There's a new Noah movie. And without Charlton Heston or John Ford or Cecil B. DeMille, is it already sacrilege?
When we see Supreme Court cases in religious swaddling clothes, a movie may appear trivial. It isn't. Hollywood drives culture, beliefs and opinions disproportionately, just as TV megachurch pastors do.
There are two stories here. One is the intrigue of making the new movie, "Noah," with regard for the sensibilities of a particular audience, and the questions inherent in that, including what attracts investment to make money in our society, the beliefs that feeds, and what that portends. The second area is whether catering to narrow religious views is driving an anti-science agenda that makes us look backward and stupid.
The film's budget (depending on your source) was $125–160 million. Paramount will release "Noah" March 28. It may be headed for Special Effects Oscar nominations. But...
Fundamentalist religious groups are a volatile audience who are receptive only to what meets their very specific vision. And that's not a singularity. It differs between religious groups.
Despite the Pope's endorsement of "Noah" after meeting with Russell Crowe, one of the film's stars, early surveys of the self-styled leaders of the American fundamentalist Christian establishment were worrisome for Paramount Studios.
So the studio commissioned its own survey study by Nielsen's National Research Group and the Barna Group. That indicated 83% of "very religious" film-goers are "interested in the film," while "86% of Christian respondents who are aware of the film said they would recommend 'Noah' to their friends."
The film has an "A" list cast, with Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, and the lesser-known Ray Winstone and Logan Lerman.
Darren Aronofsky produced and directed "Noah," which he co-wrote with Ari Handel. Aronofsky is known for surreal, disturbing films that make money. He made his feature-film debut, "Pi," in 1997 for $60,000 and sold it for a cool $1 million. It grossed $3 million and won him the Best Director award at Sundance in 1998. His second outing, "Requiem for a Dream," received two Oscar noms; his third, "The Fountain," fizzled before building a video cult following; "The Wrestler," his fourth, was acclaimed and performed well. "Black Swan," his fifth film, got five Oscar nods and one win. And that brings us to his sixth picture, "Noah."
For the first time, Aronofsky was confronted by a studio who filmed and tested alternative scenes and endings for one of his movies. Ostensibly, Paramount did that out of fear, so it could do test screenings for religious fundamentalist groups. Furious, Aronofsky fought back. He prevailed, and the film will be released as he made it.
Our little immersion into Inside Baseball is both revealing and alarming in a time when Hobby Lobby goes before the Supreme Court with a strained fundamentalist religious rationale to save corporate cash by denying health care to its workers.
Religion in America has long been inseparable from big money. Now big money is inseparable from using religion, whether to cut costs that competitors bear, or to structure expensive entertainment to suit a particular religious rationale.
Time to look at the second area of concern.
Big dollar entertainment has cultural ramifications. Any proponent of scientific method would likely approach the "Noah" story, on all levels, with the following:
- Hmmm. You built a giant wooden boat in a place that was not heavily forested 6,000 (or was it 4,000) years ago?
- You somehow magically rounded-up two of everything alive? Even from esoteric niches of every remote island, and prairie and steppe and hillside and estuary and coastal plain and treetop and valley and canyon bottom, not to mention everything living on arctic ice and in Antarctica and in every nook and cranny of continents you had never seen and had no idea existed?
- You managed to stock enough of whatever specific thing each animal ate, and enough insects and young plants and seed stock and prey animals that everything, including the prey animals and insect-dependent plants, could reestablish themselves on a ubiquitous surface of salty mud flats after your role was played?
- You did it all without a chain saw, Ginsu knives, plastic trash bags, duct tape, or any understanding of veterinary medicine or botany?
- Raining for 40 days and nights somehow increased the amount of water on the planet by several orders of magnitude so that even the Himalaya were submerged (and the marine fossils at 29,000 feet on Mt. Everest were, you are claiming, left there by your flood)?
The likely responses to those questions would bring a multiple-choice follow-up:
SO, WHO SHOVELED MORE?
- the guy who wrote the Noah story after a bad night out with cheap mescal?
- Noah, who had to feed, burp, and change the catboxes for two of every life form on Earth?
- Fox News, whose Bill Hemmer said on-air last week, "It took us a hundred years to find the Titanic and two thousand years to find Noah's Ark, so we may never find the missing plane." (Prompting even Stephen Colbert to ask, "We found Noah's Ark?")
- the fundamentalists who shovel money through the collection plates, preaching a global flood while denying rising sea levels/climate change?
- the movie "Noah," which will shovel money at the box office when the uniquely American, science-denying fundamentalists come to validate their fantastic beliefs that a clearly unprovable global flood really happened?
- entertainment moguls who have no ethical challenges to making movies that feed science-denial, as long as it makes them money?
For the record, we are aware of the scientific inquiries, by Dr. Robert Ballard and others, into the oceanic flooding of the Black Sea Basin, where a submerged low-lying fresh water lake appears to have supported human communities around its shore. In fact, it's so much more interesting, we wonder why the movie wasn't made by envisioning fictional characters who experienced that flooding basin?
Terrestrial life in that once-lush geographic bowl was driven out by the breakthrough of the sea at what is now the Straits of the Bosphorus. Sea water flooded the vast basin with ever-rising waters, eventually establishing a permanently higher shore line and likely providing the basis for flood myths in many cultures.
And it gave trade routes a strategic extension northward of connected seas into regions that had once been far from the reach of oceanic commerce. In the 20th century, it brought the geography for a tragic campaign of World War I that ended south of there on the beaches of Gallipolli, with the Allies trying to invade the Black Sea to supply Russia in the fight against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and present-day Turkey.
Of more immediate relevance, when that ancient inundation equalized with sea level, it had surrounded higher land at the Crimea, in the north end of the Black Sea basin. That made the Crimea a peninsula fat peninsula where canyons plunged into the water, making fine harbors and natural naval bases.
And it created the strategically important area for Russia to re-take from the Ukraine, creating the up-to-the-minute drama of territorial sovereignty, vital oil pipeline corridors, Europe's principal oil supply, and last week's international economic sanctions.
You'll find plenty of drama because a vast flood filled the Black Sea basin. But you won't find any giant wooden arks or missing airliners hiding in those Crimean harbors, any more than you'll find them locked in (melting) glacial ice on Mt. Ararat. And those with strong reactions motivated by beliefs that Noah's Ark has been found, or that it should be, are why we need a serious new emphasis on science education instead of expensive movies based on embraceable myths.
For another assessment of this film from the perspective of race, click here. Sharon Kyle, publisher of the LA Progessive addresses the film makers' decision to not hire actors of color.
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