Russell Crowe in Noah.
Show Hide image

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah film is closer to the Bible than its Christian critics will admit

The director has done his Bible homework.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

First, let’s get this straight: there is no literal way to read the Bible. Everyone interprets, and anyone who tells you different has a church he wants you to join. So all the religious hubbub over Darren Aronofsky’s Noah – the National Religious Broadcasters getting the studio to add a disclaimer, the ban in several Gulf nations, the claim that the director “superimposed” an “anti-Christian” message – is just predictable political posturing.

If you’re going to make a movie of a Bible story, you’re going to need to fill in some major gaps. Genesis mentions Noah’s kids, but not his wife. How did that happen? We know that God had to flood the earth to punish humanity’s wickedness, but the mass graves are invisible. After Noah saves the world, the next thing he does is get drunk and naked, and curse his sons. What’s that about? The more interesting question is not “Did he add stuff?” but “What did he add, and why?” Impressively, Aronofsky’s interpretation manages to stay “true” both to the messiness of the Old Testament and to his own directorial sensibilities.

Nobody captures the essential human conflict between good and evil like Aronofsky. Diverse as his films have been, Aronofsky always insists on putting his characters through extraordinarily demanding dilemmas, asking them to make deals with the devil. Think of washed-up Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler, Natalie Portman’s fatally ambitious ballerina in Black Swan, and, well, everyone in Requiem for a Dream.

In the story of Noah, Aronofsky has found the quintessential thought experiment: if God asked you to save the world, but lose your soul, would you do it? What kind of person is able to save the animal kingdom and his own family, but leave the rest of humanity to drown? The deal this time is with God, but that doesn’t mean Noah suffers less pain. When he sees that even his own sons are impure, which means that all humans contain both good and evil, which means that his agreement to leave thousands of people behind amounts to mass murder; the realisation hits him like a stone to the gut. But he knows he has to proceed with the Ark; this is the Old Testament after all, where God, is less concerned with redemption than with loyalty and obedience. So Noah makes a decision that turns him into the villain for a good bit of the film. There’s a moment with a knife and a baby that I won’t say any more about. Still, what makes Aronofsky’s moviemaking compelling is his unwillingness to judge the tortured souls that populate his films.

But what makes Noah different from most of his movies is its enormity. True, there are plenty of Aronofsky’s trademark claustrophobia-inducing close-up shots of Russell Crowe’s sad eyes. But in Noah, Aronofsky also gets to indulge the world-creating tendencies he tested out in his 2006 film The Fountain. (By the way, that less successful Aronofsky film was a prequel to Noah – the story of an original man and a woman creating and recreating their own worlds throughout time. How come the Christian right didn’t get mad about this Garden of Eden story? Because The Fountain didn’t have a big enough budget to get noticed.) Here he zooms out from the action at key moments to show the entire planet, evil spreading like ink through each continent; or, later, wrapped in beautiful storm clouds. The Ark itself is basically a giant wood box, which the film’s crew constructed in a field in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Its bamboo scaffolding was built by the same artists who created “Big Bambu” at the Met, and there’s something heartbreaking about watching it tumble about in the waves. During the Flood, there are a couple of shots of the wreckage of such Hieronymus Bosch-like scale and detail that they gave me apocalyptic shivers.

In terms of plot, none of the film’s inventions are explicitly disallowed by Genesis or other biblical texts. (In addition to the Bible, Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel consulted the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Enoch, and the Book of Jubilee, as well as modern scholarly analysis.) The story begins ten generations after Adam and Eve’s exile, and this choice in itself is particularly appropriate. The Flood story completes the creation story in a way. In this movie, God is always referred to as “The Creator” (or “he”), and his chief motivation seems to be to get humans to appreciate what he has made for them. As the Bible’s settings go, the pre-Flood universe is little described and ripe for dramatic life. Paradise has long passed: We are left with a stark, burnt grey landscape interrupted by an occasional green mountain. It’s a rough, unexplored place, more District 12 than, say, The Shire. The gaps leave room for invention – Methuselah’s magical berry cravings, a glowing snakeskin wrapped around the arm in a coming of age ceremony, weird pre-Flood creatures like bearish horses with scales; and don’t get me started on the stone giants who appear to protect Noah and his family from the marauding hordes of the evil Tubal-Cain.

The Watchers, as this movie calls these stone giants, have a direct biblical inspiration, the Nephilim. These larger-than-life creatures, part human, part divine, are described in Genesis 6:4. The exact lineage of the Nephilim is hotly debated in creationist circles. Were they descendants of Adam’s other son, Seth, or were they fallen angels, or some combination thereof? Aronofsky’s interpretationis that they were the beings, made of light, that God created to protect humanity from sin; and when they failed, God punished them by turning them into stone giants. Incidentally, creationist Ken Ham says that this interpretation has “some biblical support.” It is a testament to the creative possibilities of the Bible that two people whose larger visions disagree so sharply could sometimes coincide on the small stuff.

So what, in sum, is Aronofsky’s vision? He has insisted over and over that he is just trying to make blockbuster entertainment, and he has. But underneath the bluster, the flood, the animals, the explosions, there’s a quieter message about the fine line between mercy and justice, about the toll that righteousness takes on us humans. It’s a moving story. And the fact that he’s done his biblical homework makes it that much more so.  

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden, contributor to Religion Dispatches, and editor-in-chief of the online religion magazine Killing the Buddha.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

GETTY
Show Hide image

Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser