Sunday, March 30, 2014

Movie Review: Noah


So I very much enjoyed Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, a cinematic meditation on death, dying, awe, and letting go. It's pretty esoteric and I think works better if you're thinking in Buddhist terms going into the movie, but I appreciate directors who make movies that swing for the fences, even if they don't get there entirely. I'm glad that we have such movies and such directors, because if all we had were paint-by-the-number movies or directors, cinema would be much more boring.

Noah also swung for the fence, even if it also didn't get there entirely.

First off, let's just say that I went into the movie with no expectation of it being a "literal" biblical movie. The story of Noah in the Bible takes like two pages, so of course there was going to be artistic interpretation. Such changes don't bother me at all. The ancient inspired writers of the early parts of Bible were more storytellers than historians anyway (we Latter-day Saints are very spoiled in that regard by Mormon himself), so if you re-told a story that they themselves had given you, but changed it a little to make a different point, they wouldn't mind so terribly.

Besides, since any thinking person would acknowledge that artistic license needs to be taken, we should be careful to throw stones at someone whose artistic license differs from that of our own. Look at these two screenshots, one from a trailer for Noah, another from the beginning of The Prince of Egypt.

Clearly those marketing Noah were taking a page from the creators of The Prince of Egypt. I bet most people who thought Noah was unbiblical enjoyed The Prince of Egypt. If you say "it wasn't biblical" and you really mean "I didn't like it," then you're silly. The only thing truly biblical is . . . the Bible. Besides, we have the advantage of all of the biblical story, all the way down to the merciful son of God, Jesus Christ. We hence forget that if all we read was Genesis . . . well, there God's more about wrath than He is about Mercy. I can't fault Aronofsky for focusing just on the God presented in the Noah account, the God who literally wants to drown humanity. 

Also, everybody complaining about the fallen angel storyline needs to go read them some Bible. I mean, like really read it. Giants and fallen angels? It's all there, we just don't talk about it in Sunday School. The early parts of Genesis are far weirder than we imagine, written by people with a worldview far different from our own, and who were telling stories that were about events thousands of years in their past. Still scripture? Yes. As far as it is translated correctly. 

Things I liked about the movie:

The fallen angel storyline was, to me, at least slightly compelling. The idea that these beings of light took pity on humans and came down to help us, but were cursed in doing so, resonated with me. How often do we do the right thing for a wrong reason, or the wrong thing for a right reason, and suffer the consequences? The pathetic, misshapen, awkward bodies of the giant fallen angels evoked the idea of creatures doomed by their own choices. It made me think of all of us, here on this earth, bound down by sin, pathetic and misshapen without divine intervention.

I also liked that Aronofsky really tried for some reinterpretation of the story. Why did man need to be wiped out, according to the Genesis account? Because they were evil. But what form did that evil take? The text does not say; it just says that humans were wicked continually. To have a more environmentalist form of wickedness be the reason is not a bad interpretation. The question to ask is "if God were going to destroy us today, why would He do so?" It's not unreasonable to think that our overuse of his gift to us, using up resources faster than we should for a sustainable world, is a sin. (However, more on this general environmentalist theme later.)

The character of Noah is also given a compelling storyline, more or less. Getting vague details in a revelation from the Creator, then allowed to work it out for himself, yet being torn about the death he was about to see, with a healthy dose of survivor's guilt, and then also feeling like he had failed in his task on some level-those are all character arcs that I can enjoy, because I see some of them in my own life.

There are a few nods to things that might seem weird to a standard Christian audience, but that feel right at home to a Mormon audience. Glowing rocks that help light the ark (like in Ether 6:2) is just one.

Noah's telling of the creation story was also quite well-done, because it evokes what we now know scientifically about the creation of the world. Good scripture should resonate with all of us through the ages, and the simple creation account from the scriptures (in the LDS case, Genesis, Moses, Abraham, and the temple ceremony) should do so. To see something out of a science documentary with Russell Crowe narrating a paraphrased creation account from Genesis 1 . . . yeah, I dug it, even if it was very short.

