[This is Part 2 of Looking Closer’s Noah review. Part One was posted yesterday.]

Here’s another story.

Once upon a time, two total strangers — one a mother and a teacher with a background in business; the other a writer, editor, and film critic — became friends after she invited him to join an online discussion of his book about film. They were both Christians. And they met at an arts-and-faith gathering called Hutchmoot in Nashville. They both agreed that they wanted to work together on something someday.

She saw Noah in Charlotte. He saw Noah in Seattle.

(For the record: They both paid for their movie tickets the way most moviegoers do. They were not paid by the studio, or by any church, or by anybody at all, to share their opinion of the film.)

(Also for the record: When they emerged from the theaters, their faith remained intact. So did their love for movies.)

They decided to discuss the film online, and then publish the results.

And so…

Here is my conversation with Julie Silander. Julie is a dear friend and a film enthusiast . She’s a contributor to Story Warren and blogs at her personal site Greener Trees. She’s been a huge encouragement to me here at Looking Closer, and I’m grateful.

I anticipated that we might have very different opinions of Noah. We live in different parts of the country, attend different churches, and have very different lives.

So, what happened?

Here is our conversation.

Jeffrey:

So, I’ve just seen Noah, and my head is spinning. No, not like the girl in The Exorcist. I’m just a little dizzy.

Like most films by Darren Aronofsky, Noah is very intense, and it gives you so much to think about. I’m accustomed to being challenged by foreign films and independent films, but big-budget, studio-backed American movies? Rarely. This was quite a surprise.

So, how did it go for you? Did you fall asleep?

Julie:

It was hard to walk into the movie and see it for what it was. There was so much chatter flying around about the movie that it was a challenge to see the movie for itself.

Jeffrey:

You’re talking about all of the fuss in Christian media? Yeah, it’s hard to put all of that out of your mind when so many people seem so afraid of the movie, so certain that it’s going to be a threat to moviegoers’ faith.

Julie:

I have a 14-year-old son, and a 12-year-old coming up right behind him. So I’m “pushed” to think about not only my response to the movie, but also about how I process the responses of people who hold opinions that differ from mine. I’m acutely aware that my posture in reaction to others may be just as important as — if not more important than — what I have to say about the movie itself.

As my son and I discuss the movie (or the song or the book) of the day, I try to have him read the opinions of folks who have varying perspectives. Then we discuss the frameworks from which they are operating. I want him to be able to think through an issue on his own. My son may disagree with another’s point of view or with my own, which is fine. But I hope that he can disagree while maintaining a posture of humility and respect. So… I’m hyper-aware of my reaction and response. You could say that having a thoughtful teenager in the house keeps me honest.

My great hope is to raise children who can think critically — but without having critical spirits.

Jeffrey:

To be discerning, but not judgmental… right? Your children are blessed to have a mother who cares about critical thinking.

So tell me, what about Noah did you admire most? And did you dislike anything?

Julie:

Noah was a beautiful film to watch.  The retelling of the creation story, the legions of animals flocking toward the ark, and even the heart-wrenching devastation of the flood left indelible vivid images in my mind. As a result, I left the theater with a deeper connection to a story I had heard for decades.

The movie was masterful in communicating the sinfulness of all mankind. Regardless of religious upbringing and theological position, we all have an awareness that things aren’t as they should be. But Noah didn’t end there. Despair was ultimately met with life and hope. In that way, I’d say that it was one of the more evangelical movies that I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m not sure what I would say I wanted more of. This is a nit, but one of the most moving scenes in Genesis occurs when God shuts the door to the ark — not Noah. That could have been a powerful scene.

Jeffrey:

Wow. I totally agree. I wonder why Aronofsky and Handel left that out.

Julie:

God was virtually silent in the film. That was bothersome early in the film, yet seemed to resonate with me toward the end.

There have undoubtedly been periods in my own life when God’s voice seemed impossible to hear. I know intellectually that He is always present, but it doesn’t always feel like it. Maybe the absence of his voice is less of a commentary about God, but more of an exploration of what Noah could have been feeling during such a dark, chaotic time. Noah seemed to illuminate the innate yearning we all have (Noah, Tubal-Cain, and me) to know our Creator.

Why do you think God is portrayed as so distant and silent?

