Aronofsky's NOAH

(spoilers ahead)

I've been thinking a lot about Darren Aronofsky's latest movie, NOAH, a high fantasy rendition of the old testament tale about history's greatest hoarder. I thought at first that meant it was a "smart" film, or at least a "heady" film the way Aronofsky's THE FOUNTAIN was -- but the more I tried to justify that, the more that label didn't make sense. That might be the overall problem most audiences have with NOAH: it doesn't fit conveniently under any of these labels. It's not a reverent, historical bible movie. It's not an irreverent, critical provocative movie. It's just a suspenseful thriller using common Christian mythology as a backdrop.

It's a great thriller, though. There's so much murky conflict and tension that, when transposed onto biblical epics, become extremely high stakes. Suddenly it's not about a man trying to protect his family, it's about god's chosen prophet fighting for all mankind. That is as big of an upgrade as you can make. Yet even that's nothing compared to the second half conflict of a psychotic obsessive deciding to kill his own grandchild -- that gets upgraded into a man deciding the human race deserves to be ended. Holy shit, right?

That's the point where this becomes a crazy fucking movie in the best way. It's unsettling, but not for any big deep biblical reasons, it's just a well done and sensible turn of the main protagonist into the main antagonist. It's all in the structure and in the characterization, not in anything having to do with the gravity of bible stories. The thing is, it could have been. And if it were, it would be an even more compelling story.

Here's the premise of the second act conflict: Noah, realizing that the evil is within all people, not just the descendents of Cain, understands that god did not ask him to survive and restart the human race. God asked him to survive, save the animals, and then live out the remaining generation of the human race. Wither on the vine. No humans in the new Eden. So he doesn't find his sons wives and he accepts the barren wife of his eldest, Ila played by Emma Watson. When the secret intervention of his somehow-magical grandfather, Methuselah, allows Ila to get pregnant, Noah realizes that this undermines the creator and his plan for the human race to end. So now he has to kill the baby if it's a daughter that might allow mankind to continue (spoilers: it is. In fact, it's two daughters.)

The crazy tension is in Noah's degradation into a wild-haired, wild-eyed madman. He looks like the craziest fucking hobo you've ever seen and he's determined to kill this baby when it finally comes out and they find out its gender.

(Side note: they do a flash forward, but can you imagine those 9 months of living with crazy hobo dad Noah? Sharpening his sword staring at them, constantly arguing with his son and daughter at the dinner table, yelling with his wife about why she's making baby boots. "YOU KNOW I'MMA KILL THAT BABY, RIGHT? RIGHT???" Talk about inter-family stress.)

Of course there's not going to be any on-screen infanticide, so while Noah comes as close as holding a knife to a sleeping baby's face, he finds that he feels only love in his heart and cannot stab a baby. The resolution is basically a Deus Ex Machina: he is convinced that god did not choose him to end mankind, but to judge mankind as worthy and to guide them into the ways of kindness. It is further validated by rainbow pulses emanating from the sun at the end of the movie.

That's all well and good, and it's a feel good ending that I'm sure will please some audiences. But on some level, I wanted a really dark and complex ending. Not one where Noah kills babies -- that's a little ridiculous for my tastes. I still wanted Noah to have a change of heart, but one where god doesn't. Imagine this:

Noah decides to spare his grandchildren. He just can't do it. So the end result is that the human race continues into this new world in direct defiance of the will of god. This was not part of his will, he doesn't change his mind, he's kinda pissed that people continue to exist when he wanted the new world to be the domain of the giraffes or whatever. So maybe that's why he takes away his blessing -- his direct intervention and all the magic that comes with it. That's why there are no warriors with flaming swords, no arch angels, no direct intervention via miracles.

Noah and his family, faced with this, decide that they have to do their best to live up to the challenge of creating a human race based in kindness, to prove that they are worthy of the creator's blessing. They have to make an argument for mankind by living as decently and as responsibly as possible. And that's the end of the movie. They live in a colder, darker world, but they're going to do their best to show that humanity is worthwhile. Think of how stirring that theme could be. You can even go so far as to extend it to the audience -- leave this theater, go forth and prove that mankind deserves to be here.

Obviously that's a little more hopeless, a little more controversial, and someone would get mad that god is made out to be the bad guy and that you are in fact rooting against him. So I understand why they went that route. In fact, after reading that there was some argument about the film's final cut, I wonder if this was the original ending.

