Noah: Reactions and Responses

Posted on April 7, 2014 at 3:59 pm

Noah may be controversial, but it is also a box office success.  Literalists complained about its departure from the Biblical text.  There were also some complaints about what some viewers interpreted as too much emphasis on environmentalism, and those who wanted to see Noah as an uncomplicated good man who prays using the term “God.”  Writer/director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream”) made an ambitious, provocative film that at times wrestled with the story.  Some of the responses have wrestled with the film.  A Bible app tracking its users found the people accessing the Noah story more than tripled.  Bible Gateway calculated a 223% increase and the American Bible Society found 87% of respondents to a Facebook survey said they were reading the story of Noah because of weekend conversations about the film.

Jack Jenkins responded to Christian literalists with a reminder that they “don’t get a monopoly on Noah.”

while it’s true that Aronofsky’s Noah diverges from scripture, these critiques are ultimately an arrogant slight against beautiful Jewish tradition at work in the film. Worse, they imply that conservative biblical literalism somehow has a monopoly on Noah, a position which effectively ignores the billions of other non-literal religious people who also take the story seriously — especially Jews.

Firstly, when Aronofsky says that his film is less “Biblical,” that doesn’t mean that his film is “subversive” or any less religious — it’s just religious in ways that are unfamiliar to most biblical literalists, but common practice for most Jews and non-literal Christians. When asked how he compiled the script, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, who is also Jewish, explained that they pulled heavily from Jewish Rabbinic midrash. For the uninitiated,midrash, literally “to search out,” is an ancient Jewish tradition in which Rabbis essentially add stories to the Biblical/Tanakhical narrative for educative effect. These stories aren’t meant to be given the same authority as scripture, but are instead designed to both resolve problems of interpretation as well as expose aspects of the holy narrative that would be otherwise difficult to grasp.

In The Atlantic, Christopher Orr writes about “the fierce moral intensity of Aronofsky’s vision, which is, if anything, more Old Testament than the Old Testament itself.”

As Aronofsky’s film progresses, it becomes an implicit dialectic between the competing moral visions espoused by Tubal-Cain (on behalf of a sinful human race) and Noah (on behalf of a ruthless God). And to say that neither option is an appealing one—violent chaos versus obedient self-extinction—would be an obvious understatement. A third way between these polar alternatives is of course found, as anyone familiar with the Noah story would presume. (Aronofsky may grant himself the latitude to devise a few additional moral quandaries, but he’s not going to rewrite the ending.)

Noah is a strange and occasionally messy hybrid of a film, and some viewers will be unhappy not only with the liberties it takes but also with the conclusions it draws (in the latter case, perhaps, from both ends of the ideological-theological spectrum). Aronofsky has created an epic melodrama that is at the same time a heartfelt, personal plea for the reconciliation of often-competing moral codes. “A man isn’t ruled by the heavens,” argues Tubal-Cain late in the movie. “He is ruled by his will.” In the end, Aronofsky suggests, neither is sufficient on its own.

Aronowsky was raised Jewish but now considers himself a non-believer.  Phil Cooke asks whether Christians should watch a movie directed by an atheist.  The answer is yes.  “God uses more than we imagine to tell His story…As a result, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to limit God – particularly when it comes to artistic expression.”

Rabbi Evan Moffic, author of Wisdom for People of All Faiths: Ten Ways to Connect with God says,

God is now on the Hollywood A-List. With the release over the last month of both Son of God and Noah, studios have clearly bet on the popularity of religious themes. Will they succeed? The answer depends on what we mean by success. If success is studio profits, the answer is probably yes. Religious themes resonate with Americans. We know the stories and recognize their power. If success is spiritual growth, however, the answer is no. The purposes of film and faith differ fundamentally. To say a film can teach faith is like saying a great tennis coach would also make a great basketball coach.

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Commentary Spiritual films Understanding Media and Pop Culture

What Happens When a Movie Opens Cold?

Posted on April 6, 2014 at 8:00 am

It’s not unusual for low-budget horror films, movies based on video games, and Tyler Perry movies to open “cold,” without giving critics a chance to see and review them before they are in theaters.  The usual reason is that the studios do not expect to get even a single good review from a mainstream critic.  Or they are “critic-proof” — a proven record of selling tickets even without reviews to get the word out, or, in the case of Tyler Perry and video games, a strong brand with a loyal following.

