Noah

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, James and Charles discuss Aronofsky’s Noah. Is this the episode that finally tears them apart? Will James’s biases against adaptations finally send Charles packing? Or will Charles convince James that they have a beautiful and fantastic movie here? Listen in to find out.

Little Brother by Cory Doctrow

In the ever-popular genre of Young Adult dystopian societies, there exists the story of Marcus Yallow, 17-year-old San Francisco high school student. Marcus is your typical paranoid-hacker-tech-savant who uses the school laptop for chatting and who tricks the gait tracking cameras so he can sneak out of school and play Harajuku Fun Madness, the best game ever. Marcus is playing hookie with his scavenger hunt teammates Darryl, Vanessa and Jolu in the Tenderloin District when the explosions start.

The whole world is trembling and the four kids scramble for the safety of the nearest BART station only to become overwhelmed by bodies pushing them, people being trampled underfoot. They desperately try to escape the horde, risking it topside; in the scramble, Darryl is stabbed. Marcus, brilliantly, attempts to wave down a passing emergency vehicle, though he unfortunately draws the attention of the Department of Homeland Security instead. His head is soon in a black bag, his wrists strung up behind him as he is thrown into some kind of truck, a prisoner of the DHS.

Literally, this book starts off with a bang. Within its first few chapters, terrorists have blown up the Bay Bridge in San Francisco and the Department of Homeland Security has been brought in to clean up the mess. However, in attempting this, they ruthlessly begin stripping Americans of their rights, interrogating and torturing children in the name of national security.

The torture and intimidation in this book really strikes close to home. We are not reading about some distant future populated with arenas or factions. Other books in this genre, such as Suzzane Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, play with those same themes of fear, government oppression, and paranoia, but they always feel more like fiction than fact. This book occurs in the near future in a world that is exactly like ours. Our government, torturing our youth, and society can do nothing about it. Not only is this book frighteningly possible, this scale of terrorist event has already happened! I would be remiss to discuss this novel with no mention of the attacks on 9/11. I would like to believe that none of the awful actions enacted by the U.S. government came close to occurring in reality in the years since 2001, and I hope that they never will.

To wit: Marcus, Van and Jolu are released after a week of dehumanizing interrogation and told that they are “marked;” if they mention being jailed they will be “removed.” Darryl is nowhere to be found. They do not even know if their friend is alive. After being released from the truck, Marcus feels someone wrap their arms around him and immediately reels away from the threat, terrified of taken again, only to realize it is his friend Van hugging him and crying.

Little Brother is told from the point of view of Marcus and it portrays his his struggle as a painful ordeal. One thing we learn very quickly about Marcus is that he is in fact paranoid. what starts as just an attempt to go online without being watched by the DHS turns into an all-out rebellion against the government. Marcus’ homemade laptop has been bugged so he turns to other technology. He pulls out his Xbox Universal that Microsoft gave away for free to everyone years ago and figures out how to run Paranoid Xbox to get him online. Everyone has an Xbox so he makes Paranoid Xbox CDs for his friends with the promise that they will make them for their friends and so on until the Xnet is born.

One of the reasons this book feels so real is that usage of familiar modern day technology. Even someone as tech-illiterate as myself recognizes the products Doctorow uses in the book. Who doesn’t know who Microsoft is? Doctorow takes this even further by going into tangents that explain how the technology Marcus is using is useful and why it works, such as an explanation of cryptos using extremely large prime numbers to encrypt data.

Marcus is paranoid about his government, but does what he does for what that government supposedly stands for. Marcus is a patriot. He can and does quote the Bill of Rights several times. He is not going to take this injustice lying down.

And yet he is also just a 17-year-old boy. He meets a girl, Ange, and she is totally into him. Marcus and Ange become partners in crime, a duo using the Internet to topple the government. They must do this while dealing with raging hormones and curfews. Doctorow does not push the sexual tension to the background, letting it happen in ways that may be too mature for some younger readers. We get to know what Marcus thinks of the many firsts he encounters with Ange in terms nowhere near as graphic as those used in George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire, but in terms the reader can not ignore. The all too realistic experience of Marcus falling in love for the first time helps ground the realism of Doctorow’s narrative, enforcing that this could totally happen tomorrow.

Of all of the dystopian novels I have read (and let’s be honest that is a long list, as you will find out), Little Brother scares me most. At the conclusion of the book, I immediately started its sequel, Homeland, because I really needed to know what happens to Marcus and Ange next. Doctorow’s book is a quick read, weighing in at 380 pages and sucking you in to frenzied page-turning. I was so worried about Marcus’ plans to mess with the DHS that I had to keep reading to make sure they didn’t have him in another black bag. Little Brother will leave you feeling wary of the American government but also hopeful for the American people’s ability to fight for what they believe in. Any story, fact or fiction, that can produce such an honest emotional reaction deserves to be read.

2013 Year in Review: Films #51-75

Welcome back to my 2013 Year in Review series. We keep the pace quick as we push through another 25, not-quite-as-bad movies.

###They Had a Chance###
75. A Good Day to Die Hard
74. Ender’s Game
73. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
72. Turbo
71. Paranoia
70. Side Effects
69. Jack the Giant-Slayer
68. The Croods
67. Man of Steel
66. The Butler

I’m a huge Bruce Willis fan.1 And yet, frankly, A Good Day to Die Hard left me exhausted. I’m okay with sequels, even if they do exist only to make more money for their star, which certainly feels like the pitch for this movie. There are even visible threads in the film that make it seem like they’ve considered a future without Willis as John McClane; Jai Courtney is featured as Jack McClane, and it sure seems like he’s being groomed to take over the franchise, much like Shia LaBeouf was with Indiana Jones. (Look how that turned out!) Despite Crystal Skull‘s absurd romp with alien life, I actually find LaBeouf’s character far more likable a presence, and a much better match spiritually for his famous pop culture dad. Jack is one-dimensionally aggressive and doesn’t seem to grow at all, other than his tepid willingness to be acknowledged as Willis’ son near the end credits. Who wouldn’t want to be John McClane’s son? Come one! Digging into that even further, John McClane has always, as a hero, fought for his family, even if he’s not the best family man. You’d think Jack could see human, frail, and protective his father is. Though maybe that’s not possible anymore; in this film, we’ve drifted into John McClane, superhero. It seems like we’re destined to get another Die Hard but McClane Sr. has officially run out of family members in peril, and long ago ran out of interesting or sympathetic family members to save.

Much better than the whole of A Good Die to Die Hard was the trailer for Man of Steel. The trailer for Man of Steel was fantastic. Visionary. Moving. The movie was none of those things, which is incredible because everything from the trailer is in the film. It wasn’t deceptive marketing like Out of the Furnace‘s lie of a trailer, but it did set certain unattainable expectations that were spectacularly not met. Henry Cavil does a decent job of playing our new Clark Kent and Amy Adams is actually wonderful as Lois Lane. But the script and Zach Snyder’s direction let them down in every way. Pieces of this movie were well done: an important scene where Pa Kent silently waves off his son, sacrificing himself so Clark can maintain his secret is one. But overall, the reckless destruction of towns and cities and the shocking final act – the seemingly avoidable killing of General Zod – proved one step too far into darkness for this Nolan-esque re-imagining of our iconic superhero, this Boy Scout and paragon of virtue.2 Indeed, the future looks as bleak as this film for DC Comics, as Charles and I have often brought up many times when discussing the success of their rival, Marvel.

###Slowly Climbing Out###
65. Runner Runner
64. Oblivion
63. Homefront
62. The Heat
61. Gangster Squad
60. Warm Bodies

I chose to speak on Gangster Squad because it really does epitomize this group of movies, none of which are flawless or particularly awful. They’re all perfectly average, perfectly flat and perfectly forgettable. Gangster Squad is a decent enough movie with solid performances from heavy-hitters like Ryan Gossling, Josh Brolin, and Emma Stone. None of them stick out as good or bad, just like this movie and this entire grouping. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t some appeal to me as a moviegoer in each of these films or that they don’t have audiences. Just that in my list of movies, if I hadn’t meticulously cataloged every movie I watched, I probably would have forgotten these existed when it came time to rank them.

