creator meant Mankind only to eat leaves and berries, because we have no canine teeth, and our stomachs cannot digest meat, right?”), you clarify in your comments that

the antediluvians were vegetarians, and the postdiluvians were omnivores. Instead Aronofsky has the Sons of Seth being vegetarians, and the Sons of Cain be omnivores or omophages

It is true that divine permission to eat animals was given only in the Noahic covenant, not the Adamic covenant, and so prior to the Noahic covenant eating meat would be without divine warrant and thus presumably contrary to God’s will, and thus sinful.

However, I am not aware of any tradition that states what you allege, that “the antediluvians were vegetarians,” i.e., on this point the Adamic covenant was always perfectly followed, and no one ever cheated and killed and ate animals prior to God giving man permission to do so in the Noahic covenant.

What warrant do we have to assume that wicked men in the days before the flood, who violated God’s will in so many other ways, whose “every imagination of the thoughts of their heart was only evil continually,” would be scrupulously obedient to the covenant prescriptions in place on this one point?

Did you yourself not wish for cannibalism in the Cainite camp (a wish the film appears to have granted)? Would it make any sense at all to imagine men eating men and not also eating animals, with or without divine mandate? How is the depiction of the Cainites hunting and eating animals and Noah and his family not doing so entirely consistent with (if not demanded by) the moral and covenant realities described in sacred scripture?

Does not the very fact that God gives man permission to eat animals after the flood imply that some men were probably doing so already without permission before the flood? Clearl God’s attitude after the flood is in some measure affected by recognition of human weakness (“I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth”). But once again I’ve stepped beyond factual questions around the film itself.

You continue:

At first I thought this meant, as in keeping with the theme, that Ham must trust God to find him a wife by some miracle who is not of the diseased and evil lineage of Cain — a miracle because no one aside from the Children of Cain are alive on the whole earth, except for Noah…

But we discover in the next scene that Noah meant the opposite. He was not telling Ham to trust in the provision and providence of God; he was telling him to resign himself to living hereafter like a monk and dying childless.

But what about saving mankind? Ah, but suddenly and for no reason the divine mission assigned by The Creator has changed. Noah decides that instead of saving mankind, God really means him to destroy mankind, including Noah’s whole family.

All of this is a misunderstanding, though in fairness to you others have missed the revelant points after one viewing.

To me, at any rate, it was clear on my first viewing that Noah did intend to acquire wives for Ham and Japheth — why else go to the Cainite camp?

However, as a result of that trip, Noah changes his mind, both about the nature of the coming apocalypse, and also, as a result, of the feasibility of bringing back wives for Ham and Japheth.

This is not arbitrary or unmotivated, as you seem to think. At the Cainite camp, Noah has a vision (or hallucination if you like) in which he sees himself participating in the same atrocities as the Cainites.

This drives home to him, as he explains later to Naameh, that he himself and his own family, with all the Sethites, are heirs to the original sin. Thus, wiping out the wicked Cainite culture and proceeding to repopulate the world with Noah’s progeny would not in fact solve the problem of human sin; sin would immediately reassert itself — as in fact happens in the narrative of Genesis, a fact the filmmakers were acutely aware of.

This is why Noah concludes that he was wrong to think he and his family were exempt from judgment. His first vision shows him God intended to make an end of creation; his second vision clarifies that God intended to start over again; his third vision convinces him that God intends to start over again in a world without fallen humanity. It is an eminently reasonable and even just interpretation of God’s will.

You are aware of Noah’s concerns on this point, but you object:

Except this was not set up in the film. There is no reason given for him to think this or say this, because no one in his family does anything wrong, at least not that we the audience saw on stage.

Presumably you missed the vision that was the immediate occasion of Noah’s moral insight into his family’s fallenness. (You wouldn’t be the first one.)

That said, what happened to your concerns about Noah killing those men in the opening scene over an animal? (Noah himself tells Naameh killing is wrong, thereby accusing himself.)

What about Ham voyeuristically spying on Shem and Ila getting frisky in the forest? Noah says Shem is “blinded by desire” and Ham is “covetous”; does this need to be further spelled out?

And Noah’s cross-examination of Naameh holds water: “Is there nothing you would not do, good or bad, for those boys?”

Regarding Noah’s conclusion that he must potentially kill his offspring, you say:

He does not pray to God and ask for this cup to pass from him.

Actually, he does, in effect. When first told of Ila’s pregnancy, Noah turns to God in grief and horror: I don’t have my notes with me, but to the best of my memory he says something like “I cannot do this. Have I not done everything else you asked of me? Is that not enough?”

You say that only Tubal-cain quotes scripture correctly. Overlooking the anachronism that Noah and Tubal-cain live at a time when no scripture exists, both Noah and Lamech affirm that the Creator made man “in his image.” Noah’s retelling of Genesis 1 is largely paraphrase with some revisions, but he correctly quotes as the first act of creation the words “Let there be light,” and adds, “And light was. And it was good. The first day.” His retelling includes the repeated refrain “And there was evening and morning.” Following Genesis, Noah refers to the sun and moon simply as “a great…light” and “a lesser light,” without naming them. Phrases like “the waters of the world gathered together, and in their midst emerged dry land” and “Everything that creeps, everything that crawls, and everything that walks upon the ground. It was all good” are also recognizable.

I disagree 180 degrees with your interpretation of the death of Na’el, and with your interpretation of Ila’s big speech to Noah in the end. However, as these are questions of interpretation I let them pass. I also can’t think why you assume that Japheth will eventually marry both neices. The fact that they are twins clearly suggests, as Naameh herself says, that God has provided wives for both sons; thus, Ham will eventually return to marry one of them.)

As I said from the outset, none of this is intended to persuade you that the movie is good, or to enjoy it as much as I enjoy it; however, I hope it goes some way toward clarifying some of your objections.

P.S. Dr. Mattson’s article alleging that Noah is thoroughly Gnostic is deeply flawed. It has been persuasively rebutted by my friends Peter Chattaway of Film Chat and Ryan Holt of I’ve Seen That Movie Too.