Saturday, 19 April 2014

Noah (2014)

Visionary auteur meets studio, agrees to make the ultimate disaster movie. Hilarity ensues.

From the studio system to the New Hollywood period and the modern blockbuster-centred system of film production, the relationship between director and studio has oscillated between workman-for-hire to visionary auteur and back again, though not quite exactly to where we began. We present Noah as an illustration of the creative and aesthetic positionings available to, and limiting, an established independent auteur working with a major film studio in the 2010s.

It is easy to predict how Aronofsky as a consistent auteur will adapt and clarify the brief, sketchy, and rather problematic deluge narrative from the Book of Genesis into a feature film, then measure the distance from the actual product and sound off the discordant notes.

The story of Noah offers several ready-made themes and motifs that seem tailored to Aronofsky: the figure of a true believer and fanatic (and the often bodily sacrifices they are willing to make), disturbing hallucinatory visions, and the duality of faith and madness, of good and evil. For a man described as ‘blameless in his generation’, Noah sure did odd things like placing a curse on his grandson’s descendants and hence condemning a full third of humanity to slavery for no clear reason, and getting drunk on wine and getting indecorously uncovered.

One would expect Aronofsky the auteur to present Noah as a profoundly good man with profound flaws, to delve into the ancient rabbinical opinion that this ‘righteous man blameless in his generation’ was only righteous relative to the depravity of his generation, and also to explain the return of sin and fallenness to a post-deluge world by insisting it never quite left in the first place...

We identify three “innovations” of this feature adaptation that taken together, point towards the current balance of power between independent directors and the modern studio. We believe that if no studio interference has been reported at the scripting and shooting stage, and no re-shooting was done, the aesthetic compromises made in the film would have been made by the director himself at pre-production or editing. In other words, any compromises were self-inflicted even if the studio system itself played a role in the considerations.

First, the “rock giants” who help Noah build and later defend his ark. These creations come across as laughably out of place with the rest of the film, existing only to provide an Epic Noisy Battle Scene to justify the film’s budget to studio executives.

Secondly, the character of King Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone, chewing up as much scenery before it’s destroyed by the flood, then chewing up the ark after the flood) as a nemesis for Noah. The comically evil Tubal-Cain is an empire-builder, a weapon-smith, a man who sees what is before him and declares to dominate it, in contrast with Noah as vegan, environmentalist, and prehistoric (or post-apocalyptic) Johnny Appleseed. As much as this pairing provides a villain and a conventional struggle for the purposes of a mainstream blockbuster, we imagine a truly independent auteur version of Aronofsky would have presented the antagonist as existing in a duality with Noah—not just another fanatic and believer, but someone whose mandate to dominate (coded repulsive and evil in the film) is issued from the lips of Noah by Genesis 9. We note that Aronofsky sets up the duality throughout the film (Noah the pacifist, vegan, and environmentalist is suspiciously adept with weaponry and killing, and like Tubal-Cain, is willing to shed the blood of innocents to achieve a vision) and yet fails to deliver the punchline.

Finally, Aronofsky’s treatment of the Curse of Ham. In his retelling, the director recasts the narrative as a coming-of-age tale where the imperfections and hypocrisy of a father generates conflict, alienation, and ultimately rejection from his maturing son. Again, we note that Aronofsky sets up the conflict, alienation, and rejection in the course of the film while failing to deliver the full punchline. We also note that the set-up is incomplete due to the aborted project of casting Tubal-Cain and Noah as the reverse sides of a single duality.

In its released form, Noah is simply a film that Darren Aronofsky would not have made.

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