Other observations:

  • I love that since this is pre-history and somewhat of a fantasy world, but definitely  not medieval, they can do whatever they want in terms of world-building. So Noah is wearing a stylish sleeveless leather hoodie and everyone's got these dope denim shawls or whatever.
  • There's a hilarious scene where Noah, in his post-flood misery and traumatic stress, gets drunk off his ass. I know why they show it -- it's cinematic shorthand for "this guy is real messed up and sad" -- but it's hilarious because in order to explain it they basically show Noah inventing wine. The arrive in the new world, they show him picking grapes, then they show him sputtering wine, alone, in a cave, falling asleep naked on his face.
  • I really would love to see more high fantasy films in biblical settings like this. There's a lot you can do. There's one quick flashback of Enoch or whoever fighting the armies of Cain, who are trying ot kill these stone-clad Fallen Angels, and he uses The Flaming Sword of Michael to slay them. It's dope. I want a video game.
  • The fallen angels are basically Rock Ents.



Contemporary Superheroics

Before I saw it, MAN OF STEEL was positioned in my head as an antidote to IRON MAN 3. IRON MAN 3, that annoying, mediocre, poorly-plotted superhero film that hated being a superhero film. You could really feel the change in behind-the-camera talent as they leaned hard on the charm of Robert Downey Jr.'s banter to the point of breaking. They constantly undercut themselves, defating suspense in order to shoehorn psueod-witty back-and-forth at every unnatural opportunity.

It reminded me of a class clown who uses humor as a defense mechanism to avoid being vulnerable or opening up. Like a school bully who had accidentally revealed something deeply personal and serious, and upon noticing this, slams it shut by immediately giving a kid a wedgie. Like, dude. You can take yourself seriously sometimes, it's cool. No one's going to judge you.

Instead, we have Tony Stark & James Rhodes forcing some Seinfeld-ian banter about ammunition or whatever before they storm the enemy base. Or, a defeated and worn Tony Stark must rely on the kindness of a kid he just ran into — except because that kind of sincerity is lame to someone, let's make them both sarcastic assholes because we think that's all people like about Iron Man. Flimsy facades of personality for everyone!

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A Brief Thought About Django

So, I haven't seen DJANGO UNCHAINED yet. I feel like I should, I just don't know if it's urgent, or if this is something I want to see in theaters. It's completely possible that I won't like it, but that 50/50 chance is what makes it exciting to me.

Culturally, we've gotten kinda stupid about how we define controversy and edginess. These terms have become the territory of shock jocks and stand-up trolls, and their checklist for provocative work consists of a single item that says, "say something you shouldn't." We've lost edgy art to one-trick racism, sexism and homophobia yet we all still pretend like this is a bold new commentary.

On the other hand, the wide-ranging reaction to DJANGO UNCHAINED feels like real, legitimate controversy. The useful kind that results in a net positive communication, not just backlash and backlash to the backlash. I recently watched Louis CK reiterate a common belief that provoking a reaction is an important goal of any art, but he doesn't take into account the push-a-button, one dimensional ease with which it can be accomplished. The debate around this film reminds me what actual provocation is supposed to be like. It's an actual conversation, and that's never a waste of time or detrimental to the culture at large.

The thinkpieces that have sprung out of the event that is this film have been valuable to our conversation on race and media. I can completely understand liking it as a celebration of Blaxploitation style or disliking it as a retread of Blaxploitation's problems. It can be a cathartic middle finger to the romanticized south, or "as troubling as it is affirming." I can see liking it, except for how the audiences (and you) react to it.

That's the best part: you don't have to like it. A bunch of intelligent commenters have trended in opposite directions, and that's exciting. It makes the film kind of a Rorschach ink blot for race, although maybe not as open-ended and fluid. It's a legitimate provocation, a piece that sticks something in you, and it's understandable if that isn't everyone's idea of a good time.

Let's Put Superman In Jail, Y'all

This is the recently released movie poster for Man of Steel, the forever incoming Superman movie reboot directed by WATCHMEN and 300 guy, Zack Snyder. The image of Superman subordinated, especially in cuffs as a reversal of one of Superman's most iconic poses, is an attention-grabber, but also a gimmick. It's the kind of imagery that could only be done with this character to acheive this level of intrigue. It wouldn't imply the same things if it were Batman or The Punisher or even Captain America, certainly not on the same level. It takes advantage of Superman's cultural place as the father of all superheroes, and yet, it's not an instantly cool poster.

My initial reaction was skepticism. People seem to love a powerless Superman, from the beatdown scene in SUPERMAN RETURNS to the 1990s comics event THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN. While the premise of a powerless Superman can create good stories, the reason people love a weakened superman is silly: they think his power is boring, or they think he doesn't face enough adversity. In short, the fans who feel this way aren't Superman fans. They're Iron Man fans that want Superman to be Iron Man.

It might seem like they're doing it again here, trying to make the boyscout appealing to non-fans by taking away what's great about the character. Instead of showing people why optimism, morality and hope are actually cool, they instead infuse the character with grit and weakness. If any character in superhero comics should be about daylight and saviors, it's Superman, and they no one wants to seem to be into trying that out. At least, that's the first impression, probably spurred on by the muted colors and kind of faceless soullessness of everything so far in MAN OF STEEL.