###At Least Half-Decent###
59. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
58. Carrie
57. jOBS
56. August: Osage County
55. Despicable Me 2
54. 2 Guns
53. Epic
52. Kill Your Darlings
51. Spring Breakers

I know I stand pretty far apart with August: Osage County. Some of the performances were astounding, but they were often from characters I didn’t see enough of. Also, there was a lot of yelling. Probably too much yelling. I know this is a movie about a broken family being reunited by the death of the patriarch, and, within that setup, there’s grieving to be done, with several characters expressing this through shouting matches and put downs and earth-shattering reveals about surprising family history. But really, I feel like this was a average, often shrill film that didn’t truly merit the nominations it received.

So that’s it for this installment. Another 25 movies sealed into their rankings.


  1. Despite my adoration for Willis, up until the release of a A Good Day to Die Hard, I’d only see Die Hard 2 in its entirety. Several of my friends rightfully berated me, and my girlfriend sat down to watch all of the series with me. She’s a good person. 
  2. One might even go as far as saying the iconic superhero and the symbol of justice. 

2013 Year in Review: Films #76-100

Over the next few posts, I’ll rank every film that was released in theaters in 2013 and that I saw. In total, this was 100 movies. Some of them were great, some were awful and a bunch were mediocre. I’ll highlight some films that stuck with me.

In this post we tackle the bottom quarter and it’s pretty awful.

###Terrible Movies###
100. The Lone Ranger
99. Movie 43
98. This Is The End
97. Grown Ups 2
96. 47 Ronin
95. Oldboy
94. Hours
93. Olympus Has Fallen
92. The Bling Ring
91. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

It is fairly easy to peg all of these movies as awful. Movie 43 somehow blackmailed very many, very good actors into an awful parody? Satire? It certainly wasn’t very funny. Hours was a tedious waiting game with Paul Walker sitting beside a cradle. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones managed to butcher a not awful but certainly not good book while being adapted to the screen. All these fail to hold a match to just how awful The Lone Ranger was. There was a lot of possibility and even glimpses of a better plot and yet it really does feel as if the cut up two movies and smashed them together like a child who’s not quite ready to try a jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps they’ll find a way to release a better cut for home release one day. So for that, The Lone Ranger gets the coveted #100 spot.

###Not My Cup of Tea###
90. Blackfish
89. Upstream Color
88. Escape from Tomorrow

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these movies, they just don’t fit well in my expected grading scale. So they end up here, towards the bottom of my list. It’s far more apt to strike them from the rankings completely but that would leave me at an awkward 97 movies. Blackfish feels a bit too one-sided, even when that’s exactly what I expected. Upstream Color and Escape from Tomorrow are just too far out there for me to enjoy.

###Pretty Bad###
87. Out of the Furnace
86. Closed Circuit
85. After Earth
84. Rest in Peace Department
83. The Family
82. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
81. Oz the Great and Powerful
80. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters
79. The Great Gatsby
78. Home Run
77. The Best Man Holiday
76. GI Joe: Retaliation

All these movies had fleeting peaks that stood out from their general badness. Two movies from this group really stand out though. Out of the Furnace wins the award for Most Deceptive Movie Trailer but at least I understood that Christian Bale was going to be looking for his brother, played by Casey Affleck, after the latter got into some trouble with some bad guys. Other than that, nothing from the trailer really lined up with the movie. Affleck’s character is actually dead most of the movie and Bale is arrested during the first half. Bale doesn’t actually beat very many people up and he gets some (probably bad) people killed indirectly.

After Earth shows us more of how great an actor Will Smith really is, here he plays a bit of an asshole, disconnected father. This movie was meant to help usher Jayden Smith further into the spotlight as an actor. And yet, Jayden really can’t act. Or at least he’s too uptight and robotic in this movie to demonstrate he has any of the skill or charisma his father possesses. We catch a glimpse of good Jayden in one of the final scenes where it doesn’t seem like he’s acting which is entirely possible since it is a touching moment with his father (the actor and the character).

Well at least we got those movies out of the way. We’ll continue our climb through the ranks as we tackle another 25 movies in the next post.

Jinn: Hell to Pay For

Jinn, a supernatural thriller coming to you courtesy of writer/director/editor//car-designer/voice-actor Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad ([who][ahmad]? exactly…), is probably not playing at a theater near you anymore. That’s okay. Consider that a reprieve. Take solace.

It’s tough to bag on a film with this much going on behind the scenes that is worthy of hearty cheers. A creative person with a love of cinema – an immigrant from a practically unseen minority – starts his own independent film studio (Exxodus Studios) in our country’s most beleaguered city, aiming to prove that sheer ambition and a desire to use the resources available to him in his community can launch a major motion picture that can open the same day in Los Angeles and Gainesville. I mean… yay! Right? That’s the dream!

I went into the film hopeful that, in spite of bad notices and subpar marketing, there might be a scruffy charm to Jinn, a spark of the personal, an impression of either Ahmad’s own experience as an Indian-American or as a resident and hopeful supporter of Detroit and Ann Arbor.

For about ten minutes I was convinced that this what was exactly what I was going to get. I don’t want to overpraise this film’s prologue, it’s not world-changing, but it had me convinced that we were looking at a man who could stretch a tight budget and make a competent and personal fantasy epic. That was before things like lead actors and plot and logic got in the way.

Let’s count off the ways in which this movie starts off promisingly:

A universal approach to religion: the film opens with the same verse of scripture, but filtered through the lenses of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religions. And the three symbols (the crescent, the star, and the cross) form one united symbol. It feels like any film studio on Earth would have told Ahmad “Pick one.” It’s easier to market a film to a Christian audience when its themes are explicitly Christian, so its likely the multi-religion angle would be the first thing a studio would jettison or downplay. So maybe Ahmad has something unique and uncompromised to say about the ways we share stories and similarities and underline our commonalities and the ways we miss those commonalities, with destructive results. Already, we’re cooking with some gas! (Caveat: This will have practically no bearing on the film whatsoever. Ahmad has absolutely nothing to say about the unity in world religions. It’s likely he thought the symbol looked cool. Which, yeah, it kind of does.)
A simple and effective setup. Fire demons have inhabited earth since time immemorial, coexisting with and resenting humans and angels. Smudges on ancient scrolls, the narration of Ray Park – all effective and straightforward. And it gets the exposition out of the way in a visually interesting way now, so we won’t have to waste time with it later! (Caveat: Ray Park – who you know as either Darth Maul or Toad from the first X-Men film, meaning this is probably the first time you’ve seen him without makeup/speaking in his real voice – will deliver this exact same speech to the film’s hero later on in the film. It might actually be the same audio sample…)
One of these demons curses a religious man’s family for clear reasons. It seems that for generations to come, these demons will haunt this man’s descendants. They will kill them without a second thought, we are led to believe. (Caveat: Our hero, Shan Walker, turns out to be the prophesied one, the man who can stop the Jinn from seizing our world. The Jinn don’t want to kill him, and bafflingly, won’t kill him until he has a child. In fact, they would prefer to woo him, offering him incentives, like they are some ad agency hoping Don Draper will work for them rather than against them. What about the curse? You’re guess is as good as mine, even if you didn’t see the film.)
Some creepy/cool monster design. Lank hair, herky jerky movement, suspenseful levitation: it’s all straight out of the post-Samara handbook of creature-work, but you can’t argue there’s not something alarming and disturbing about the jinn we meet. We’ll see a lot more of him right? (Caveat: Nope. The Jinn are shapechangers, and Ahmad takes advantage of this to come up with plenty of much lamer shapes for them to take. Their favored form is “smoke cloud” [maybe they are Lost fans], though they also will appear as black creatures with lava for veins, shadow knights, projections of friends and family [including a replica of Shan that’s supposed to… scare Shan?], and… oh yeah, I guess they can possess people too? By the time the Samara-inspired design comes back, it is during the climactic dream-fight where the monster’s ability to levitate is used to disorienting ends; you will never want more to know which way is up.)
A nice score. One thing a low-budget film can use to make-up for lacking the dough to pay for better effects or actors is to find a talented but unrecognized composer to crank out a melodic, evocative score. It’s just important not to let the score overtake the movie, or contradict the film’s tone. (Caveat: Boy howdy, does it! The score becomes incredibly overbearing, and veers wildly from sunny compositions to “horror movie” stuff. A visually stunning scene in which Ray Park’s Gabriel vanquishes Jinn using… ummm… light magic, is rendered ridiculous by the musical cue that accompanies it.)
The most promising thing of all: a new and fresh perspective on the horror genre. How many Indian-born Americans are making films about Indian-American characters and Indian subjects? Any? Yeah, the prologue, set in India, does not look like it is set in India (more like a pretty forest on the shore of Lake Michigan), but suspension of disbelief and optimism allows one to buy in to what appears to be, by all accounts, the beginnings of a multi-generational Indian epic. If, using a genre lens, Ahmad can tell us anything about his experience, his people, his religion, his… anything! Than this is probably going to be worth it. And in interviews, Ahmad talks at length about how excited he is to introduce the underutilized concept of jinn, which are prevalent in the cultures of Asia and Africa but practically unknown here, to an American audience. He grew up with stories of jinn, so maybe he will give us an indelible vision of a monster unique to his culture that will speak to that culture’s values or relationship to culture-at-large.
I’m going to just expand this caveat out to take up the rest of our review because it gets to the heart of what is really so heartbreaking about Jinn‘s almost complete lack of creative ambition. If the jinn, as an exciting new creature, is intended to introduce us to the scary stories – and in turn the fears – of another part of our world that we in America know less about, than it fails by all accounts. The jinn come across as a mix of so many demon and exorcism tropes we can see on the back of our eyelids when we blink that, when Gabriel explains the existence of jinn to Shan by telling him that ghosts, demons and poltergeists do not exist, that all these phenomena can be explained by the jinn, my response was: “And?” All those things might as well exist for how derivative the threat of the jinn is. They are ghosts and demons. You just gave them a different name.

