Thursday, May 1, 2014

Poet's Notebook: Wipeout

Posted By on Thu, May 1, 2014 at 1:36 PM

And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. —from Genesis 6:6-8
click to enlarge JEANNE MEINKE
  • Jeanne Meinke

When I was a boy — a faithful attendee of Sunday School in our neighborhood Lutheran Church — I loved the Bible stories, which we read, and were read to us, in variant renditions of our Brooklyn accents: “And rain fell upon da oith fawty days and fawty nights…” (Almost every day our teachers in grade school — P.S. 222 on Quentin Road — made us recite a poem, designed to cure our accents, that began, “There once was a turtle / Whose first name was Myrtle…” But… fuhgeddaboudit!)

My interest in these stories intensified when I discovered on my parents’ bookshelf a heavy Bible illustrated by Gustav Doré, which featured, in Noah’s story, a drowning family clinging to a sharp rock. A muscular naked man held his voluptuous naked wife above the water, while their naked children shared the small space on the rock with a huge tiger holding her cub in its mouth. I learned early on that most artists were fascinated by nudity. So was I. Oddly enough, the scene resembled the stony volcanic landscape of the recent movie, Noah, filmed in Iceland instead of the Mideast.

Like any good story, the Biblical one is very specific in places: In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. In the movie, Director Darren Aronofsky follows some of the crazy specifics, like the size and shape of the ark; and where the Bible is vague, he puts in his own crazy specifics, like huge creatures called the Watchers, apparently made out of rocks and appointed by God to protect the ark from invaders. When the polluters of the earth, namely all mankind, try to attack Noah and get on his ark, these creatures rise out of the stony landscape and smite the sinners by the thousands, reminiscent of some of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator sci-fi fantasies.

We can see what attracted Aronofsky. The last movie we saw of his was Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman plays a ballet dancer whose intensity morphs into madness and her body bleeds as she turns into the black swan, wings breaking out of her back. It’s a mix of fairy tale and horror movie, and Noah shows the same combination, but in Biblical, that is to say epic, proportions.

The “problem” with Noah’s story, of course (at least if taken literally) is the idea of God wiping out the whole world, but the movie tackles this notion head-on. In Noah, the world’s been polluted by man (there’s a background shot suggesting smokestacks and today’s looming environmental disasters), but still, drowning everyone but Noah’s family and some animals seems a bit much.

Not only that, Noah, played by a slightly puffy Russell Crowe, takes God’s orders to the extreme, deciding his job isn’t to save sin-cursed man, but just the “clean” animals; and is prepared to do away with his whole family in a very dramatic ending. (The movie catches some of the Bible’s drama but not much of its poetry.)

I’ve always felt distressed about our atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — all those women and children! — and the same questions arise here. Even Methuselah, Noah’s grandpa (wittily played in Noah by Anthony Hopkins), didn’t have answers, apparently dying in the nick of time, just before the Flood.

But Noah had a long time to think about them:

After the flood Noah lived three hundred and fifty years. All the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died. —from Genesis 9:28 

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