Steven J on Greydanus on Wright on Noah

I have not had time yet to reply to Mr Greydanus’ thoughtful rebuttal to some of the claims I made in my review of NOAH, but with so many wise and literate fellows replying for me, I may have no need. This is from Steven, whose thinking runs parallel with mine:

Dear Mr. Greydanus,

As a fan of and frequent relier upon your reviews (and with much appreciation and remaining fully so for both), I have to admit that your review was also part of what got me to go see the film, though I’d read enough far more hostile reviews to have some idea of what I’d be seeing. In the end, I think, I come down more in agreement with Mr. Wright’s analysis than yours for the following reasons — most of which, I think, must be attributed to the actual execution of the film rather than what can reasonably be inferred from the script.

1) That there is personal sinfulness of lust and violence among the Cainites, as well as the land-devouring wastefulness of their civilization, is certainly established. Aronofsky’s mistake here is to present the latter via explicit textual introduction as the first and most grievous sin of the Cainites, and to refrain from depicting the worst of the former en masse (as opposed to wandering hunters or isolated tyrants) until the Cainites had been (effectively) reduced to a camp of refugees desperate to seize the Ark as their only hope of survival. For real impact consistent with Genesis, the Cainites should have been depicted as equally violent and brutal in situations where they had no apparent need to be; what the audience tends to take away from the film as shown, I think, is that the Cainites seem far more driven by starvation and desperation, and willingness to rally behind the charismatic Tubal-cain, than innately and irredeemably evil.

2) That Noah and his family are also sinners is established, and on an intellectual level, it is logically consistent for Noah to conclude that God means for them to die too after they have served their appointed task (though why he would come to that conclusion in the face of Ila’s literally miraculously cured barrenness is another question). Aronofsky’s mistake here is his failure to depict this process in a way that would let modern audiences understand it emotionally — the sympathy gap between Noah and the Cainites is simply too wide for Noah’s self-denunciation to seem plausible. No modern audience will fault Naamah for being willing to do “anything” to protect her children; no modern audience faults Noah for defending himself and his son against hunters who might have stepped out of Deliverance, bar the accents; even Noah’s worst deed, his abandonment of Na’el, can be explained (if not excused) as a reflex born of panic and paternal preference than true evil or cowardice. Moreover, Noah’s self-destructive loyalty to the Creator’s will, while admirable in principle, makes no emotional sense in the movie because we are never convincingly shown how that loyalty was acquired and built, or how it has rewarded Noah before now: the one positive scene of Sethite tradition is interrupted by Lamech’s murder, and Noah’s sole scene of moral instruction is to tell his son not to destroy beauty by picking a flower, rather than anything more traditional. If we don’t believe and understand Noah’s self-condemnation, then his actions towards his family don’t come off as a tragedy of the sacrifices called for by faith; rather they come off to the audience the same way they do to his family, as a nonsensical, evil madness, and the conflict is never resolved, only abandoned and (at best) forgiven and forgotten.

3) That points of the Biblical narrative are inherently going to come across as fantastic but factually implausible to modern audiences cannot be denied; Aronofsky’s mistake here is to attempt to give a veneer of “realism” or “verisimilitude” to some aspects of the story but not others. Why spend so much time on the logistics of getting the wood you need to build the Ark, on showing an onscreen explanation for how the animals were to be kept aboard, on dramatizing the story of Creation with visuals straight out of Cosmos, yet not acknowledge that an immediate family of less than ten people is not a sufficiently large breeding stock to reconstitute a healthy species, even supposing they could overcome the Westermarck effect? If Aronofsky wanted to tailor the Noah story to modern sensibilities, he could have done so in ways that made the story more plausible, rather than less; it is less effort to believe in antediluvian Watchers than to believe in cheerful, morally licit, and near-universal (for the first few generations) incest as the optimum method of rebuilding humanity. In the Bible, this can be accepted as a convention of the mythic narrative; on screen in front of us, it is a lot harder to come to terms with.

So ultimately my criticisms are less about Aronofsky’s ideas and more about the actual effect of his attempt to execute them, and while I concede that it is a plausible stance to find the ideas interesting enough to mitigate the clunkiness of that execution, I think it must ultimately be granted that the execution was clunky, and that the ideas are not benevolent enough to excuse that.