“I’m acutely aware that my posture

in reaction to others may be just as important as

— if not more important than —

what I have to say about a movie…”

Jeffrey:

I suspect that God’s apparent “silence” was a storyteller’s decision, meant to make Noah a more accessible character.

But if I think about it, it makes sense to me. If I don’t hear God speak from the heavens with a voice like James Earl Jones, does that mean God isn’t speaking? The Bible says that God spoke the world into being; so, in a sense, creation itself is a “text” that God wrote. All created things are words that he spoke. Due to sin’s corrupting influence, we have trouble “hearing” what those words are telling us. So that makes it easy for me to assume that God is not silent in Aronofsky’s story. Rather, God is speaking through images, through visions, and through the created world. That’s how Aronofsky’s Noah “hears” God’s voice. It’s a still, small voice for those who have ears to hear.

And since God’s greatest word was the Incarnation — Christ himself — then that inclines me to believe that God’s best “speech” is incarnational… something more like a work of art than a telegram or a voice mail.

As for the question, “Who shut the door of the Ark?” Well, in the movie, Noah does. But moments earlier, Noah is knocked into the sea and he barely survives. He barely makes it back onto the ark. Perhaps I’m reaching too far here, but in one sense, it’s by the grace of God that Noah is able to close the door of the Ark. So… who shut the door? Isn’t Noah acting as the hand of God, insofar as he is being obedient?

Okay, now I’m way off on a tangent.

I want to get back to your general assessment of the movie, Julie. I agree with you, for the most part.  I have mixed feelings about the movie — as I do with most of Aronofsky’s films. But there is so much here that is wonderful and strange that my problems with the film are not much more than quibbles.

Genesis is a strange storybook. There are so many bizarre details, and so many seemingly essential details left out. I was fascinated with how Aronofsky chose to illustrate all of that mystery, and how he filled in the gaps.

I loved the sequences about creation, Adam and Eve, the serpent, and the garden. They were surreal, impressionistic, abstract, provocative, and beautifully rendered.

I quickly came to care about Noah and his family. Noah’s care for the earth seemed just right, because if he was a man who obeyed God then he would have understood the importance of God’s command to “subdue and replenish the earth” … to care for creation like a good master. I think the film would have been even better if we’d spent more time with this family outside of crisis situations, just being together and letting their personalities shine.

Reflecting on the film over the past week, I’ve been surprised to find one movie coming to mind over and over again. I think Noah is Darren Aronofsky’s Take Shelter. I suspect that he saw and admired that film by Jeff Nichols, because Crowe’s version of Noah here bears a strong similarity to Curtis, Michael Shannon’s troubled character. Curtis was a husband and father who had visions, who thought the world was going to end, and who went to upsetting extremes to prepare a refuge for his family. I think Nichols’ film is the stronger of the two, but as my friend Elijah Davidson pointed out, they’d make a great double feature.

My biggest gripes about Noah are related to pacing and music.

The film is long, but it should have been longer. I wanted to see more of the ark on the water. I wanted to have a more powerful sense of the presence of the animals on the ark. I kept forgetting that they were there. And I wanted to sense more curiosity about what it was like to be on the ark for so much time — forty days and nights!

Instead, the second half of the film relies too heavily on rather simplistic suspense-related subplot related to Ray Winstone’s character, Tubal-cain. When the suspense finally breaks, and Noah clashes with Tubal-cain, the resolution seemed anti-climactic.

Clint Mansell’s music feels too heavy-handed. His score keeps shouting “Important! Profound! Drama!” [Note: I’ve corrected my first-draft mistake, crediting the Gravity soundtrack to Mansell.]

I was also a bit distracted by the casting of Logan Lerman as Ham. In this film, Ham is jealous of his brother Shem because Shem has a girlfriend… played by Emma Watson. Did anybody else spend the whole movie feeling sorry for Logan because, just like in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, he’s left pining for Emma Watson? I suspect that there are countless young men of the Harry Potter generation who see Emma Watson as the World’s Most Ideal and Unreachable Woman. Why must this guy keep playing their onscreen representative?

This is fun — actually talking with you about the movie. Seems like the rest of the Internet is just talking about whether or not viewers should be offended.