Two things handicap the jinn irreparably. The first is the mythology that compounds like so much refuse atop what began as a simple trinity – angels, men, jinn. There are good jinn and bad. Gabriel, with his angelic name and light magic kung-fu sure seems like an angel, but is in fact a good jinn. Where are the angels in this world then? Do they have an issue with the bad jinn attempting to wipe out humanity out of jealousy over man’s capacity for creativity? They seem fine with it since they don’t show up.

To defeat the jinn, one must complete a test in which the jinn try to scare you and you… can’t be scared? If you fail, you go insane, like Shan’s uncle. Who, before the film’s climax, decides he’s going to unfail his test (ripping his shackles from the floor of an insane asylum), so apparently it’s not permanent. The jinn can be harmed by a magic dagger and by holy water, but not too much; it’ll just make them hiss. They also may not like a big sword the priest played by William Atherton pulls out of a cross, but we’ll never know because we never see Atherton do anything with the sword or know why he took it out – the film cuts from him as he threatens to use it and never returns. The jinns biggest weakness, bigger than holy water or pointy things, actually seems to be their willingness to negotiate with the family they cursed – with no caveats – only one hundred years prior. Their strategy for overcoming a prophecy that will see a chosen one from a certain bloodline defeat them is to wait until the potential chosen one has borne a child, rather than killing him outright – just in case. The jinn should have a meeting to get these things straight. They’ll never wipe out humanity with a plan full of this many holes.

The other thing that hobbles the jinn is their adversary, the chosen one, Shan, who, in his big hero moment, rips off what’s left of his shirt so he can stare down a jinn army. This jinn army slinks off when Shan destroys one of them and grimaces in all his shirtless glory. If I were the jinn army, I would have laughed at him, called forth all my jinn friends from their dark portals, and laughed some more.

Shan is played by Iranian-American actor Dominic Rains with floppy hair and eyes persistently widened in dopey surprise. He also plays Shan’s great-grandfather in the prologue, wearing makeup and a scraggly graying beard. In this get-up, he looks half as silly as he does as a “normal guy” from Ann Arbor thrown into extraordinary circumstances. The film starts with Shan and his wife suffering some marital grief over her admission that she cannot bear children. (Ironically, she is pregnant as she says this. Because magic.) The film refers to a fight the two have over this grievance, and one suspects we don’t see the emotional sparring because neither actor could convincingly handle it.

One might suspect from the “chosen one” plot and how much Shan is referred to as “the boy” that he might in fact be, if not a boy, at least a young man. Instead, Shan appears to be at least thirty, meaning it is ridiculous the way Shan is consistently carted around Ann Arbor in the manner of a fragile pre-teen in the mold of Harry being toured around Diagon Alley by Hagrid or Ender stepping into the zero-G room for the first time. Shan spends the whole movie asking the jinn to return his wife and his unborn child, and it turns out that she has been in the possession of Gabriel the good Jinn all along. Even Shan’s friends don’t trust Shan.

There is virtually nothing in the film identifying Shan as Indian-American other than his established lineage – his great-grandfather was Indian, and so are the father that appears to him via an old VHS (okay that was sort of touching) and his insane uncle. At the end of the film, Shan, his uncle, his newborn baby (who has psychic abilities, the last frame tells us, so come back for that sequel! Anyone?), and his American wife sit down for a classic Indian meal, and it is the first indication since the prologue that this family even knows what Indian culture is. And, in its own way, that’s fine. As a result of this, Shan exhibits no Indian stereotypes, no accent, no cultural identifiers. Plenty of immigrant families have assimilated to this point of being, in every sense, American. That’s genuine. The issue is that, in place of any distinguishingly Indian perspective, Shan has been given the perspective of just about every white male protagonist ever. Shan seems like a guy who opened a start-up company in Ann Arbor with his frat brothers, and it’s doing pretty well, and they go get a drink and ogle chicks on Fridays. In Harry Potter and Ender Wiggins, we see traces of messianic greatness emerging from their unformed, pre-teen shells as their stories progress. With the way the film treats Shan and his world, the only thing messianic about Shan, the only thing that might have designated him as one who should be chosen, is the car he designed, the Firebreather, which the camera ogles at low, car commercial angles, meaning, during action scenes (like the one in which the car outruns a jinn in smoke cloud form), you half-expect Jon Hamm to intone stentoriously that luxury can be yours with just one down payment. Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad created Exxodus Studios and directed Jinn with the stated goal of establishing a financially stable film community in Michigan; he also designed the Firebreather, and if he’s looking for financial stability, he could probably sell a whole lot more of those than he’ll sell in tickets to Jinn.

The Sword in the Stone

Spoilers for The Sword in the Stone ahead. Eventually.

Take a gander at the movie poster for Inglorious Basterds. Go on, it won’t take you long. Watch the full-length trailer if you’ve got the chance.

If you’ve seen the movie, something about this should strike you as odd. What about Shosanna? What about the German soldier boy, Zoller? Those weren’t exactly bit parts, you know. And, more subtly, what about the character of the movie? The trailer cuts to black as Donny Donowitz, the Bear Jew, swings his bat at the sergeant’s head, but in the movie we see every gory detail. We see the Basterds laughing while Donowitz strikes the sergeant’s convulsing body, again and again, until it finally goes limp. I think it should be obvious that a movie that cuts away from that impact (to a shot of Brad Pitt and his jolly band of misfits wincing, perhaps) is very different from the one that lingers and forces us to watch. If not… you’ll have to take my word for it, because really, the point is that I went in to the theater expecting to see one thing, and I got something almost entirely different.

I may have gotten a little carried away in making that point. But, all that said, I’m here to tell you that the folks in marketing have been doing the same thing for decades. In books, even!

