Noah – film review

Warning this review contains spoilers of the sort that go beyond a basic knowledge of the bible story.

Russell Crowe as NoahSo let me start with a preface: I think this is the most Biblical film I have seen in a very long time, perhaps ever. It is a two hour long meditation on the nature of God and the nature of humanity.

All good myths require imagination and the power to suspend disbelief, and the Noah story is no different to that. In its original Biblical form its a retelling of some kind of universal near eastern story of a time when a great flood came. You find different versions of the same story in other texts too.

But the Hebrews used this story to not just deal with some half forgotten history, but to add to the conversation around two questions – who is God? And is humanity worth saving from itself?

That is what this new version of the old story does too.

Using plenty of imagination, as befits the telling of a myth director Darren Aronofsky conjures up an antediluvian world of almost surreal proportions. He gives the drama a dreamlike quality, in the same way that a memory highlights certain colours and textures, and fades other detail into obscurity.

He deals cleverly and subtly with the notion of how God speaks to Noah, using a combination of dream and psychotropic experiences to reveal the creator’s plans. This will surely disappoint those who prefer the Sunday school idea of such communication. However, despite its grotesque proportions, it is all the more real for that.

Another piece of re imagining comes in the casting of the Nephilim as rock bound creatures, difficult for those of us who prefer to imagine them as models of muscle bound masculinity. However, the really wonderful thing about his re imagining of these ‘Watchers’ (a term taken directly from the extra/non/orthodox canonical) text of Enoch is the way he uses them to tell their own story of love and redemption.

The great problem for those of us who read the story through an understanding of a God who is love, is the prevalence of the myth of redemptive violence. I thought that this would be a problem in the film too, that we would still have to deal with a vengeful God who wants to visit death and destruction on evil humans.

But actually the story overcomes this, and this is the great ‘arc’ of this myth, it’s Noah’s great realisation that his mission is not to see humans wiped out for their sin, and thereby to recreate the garden in its virginal purity. Instead his mission is fulfilled when he realises that the love he has in his heart is what God wants.

Aronofsky uses some license to get there, the device of the babies is his key interjection into the story, should Noah kill the children to fulfill his mission from God? When he finds he cant do so, he feels that he has failed, he becomes deeply depressed, he fears the the love he has in his heart for his grandchildren makes him weak, and of no use to God.

His epiphany comes as he realises eventually that love is his mission, his broken, loving and weak heart is what God wants. It is then that the new covenant comes into place.

Another clever addition to the story is the incorporation of Tubal Cain into the tale, he is recast not as Naameh’s brother as in the original text, but as the king, or ‘chief of the baddies’.

What he wants is to seize equality with God by force, he wants to take it – this is the fall story still in place. That man can be equal with God by eating the fruit. Tubal Cain is the antithesis to the eventual ideal type Noah.

Tubal Cain wants to recreate paradise too, but another sort of paradise, he wants to see the power of humanity dominant over nature – and this is the other great arc, the environmental theme of stewardship over dominance. Aronofsky seems to play on this heavily, and he’s right to do so, it’s a contemporary addition to the story, but one which has all the more relevance for that.

The way this works out is in Noah’s killing of Tubal Cain, another part of his supposed ‘duty’.

One final addition to the story is that of Methuselah, played as a wise ancient Shaman who has a fascination with finding berries before he dies. For all his powers, he cannot find the berry he wants, until his last moment, when God in a gift of small amounts but epic proportions reveals a berry to him, just before he meets his death.

So yes, this is a meditation on the nature of God, revealing eventually a God who is loving, who doesn’t command death and destruction, but who is misunderstood and disobeyed (obey comes from the Latin and has a close association with the word listen) by all but a few. It’s a God who grants small kindnesses, who sees into the hearts of humanity, and loves them.

And it’s a meditation on the nature of humanity, for from earth (humus) they came. It recognises humans as capable of great wickedness and of great love.

Acting wise I was impressed by everyone, except perhaps Emma Watson, who I found unconvincing. I didn’t desperately like the fight scenes, but I don’t like them usually anyway – they were however a necessary dramatic device.

It was both massively divergent from the original text, and simultaneously totally faithful to the spirit of it, and that is what makes it very very Biblical. Those who want more Biblical literalism will hate it no doubt. I thought it was excellent.

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How Grimsby really went to war with Channel 4 over Skint

This blog is a response to the article in the Guardian on Tuesday 1st of April, by the journalist Helen Pidd.

Helen is a good journalist, and while I’m glad she wrote the piece, there are a few things which I think need to be addressed – apart from a couple of factual inaccuracies there are also some wider points made in the balanced article which could do with some attention.

Firstly to set the scene, for some months some of us in Grimsby have been working hard to prevent KEO films, a  production company that prides itself on an apparently ‘ethical’ stance, from making a new series of the ‘documentary’ Skint in Grimsby.

The first series of Skint was set in Scunthorpe, and while the talk was of documentary, the reality was much more about tabloid style journalism. Individuals felt they had been misrepresented and lied to by producers, communities felt let down by empty promises. And the whole country got to have a chuckle about the ridiculous behaviour of the benefit class preceriat who inhabit ‘the town with a swear word in its name. A whopping 2.8 million viewers got to see the residents of the Westcliff estate as they went about the daily lives of the urban underclass.