Also, if you haven't seen Terrence Malik's Tree of Life, this version of the creation is also cinematically brilliant, and worth spending 15 minutes of your life on. (I'm not sure the rest of the movie is worth spending the time on, but this part was for sure.)

What I would love to see is something a bit of a combination of these two, something out of a science documentary juxtaposed with the biblical text, yet not over as quickly as the story is told in Noah. It can still be narrated by Russell Crowe.

P.S. You can be a Mormon and still believe the earth is billions of years old. Really. You can.

The biggest weakness of the movie was, in my opinion, that though Aronofsky went for a different interpretation, he simultaneously went for three of them. Let me explain.

What is man's wickedness? The movie answers it two ways. First, the environmental explanation, which I talked about above, and rather liked as a modern take on an ancient story. However, if your theme is the environmental one, then you need to focus on that more consistently. In the movie it kind of disappears after the first half or so, only brought up later in dialogue as Noah contemplates ending the human race, and dialogue isn't cinematically compelling. The earlier vistas of devoured forests and barren landscapes made this point better.

Second, the more standard answer about humans being murderers and a war-like race. This is mostly shown in the movie through the character of Tubal-Cain, who gets a single verse in the Bible (Genesis 4:22). To be a man, in his view, is to take control of your destiny and to do whatever it takes to survive, independent of morals or any divine commandment. He throws enough scriptural phrases around that you know that he is aware of the garden story and Adam and Eve, but has taken much the wrong meaning from them. He hates and blames the Creator, instead of looking inward to discover why the Creator has done these things, and wondering if He might be just in His judgment. He perpetuates the violence of his worldview onto the ark itself as a stowaway, which I found a little weird. More violence before the flood, and none after, would have adequately made the point about the worldview of Tubal-Cain and others like him.

So those are the first two themes. The third theme is the question "Is man worth saving?" Noah himself gets this question, and has to answer it. We all know, of course, at the end he chooses to answer the question that "yes, man is worth saving," but only after nearly killing his two infant female grandchildren. (What? Yes, that's right. Noah nearly becomes an infanticidal maniac, with more than a few hints of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac.) If your question is "is man worth saving?" again, there would be better ways to answer that question than to have Noah contemplate killing his newly born grandchildren. There are enough flashbacks to Cain killing Able or scenes with Tubal-Cain that you could have used something like those to make the point.

The problem comes that each of these three themes, compelling and interesting in and of themselves, don't exactly match up when all mashed together. If you want to do a commentary on the wickedness of man as evil and murderous, then don't have Noah know how to fight at all (and he shouldn't be carrying weapons in the posters advertising the movie). Certainly don't have him contemplate for nine months the murder of newborns. Because Aronofsky was going for a mishmash of different themes, the character of Noah himself suffered some continuity problems.

So, I suppose my point is this. To make this movie more consistent, Darren Aronofsky should have picked one of these three, and then stuck with it:

1. The wickedness of man is murder and violence.
2. The wickedness of man is the horrible misuse of God's creation.
3. Is man worth saving? (I suppose you could do this with either 1 or 2, but not both.)

The mismatch of all three of them meant that no one was developed as well as it could be. Better to pick one and run with it. In this way, it could be like The Prince of Egypt vs. The Ten Commandments. Is the fight between Moses and Ramses a sibling rivalry (Prince) or largely over a woman and over hubris (Ten Commandments)? Both are perfectly good character motivations and arcs for those two characters, but mixing them together would do those motivations a disservice. I'm glad that those two movies picked one theme for that relationship and then ran with it. Noah did not, and suffered for it.

So, as I said at the beginning, I'm glad that such a talented filmmaker took a rich story, like the account of Noah, and swung for the fences with it. I don't think he quite reached the fences, but it wasn't a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination.

Some additional reading, for those interested:

Christians who liked it.

