Scott: Before diving into Darren Aronofsky’s Noah specifically, let’s start by getting a sense of the director’s career in general. Noah is only his sixth feature since 1998, when he broke through with Pi, a prime example of innovation on a low budget, and it’s his second major studio movie (not counting two from Fox Searchlight) after The Fountain, his notorious flop-turned-cult-item for Warner Bros. in 2006. The wrangling over different cuts of Noah, coupled with complaints from religious groups about its non-Biblical rendering of the story and last-minute screenings for critics, makes it look like another studio folly (maybe of the “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” variety.) But one thing has been certain from the beginning for Aronofsky: Whether you like his work or not, it’s singular and uncompromising. And that reflects the common willingness of his characters to put themselves through the ringer—or the ring, in the case of The Wrestler—to achieve some form of transcendence, no matter the severity of the consequences. From the beginning, when he made up for Pi’s budgetary limitation through aggressive editing and sound, Aronofsky has wanted the audience to have a visceral, even physical, experience sitting through one of his films. For him, the way to the heart is through the body.
So let’s get a baseline here, Noel and Nathan: Where do you stand on Aronofsky? What are his strengths and weaknesses? And what do you see as the ongoing concerns in his work?
Noel: I would rate myself as fairly high on Aronofsky; I would also cop to being something of a late-coming admirer. I found Pi fairly exasperating at the time, and I respected Requiem For A Dream far more than I enjoyed it. Oddly, it was The Fountain that turned me around on Aronofsky. By the time I saw it, The Fountain had been roundly trounced by most of my critic pals as a pretentious, career-ending mess. I went to see it begrudgingly with my wife, a theologian and science-fiction/fantasy fan who was primarily interested in Aronofsky’s religious themes. And when it was over, we both turned to each other and said, “That was… good?” We couldn’t believe we’d both liked it so much. In its bold, heartfelt effort to unify one man’s romantic quest across three eras, The Fountain reminded me of some of the brainier science-fiction I’ve read, or a great prog-rock album. It’s eccentric, it’s ambitious, and it takes itself seriously.
You ask what defines Aronofsky, Scott, and I’d say it’s that: He makes movies that strain so hard for profundity that it’s easy to write his work off as overwrought; and yet he comes at these films from such odd angles that they don’t feel stodgy. Whether he’s turning Requiem For A Dream into one long montage or constructing universes in The Fountain that are at once vast and intimate, Aronofsky is always asserting his own point of view, rather than laying back and taking everything in.
This approach reaches its apex (at least so far) in Black Swan, my favorite Aronofsky film. But I’ll wait a bit before I get into that, because we should talk first about The Wrestler, which is in some ways an outlier in his filmography and it some ways very typical. Nathan, I know you’re a Wrestler fan. Does Aronofsky’s style have anything to do with why you like it, or is it all in the script and the performances?
Nathan: Noel, I would be a little worried for you if you enjoyed Requiem For A Dream too much. It’s not exactly the kind of thing you’d want to throw on at a family barbecue, but it’s a perfect example of what makes Aronofsky so remarkable: his eagerness to take chances, to push his films and his characters to the point of obsession and then beyond. Noah is very much in the tradition you both described. It’s about a man who pushes himself through the ringer for a shot at transcendence and, as Noel suggested, it’s so sincere and strains so hard for profundity that it’s easy to write off as overwrought.
And that’s why I kind of love Aronofsky. He’s my favorite kind of filmmaker, the kind that makes a point of overreaching, who makes films that are messy, bold, and overflowing with more imagery and imagination than they know what to do with. And that’s Noah in a nutshell. Aronofsky has transformed what could have been an old, stodgy Biblical epic into an intense, dystopian chronicle of obsession and madness. He made it into a real Aronofsky film that, despite its enormous budget and solemn subject matter, is every bit as warped, dark, and eccentric as Black Swan or Requiem For A Dream.
Noel, I do love The Wrestler, though I give much of the credit to the script and the performances. [Full disclosure, The Wrestler was written by Robert Siegel, a personal friend of several Dissolve staffers. —ed.] But the ground-level, almost documentary-style 1970s grubby realism Aronofsky brought to its visual style was a big part of what made the film so shattering. And The Wrestler has far more in common with Noah than it might appear at first glance. In some ways, Noah feels like the film Aronofsky has been building toward his entire career, one that realizes his longtime obsessions with sacrifice, transcendence, and the ultimate meaning of life—he’s never afraid to ask the really big questions—on an epic scale. Would you agree, Scott, or am I overrating this epic? Where do you think Noah fits into the man’s filmography? And where do you see him going from here? At one point he was supposed to direct the Batman reboot that eventually became Batman Begins. Could you see him ever venturing into that world?
Scott: Noah fits right into Aronofsky’s filmography, nice and snug. There’s a degree to which he’s trying to satisfy not only himself, but the studio that’s investing more than $125 million into his Biblical spectacle; that comes out mostly in the rock-monster form of “The Watchers,” fallen angels turned carpenters/protectors on Noah’s project. That element reminded me a little of the Ents, those massive talking trees in The Two Towers, and a sequence in which they do battle with Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) and the wretched hordes feels like a concession to spectacle. Beyond that, though, Noah is another Aronofsky story about the quest for transcendence and the massive physical/psychological torments exacted by it. Russell Crowe’s Noah recalls Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in The Last Temptation Of Christ: A man who’s on a mission from God, but who doesn’t really know if he’s worthy or capable of it, or really exactly what it is that God wants him to do. If wiping out humanity seems to be the goal here, what does that mean for Noah and his family? Are they exonerated? Does carrying out God’s will involve stamping out the dying embers of his own humanity?