Julie:

I walked in with a bit of a defensive posture about the movie. I saw too many folks who hadn’t seen it yet were offering strong, conclusive opinions that left no room for another point of view. It’s always easier to criticize than it is to create. If only folks could put all of their critical energy into creating something new. If only we could try to learn from art rather than seeking to dissect it or rule over it.

I love Makoto Fujimura’s comment about “standing under a work of art rather than standing over it.” So — what would it look like to “stand under” this movie and try to learn, be stirred, see more Truth by seeing through the lens of another?

But at the heart of such a discussion is the foundational understanding of what does or does not constitute art. Some believe that movies should be an expressive form of art. They enter the movie-going experience with a sense of curiosity and wonder. Others think that movies should serve as an illustration to the original text, so they would measure the viewing experience by a different set of standards. For those who fall in the second, more literal camp, I could certainly understand how a movie like Noah could be disturbing to watch.

Jeffrey:

Wow, I haven’t heard it put quite that way. I like that.

Some people might feel threatened by that. They might think that “standing under” a work of art sounds like making yourself vulnerable. It might sound you’re asking us to kneel before a false god. But that’s not what you’re saying, is it? It sounds to me like you’re saying we should be humble, patient, and respectful, rather than acting as judge and jury. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that.

A lot of what I’ve read from other Christians about Noah looks to me a lot like vandalism. They’re not looking closely at Aronofsky’s decisions. They’re not talking about the characters’ choices, or why Aronofsky brought the Watchers into the narrative, or about what traditions of Noah storytelling he’s drawing from. They’re just reacting because the movie seems unfamiliar. It doesn’t feel like the version they learned in Sunday School. So they’re labeling and condemning the people involved and the people who are interested in the film. That kind of culture-warrior poster, that kind of verbal vandalism… it’s like picketing and heckling a restaurant while people inside are actually enjoying a nutritious meal.

Julie:

I was a bit confused by the positions of those who were so against the movie, most of whom haven’t seen it. If I understand their arguments correctly, then I’m not sure how they let their children watch Veggie Tales. I’m certainly not saying that my position is the correct one. There are most likely several “right” positions. But it saddens me when people, Christians in particular, are arrogant and disrespectful toward those who see things from a different perspective. We are all made in the image of God. We all have something to learn from one another.

Jeffrey:

Others have pointed out that The Passion of the Christ and The Nativity Story and The Ten Commandments — films that these protesters have never complained about — also contain things that aren’t in the Bible. That’s called “being creative.” It’s called “adaptation.” Even our Bibles contain some of this, because translators had to find creative ways to pass stories along using different vocabularies.

I’m not threatened by adaptation and imagination. But I am interested to see if the film preserves the central themes of the Biblical text. Does this movie honor the Bible story, or is it disrespectful?

What did you think of this movie’s “translation” of Noah himself, as Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe bring him to life in the movie?

Julie:

I thought this portrayal of Noah was convincing. I appreciated his humanity, his struggle, his complexity. I most identified with the reality of wanting to do what is right, appealing to God, and then launching forward in human strength (rather than waiting on Him, and rather than listening to the wisdom and insight of others).

Jeffrey:

Yes! Russell Crowe’s Noah is like any real man in that his strengths are also his weaknesses. He’s strong-willed, resolute, and eager to do the right thing. But zeal like his can so easily become stubbornness, bone-headedness, and a destructive kind of single-mindedness.

In that sense, Noah reminded me of some pastors and church leaders and cultural critics I’ve known.

And, to some extent, he reminded me of me when I stop listening to God and think that I’ve got everything figured out.

Julie:

He was righteous. He was obedient. He had good intentions. But as the story unfolded, those very attributes, when not under God’s direction, caused tremendous relational damage — and almost irreversible destruction.

I’ve certainly seen that dynamic in my own life. My greatest strengths, when not under God’s control, have the most potential for causing damage and destruction. Dorothy Sayers said, “The better intentions, the more strongly does the will associate itself with them, and the more disastrous the results.” Perhaps there is commonality between Noah, those who zealously protest the movie, and those who have been quick to defend it.

“Dorothy Sayers said, ‘The better intentions,

the more strongly does the will associate itself with them,

and the more disastrous the results.

Perhaps there is commonality between Noah,

those who zealously protest the movie,

and those who have been quick to defend it.”