One biblical scholar's take on some of the weirdness (which is actually straight out of the real biblical text).

I couldn't find any Christian criticisms of the movie that didn't descend immediately into idiocy. ("But it never even says the word 'God.'" "Oh please. The bible is quite clear (or is it?) that God wasn't known by his name until Moses' time, as per Exodus 6:3." "Noah wasn't a vegetarian!" "Yes, actually, he would have been, as humans are allowed to eat meat only after the flood, as evidenced by Genesis 9:3." Just two examples of nuance.) (That's right, I just did a double deep parenthetical remark.) I'm sure good Christian criticisms exist, I'm just not going to scour the internet so I can link them here.

Muslims banned it because it shows a physical representation of a prophet, and most schools of Islam ban such representations. That's a religious objection, not a critique of the movie itself.

One reviewer from The Atlantic who had some interesting insights on the juxtaposition of Noah and Tubal-Cain. Maybe I didn't give that dynamic enough thought.

Here's someone who took issue with the overly-simplified environmentalism of the film.

And finally, a fascinating interview with Aronofsky himself. (He wrote a poem about the Noah story in 7th grade and has been working through the implications ever since. So naturally, he put his 7th grade teacher in the movie.)

Score: 80/100. This gets a B-, mostly for what it was attempting to do, which I can appreciate, opposed to what it actually did.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dear Utah, This is not How You Ask Someone Out

Dear Utah,

Your culture around asking girls out for dates has gotten out of hand.

And it doesn't translate to anywhere else.

So knock it off.


A Member of the Utah Diaspora

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A New App That Will Let You Read 500 Words per Minute? That's Cute.

Several of my friends on FB have linked an article about a new upcoming app that will purportedly allow you to read novels in 90 minutes, helping your eyes absorb each word in a scientifically accurate way that allows for reading up to 500 words per minute!

You're just . . .  all . . . so adorable. (I tested myself again using this article this morning. Results were a little slower, probably because I was reading it on the NY Times site itself which is not designed for speed reading, but still fast enough that I don't think this new app will be of much use to me.)

In short, all of you can use the new app. Then let's have a race. Bring it on!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book of Mormon Gummy Bears

Each time my family used to finish the Book of Mormon, we had a tradition. We would take gummy bears and create Book of Mormon dioramas. We could use toothpicks for swords and spears, different colors of bears to represent different groups, construction paper, etc. Stephen's usually had many "dead" gummy bears (I'm pretty sure he did Coriantumr cutting off Shiz's head once, and I remember doing Teancum's slaying of Ammoron once myself), while other times one of us would try to do more obscure stories to make it hard to guess what they were. The time I used a white gummy bear to represent Jesus teaching the Nephites obviously wasn't one of the harder ones to guess.

As we all went our separate ways and got married, etc. we obviously no longer read the Book of Mormon as a family, though we do read in our own individual families, as evidenced by this video that shows my nephew Christian (son of Stephen and Rachel) telling his little brother the story of Nephi's broken bow.

Recently, those still living at home finished the book (as did I, actually), and Mom decided to resurrect the gummy bear tradition. She mailed us all packages of bears, toothpicks, floss, and gave us instructions to do our own dioramas, and then send pictures.

While Susan and I were up in Duryea this past weekend to meet our new niece Isabelle and to just hang out with Nathan, Robin, and their other kids, Alex and Gabe, we all decided to have FHE together and do our own dioramas.

Rebecca's family has already done theirs, as you can see here on her blog.

Here is their diorama:

Here is what Nathan and Robin and their kids came up with (after watching the relevant Book of Mormon video online):

Here's what Susan and I created. (Three pictures so you can see the individual parts in more detail.) 