The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic

Yes, this is literally a case of judging a book by its cover and the dangers thereof. Regardless of the conventional wisdom on the matter, you don’t put “THE WORLD’S GREATEST FANTASY CLASSIC! CAMELOT AND ROMANCE AND WIZARDRY AND WAR” on the front of a book unless you’re hoping to foster a certain set of expectations. Specifically:

  • Chivalric Romance
  • Epic scope
  • Great pride in the fantasy genre, possibly to the point of self-seriousness
  • Wonders, mystery, majesty

With those expectations in mind, let’s have a passage:

It was almost too hot to think about this, but the Wart stared down into the cool amber depths where a school of small perch were aimlessly hanging about.
“I think I should like to be a perch,” he said. They are braver than the silly roach, and not quite so slaughterous as the pike are.”
Merlyn took off his hat, raising his staff of lignum vitae politely in the air, and said slowly, “Snylrem stnemilpmoc ot enutpen dna lliw eh yldnik tpecca siht yob sa a hsif?”
Immediately there was a loud blowing of sea-shells, conches and so forth, and a stout, jolly-looking gentleman appeared seated on a well-blown-up cloud above the battlements. He had an anchor tattooed on his stomach and a handsome mermaid with Mabel written under her on his chest. He ejected a quid of tobacco, nodded affably to Merlyn and pointed his trident at the Wart. The Wart found he had no clothes on. He found that he had tumbled off the drawbridge, landing with a smack on his side in the water. He found that the moat and the bridge had grown hundreds of times bigger. He knew that he was turning into a fish.

So much for Wizardry in the World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic.

Alright, with that out of the way, let me introduce the book.

The Once and Future King is T.H. White’s novelization of the Arthurian legends, published in 1958. It is composed of four books: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind, of which the first three had been previously published individually (though The Queen of Air and Darkness was originally The Witch in the Wood, a longer novel with, reportedly, substantial differences). To place this in the history of fantasy literature, The Lord of the Rings had just been published in 1955, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 1950. But White had been writing and publishing the individual pieces since 1938—we certainly can’t expect a whole lot of influence from that first round of postwar fantasy novels.

I’ve read The Sword in the Stone. It seems reasonable to stop there and write about it before continuing, seeing as it originally stood alone, and I’ve got a lot to write about. Admittedly, it was not then billed as The World’s Greatest Fantasy Classic. So let’s set that complaint aside for a bit and get into it.

Living Backward

White wastes no time introducing and characterizing the story’s main characters. The very first paragraph gives us the Wart (whose name is derived from Art, which is further derived from his full name, which at this point is no mystery1), the batty governess that takes out her frustrations by rapping his knuckles, the firstborn and heir to the estate Kay, and his father and local authority figure Sir Ector. We lose the governess by the end of the paragraph, but at this point we’re only short one major character and a handful of minor ones, and we already feel for the poor Wart and can sense future tension between him and Kay, who is apparently above such unfortunate nicknames. All this I very much appreciate.

Things take a turn for the comedic before the first page is flipped over. The battiness of the governess is played for laughs, and once she’s dismissed, Sir Ector has a conversation with Sir Grummore Grummursum, local knight who happens to be questing in the neighborhood, over some wine and about the boys’ tutelage. Tough day questin’, asks Sir Ector? Yup, replies Sir Grummore. White is the one who’s playing with the word quest like this, not I. The two knights talk about questin’ a bit like that’s the word they use for their nine-to-five. And speaking of which, White introduces us to another one of his devices here. Sir Grummore suggests sending the kids to Eton. The narrator helpfully explains that Sir Grummore didn’t say exactly this, because Eton is understood to be the home of a boarding school that hadn’t been founded at that point—rather, the narrator is just trying to get you the feel for what was said. Same with the wine—they’re not drinking port, really, but it’s the same idea.

Huh.

The Wart eventually gets lost in the woods thanks to Kay’s careless falconry, where he meets the terrifically bumbling King Pellinore (whose title and very existence I can’t yet explain) and, later, Merlyn. Merlyn is an odd fellow who keeps a talking owl (Archimedes) and a whole host of more mundane animals for company, and he claims to live backward through time (and cleverly illustrates how this affects his daily endeavors by asking the Wart to draw a letter by looking at it through a mirror). Let’s be explicit about this: Merlyn is a walking anachronism. When his spells backfire, they do so in goofy ways, like accidentally conjuring the Morning Post or a bowler hat instead of his wizard’s cap. He rattles off anecdotes about Britain in the 1800s to a puzzled Wart.

Again: huh.

Throughout all of this, White’s prose is wonderful. He writes with that fantastical, contractionless storybook lilt that should sound familiar to anyone who remembers fairy tales with fondness. At the same time, he brings to bear a mighty vocabulary for the trappings of day-to-day life in medieval England: fieldwork, jousting, falconry, you name it. It wonderfully illuminates the differences between medieval life and ours. The exacting and subtle classifications of woodland mammals and birds, in particular, seem like they could only be at home in an era where the Forest Sauvage was your back yard and its wild denizens constant companions in your daily life.

I suppose White’s intention is to build and really immerse the reader into the lives of his subjects and then, by breaking up the narrative with some allusions to times closer to ours, contrast it sharply to our weary world. I really wish he hadn’t done this. I’d rather cannonball into the fantasy world and stay there, even if it is a bit of a silly place. I don’t need to be reminded that it’s 2014 (or 1938, whatever) to understand how different, mysterious, and fanciful it is.

And it is fanciful, indeed. The short list of the Wart’s exploits include being transformed into a fish, falcon, ant, goose, and badger (to learn lessons about might, nobility, war, unity, and humanity, respectively), finding Robin Hood, learning the art of woodsmanship from Maid Marian, infiltrating Morgan le Fey’s fey castle, and, of course, pulling a certain sword out of a certain stone.

These adventures are all, essentially, parables, told with an honest simplicity. Wart’s time as a falcon is spent amongst the other hooded falcons, and he must navigate their parliamentary procedures and rituals with his wits and his guts. The ants march to war, but amongst them the Wart only feels alienated and disturbed by their, frankly, alien and disturbing society, which in turn says things about our own. These are not especially profound revelations—the Heart of Darkness, this is not—but, again, they are simple and honest, and they show us the color of our main characters: the Wart, earnest and humble, who thinks himself trapped by circumstance and is mostly unaware of his own great potential and destiny; Merlyn, a wise old man who strives to communicate the Truth in its truest form, parable, and who has amusing quarrels with the local feudal authorities; and Kay, the haughty young nobleman with everything to his name, but who we’re pretty sure has a decent heart way beneath all of it2.

Of Alternate Histories

Oh, and different is another word for it.

Some background: the island of Great Britain was originally inhabited by a Celtic people known as the Britons. The Roman Empire founded a province called Brittania in 43 AD, which crumbled in few centuries but left its mark all the same. In the fifth and sixth centuries AD, a mix of Germanic tribes, the Anglo-Saxons, settled/migrated/conquered the island, displacing the Britons and founding, eventually, the Seven Kingdoms of England. Vikings periodically rolled in to make a mess of things. In 1066, William the Bastard (later, the Conqueror) of Normandy would claim the throne by defeating Anglo-Saxon King Harold II, who had hurriedly marched his army to Hastings from its victory over the Norwegian army at Stamford Bridge. This ushered in the era of Norman England, where French became the language of court and William the Conqueror set precedents for the English aristocracy that last to this day.

Historically, King Arthur is guessed to be a king in Sub-Roman England: that is, he was a Briton who ruled after the Roman Empire departed, but before (and during) the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

This did not suit T.H. White.

In chapter 22, King Pellinore delivers the news: King Uther Pendragon is dead. So far, nothing unusual about that; we know King Arthur needs to take the throne eventually. But then, Pellinore says this:

“It is solemn, isn’t it?” said King Pellinore, “what? Uther the Conqueror, 1066 to 1216.”

I had spent the greater part of the book wondering what kind of role King Arthur was going to play in the world, and, of course, what the historical/fantastical balance of the story was. This line resolved those questions so violently it made my head spin. The unmistakable implication is that, in this world, Uther Pendragon won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and proceeded to rule for a century and a half3 (a fact buttressed by references to the Norman aristocracy and Anglo-Saxon “rebels”4 elsewhere in the story).

