On Nuance and Noah: Toward Cinematic Literacy

April 7, 2014 — 2 Comments

Russell Crowe as Noah

Now that some of the hype has died down, I want to comment on the Noah movie. Actually, to be more accurate, I want to comment on the response to the Noah movie, and what it teaches us about interacting well with movies. When it comes to analyzing movies, we need nuance. I think this is the biggest lesson from the Noah movie. I still haven’t seen it, so I won’t offer extended comment. I also don’t want to review the reviews. I’m just going to assume that you’ve either a) seen it, or b) read a review (or several). Also, if you say “you know what happens when you assume,” I’ll just respond by saying, “It sounds like you’re assuming I know what happens when you assume.”

The best way to offer nuance in a movie review is to look at the film from multiple perspectives. Not surprisingly, I’m going to later advocate you use John Frame’s triperspectivalism to make sure your analysis is 3D. For now, I just want to point out that you can look at film like Noah from a few angles.

First, you should analyze what is front and center. No not how faithful it is to the book. Rather, a movie is primarily a story, so your primary analysis should be about the plot. Is it a good story? If so, why? If not, why not? Deal with the nature of the story first. This is also the first step to bracketing out whether you liked it, and whether or not it was good. You can concede it was good but not necessarily like it. Conversely, you can like it, but at least be willing to concede it might not be good. And of course we are not talking of moral goodness here, but whether it is a well-told tale or not.

Second, you should analyze the actual cinematic elements. Is the acting good? Is the cinematography good? Would they story have been better had someone else told it, or someone else acted in it? I think this is more difficult to do than the story, but it is worth the effort. It is an area I could grow in, since my focus has mostly been on the ideas in the movies. Speaking of which…

Third, you should try to discern what the moral of the movie is. Not the moral content, but the actual moral message of the movie. It’s in there because a screenwriter put it there (usually). It can be seen in how the protagonist’s physical journey and psychological journey meet. Sometimes it is blatant. Sometimes it is pretty obscure (or potentially nonexistent). Closely tied to the moral is the philosophy of the movie. This is sometimes a hodge podge of philosophical ideas, not necessarily a clearly articulated philosophical system. I like to think through this in three questions:

  • What does this movie tell me is real?
  • What does this movie tell me to believe?
  • How does this movie suggest I should live?

That should be much less cumbersome than wondering what the metaphysical vantage point of the auteur is. But, in asking those questions, you’ve covered your philosophical bases.

Lastly, you can do a meta-analysis of the movie. This would be where you would ask how faithful the film as a whole is to its source material. Often, the movies we watch are based on books, we (meaning Christians) just usually don’t care. We do care however if it involves Tolkein, and the Bible (and some to a lesser extent Rowling). In general, I don’t think this is a very important question. Because a film is necessarily an adaptation, it is a creative product in its own right. It doesn’t need to strictly follow the story it is based on. It is by nature a creative re-telling that the director or screenwriter makes his or her own. I can see how people get all up in arms about a Bible movie not being all that biblical. But at the same time, when has a movie version ever a) been better than the book or b) been more or less identical? Usually, the director and/or screenwriter have to pick what gets left out. In the case of Noah (and this was what made it problematic for most people), there was so little to work with, they got to pick what got put in instead.

Now, for meta-analysis, there are other angles you could take. You could ask how the particular movie relates to other films by the same director. You could compare to others in a similar genre (is it better than competitors? worse?) Is the movie having significant cultural impact? Unfortunately, this is where most analysis starts and finishes. It is tempting to jump straight to this level of analysis. But, your analysis here will be much better if you’ve done the ground level analysis, or at least thought through it a bit. It is, to use an analogy, kind of like a sermon. You want your pastor to read the text (watch the movie), then explain the words, grammar, and syntax (analyze the plot/cinematography). Then you talk about the biblical-theological connections (meta-analysis) as well as application (moral message). A sermon that is basically a theological lecture is like a movie review that is all meta-analysis. It might be interesting and even helpful, but it’s not really about the text in question. But, when ground level analysis is coupled with analysis from 30,000 feet, now you’ve got nuanced movie analysis.

I’ll probably expand on this more since this is just a sketch. The bottom line is that when you want to offer a review or analysis of a movie, make sure it starts with the story and expands from there. The review that of Noah that do this are the most helpful. The ones that only focus on whether it is faithful to the Bible are missing the point of a movie. They are, in a word, cinematically illiterate. And that’s not something any Christian cultural commentator should be.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 responses to On Nuance and Noah: Toward Cinematic Literacy

  1. I agree with you. But to a point. If I may use your comparison – if Jackson and co had put a bunch of the Smurfs, and inserted the plot of Men in Tights into the part where the Fellowship comes together, I’d argue that although it would possibly be hilarious, it would no longer be the Lord of the Rings…the movie it purports to be. Now, the question with Noah is, for me: crazy and entertaining movie as it might be, Does it, accurately or not, bear faithful resemblance to the Bible story? Inaccuracy is a given, but I think it’s fair to say that the Noah movie with Daniel amd some lions wouldn’t be a good Noah movie, however good a watch it is.

    • I can see where you’re coming from. At a certain point a story has lost all resemblance to its source. It’s actually a larger and interesting question about modification’s effect on existence. To what extent can something be modified beyond its original form and still be the same thing? I think you could say when people react negatively to a book adaptation they are sensing some kind of invisible line has been crossed that makes the adaptation inauthentic. To my knowledge, no one has really articulated where this line is or what its basis is. Probably something worth pursuing.

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