Monday, March 31, 2014

Dream Work Noah: The Cinematic and Jewish Greatness of the Weirdest Story Ever Told

Now that Aronofsky's Noah, his decades-in-the-making auteur obsession about yet another visionary-yet-  monomanical character, is in the theaters, this seems to be the time for a parable from the Zohar - the parable of the master of wheat:

[Jennifer Connelly - Naameh indeed]

This may be compared to a man who dwelled among the cliffs and knew nothing of those dwelling in the town. 
He sowed wheat, and ate the wheat in its natural condition. 
One day he went into town and was offered fine bread. 
The man asked: What’s this for? They replied: It’s bread, to eat! 
He asked: And what’s it made of? 
They replied: Of wheat. 
Afterwards they brought him cakes kneaded with oil. He tasted them, and asked: And what are these made of? They replied: Of wheat. 
Later they brought him royal pastry kneaded with honey and oil. He asked: And what are these made of? 
They replied: Of wheat. 
He said: Surely I am master of all these, since I eat the essence of all of these! 
And because of that view, he knew nothing of the delights of the world, which were lost to him.
So it is with one who grasps the principle but is unaware of all those delectable delights deriving, diverging from that principle.
[Translation from the Pritzker Zohar by Dan Matt]

Hopefully with all the sturm and drang settling, people are finally coming to understand that the fundamentalist critics of this film are all masters of wheat as alluded to by the Zohar. They think that in cleaving only to the bare bones of the biblical narrative, they are masters of all aspects of the story, but in fact they are, to a great extent, suffering from a kind textual indigestion, or perhaps a spiritual ciliac disorder, in which they struggle to absorb the full nutritional value of the biblical narrative (and irritable about it, to boot) because of their restrictive way of reading. 
The Noah story as received is a mere one hundred verses, with little dialogue, minimal motivation, no character development or insight, no struggle; it is a skeleton of a narrative which the readers must flesh out with themselves, projecting their experiences, emotions, and conflicts, and imagination onto the scaffold of plot to fully realize its many on complex meanings and implications. The movie Noah steps into those many gaps and fills them with clever, and sometimes crazed, midrashic storytelling. These are serious men (that's a shout out to you, Coen brothers, two other great biblical auteurs) who took the story before them, stepped back from the cultural pablum and childish pious-Pollyanna that has adhered to the Genesis narrative in the modern mind, and rebuilt it in a way so as to reclaim all its dark, dreadful, and dread-filled potency.

Noah is not without its flaws, but it is, all-in-all, the most daring, powerful, in some ways, truest bit of cinematic Bible I've ever seen. It's expansion of the story is, in many ways, extraordinarily supple. Some of most critical dialogue spoke by the characters is wording lifted directly from other parts of the Bible. At the end of the first act, an archly biblical event occurs (Spoiler Alert): the miraculous restoration of fertility to a barren woman. The wrenching second act where (Spoiler Alert) Noah concludes God wants him to slay his grandchild is appropriated from the Akedah of Isaac, making it completely biblical in spirit, and is artfully used by Hendel and Aronofsky to further their vision of Noah as a proponent of "deep ecology," the ideology that holds the earth would be better off if humans were extinct (or self-extinguished). And as for Aronofsky's insertion of "environmentalism" into the an Iron age story, well, he does no more violence to the integrity of the biblical ethos than the folks who retroject middle-class, industrial age "family values" onto the Bible, a document that regards polygamy, concubinage, and captive- and slave-brides as normative. Aronofsky's biblical hook is obvious - the world is "corrupted" by man's presence and God and Noah "conserve" all the animals, not just the ones that directly benefit humanity.

Of course, what captivated me most was the fearless integration of Jewish second-temple, rabbinic, and mystical traditions into the story. The film-makers, as is the norm in Hollywood, freely adapt these things, but they are there, none-the-less, in glorious homage to Jewish folklore and esoteric tradition. These are the ones I saw:

Watchers: The fallen angels, based in Gen. 6:4 and grandly elaborated on in the Book of Enoch and the Book of Giants, are a big part of the storyline; mostly cleverly, their presence explains how a family of 6 (it was 8 in Genesis) could build the greatest maritime project before the industrial age. Aronofsky elides the more lurid part to the tradition, their coupling with human women and producing giant offspring, focusing instead on their role in Enoch as the bringers of knowledge and technology to humanity.

Tzohar: The glowy-explosive substance used repeatedly in the movie is based on the tzohar, a miraculous gemstone that tradition tells us illuminated the interior of the ark. This concept, surprisingly, is linguistically embedded right in the middle of the Noah narrative, as you can read here:

The Sword of Metheusaleh: The miraculous demon-slaying sword gets a cameo in a flashback (literally) sequence, where we see the ante-deluvian "grandfather" wield it against evil hordes:

The garment of Adam: Here the connection seems the most tenuous, but I assume this is where the idea for the magical-glowing-serpent skin-arm tefillin worn by the shamanic patriarchs of Seth is derived from. In Jewish tradition, the garment is made from the hide of Leviathan. Here, it's the sloughed-off, pre-corruption skin of the edenic serpent. Though we do not see this idea developed in the movie, the garment of Adam gave one the power to command animals:

Tubal-Cain: The terrifying and terrified king is constructed from a single verse of Genesis where he is credited as a worker of bronze and iron, but is then fused with the midrashic King Nimrod, the power-mad tyrant of rabbinic fantasy who attacks God's messengers. His stow-away on the ark is no doubt borrowed from the midrashic biography of King Og of Bashan, a ante-deluvian giant who survives the deluge by clinging to the exterior of the ark.

Of course, the big picture is all in my book:

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism -http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

These were the most obvious mythic elements borrowed from Jewish folklore. I'm going back to see the movie again, and I'll update you with what else catches my eye. You should see it too. Weird, wonderful, fantastic in all senses of the word. 


Anonymous Sam R said...

This article was incredibly informative, really interesting, and helped me understand and appreciate parts of the film more than I had done previously! Plus it was written nice and easily to understand. Great stuff, I'd love to see a follow-up article if you find anything else on your second viewing!

6:16 PM  
Anonymous Dan O. said...

Nice review Geoffrey. Glad that this movie exists, if only because it shows that biblical epics can still sort of, kind of work in today's day and age.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Peter Basch said...

Amazing blog. Glad to have found it. One little thing... (I'm an editor - bear with me) you use the term "anti-deluvian", which would mean "against the flood"... and who wouldn't be! You meant "antedeluvian" - no hyphen needed - which means before the flood. Thanks!

11:45 PM  

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