Maybe it doesn’t line up to the historians’ best guess at the situation, but it is really damn cool. T.H. White spends quite a bit of time establishing and foreshadowing future themes in the Wart’s education under Merlyn, like clashing cultures, propaganda, unity, and war. I can only imagine that the legacy of Uther Pendragon, a larger-than-life version of William the Conqueror5, is going to be loaded with these heady, weighty struggles for his young heir. That is most exciting.

Rightwise King Born of All England

I opened this essay with some acrid questions about what kind of great fantasy classic The Sword in the Stone was, and you may have noticed that I’ve pretty well backed off since then.

Normally, I might edit my introduction so that it would join better with the rest, and so all of my thoughts would flow gently toward some coherent, proper conclusion. But this isn’t high school, so I didn’t. This way better captures my opinion of the book, anyway. I started completely put off by White’s anachronistic style and irreverent play on high medieval romance. But the technique he employs and the flair with which he fulfills that vision are mightily impressive, and honestly, those self-absorbed knights could stand being knocked down a peg anyway. And beneath the satire and the trappings and the prose is a kind of pre-coming-of-age story with well-thought-out characters who are both mythical and so very human, and maybe it’s because they don’t need to fill those stuffy romantic archetypes. For that, I can’t hold a grudge.

All I can do now is be excited to see these characters launched into the meaty middle of the Arthurian legend.


  1. But it isn’t written out until the very last word of the book! That’s dedication. 
  2. Kay’s character seems, to me, very ambiguous and his development incomplete. Merlyn sends the Wart and Kay off to Robin Hood’s hideout, a quest which culminates in their successful infiltration of Morgan le Fey’s castle and their troublesome exfiltration, where Kay slays the griffin as it bears down on the Wart. A re-reading of the passage where the Wart asks why Merlyn never transforms Kay suggests that Merlyn is safeguarding Kay’s bravado: if Kay fails before his time, so too may his courage, and presumably that would cause some calamity. So Kay’s involvement on this quest may be part of Merlyn’s plan to bolster his reputation and ego—but to what end? And later, Kay claims that he pulled the sword from the stone, a bald lie that he recants immediately when pressed for honesty by his father. This puzzles me. Was it a lie of convenience that he backed down from when Sir Ector got him to consider the morality of what he was doing? This reading would demonstrate that Kay, underneath, really is a good guy and is destined to be a loyal knight, even with his hubris. But it seems unsatisfying. Maybe that’s just because it’s a situation I’m not used to seeing in literature, TV, or movies—more often, characters that lie will live and die by their falsehoods. 
  3. I wonder, too, if 1216 is significant. It is the same year King John died of illness on the march during the First Barons’ war, although it does not seem like King Uther was at war. Maybe it’s a hint that King Uther’s reign extended past what would have been the date of the signing of the Magna Carta (1215), and thus, that never happened in this history? 
  4. Robin Hood is apparently one of these. I am undecided as to whether I like this or not. It contravenes most Robin Hood legends and scholarship, which place him as a yeoman, earl, or thief rather than an Anglo-Saxon partisan, but White just did the same kind of thing with King Arthur, and I haven’t complained about that yet. Robin Hood remains an anti-authority figure and retains his band of merry men, but surely he loses the Sheriff of Nottingham in this transition. What is Robin Hood without his Sheriff? In this book, he’s a kindly guide to the Wart and Kay, and he’s friend enough to Sir Ector that they can look past the fact that they’re supposed to be political enemies, or something. Hopefully he steps up his outlaw game in the next few books. 
  5. William the Conqueror is one of the most important people in western history. Can you imagine a larger-than-life version of him? It’s like trying to imagine a bolder Julius Caesar or a more brilliant Isaac Newton. If Uther Pendragon is half of what I’m imagining him to be, he’ll still be a perfect emblem for the potential of the fantasy genre. 

Agents of SHIELD

In this episode of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast, Charles and James continue their latest Marvel Universe discussion by watching Episode 17 of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Turn, Turn, Turn. They discuss the crossovers and how the television side of things are working for Marvel.

14 Songs to Know to be Fluent in 2014

Want to be conversant in the pop landscape circa early 2014? These 14 songs are your homework. They’re not the best songs in the land (expect a seperate post on those), but they are the most unavoidable. Here they are, from lowest in quality (subjectively, of course) to highest:

#SELFIE: This is vapidity distilled into a composition. Call it The Vapid Symphony, Movements I-V. You know what it reminds me of? “Baby Got Back.” It’s got that Valley Girl talk intro, and immense amount of repetition, but it’s missing the one thing that “Baby Got Back” has in spades: charm. Whatever you think Sir-Mix-A-Lot’s clever wordplay was pushing towards – innocent objectification, outright sexism – you have to admit, it’s clever wordplay. If #SELFIE (no MORE HASHTAGS!!!) is a parody – and obviously it is to some extent, the writers of the song think the girl talking about her selfie is absurd – it’s not a funny one, and it’s so unbarbed that it has inevitably become adopted by the culture it mocks. And outside of the selfie soliloquy that sells this song, #SELFIE is the blandest of compositions. utter and complete least-common-denominator EDM with no peaks or valleys, just an incessant drone.

Dark Horse: Katy Perry the vengeance wiccan is not as fun as the chibi princess whom we all came to know and kind of love. We can all agree to this, right? Understandably, something big delineates the former from the latter, and while a very public divorce may have emboldened the pop queen to explore her true inner self, all the power to her, her music has suffered and can now be pretty easily reduced to two modes: “empowerment for girls” (the insipid “Roar”) and “screw you men” screeds. “Dark Horse” defines the latter camp and boy is it something I want to turn off the second it comes on – from that inexplicable baby coo that opens the song to the unwelcome return of absurd voice modulation on the “There’s no going back” gurgle, there is nothing keeping me hooked on a production-level to a song that also features clichéd lyrical content and a color-by-numbers rap break, least of all Perry’s vocals, incapable of anchoring a dark dance track in the way that they floated above a more effervescent jam like “Walking on Air.”

Turn Down for What: Not much point in putting a tremendous amount of thought into this one. For me, 99 times out of 100, I wouldn’t be in the mood to hear this. I guess it’s because I’m never turned up and therefore never need to, in the songs parlance, reject any and all means of turning back down. Even I have to admit, sobriety notwithstanding, that hook is pretty infectious. Got anything else for us, DJ Snake and Lil Jon? Seems not. I can’t see the benefit of championing a song with this little to say lyrically (“Fire up you’re loud, another round of shots… TURN DOWN FOR WHAT!” And… repeat.) and compositionally (Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz… And repeat.) Not much point in damning it either. It’s sort of fun.

Can’t Remember To Forget You: That ska beat comes in and this sounds like it should be fun. Shakira is fun and bubbly. Rihanna finds hit songs under her couch cushions when she’s searching for change. We can’t go wrong, correct? This track – which is Shakira’s big post-Voice play for relevance a la Adam and Christina’s “Moves Like Jagger” – dashes just about all those expectations, proving to be a better composition than “Moves Like Jagger,” probably a little, but failing to be even a quarter as mind-arrestingly catchy. The ska opening is more of an empty promise than anything, as the chorus and bridge and just about everything but the verses is straight 4 guitar thrumming. Also, what is Rihanna doing here? This is a love song to a guy, right? (At least I don’t think this is some Shakira/Rihanna slashfic where they’re singing to eachother, not that there’s anything wrong with that if that is what’s going on here. [It’s not…]) Shakira’s voice is the only voice on the planet that sounds like Shakira’s voice, so why give some of its real estate to someone else? It’s not like Rihanna has a guest verse or sings the hook. Sometimes she just sings the lines Shakira would sing. No artistic reason for her to be here at all. Her name just sells more records.