Jeffrey:

Ouch. I feel a bit of a sting in that. I need to carry that quote around with me for a while.

I appreciated Aronofsky’s willingness to support what the Bible tells us about Noah and so many other “heroes of the faith.” He showed us the admirable qualities and the failures. Noah was a messed-up guy who fumbled his way toward some righteousness and then stumbled into sin. That’s vividly portrayed here. But he never becomes a monster. You can see the logic and the conscience at work, even in his error. I don’t agree with him, but I feel compassion for him.

Did you find yourself emotionally engaged or moved by the film?

Julie:

The movie raises important questions about the nature of justice.  To explore such a significant concept by engaging not only the mind, but also through the use of image and sound, deepened my attachment to the story.

To hear the cries of the people outside the ark, to see them climbing atop one another on the last bit of land jutting out of the water, and hear the whole earth go hauntingly silent when there was no one left to struggle, was incredibly powerful.

When Noah made the subtle shift from being hopeful for a new world and his family’s place in it to a sense of hopelessness for the human race, he was able to see clearly, and articulate with specificity, the sin present in each of his children’s lives (as well as his wife’s and his own). There was no exception. All fall short. Even the righteous. When Noah recounts the history of man and his evil ways, the rapid series of shadowy images of war throughout the ages is haunting. Noah’s story bleeds into ours.

The film succeeded in painting a very dark picture of the human condition (deserving justice) — against which the shining miracle of grace can be seen ever more brightly.

“The film succeeded in painting a very dark picture

of the human condition — deserving justice —  

against which the shining miracle of grace

can be seen ever more brightly.”

Jeffrey:

Okay, here’s a big one: How do you feel about the characters that some have sarcastically labeled “The Rock Monsters”?

Julie:

The Watchers? Well, this is a tricky one.

When they first appeared, they felt gimmicky and out of place — like when my children arranged their legos or Star Wars actions figures (or Transformers) in the manger scene over the mantle at Christmas. I was a bit put off and distracted.

But surprisingly, they became a non-event. Their help in building the ark and protecting Noah’s family seemed to keep the story moving in a strangely plausible way. They too, were receiving Justice for stepping outside their place in the created order. Yet somehow, they embodied hope. Their light (who they were created to be) was trapped temporarily in a faulty, clumsy vessel on earth. They were separated from the Creator. They longed to return to their created state. Yet that wasn’t the end of their story, either.

The Watchers reminded me that we are not left alone in our struggle. Help (and hope) can come from the most unlikely places.

Jeffrey:

Again, we agree! (What’s wrong with us?)

I’m a fantasy author, and a big fan of fantasy films, so I loved “the Watchers.” I loved the way they moved. I loved the idea that these fallen angels would regret their disobedience and fumble around miserably, longing for the glory they once knew. The puppetry and animation that brought them to life was intriguing. And I eventually came to accept their role in the story.

Ultimately, though, I found them a bit too simplistic and cartoonish to fit into this dark and complicated human world, much the way I thought the Ents in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies never quite seemed to exist in the same world as the Hobbits. And the resolution of their story was a little bit too sudden and simplistic. I liked them, but I wanted to love them.

Still, I’ve only seen the film once so far. I’ll be interested to see how it feels during a second and third visit. Two of my favorite critics, Steven Greydanus and Peter Chattaway, have already seen the film several times, and they keep finding more about that’s interesting. Whenever a film rewards multiple viewings, well… that’s a good sign that it’s actually more than mere entertainment. It just might be a lasting work of art.

Julie:

I was surprised by how much of the film stood on Biblical ground. It was beautiful. And the main objections that I had heard — and braced myself for — seemed irrelevant. I was stirred in so many ways.

Most of all, I was reminded that the more we see our fallenness for what it is, the more we can begin to get a glimpse of the inconceivable grace that has been lavished upon us. For me, it was a movie full of hope and promise.

If you appreciate this post and enjoy Jeffrey Overstreet’s work exploring that fascinating territory where art, faith, and culture intersect, you’re invited to “Put Your Name in the Credits.” Cast your vote for “Keep Looking Closer Alive.” Make a donation. Offer whatever you feel moved to contribute. All donations will be applied directly to that materials, events, and experiences that make the blog happen. That’s a Looking Closer promise.


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