Now that you can see our "entries" for this round of Cranney Family Book of Mormon Gummy Bear Dioramas (tm), can you tell which stories we were recreating? (On our way back down from Pennsylvania we stopped by in Thurmont to visit with Susan's sister and her family. Our oldest Nephew, Isaac, guessed all of these in like 5 seconds. I'm very glad to have married into a family that also does scripture study.) 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Finished the Book of Mormon-Again

I had an interesting experience yesterday. Usually when I read through the Book of Mormon, I pick a particular way to do so. This time I wanted to listen to it, so I've had it among my podcasts and would listen to a few chapters a day (usually at 1.5 x speed because the readers are . . . so . . . slow . . .). My little ritual each time I finish is to make sure I have a little bit of time to myself to read Moroni 10, ponder on what I've learned and the book as a whole, and then kneel and pray to God to ask if the book is true again. Sometimes I get an answer, sometimes I get nothing, sometimes I get the "you already know this so why are you asking again?"

Yesterday I listened to the last chapter while staring out the window onto the snow-covered forest behind our apartment, listening to the melancholy farewell words of Moroni. I switched off the phone, took the earbuds out, and knelt down to pray. But this time I didn't feel like asking God if it were true was entirely appropriate. This time instead of God telling me "you already know this so why are you asking again?" my experience was more "I already know this, so I'm not going to ask if it's true, but ask that you continue to strengthen my testimony of the Book of Mormon moving forward."

That was nice. I don't know if from here on out my ritual will involve praying over the book each time I finish it. Just doesn't seem as necessary anymore.

This next time reading it all the way through for myself I'm going to read The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text by Royal Skousen. I noticed last summer that was the version that a friend of mine used in our little Book of Mormon study group when I was in Utah, and it intrigued me. In any event, it's something I need to have read at some point, even if I'm not entirely convinced getting back to Joseph Smith's original dictation will get us back to the original meaning of the text itself. That's what historians think. I'm a theologian. Revelations can be edited by prophets and apostles after the initial draft, and that includes revelatory translations like the Book of Mormon. Nonetheless, I should read this original text at some point, and this seems like the opportune moment.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How Harry Potter Should Have Ended

J.K. Rowling is slowly turning into George Lucas. She can't leave well enough alone.

First, she made Dumbledore gay after the fact, and I agree with the Time Magazine article titled "Put Dumbledore Back in the Closet."

Second, recently she's been saying that she regrets that Ron and Hermione ended up together. I think this is silly, for a number of reasons that are better articulated here. In short, Ron and Hermione have an actual relationship that developed organically over time, and are going to have a real marriage with complementarity and fights and everything.

Besides, I think we've read too much into the way the movies portray Ron. He got the short end of the stick in the translation from the books to the movies, in many ways, as you can read here. He's a stronger character in the books.

But this post isn't actually about the "changes" she made to the books after the fact. It's about a complaint I have about the end to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So to that end, in a moment of daring fan-fiction-hubris, I rewrote the last few paragraphs of the final chapter (not the epilogue).


"And then there’s this."

Harry held up the Elder Wand, and Ron and Hermione looked at it with a reverence that, even in his befuddled and sleep-deprived state, Harry did not like to see.

"I don’t want it," said Harry.

"What?" said Ron loudly. "Are you mental?"

"I know it’s powerful," said Harry wearily. "But I was happier with mine. So…"

He rummaged in the pouch hung around his neck, and pulled out the two halves of holly still just connected by the finest threat of phoenix feather. Hermione had said that they could not be repaired, that the damage was too severe. All he knew was that if this did not work, nothing would.

He laid the broken wand upon the headmaster’s desk, touched it with the very tip of the Elder Wand, and said, "Reparo."

As his wand resealed, red sparks flew out of its end. Harry knew that he had succeeded. He picked up the holly and phoenix wand and felt a sudden warmth in his fingers, as though wand and hand were rejoicing at their reunion.

"Now to get rid of this one," Harry said. He put the Elder Wand down on the desk and then slowly pointed his wand at it.

"Are you sure?" said Ron. There was the faintest trace of longing in his voice as he looked at the Elder Wand.