Talk Dirty: I have to admit, on a production level, this sounds great. It’s all about that saxophone, 200%. The longer edit of the song even gives that raspy sax a chance to break down in a full solo which, I mean, what is this, a 1960s Christmas record? Bring that sax! But, if we’re going to be sticklers (and, you know what, let’s be) and delve into what this song is about… Jason Derulo, could you be more of a Caveman? (Sorry Geico Cavemen.) “Been around the world, don’t speak the language, but you’re booty don’t need explaining.” No, but your retrograde, ugly American, sexist braggadocio might require a brief explanation (sings autotune-ily) Jayy-sahnn Derulo.

West Coast: After the debut of the walking authenticity-debate known as Lana Del Rey, Lana the media figure kind of sublimated her controversial “sexy bad girl” image, instead contributing to soundtracks (The Great Gatsby’s “Young and Beautiful,” a “Once Upon a Dream” cover for Maleficent, both magnificent). Also the anti-Lana camp lost some of its basis for argument when a young teenager from New Zealand whose real name is distinctly not Lorde became a media darling and everyone managed not to lose their ever-loving minds. Still there seems to be a conscious attempt to give Lana a more mature sound on this, her return to the spotlight as THE lightning rod Lana Del Rey, and you know what? It’s really dull. I liked the overblown bombast of “Video Games.” The Lana of “Video Games” knew who she was, even if “she” was fictional. This artist… Not sure who she is. Since Lana only has one setting – cooing sensually – and since the lush symphonic backgrounds that justified that cooing have abandoned her, replaced by a lazy surf rock vibe (or actually about four different lazy surf rock vibes, since the track can’t pick just one and crashes from one to the other abruptly), Lana might just be stranded on that beach with the tide rolling in.

The Man: The main question here is this: Aloe Blacc, who are you? (Apperantly, you’re the man, you’re tha man, you’re the maaaan.) Without Avicii’s beats swirling behind your Southern growl (heard by everyone on the planet in “Wake Me Up” on those singy parts between Avicii’s electronic banjo melody), what is your artistic persona? Judging from the video and the soul-fanfare swagger of the composition, one thing he wanted to clear up immediately with “The Man,” his big solo breakthrough, is that he is African-American, which will probably surprise a lot of people who heard his country twang on pop radio. This is a song that evokes the notion of “swagger,” and has been used in a lot of “swagger” commercials for athletes and brands that are all about owning your superiority, but, once that fanfare pumps me up, I always get a sense of deflation listening to this song. Apparently Blacc composed it to impress Dr. Dre, who was curious about the singer after his “Wake Me Up” breakout but hated his old folky stuff. So Blacc aimed to write a song that Dre would want to blast from his car windows on a drive around L.A. And I while I could see that, I don’t feel like Dre would be speeding down the highway with this playing. I feel like he’d be cruising along to that opening wave of trumpets, and then get caught in mild traffic for the rest of the song.

Sing: Ed Sheeren is essentially the offspring of Jason Mraz and Ron Weasley. He’s adorable and a fantastic, smooth singer. One light I had never thought of him in, however, was the funky, hip-hop, blue-eyed soul mode inhabited, now and forever, by Justin Timberlake. “Sing,” the Pharrel-produced attempt to make Ed Sheeren as viable of a Justin Timberlake substitute as we can get between the biyearly releases of the outtakes of Justin’s jam sessions (also known as albums), is a fair reminder that not everyone can sing “Senorita.” There’s nothing wrong with “Sing,” per se; Sheeren has the falsetto and pseudo-wrapping chops to back up the production. Yet the fact that Pharrell – Pharrell, who could make Robin Thicke sound edgy – could not draw out of Shereen a song stronger than most of the material on either 20/20 Experience record (which is sayin’ something) is a fair indication that Shereen might be better off sticking to balladeering. Which is fine. I love his balladeering.

Magic: I don’t buy into the line of reasoning that Coldplay is uniformly dull. Coldplay is sporadically dull. I crave a soaring, melancholy Coldplay melody when they can give it to me. “Magic” scratches that itch a little bit, but, for a grand pronouncement of love, it’s truthfully a rather sleepy affair that doesn’t really get anywhere. Which, considering lead singer Chris Martin’s recent conscious uncoupling from his wife Gwenyth Paltrow, seems sadly apt. There’s something extremely soothing about the low-key way Martin almost mumbles “Call it magic, call it truth,” but the climax of the song is neither big enough nor melodic enough. It’s not the tuneless noodling of the post-“Viva La Vida” Coldplay, but it’s not “Viva La Vida” either.

Best Day of My Life: Woo, woo-oo-oo-oo! Is there much else to say really? I’ll give The American Authors, who sound like just about every other Neon Trees/Imagine Dragons aspirant out there, this – their lead singer shouts the heck out of those verses. He does not believe in easing you into a song. For such a gentle little sing-along, it adds a not-unpleasant sense of urgency.

All of Me: In his less than favorable review of “All of Me,” Todd in the Shadows (great reviewer of pop music!) calls this latest pop breakthrough by soul singer John Legend his “Three Times a Lady.” What can I say? Cheesy ballads are great. I’d say it’s more “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” I’m pretty deeply invested in “All of Me.” Admittedly, it’s hokey, cliched, and really, really melodically simple for such a virtuosic talent. Yet I find it beautiful, its simplicity belying an economy of expression that moves me to both sing along and sigh contentedly. Legend’s voice is velvet and his piano arrangement, while not complex (and while using those four chords, I know), registers emotionally and builds in all the ways that “Magic” fails to. No, Todd, you’re right, it is no “Ordinary People,” the masterwork of a composer at the top of his game. But it is the best love ballad of the year so far.

Let It Go: The most extraordinary thing about “Let It Go” (and to be clear, there are a lot of extraordinary things about this song, from Idina’s iconic performance, to Lopez’s immaculate songcraft, to the film the song hails from which is just, you know, the biggest animated movie of all time, but this is the MOST extraordinary thing) is that it is a pop hit. A mega pop-hit. That the album is the country’s best-selling album for so many weeks running it hurts to comprehend isn’t that surprising, but to see Idina Menzel – not Demi Lovato – on the Billboard Hot 100, setting up a permanent camp at #5 is a veritable shock. The days when popular movie songs ruled the Billboard charts are long gone, and those that have had recent chart success, like “Happy” and “Skyfall,” have been pop songs from massive radio artists. This is Idina Menzel – she is our Broadway goddess, yes, but you never thought you’d hear her introduced by a DJ. When Frozen debuted, I knocked “Let It Go” for sounding a little too radio friendly in the context of the film, but that didn’t mean I thought I’d ever hear it on the radio. Let alone that I’d hear it all the time. And shout along with it in the car. Thank the Internet’s obsession with covering and satirizing (lovingly) this song for its incomparable popularity. The cold never bothered me anyway. It’s our new credo. Welcome to the new world.

Happy: Are you happy yet? Pharrell wants you to be happy… You will be happy! It’s alarming how prophetic the 24 hour music video for this song was, predicting as it did what has essentially become a police state in which the only enforced law is that we all must listen to Pharrell all the time. And you know what? If any song can stand up to that immense amount of scrutiny, it’s this jam that the phrase “This is my jam!” was made for. What Pharrell understands so well, better than anyone else in the music industry, is that the space between music is as important as the music itself. That space is the music. No arrangement allows more space than “Happy,” which syncopates and drops in and out with absolute, unceasing glee.The hicuppy, descending “Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy” bridge will be the progenitor of Soul Train dance lines at weddings for generations to come.

Pompeii: As it reaches “Happy” levels of ubiquity, we have to question whether this out of nowhere hit by an out of nowhere British band stands up to the same test – if you hear it on what essentially amounts to a loop, do you want to punch those chanting monks in the face? I do not. I want to hug them. From the chant that announces the song’s arrival on your dial or your playlist, all the way through to the somber bridge (“where do we begin/the rubble or our sins”), you could make the argument that Bastille is being pretentious even as you chant along. I wouldn’t disagree – the primary mode here is uninhibitedly bombastic. Yet that bombast is leveraged in all the right ways. Of all the big hits of 2014 so far, this is the one I hope stands the test of time.

