Last week was a week for festivity and observance. On the second day, I attended a Seder, with 14 pounds of beef brisket. On the fifth day, I saw Noah, with Russell Crowe looking like 14 pounds of brisket in a distressed denim bag. On the sixth day, I wrestled with Robert Alter’s Five Books of Moses and ate mini spanakopitas. On the seventh day, I rested; while others feasted on paschal ham, I watched Black Swan in bed with the curtains drawn. And it was good, all of it.
I have been looking forward to Noah. I love epics, I love Russell Crowe, and I’m willing to admit that my taste in cinema is basically that of an 11-year-old girl (“Harriet thought the movie was a gas. Zeus was very angry all the time and made a lot of temples fall over every time something displeased him”). I also love weird things, and the very fact that Darren Aronofsky was at the helm of a Biblical epic was sufficiently weird to thrill me. David Denby, patriarch of film critics, called Aronofsky’s Black Swan “a luridly beautiful farrago,” and about Noah, forsaking all synonyms, he spake thus: “an epic farrago.” This was reason enough to spend $30 on movie tickets and Sour S’ghetti — in addition to the above, I also happen to love a good farrago.
Epics can be purveyors of wonder and disappointment in proportion with their outlandish budgets, and there’s a mysterious measure — like something Biblical no longer in use — of magic that makes one epic pleasing while it maketh the other to blow. This is why I love Gladiator and find Troy, which I managed to see four times in the movie theater, a sandy, sterile flop. I don’t know what I was expecting of Noah, exactly. It wasn’t the corny gold font of the credits (“Ten Commandments,” my viewing mates called it) or its robin’s egg sky like unto that of a 1970s nature film. I didn’t expect the giant rock angels, like Ents created for The Neverending Story, and I expected even less to be finally moved by them, to feel the agony of trapped light in mangled stone bodies. I didn’t expect Russell Crowe to look so old, nor did I expect to cry at the sight of his leonine grey head lavishing kisses on babies cradled by Hermione Granger. And yet all of these things came to pass.
Like someone examining the carcass on an abandoned holiday table, Darren Aronofsky is good at finding new meat in seemingly sparse and picked-over stories. Because here’s the thing about the Real Story of Noah: it’s short, boring, and incomprehensible. Everyone is hundreds of years old. Enoch begets Mehujael, who begets Mathusael, who begets Lamech, who begets Jabal and Jubal. And yet, at the same time in some parallel but separate family tree, a different Enoch begets Methuselah, who begets Lamech, who begets Noah. Reading even Robert Alter’s wonderful translation, I found these dueling genealogies so maddening that it hardened my heart against Genesis 6:1 to 10:32.
It is ever thus for me and the Testaments, old and new. I come from the Christian tradition, in my pallid, heterodox little way, but for me the drama of the stories, the occasionally overwhelmingly beautiful language and imagery of the sacred texts always comes up against, not only the begats, but what James Wood calls “the stony reticence” of Biblical style, where, for example, “Joseph’s response to his brothers works by starving us of information.” I love God’s breath on the surface of the waters, but then there are five different Enochs and so many quotas of bricks, so many bales of straw, and nary a good chunk of fulsome exposition about the things that one feels really matter. I’m a “In the beginning was the Word” type; I need Robert Alter, or James Wood, to glean for me the surprising charms of Old Testament mode. And evidently I needed Darren Aronofsky, because, brought up as I was in the Tomie dePaola, cute-animals-on-boats school of Biblical exegesis, I had never really thought about what Noah was asked to do.
And so what if he was never asked, as in the film, to smite down babies issued from previously barren wombs? Genesis has miracles! Genesis has people making unreasonable sacrifices at God’s behest, or his perceived behest (people still argue about this). Some viewers have been awfully pedantic about the Biblical inaccuracy of Noah, but what’s silly is thinking about Noah all on its own. You need the context of Genesis proper, which, as Alter points out in his invaluable introduction to his translation, “has set the terms, not scientifically but symbolically, for much of the way we have thought about human nature and culture ever since.” The context of “ever since” doesn’t hurt either. For all that you can find Noah’s outfits or its rock monsters or its Anthony Hopkins ludicrous, there’s really nothing wrong with its message, from my veteran youth grouper perspective — the gnarliness of the Old Testament is blended with the warm fuzzies of the New. God is unreasonable. Man is unreasonable. Bad things are going to happen. Good things, too. Love one another, as he purports to love you. Moreover, the particulars are necessarily informed by the problems of our day, which have to do with our ravaged environment, and which promise to achieve Biblical proportions.
The best stories are ones we’ve heard before, in some form. I also get bogged down around the last third of Swan Lake, another story with somewhat shrouded (if more recent) origins that has received the Aronofsky treatment. I love the music and I love ballet, and yet it’s very long. But where I am lazy, Darren Aronofsky is imaginative; he respects these laconic but meaningful stories enough to think more about them, and he is not deterred by their inconsistencies or their longueurs. At the same time, he is sacrilegious enough to make weird new things out of them, things that work for some and fail for others. Why should Swan Lake carry within itself the possibility of Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in flagrante, in a dingy bedroom filled with stuffed animals? And yet, for me, it worked. And for me, his take on Noah as a vegan environmentalist, irksome to the most literal- and bloody-minded Christianists, worked. His goofy effects, irksome to some of the heathen viewers, worked. Me, I would have welcomed more, more disco Instagram colors, more stop-motion nature footage, more animals. I love a good farrago, and Darren Aronofsky never phones his in.