It is unusual for a big-budget, big effects studio film with three Oscar-winners and a highly respected writer/director to open cold.  But that was the case in most cities with “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe.  It’s hard to imagine a stronger brand than a Bibical epic with so much talent associated with it.  But some complaints by a small fraction of the “faith-based” audience (most of whom had not seen the film) seemed to spook the studio.  Nevertheless, the film got good reviews, with a respectable 75% recommending the film on Rotten Tomatoes, and sold a more than respectable $44 million in tickets on its opening weekend.

Indiewire asked its critic members how they respond when a movie opens cold.  “Two questions: Does it affect your mindset going into a movie knowing the studio didn’t want critics to see it before it opened? And is there anything wrong with making critics wait to see a movie at the same time the public does?”

All the responses are thoughtful and insightful, but I particularly agree with Rafer Guzman of Newsday.

When studios hold back a release from critics, that only tells me what the studios think. I still go in with an open mind, and often I’m surprised and rewarded. I’ll risk my credibility with a few examples: “R.I.P.D.” was not a total failure. I actually enjoyed “I, Frankenstein.” The studios held “Pompeii” for a Wednesday night screening, usually a bad sign, and that turned out to be one of the best pulp movies I’ve seen in years. I think, or at least I hope, that I can be objective about a movie no matter what the circumstances.

I try to be very clear about who the studios are, and what they owe me. They are private companies and they owe me nothing. They’re not the U.S. government. They’re under no obligation to show me their movie, offer up their stars or treat me any differently from the average moviegoer. And even when they do, I’m still duty-bound to be an honest critic. I was reading Carl Sandburg’s old reviews recently, and I’m pretty sure he just walked into a theater like everybody else and then wrote down his thoughts. I like the purity of that, the total absence of handshake agreements and back-scratching. In an ideal world, things would still be that way!

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Critics Understanding Media and Pop Culture


Posted on March 27, 2014 at 8:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Disturbing images, peril, chaos, characters injured and killed, dead bodies, violence, attacks, sexual assaults, girls sold into slavery
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 28, 2014
Date Released to DVD: July 28, 2014 ASIN: B00JBGWP3Y

Noah_poster“Noah” is a serious, thoughtful, reverent movie that, like its title character, wrestles with the big issues of morality, survivor guilt, and strengthening a connection to the divine.  It is also a big, grand adventure with drama and special effects.  It should satisfy believers, seekers, and those who just want an exciting story, well told.

Writer/director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”) shows us a Noah (Russell Crowe) who struggles to be a good man and do as God wants. Only ten generations from Adam and Eve, he is haunted by the stories of the Fall and Cain’s murder of his brother. When he was a boy, he witnessed the murder of his own father at the hand of the brutal leader of the descendants of Cain (Ray Winstone as Tubal-Cain). Now, he tries to protect his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and three sons from the marauders.

Noah lives lightly on the earth, gently chiding his son for picking a flower because that interfere with its work of spreading seeds. He and his family do not eat animals; they respect the innocence of all creatures, unlike Tubal-Cain who defines himself as someone who takes without regard for anything but his own urges and lust for power.

Noah is filled with an ominous sense that he is receiving omens and seeks the advice of his mystic of a grandfather, Methuselah (Sir Anthony Hopkins).   He begins to understand that he is commanded by The Creator to build an ark and collect the animals of the earth and to preserve them in the coming storm that will wipe out all of life on Earth.  He will be helped in this by The Watchers, fallen angels who were once pure light but are now punished for their mistakes by being imprisoned in enormous bodies of mud and rock.

As Auden reminds us, the grand, sweeping events of the world do not happen purely.  They occur in the midst of human lives that are messy and imperfect.  While Noah struggles to follow the will of The Creator, he has to deal with problems at home.  Ila (Emma Watson), a girl Noah and his family rescued after her entire community was slaughtered by Tubal-Cain, is loved by Noah’s son, Shem (“Romeo & Juliet’s” Douglas Booth), who loves her, too.  But due to her injuries, she cannot have children, and she does not want to keep him from being a father and creating a new generation.  Ham (Logan Lerman of “Percy Jackson”) is furious that there is no prospect of a wife and family for him.