Noah

It is important to note that no one in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah believes the titular Noah is delusional when he announces that the Creator has told him in a series of dreams that a flood is coming to wipe out either pretty much all of humanity or all of humanity FULL STOP. (Noah’s a bit fuzzy on the details since the Creator wasn’t exactly forthcoming on that bit.) Nor do they break out the pitchforks when he decides that he should build a massive ark, and that on this ark he should house a male and female specimen of every innocent beast on Earth so that they can be preserved after the cleanse to end all cleanses.

When Noah tells his wife Naameh and his children, they’re all on board for a field trip to Methuselah’s mountain. And when Noah tells his great-grandfather Methuselah, the ancient man bemusedly agrees that this sounds like their Creator alright – distant, a bit fuzzy on the particulars, rather irritated at the state of humanity post-apple-tasting. Tubal-cain, the king of the destructive, industrial, environment-abusing heirs of the murderous Cain, who shouts things like “My mine’s run dry! Damned if I don’t take what I want!” (Noah is an ancestor of Seth – the third, not-murdered brother – and is accordingly a gentle vegetarian who scolds his son for picking a flower because his family only takes what they need from the land, not what they want), is a bit incredulous about this Great Flood business for a moment, but upon seeing Noah’s army of fallen-angel-construction-workers, the envious king quickly buys in; if anything, he’s just peeved because he wasn’t cc’d on the Creator’s message re: humanity’s imminent demise.

A lesser version of this story would hang its hat on the conflict derived from kindly, bearded, old Noah acting on what he believes to be God’s will and everyone else being all like “God said WHAT?” before they get their just desserts. (Oh hey, look that movie already exists.)

Aronofsky, a director obsessed with obsession, isn’t interested in the incredulous reactions of non-believers. It’s the verging-on-insane credulity of Noah that fascinates the director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler and Black Swan, all films about belief that verges on illness, inordinate dedication, addiction, and delusion. Through that lens, it’s not difficult see why Aronofsky sees the building of the big boat and the collection of the world’s animals two-by-two as visually resplendent way-stations (mere logistics!) on the path to the story he actually wants to tell.

An agnostic who grew up in a Conservative Jewish household and who has wanted to make a film about Noah for most of his career, Aronofsky truly sinks his teeth into this story of Noah, this rather short passage in Genesis that became his own pet obsession, at the point in the story where Noah is no longer doing what his Creator told him explicitly to do (save the animals, save the world) and begins doing what he believes must have been implied on the periphery of the horrifying images he sees in his prophetic dreams. In essence, Aronofsky turns what most see as a Bible School-friendly parable about pairs of lions and elephants and their kindly old shepherd into a visceral horror film where all the principles are confined to a boat with a zealot acting on the vagaries of his Creator’s will. The film begs the question “What do you do once you’ve bought into the notion that it is His will that your species shall be wiped from the face of the Earth? Wouldn’t that drive you to do some… drastic things?” That is Aronofsky’s story, as he sees it. It is the best story I’ve seen told in a theater thus far this year.

Is this story faithful to the one in the Bible? No idea. Let me check…

(Not joking. Full disclosure: I am not religious, and not much of a Bible reader [okay, not a Bible reader at all], which I guess makes it easier for me to push my upcoming argument that Aronofsky’s alterations to the source material succeed because they allow him to enact his personal artistic vision. After all, in my view, he isn’t vandalizing a holy text, he is interpreting the world’s most famous text, as I feel every artist should have the right to do. Feel free to disagree, whether that disagreement stems from religious beliefs or opinions on the artistic execution.)

Wow, that story was short and… not extraordinarily descriptive. Aside from the boat measurements. I know exactly how big that boat was in cubits. I don’t know how Noah felt about the demise of his species, but the boat size I am very aware of. I don’t mean to be flippant. The notion of a creator regretting his creation and electing to press reset, only to back out at the sight of a man he believes he can entrust with the future… it’s powerful stuff, and the text itself is not given its due by what its been boiled down to symbolically: “Aww look at those two elephants on that boat! Rainbows!”

The skeleton is there for what Aronofsky does – God is fed up with humanity, Noah is God’s favored man, Noah is told to build an arc for his family and the world’s animals; wow, even the part where Noah gets drunk and Noah and Ham don’t get along is in there, and I figured that was all Aronofsky pulling strings – though the director adds a lot of muscle tissue and flesh.

The fallen angels building the ark (more on them later), the sage advice of Methuselah Dumbledore, the attempts of a group of humans to seize the ark before the flood: none of that is in there, but none of it directly contradicts the source material either. It’s filling in some blank space in the story (why does Noah get so sozzled?), giving it emotional depth and internal logic and a touch of spectacle, grafting a more traditional three-act structure with conflict and mentors and B-plots onto what is about five paragraphs of text.

Truthfully, only two things directly contradict the version as told in Genesis:

  1. Everyone is aged down dramatically. No one explicitly says Noah isn’t 600 years old in Noah, but the fact that his sons are so young leads us to believe that the filmmakers decided to de-age the ancestors of Seth to… not-as-Biblical proportions.
  2. Noah’s sons do not have wives. This is the one place where Aronofsky absolutely looked at the text and said, “Yeah that’s nice, but wouldn’t it be cooler if…”

In this case, Aronofsky’s suggestion is that it is way too easy for the human race and for Noah – the gatekeeper of the Creator’s mass extinction event – if all three of his sons have fertile wives waiting in the wings. It is much more dramatically interesting if Noah convinces himself that the Creator intends to wipe out all humanity, including his family. Limiting the available females to just one (Ila, played by Emma Watson) and making her infertile until the most convenient moment possible may read as sacrilegious tampering, but it pushes every character to make interesting decisions that break apart the “one happy family” narrative.

Who wants to watch a two hour film (or, if you maintain that Noah is too long, a film of any length) where the only character struggling with a conflict is the Creator – the unknowable, unfathomable Creator? Who wants to watch a film about a family, free of interpersonal conflicts, patiently waiting out a storm? You may want to see a film where the only issue is “What do we feed the okapis? And what is that platypus thing?” but I saw We Bought a Zoo and don’t need to see its nautical remake. Arnofsky’s decision to focus on Noah’s belief that the Creator intends for all of humanity to perish – whether that is in fact His will or not– and the fallout from this belief drives almost all the human drama in the film.

  • The Creator (as God is always called in this film) vs. Noah: The entire back half of Noah concerns Noah’s belief that the Creator will provide Noah anything he needs if he needs it. Not wants it, but neeeeeds it. When Ham pleads for a girl of his own, Noah counters: “Hasn’t He sent everything we’ve needed?” Noah needed wood for his ark, and the magic seed from the Garden of Eden grows him a lush, verdant forest in a matter of minutes. (One of many visually resplendent scenes in a visually resplendent film, filled as it is with dark silhouettes against vibrant sunsets and stunning time lapse montages that jitter and skitter to hallucinogenic effect.) Ila, Noah’s adopted daughter, cannot become pregnant due to a childhood injury, so it falls to Ham (who is desperate) and Japheth (who is, like, seven, and is only in this film because Noah had a third son in Genesis) to find wives.

The Creator is not forthcoming with those wives, even sending Noah a third vision that seems to say, in no uncertain terms, “NOPE!” (That vision, with its lamb torn limb from limb, is striking and haunting.) And so Noah becomes homicidally adamant that his failure to get clarity on the “Should we be able to procreate after the flood?” question means that it must be His intent that Noah’s family is to survive the flood so they can ensure the survival of the innocent beasts, but after that… no more children!

