Posted by : Patrick | March 3, 2015
Mythic heroes are so misunderstood in today’s secular world…
Darren Aronofsky’s latest effort, this year’s Noah, sadly seems to be in a similar boat. It’s polarized both critics and moviegoers, the latter more toward the negative side, and earned a grand total of zero Academy Award nominations. Since its theatrical run I’ve been a major supporter of this film, so much so that it actually topped my best of 2014 list, and I’m not backing down. I believe Noah is a fantastic example of how to turn myth into movie, and a wonderfully realized interpretation by Aronofsky that brings modern day relevance and power to an ancient story. Here’s why:
Look, just because a guy turned an unsympathetic eye and uncaring ear when all of humanity was being exterminated right in front of him, and just because that same guy was prepared to murder his own family in order to fulfill what he believed was the wish of an obstinately non-communicative Super-Being, doesn’t mean he’s not a hero. At least not in the Greek or Latin sense, and they would know. Just look at some of their pottery.
My point is that while many complained of Noah‘s harsh, seemingly unfeeling protagonist, that is a portrayal very much in line with mythological trends. Theseus coldly marooned Ariadne on an island right after she helped him escape the Minotaur’s maze. Odysseus threatened his wife with death if she had been unfaithful in the twenty years he’d been gone, despite his philandering with Calypso and others. Achilles was a spoiled brat with a raging temper, Hercules was a murderous brute who slaughtered whole villages and his whole family, and Aeneas even ditched Dido in classic “I’ve got an early business meeting” fashion. Getting the point?
This isn’t for no reason. Morality, right and wrong, are mostly mankind’s invention, and the criteria for them is constantly changing. Heroes must be eternal to be effective. They must obey larger truths. The classic hero isn’t known for being moral; they are known for being pious. While all of the above cared little for what their fellow man thought of their actions, the opinions of the gods not only mattered but were of tantamount importance. Heroes understand that there is a bigger picture in the universe, even if they don’t quite see that whole picture themselves, and that’s part of what makes them different from the rest of us. In an age of enlightenment like today, any lack of comprehension often leads to frustration, which in turn produces resentment, and what we end up with is a hero that is utterly unlikeable. Like Noah.
It’s a bold move for something big-budget, and they nailed it.
It would be easy to crank out a straight retelling of an old, well-known story and just stick to the elements the audience is already familiar with and expecting. But as there’s no lengthy description of how this whole thing went down in the actual bible, much is open for interpretation, both in story and theme, if the filmmaker is willing to take a chance. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah makes itself infinitely more interesting by attempting to reflect modern societal issues in ancient events and provide some insight into the nature of the human race. It wisely does not concern itself with the legitimacy of the story, but instead simply takes it at mythic face value. You either roll with that or you don’t, but it allows Aronofsky to explore a world that needs no defense, free from nitpickers.
Noah is a blunt assessment of mankind as a species, and the judgment is not kind. People are depicted as selfish, greedy animals that will turn on each other at the drop of a hat if it means saving their own worthless skin. Individualism is only a self-righteous mask for this destructive behavior, with dominion over the earth being used as a defiant excuse for blatant waste. Above all that, respect for life and one’s fellow men and women is practically non-existent, the murder of Abel standing as representation of all the atrocities committed over the millennia. This is illustrated in a montage of the silhouettes of different soldiers through all of time clubbing, stabbing, spearing and shooting each other, blending together, all the same. Agree or not, at least it’s a stand, an opinion that does not suffer from the lukewarm impotence of catering to an easily offendable audience.
Right or wrong, mythology often judges, and usually harshly.
A story as old as time (flood myths are among the oldest stories on record) deserves a telling as grand as the epic events it depicts, and Noah does not disappoint. While at times I found some of the compositions to be slightly claustrophobic, on the whole the images captured conveyed a world of dazzling decay, a pre-apocalypse post-apocalyptic landscape that harkened to an Earth of the Old Days, when Creation was still a work in progress. This is the land of myth, something only glimpsed in the deepest dreams, filled with distinct visual archetypes designed to provoke subconscious reaction.
The production clearly embraced the mythic elements of the story and provided pictures suitable to accompany them. Like ones containing rock monsters. When Noah steps over the boundary into the land of the Watchers, lined with the bodies of the human dead as a warning to the unqualified, he has crossed the threshold into the larger, dangerous world that every hero must in order to fulfill his destiny. His nightmarish visions of the flood, the evil nature of man are ambiguous in nature, up to him to correctly decipher, a burden many heroes can sympathize with. Methuselah’s defense of the Watchers against a massive army is a blazing reminder of the fiery punishment reserved for the wicked.
But there is no more visually stunning sequence than that of Creation, narrated by the hero himself. A fantastic array of imagery provides a path to Eden that blends the science of the Big Bang with the mystery of the ages, from a glittering cosmos to time-lapsed evolution of birds and beasts, up to a saturated Garden, radiating color and pulsating with life. This is the journey of mankind itself, and it culminates with temptation and jealousy that leads to murder, with the aforementioned depiction of the history of killing driving the point home. Maybe we don’t deserve this place.
But there’s still time.
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It’s rare to see a movie that so understands the nature of myth and all it encompasses like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and the film has stuck with me like few others. It has produced polarizing reactions, a misunderstood superior effort that may not have the staying power of its inspiration, but hopefully will be looked back upon in a more favorable light with the perspective of time.
There! I’ve said my peace, so I’ll finally shut up about it, which I’m sure some people will be very happy about.