“I think Harry’s right," said Hermione quietly. "Everybody heard him say that he is the master of the Elder Wand now. It should be destroyed."

"Incendio!" said Harry. A spark of flame erupted from his wand, engulfing the Elder Wand, which turned black and cracked in the heat from the spell. The holly and phoenix wand sparked again, this time with more enthusiasm, and Harry felt the warmth spread through his hand and up through his arm this time. The wand was more than rejoicing this time. It was truly his now.

"That takes care of that," he told Dumbledore, who was watching him with enormous affection and admiration.

"Yes indeed, Harry," Dumbledore said. "And now that the wizard has chosen the wand, I suspect that you will find that it will be a most true wand to you, for the rest of your life."

"Will it become another Elder Wand? Will others seek after it?"

"Oh, I think not," said Dumbledore. "You have shown remarkable loyalty to that wand. It will not reciprocate that loyalty to anybody else."

"Good. The Elder Wand was more trouble than it’s worth," said Harry. "And quite honestly," he turned away from the painted portraits, thinking now only of the four-poster bed lying waiting for him in Gryffindor Tower, and wondering whether Kreacher might bring him a sandwich there, "I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime."


See what I did there? I combined the best of the endings of both the book and the movie. The movie makes little to do of the fact that Harry is the Master of the Elder Wand, and that is why he defeats Voldemort. It's made clear that the Elder Wand isn't exactly obeying Voldemort, but it's never made entirely clear that its loyalty to Harry is what kills Voldemort in the end. Almost as an afterthought in the script, Harry explains that he is the owner, but then destroys the Elder Wand by snapping it in half, renouncing its power (and the curse of being its owner). His own wand was never damaged. 

In the books, Harry shows incredible loyalty to his original wand by ordering the Elder Wand to repair it. But he does not destroy the Elder Wand . . . even though practically everybody now knows that he is its master because he said so right in front of them, and then killed Voldemort because the wand was his! If that isn't asking to get killed in some back alley someday, I don't know what is.  

So that's how I think Harry Potter should have ended. He is the master of the Elder Wand, but then uses that wand to repair his old holly and phoenix-feather one, and then uses the holly one to destroy the Elder Wand. Now he has a wand that will be intensely loyal to him, but only to him, a wand that has imbibed portions of Voldemort's magic, is strengthened by Harry's enormous courage and loyalty to it, and, quite possibly, now has the Elder's Wand's experience as well. In any event, I think this ending jives very well with many of the lessons that Rowling tries to teach about love and loyalty and the true source of power.

And now Harry isn't asking to get Avada Kedavra'ed in the back some day if somebody wants to become master of the Elder Wand.

So what do you think?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

We Shouldn't Watch the Superbowl

I've blogged before about how American football is routinely destructive to everybody who plays it, and for that reason should fall outside the classification of "things we let our kids do." There are plenty ways to instill in children the values of teamwork, sportsmanship, and athletics without giving them brain damage.

Football itself is simply not worth the risks for anybody but the actual players of the NFL. I've had to hold my tongue on several occasions because a nephew of mine plays football. I hope he grows out of it. He is also confused about why there are cheerleaders at his level. Nice culture we're supporting here, on that front, where NFL cheerleaders are paid so little they would make better money waiting tables. Regardless, our support of American football drives the entire engine, so we shouldn't watch the Super Bowl.

If this were a sport, done largely at the expense of lower-income people in another country who are simply used up for our entertainment, we would cover it in our media like this satire piece from Nobody else plays this sport. Why do we so much? (I also get the feeling that people from other countries don't really get the sport.) I wonder why.

Also, the Super Bowl turns out to be the biggest time to traffick women here in America.

Edit: That turns out not to be true. Sorry. I was wrong. We should still be worried about trafficking here in America.

So yeah . . . basically, watching the sport is immoral on several levels.

There. I said it.

Prediction: The smartest Jock I know (you know who you are) will now commence to tell me why I'm wrong.