When he finds out that Methuselah and Naameh have colluded on a secret plan to help Ila get pregnant, Russell Crowe flies into full-on Mel Gibson-in-tirade mode (I honestly had to remind myself a time or two that I wasn’t watching Gibson), perfectly walking the line between heroic man of faith (only he can see the truth) and madman (everyone is repulsed by him). Ascending the ship in a thrilling, frenetic tracking shot and looking to the heavens, Noah asks for a sign that might steady the hand that would strike down his grandchildren, and in response he gets a stop to the rain, a sign that he interprets as a kill order and his family interprets as a ceasefire. The moment he sets it in his mind that Ila must remain barren – “I will not fail you, it will be done” he says to the sky – Noah becomes a man so repulsed by the greed of Tubul-cain – in fact so repulsed by his Creator’s repulsion – that he makes a selfless decision to sacrifice his own family on the orders of a higher power; however in enacting this vision, he becomes almost inhuman, perhaps as inhuman as his enemy. He is framed through curtains and veils, glanced on higher ramparts from below. He is transformed through framing into a totem of a malevolent demigod. Potentially much more malevolent than the actual Creator who set him on his rampage intends him to be; Noah never directly betrays the Creator’s orders, but a lack of direction goes a long way towards allowing Noah to make some objectionable decisions in His name, making the closed quarters of the ark very claustrophobic. These actions put him in direct conflict with…

  • Naameh vs Noah: It sure seems like Noah is going to waste a whole lot of a good thing – namely Jennifer Connelly, playing the ever-dutiful wife. Sure she pleads with Methuselah to help Ila against Noah’s orders, but it is not until Naameh is backed into a corner, puts her foot down and threatens to disown her husband for his decision to kill Ila’s children when they are born that it seems justifiable that an actress of Connelly’s caliber was cast in such an underwritten role. Every actor in this film, aside from the actors who play Shem and Japheth, gets a juicy monologue, but no one tears into the emotion in theirs quite like Connolly, who begs him to see that his assumptions about the Creator’s will cannot be right, and that, even if they were, he should not follow them. He believes what he is doing to be painful but just – by this point Noah has already outlined to her what the flaws the Creator must see in them are (Shem: blinded by desire; Ham: covetous; Japheth: loves to please; Noah and Naameh: would kill for their children) – but Nameeh cannot believe the man she loves (or loved) could be so blinded by faith that he is both unwilling to see that all the flaws he describes are tied to a desire to love and connect with others, and that he is so willing to put what might be the Creator’s will so far above the well-being of the people he loves. She counters furiously that, if Noah follows through, he will be “hated by the ones you love. That is just!” Her fury makes their touching reconciliation all the more powerful.
  • Ila and Shem vs. Noah: Douglas Booth as Shem largely gets nothing to do in Noah – he is asked to be in love with Ila, and, when the tables turn, angry at his father for wanting to take his granddaughters’ lives. He hatches a plan off-screen to sail off on his own raft to protect his new family, and is understandably unhappy when his father burns the raft at the last possible minute. Aside from this, Shem is shockingly almost as absent a presence as his youngest brother. This actually proves to be a film that is much more concerned with its female characters than one might initially assume, and Emma Watson is wonderfully strong-yet-fragile as Ila. She doesn’t get too many scenes in which she is allowed to shine since much of the young actor material is given to her Perks of Being a Wallflower costar Logan Lerman, but whether she is playing the daughter afraid of disappointing her father or the mother who refuses to look away as a dagger is held to her child’s throat, Watson is one of the main reasons that I’m confident in pronouncing a film with so many special effects an “actor’s film.”
  • Ham and Tubul-cain vs. Noah: If there’s one place where Aronofsky’s vision falters, it’s here, with Ham, the consummate middle child. Ham is swayed by Tubul-Cain, allowing the villainous king passage on the boat and nursing him to health so he can kill Noah, and it is difficult to tell whether this is all spoiled petulance (Dad wouldn’t let me date that girl!) or whether it is supposed to represent something bigger. Maybe it’s the skeevy way Lerman chooses to play Ham, but when Ham elects to leave his family and wander the Earth like (ironically) Caine, it seems like Aronofsky is trying to write a check on the profundity of Ham’s journey that the sweaty-palmed-teenager performance can’t cash. The selfish king with whom he aligns is so obviously despicable that it becomes hard to see Ham’s actions as anything but revenge, and pretty much impossible to see them as a wrestling match with higher philosophical matters. Don’t get me wrong, Ray Winstone is absolutely delicious as this film’s villain, wringing pathos and menace out of his own shouting match with the sky (“Speak to MEEEEE!”) and delivering some great lines with just the right amount of humanity, sneering that humans don’t serve beasts as Noah does, beasts serve humans, and intoning that “A man isn’t ruled by the heavens. A man is ruled by his will. Are you a man? If you’re a man, you can kill.”

It’s still hard to see how Ham falls for that shtick outside of some obvious teenage rebellion. The one criticism I’ve seen of the film – a film I loved and am admittedly pretty defensive of – that I would probably second is the assertion made on Slate’s Culture Gabfest that the film would have been more interesting if the humans the Creator was wiping out were less inherently despicable; if their industriousness was damaging to the environment but also a wonder to behold, forcing Noah to truly wrestle with wiping out an advancing but not evil civilization. As it is, Tubal-Cain and his band of rapists and thugs make it very easy to root for the water, which makes the first two acts an admittedly uncomplicated affair. It is only once Noah finds a place where he should draw the line and doesn’t that the film begins tackling bigger ideas.

One criticism I can’t say I’m fond of is the snickering reaction to the, as they have teasingly become known, “rock monsters.” Place me firmly in the camp (is anyone else in the camp with me? Hello?) that would have loved to see more of these sad but noble creatures. I was sad to see them exit the story so early, though I thought their return to heaven after imploring the Creator to forgive them was striking. A lot of people see Aronofsky including Transformers-ish creatures in his Bible epic as a concession to a higher budget and desire to being in a larger audience – in essence the fallen angels as a version of “selling out” – but from the character design, which evokes in its haunting asymmetry the Laputan robots from Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, to the sequence in which we see the angels descend, against the Creator’s will, in order to help the sons of Adam only to be coated tortuously in the mud of the Earth, I admit to having felt an immediate appreciation for the filmmakers’ construction of these creatures, CGI be damned.

Appreciation: this is a fair way to sum up how I feel about Aronofsky’s interpretation of the story of Noah. I appreciate his visual sense (his Creation montage is a likely candidate for “Best Scene of 2014” come December), his approach to bringing a questioning eye to religious belief while not condemning the religious, and his direction of actors as they tear into meaty soliloquies and tense stand-offs. Noah is a riveting film, powerful, thoughtful, and extraordinarily well-acted. Aronofsky gives his characters so much to chew on and so much to say. The spectacle is awe-inspiring to be sure, but this film is as it’s best confined to close quarters, with characters sparring with words and stories, using the shared history of ten generations of humanity to justify decisions in lieu of direct orders from the Creator. Because it is in those battles where characters hash out an ageless war. When is acting on God’s will faith? And when is it something much more sinister? At times Noah sounds like the Biblical hero we are familiar with and at other times he sounds like an especially fervent serial killer who claims he’s received his order from a talking dog or Catcher in the Rye. And Aronofsky offers us no out. It is unclear from the film whether the Creator, as a character (and make no mistake, he is an acting character though he remains physically unseen), intended for Noah to slay his grandchildren and eliminate humans or whether he is happy Noah backed off at the last minute. Ila’s words as she implores Noah to stop drinking and return to his family (she suggests that the Creator stopped communicating because he wanted Noah to choose for himself the fate of humanity) and the iconic rainbow we see pulsing outwards at the end seem to imply the Creator is pleased with how things turned out, but one moment in the Creation montage strikes me as less optimistic.

We get to the moment where Cain strikes down Abel with a rock (a recurring motif that shows up no less than five times in the film, including at its climax) and, instead of sticking with the image of the Cain and stricken Abel, we see, in silhouette, soldiers from wars throughout history bringing that rock down and falling to the ground. This fourth-wall breaking moment (in that World War I does not exist in the timeline of this story, but is an acknowledgement of our knowledge of world history) wins the award for most obvious yet still effective symbolic gesture since the fetus shot in Gravity. Aronofsky reminds us that it is important to keep in mind that men did not cease killing each other with the purge of the “bad men” we see here. It is all taking place on a continuum of violence, and this story exists at a midway point in that timeline, not at the end of it. Unlike other bleak apocalypse films of recent vintage, this film takes place in the distant past, but Aronofsky’s seemingly dissonant inclusion of images from later wars brings the parable of Noah just the right amount of relevance for our age.