And then there is Tubal-Cain, used to taking whatever he wants.  He will do anything to stay alive through the flood and become king of whatever the world will be afterward.   And he senses that Ham may be susceptible to joining him.

We rarely see Bible stories told with such artistry and power.  The acting is superb and the special effects are well done.  The big moments, the flood, the omens, the Watchers, the thousands of animals moving inexorably toward the ark, are all handled with meaning and import.  When Noah tells his family one of the few stories that they have in this still-new human world, the story of creation, we feel the nothingness that was before.  Story-telling itself becomes a way to shape the world and form an understanding of patterns, purpose, and meaning.

Men wind a snakeskin around their arms in the earliest of rituals and prayers and we see the flicker of what would become a daily observance for Orthodox Jews over the millennia through the present, the phylactery leather strips that men use in their morning prayers.  We are reminded that this is a time before Jesus and before Abraham, when there was no organized religion and no established set of beliefs and practices.  There is not even the word “God.”  It is just “Creator.”

The innocence and the impulse to reach out toward the heavens are very moving.  So is the way that Noah grapples with what today we might call survivor guilt or PTSD.  And he struggles to find his better angels.  Tubal-Cain is not just a man who wants to fight him; he is that part of Noah himself that is all lower urges toward flesh and power, the impulse to trap and smash and to break laws even in a world where laws have not been established.

While some viewers and some who have not even seen the film have objected to this portrayal (or, in the case of strictly Muslim groups, any portrayal of a religious figure), most should see this film as an eternal story well told in a manner that is itself a form of worship in prompting us to think more profoundly about our own choices and connections.

Parents should know that this film includes epic/Biblical violence including murder, battles, flood, some disturbing images, parent killed in front of child, character trampled to death, discussion of infanticide, some disturbing images, non-explicit sexual situation, and childbirth.

Family discussion: Why did the two groups of humans develop so differently? What should Noah have done about Na’el? Why did he separate from the family after the flood?

If you like this, try: “The Fountain” and “Pi” by the same director and Biblical-era classics like “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments”

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Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical

Movies About Noah

Posted on March 27, 2014 at 8:00 am

This week’s release of the serious, thoughtful, provocative “Noah” is a good reminder to re-visit some earlier versions of the Bible story about the man chosen by God to lead the humans and animals to survive the flood.

Noah’s Ark Oscar-winners Jon Voight, F. Murray Abraham, and Mary Steenburgen head the cast in this sometimes campy television movie.

Noah’s Ark Michael Curtiz, the director of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Casablanca,” pairs the Biblical epic with a WWI story. Star Dolores Costello is the grandmother of Drew Barrymore.

Biblical Collector’s Series: Noah’s Ark and the Biblical Flood This is one of many documentaries examining the historical basis for the Biblical tale.

The Greatest Adventures of the Bible: Noah’s Ark Television stars Lorne Greene (“Bonanza”) and Charlotte Rae (“The Facts of Life”) provide the voices in an episode from the Hanna-Barbera Bible series.

Evan Almighty This sequel to “Bruce Almighty” has Steve Carell as a modern-day Noah.

And of course there’s this classic from Bill Cosby.


And the Richard Rodgers musical.

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For Your Netflix Queue

Religious Leaders Respond to Noah: Moving and Inspiring

Posted on March 21, 2014 at 5:43 pm

Christian leaders are responding warmly to “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe.  I have not seen the film yet, but was moved by the response of my friend Rebecca Cusey, who has, unlike many of the people who have been complaining about it.  She writes:

I was never bored in this film. I was never embarrassed because it became too corny or trite or simplistic or unprofessional. Both those happen in Christian subculture movies. But this isn’t a Christian subculture movie. It’s a mainstream movie with deep theological themes.

It is just a good movie, a good movie made for everyone, that happens to be based on a Bible story….

The film differs from religious movies we all know in that the viewer doesn’t feel browbeaten at the end, forced to either accept or reject some theological point of contention. Rather, it opens questions and lets them linger. For all its talk of Creator, creation, and sin, it never preaches.

Ultimately, the movie explores hope versus despair, mercy in tension with justice, second beginnings. It is dark, but the darkness makes the clearing skies all the more lovely. It is a work of art and one that I recommend seeing, for believers and nonbelievers alike.

This is just what I was hoping for, a movie that begins a conversation that will open hearts to a deeper connection to the divine.  I’ll report back when I see the film.


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Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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