These are big questions that complicate a Biblical legend that’s often simplified to arky-arky sing-song, and Aronofsky deserves credit for emphasizing its darkest implications. But since Noel hasn’t seen Noah yet, I wanted to shift to a related thought on Aronofsky: Where is he coming from spiritually? Noah has already been condemned for its unconventional take on spirituality, but when you think about movies like Pi or The Fountain, his desire to address a higher power or higher consciousness doesn’t seem to bring us to any one, coherent point of view on religion. Or does it? What do you think, Noel?
Noel: In terms of picking one religion? No, Aronofsky’s not that coherent. The Wrestler is pretty much one long metaphor for Christ’s Passion; Pi is super-Jewish; and so on. But in terms expressing some kind of faith? Aronofsky has been so dedicated to that in the past that I was surprised when some people raised an eyebrow at him following up Black Swan with Noah—as though his Noah was going to be some cookie-cutter Biblical epic. Over and over, Aronofsky has made movies about people who attempt to know the mind of God, or to defy His will. I haven’t seen the film, but I know the Biblical Noah is a quintessential Aronofsky hero: dangerously fanatical, but with a divine purpose.
If nothing else, The Fountain should’ve been a cue as to where Aronofsky’s head is: At no point does he indicate that any of his three guys named Tom (the 16th-century Spanish explorer, the 20th-century doctor, or the futuristic astronaut) is deluded in his quests. The big question the movie asks is whether their obsessions are worth the time it costs them away from their loved ones—not whether they’re quixotic.
Nathan: I can assure you that Noah is very much in that tradition, Noel. Not to get too Barton Fink here, but Aronofsky is a genius at depicting characters wrestling with their conscience, wrestling with their sense of self, and, in the case of The Wrestler, straight up wrestling other wrestlers while also wrestling with his conscience and sense of self.
In its own strange, complicated, conflicted way, Noah is an expression of faith. But to get back to what Scott was asking, it’s not entirely clear where exactly that faith lies. Is Noah an expression of faith in humanity, or an expression of faith in a divine creator? There’s an element of ambiguity to that question, and to the title character’s dilemma as a whole, that speaks to a profound central ambiguity that I can see enraging people who want their Biblical epics tidy and neat.
I see a lot of Aronofsky in his characters, who are similarly driven to extremes by their obsessions and their sense of destiny. Aronofsky embodies the auteur as ultimate deity of his own cinematic world, and in Noah he seems boldly, brazenly willing and able to destroy a world he and his gifted collaborators devote so much time and effort to creating. I admire the hell out of that kind of audacity. It’ll be interesting to see whether the moviegoers of the world follow suit.
Scott: You make an interesting point, Noel, about Aronofsky’s interest in spiritual quests trumping any specific religious destiny. As much as Noah might affirm “the Creator” as ultimately working toward a more just and verdant new world, what endures about the film—and connects it to Aronofsky generally—is just the idea of human struggle period. And perhaps that will make it anathema to faith-based consumers, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re all in Noah’s position of having to puzzle out God’s plan for us (or whether God exists at all), and we can’t be entirely certain if we’re reading all the signs right, either. Failing any guidance, Aronofsky’s characters simply strive, whether for the transcendence of Noah, Pi, and The Fountain, or the fleeting euphoria of Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan.
One thing we haven’t talked about with respect to those last two, The Wrestler and Black Swan, is how Aronofsky upends genre expectations. Because we’ve seen the story of the down-and-out athlete who keeps hanging around and we’ve seen the story of a dancer pressed to perfection, but we haven’t seen either quite like Aronofsky approaches them. The Wrestler transforms the pro-wrestling circuit—or the off-off-WWE circuit, anyway—into a Passion play, with barbed wire and folding chairs in place of thorns and crosses. And Black Swan escalates the behind-the-scenes goings-on of a Swan Lake ballet into a psychological thriller that verges on madwoman-in-the-attic horror. Noel, I know you’re particularly fond of the latter. Why do you find it so striking?
Noel: Because to me it’s Aronofsky’s most instinctive, intuitive film. One of the dangers of being an artist who thinks big thoughts and tackles big themes is that the resulting work can feel overly planned-out and heavy-handed. Black Swan is over-the-top—and crazily so—but from moment to moment and scene to scene, it’s as though Aronofsky is letting his subconscious control the tone rather than thinking too hard. He finds a resonance between old-fashioned backstage melodrama and something more gothic, and then he just plays that vibe for sheer cinematic pleasure as much as any other reason. I think Aronofsky is reaching toward something similar in Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain, but he gets there more consistently in Black Swan.
And yet, for all its looseness, Black Swan features another classic Aronofsky hero in Nina Sayers, the dancer played by Natalie Portman. To get past her crippling self-consciousness, Nina has to push her body, her sexuality, and her dancing to an extreme, trusting that if she makes that leap, she’ll transcend her own humanity. Her character embodies what Aronofsky is doing with the movie, heightening everything until it’s more than human.
What I love about Aronofsky is that he doesn’t need an interstellar traveler or a Noah to tell a story about an intensity that borders on the prophetic. Give him a ballet dancer or a pro wrestler, and he’ll find the lunatic drive within.