Peter's Blog

Precipitation Precipice

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Balmedie Beach

We had a lovely afternoon out at Balmedie Beach. It was sunny, but also very windy. The water was... well, it was the North Sea. Enough said. That didn't stop the kids having a great time, and Keely maintained her usual 100% commitment to chasing her ball everywhere, even out into the water. It brought back memories of holidays and sheltering from the wind among the dunes when you could almost kid yourself that you were somewhere 600 miles further South, that is until a cloud covered the sun and the goosebumps followed.

As the kids played, I took a stroll with the dog along the beach and enjoyed the sound of the surf breaking on the sand, and watching the sand sweeping across the beach as the wind blew. It was nice with the wind to my back... it was not so pleasant having that sand blasting into your face when I turned around to head back to the family, it has to be said. Of course, having got home after all that fresh air, we are all pretty exhausted. That fresh air is wonderful, though. One of the things I have noticed after moving from the central belt up to the North-East coast is that my asthma is much, much better. 

The other thing that is very noticeable about the East coast is how much less it rains. You get used to the perennial precipitation when you are living on the West, but it is nice not to have to deal with the daily deluge. 

A film I saw at the beginning of last week certainly knew something about the rain. I went to see Darren Aranofsky's (the director of two super recent films: The Wrestler, and Black Swan) Noah, a retelling of the perhaps over-familiar Genesis story. 

Noah praying on the Ark

I found it an utterly fascinating film and I appreciated the way Aranofsky did not shy away from some of the more troubling themes of the famous story. Needless to say, in order to make a feature film, and not a short one at that, out of a story that occupies just a few chapters in Genesis, the film makers have had to add meat to the skeleton of a story that is found in the Hebrew Bible. This has led to some controversy from a few commentators who have cried foul at some of the more fantastical elements added into the story. One example is the backstory to the giant Nephilites mentioned in chapter 6 who come to Noah's assistance as fallen angels encased in rock, and rather handy to have around when major lumberjacking is required. 

This Lord of the Rings-esque nod didn't trouble me one iota, though it has proved a stumbling block for some, as it heightened for me the awareness of the film-makers that they are dealing with a mythic story. Aranofsky does not present us with a historical biopic of Noah, he tells his own version of the great myth. Note that I am using the primary definition for myth, i.e. "a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events." (Oxford English Dictionary) Folks can get very worked up when the term 'myth' is applied to Bibilical stories, thinking that the word is being used by way of demeaning the nature of the story; this is not the case here. 

Aranofsky sets the film in the context of the fall, of freedom, of the clash between civilisation and rural life, of dominion over creation versus stewardship of creation, and places Noah (in a role that Russell Crowe was built for, and plays very well) as the heroic faithful figure we usually picture, but also as a conflicted human torn between his desire to serve the creator and his desire to do the best for his family. We see a man struggling with overwhelming pressure and almost losing his way as a result, putting his own warped ideas into God's purpose.

In general I find the story of Noah and the deluge deeply troubling. It is one of those stories that if you only recall the picture book Bible version is full of fun. Animals marching into the ark two by two, Noah and his family welcoming them aboard, the bright colourful rainbow, the dove with olive branch. It is just so... nice.

But the story is not nice. The story is horrific. In a dream Noah sees a grim vision that he understands to be God speaking to him to warn him of the future deluge, that the world of Tubal-Cain and his like is on a precipitation precipice and they don't even realise it. When the deluge arrives and brings with it a conflict between Noah and his family and the surrounding tribes who want to usurp Noah on the Ark, it is overwhelming. But what strikes you worst, and reminded me of the eye-witness accounts from the lifeboats of the Titanic as they described the shouts and screams of people floundering in the water around them, terrible noises that slowly quietened. Everyone on the lifeboats knowing what the silence meant. Aboard the Ark we have a scene of the family huddled together hearing the shouts and screams of the last remnants of the tribes of Cain as they cling to the highest peaks of land before finally being swept away. You are not going to use this film in Sunday School classes, more's the pity. Despite the criticism that has been thrown at the film, it deals with these horrors properly.

Also like Titanic, this is a film which it is hard for anyone to enter without knowing how it is going to end... except that I suspect many viewers were not aware of the postscript to the story, of Noah getting raving drunk and lying naked to be found by his embarrassed sons. Survivor guilt? The film adds a layer to Noah's character by showing us an internal battle in Noah's own mind. He comes to the conclusion that all humanity are also to die. Here the film diverts from the Biblical text to enable this by only having one other girl aboard who is infertile following an injury, but who loves Shem deeply. Noah does not allow Ham to bring aboard a girl to whom he would like to be married as it would mean they could have children and so continue the human species. Noah has it in mind that they should die with no hope of more children and then let the animals have the world to themselves, unspoilt by humanity. Noah's plan, which shocks his wife (Jennifer Connelly, superb) and the partner of Shem, Ila (played by Hermione herself, Emma Watson), particularly when miraculously Ila finds herself to be pregnant.

This leads to a terrifying standoff between faithful God-fearing and somewhat raving Noah and the two women aboard the Ark trying to protect the hope of a new generation.

There have always been different ways to approach the story of Noah. Is it a story about us? Is it a story about the repercussions of making bad choices? Is it the natural consequence to the fall (which is hinted at by Aranofsky in a repeated refrain that shows a snake shedding its old skin, a pulsating apple, and a silhoutted stone about to strike Abel dead by the hand of Cain)? Or is this a story about God? Is it a story that gives an explanation why God does not reap capricious vengeance on others at a whim? Is it a story of God deciding that mercy is always the better option? In amongst the startling imagery, the epic flood scenes, the beautiful Terence Malick-like montage (see Malick's film Tree of Life) accompanying Noah retelling the story of beginnings which will satisfy evolutionists like me and probably hack off creationists, these are the big questions we are asked to consider by the film. 

It is a powerful piece. Kudos to Aranofsky and the cast for bringing such a fascinating Bible-film to fruition. It is not perfect, how could it be? But I certainly hope, for their sakes, that it does not sink without trace at the box office... it cost a pretty penny to make (ahem, $125m).