But upon closer inspection: It's a flimsy pair of cuffs. It's not so much Superman subordinated as it is Superman going quietly and willingly, deferring to civilian authority. It's a different way to display strength and morality -- still a quick gimmick about shifting the power dynamic, sure, but true to the character's 80 year history. Maybe it's an alright poster and maybe Zack Snyder won't go for the quick dumb gratifications he did with WATCHMEN.

I guess the worst thing you can say about it thus far is that it brings to mind that ridiculous body builder arrest photo that was big on the internet a couple years ago.

A Reaction To Cloud Atlas

It's clear that CLOUD ATLAS was very difficult to make. Telling 6 stories at once, in 6 different genres, with a repeating ensemble cast should be a nightmare if you want to do it well. Indeed, the only thing everyone seems to agree on in all the reactions to this film is that it's ambitious. But the thing I can't figure out is if there's anything else. I can't tell if this is a difficult to unpack because its depth is hidden so well, or difficult to unpack because there is no secret compartment. It's just empty.

Remarkably, no one seems to be calling it "pretentious," which is a tag that seems to follow every film that aspires to be important. Part of the reason for that is, despite the interlocking stories, it's kind of a simple film. Individually, the stories (ranging from a seafaring slavery play to a post-apocalyptic journey) are so one dimensional and simple by necessity. They're slider burgers. Nothing fancy, because they want you to eat a lot of them. Taken together, I can appreciate the tapestry and work, but it doesn't seem to add up to much more than a 3 hour rumination on the interconnection of lives.

At the same time, that seems like the wrong assessment. The sheer scope and ambition keeps insisting to viewers that there's a lot more to this work, like something with such a degree of difficulty couldn't be so flat and empty, there must be some threads you have to unravel. How you confront the challenge, or the illusion of the challenge, will determine how you receive the film. You will rub up against its complexity and see the tip of the iceberg, as Roger Ebert does, or you will take a step back and see a big stupid ice cube, as Pajiba's Daniel Carlson does. When confronted with the question of whether a piece of art has depth, we tend to look at the credibility of the people behind it. It's hard for me to go this route, as the Wachowskis seem to straddle the line. They often seem to possess great ideas, but execute them in annoying or clumsy ways.

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I Watched Me And You And Everyone We Know

I'm relatively new to the luxury of Netflix. My sister got an account for the  Xbox only a couple of months ago, but already I am well versed in the common internal struggles of the everyday Netflix streamer. For example, every time I boot it up to watch something whilst I eat, I see a delicious queue full of movies I've always intended to watch or documentaries that will surely enrich my brain. But at the same time, I am not looking for a serious mental commitment at that very moment, seeking what Dan Harmon calls the least objectionable option. A movie I've already watched, or something dumb and fun like Star Trek or god forbid episodes of Pawn Stars. More often than not, I give in to the demons of sloth, because as much as I should see Rashomon, they've got episodes of 30 Rock I can re-watch in less than half an hour.

But I make progress. The easiest way to get things done is to just shut the fuck up (in your head) and do it. So I pulled up Me And You And Everyone We Know, Miranda July's film that I've had pegged for at least a year. Miranda July is a likeable artist. She works in a variety of mediums but her stock-in-trade is the weird, whimsical and quirky circumstances of lonely crazy people.

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I Watched Blue Valentine

Credit: artofthetitle.comI don't know why I keep gravitating to sad things. It's obnoxious, but it's a comfortable place. I like the sad song, the sad book, the sad people and even sad dogs. So it shouldn't be surprising that after hearing the initial buzz and rumbling, I was looking forward to watching Blue Valentine.

On paper, it sounds too pedestrian and run of the mill. Two people fall in love but then they aren't, and they live in a city, and they're young and dress well, and then they become not-as-young and dress in awful bald eagle pullovers. If you read a synopsis or a summary, you would think, hasn't this movie been made already? Likely. But I don't know if its been made this well.

In our modern world, films about love have become the territory of Nicholas Sparks, where someone has a terrible illness and someone loves that person and then one (or both) of them die. It's a jack-in-the-box of feelings. You turn the crank in one direction, over and over, of course you get the desired emotional response: Jack springs out.

Blue Valentine doesn't need any of the fancy dressings of sailing scholarships and Alzheimer's disease. Patton Oswalt called it "a movie for fucking adults"and not just because it bounced back and forth between an NC-17 and an R rating. This is a film that goes to great lengths to capture reality, and just like reality, it doesn't sit well with you at all. There aren't extreme world-ending stakes or star-crossed lovers, but the way the details of their misery have been presented makes them feel just as heavy.

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