Reviews were mixed, and confusing: “It’s funny, fair, frank.” Said Sam Wollaston of the Guardian, while in the Telegraph Neil Midgely warned: “Presenting difficult topics on TV is one thing – presenting them as soap opera is quite another.”

But on one thing we can agree, that Channel 4 had a hit on their hands, the likes of which they hadn’t had since Kirsty and Phil engaged in a campaign to raise the property price bubble to breaking point.

The main Grimsby resident that Helen quotes is the Rev John Ellis, a man who has a hard won reputation for tenacity and drive, and whose Shalom youth project is a beacon of what real urban ministry among the dispossessed can look like. John is a friend who I admire greatly, and whose opinion on this I dispute totally.

He has spent almost as long as I have been alive working in this area, and it would be foolish to discount his experience and insight, but nonetheless I believe he has fallen for the spin of producers who are full of talk of ‘giving people their voice’ and allowing them to ‘tell their story’. What I know as a former hack myself is that this is tabloid 101. This is exactly what you say to get over the doorstep in any difficult situation – it’s precisely how I myself got over many a doorstep, although I hope I never exploited that opportunity as some do.

The truth is that the story is not going to be told just how the individuals want them to be told, they are not going to be in on the editorial decision making – they are the raw material, they are Foucault’s ‘bio power’ for the media machine. It’s their antics which are going to get Channel 4’s next ratings hit, not their grimy back story.

John says that his community is more ‘oppressed’ than deprived, he’s right – although the former is actually a consequence of the latter. He also says that he doesn’t think his community members are best described as ‘vulnerable’: “You keep hearing them being called ‘vulnerable’, but believe me, many are as vulnerable as a Sherman tank. They’re no shrinking violets by any means. They want their stories told.”

I’m one of those who do think many of these individuals are vulnerable, vulnerable precisely because they have been oppressed, vulnerable because they are addicted, vulnerable because they are poor, vulnerable because they are hungry. They are vulnerable because for many people, their whole lives have been lived under the shadow of domination by others, whether it’s an abusive or neglectful parent, a violent partner, a government (series of actually) who have chosen to ignore them or just didn’t know how to help them. They have had little or no recourse to self determination, and then along comes a media company keen to find another ratings winner in austerity Britain, which offers them a chance to ‘tell their story’.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the real story has to be told about this area, about towns and cities and village all across the country where people are living in squalor and poverty – about how people in the seventh richest country in the world can be going hungry, and about how children are growing up in environments where they are neglected and left with no aspiration or hope for the future and turn instead to the easy comforts and short term solutions of drugs, alcohol and crime.

Grimsby is a town which has certainly suffered as it has de-industrialised. Many parts of it are tired and run down, many parts of it are deprived or oppressed. On my own estate (Nunsthorpe) some houses are boarded up or derelict, and crime stats are depressing at times. This is a place at the sharp end of savage government cuts, and a place where thanks to cheap housing, people often move to – although not so often because they are in hope of a job. It’s also a place which is at the forefront of some emerging industries, particularly the renewables sector, and parts of the catering sector too, there are many exciting creative projects,and some wonderful creative people. There are good points about living here, and there are bad ones. A real documentary series might demonstrate that, and it might demonstrate the fact that some people do feel so desperate about the oppression they under that they make very poor choices indeed. They are a minority of the population, but they are real.

But lets be clear, that is not what Skint is going to do, to extend the Sherman tank metaphor a little, the very facade of strength and impenetrability that the oppressed and vulnerable build up to defend themselves against further attack will be used against them. The Sherman’s nickname of ‘Tommy Cooker’ for the way that they could be set on fire is apposite.

Now it could be that in the aftermath of the huge media fallout that followed ‘Benefit’s Street’ the next series of Skint takes a different tack, and actually does try to tackle some of the real issues, and tells some genuine stories – that is what I hope it will do. But to expect it is far too much. It’s narrated by an actor with a stereotypical ‘Northern’ voice, not by John Pilger.

The inaccuracies in Helen Pidd’s article are to do with the involvement of Steve Chalke in the public meeting which Helen attended. She cites Katie Buchanan of KEO Films as saying that “The Nunsthorpe public meeting had been convened by Steve Chalke, a charismatic Anglican pastor who runs over 40 schools under the Oasis banner, including one on James Turner Street.”

Perhaps this is Ms Buchanan’s misapprehension rather than Ms Pidd’s, but it’s quite wrong. Firstly the meeting was convened by Grimsby residents, I know for I am one of them. In fact I invited Steve, who is also my boss, and arranged the meeting at a school in which I work.

Secondly Chalke is not an Anglican pastor, he is a Baptist minister, and he doesn’t run any schools, he founded a charity under which an arm operates which does. Perhaps these are insignificant – but I don’t think so entirely, it shows me that Ms Buchanan at least, and perhaps Helen Pidd, haven’t been paying attention to my own correspondence with them, a particular shame with regard to Ms Buchanan whom I invited to the meeting personally, and explained the context fully. If she cant even get my story right in one paragraph when it was spelt out clearly in black and white, what hope do the residents of the oppressed areas of Grimsby have in a ratings chasing televised series?

Personally I strive to be even handed in this debate, I don’t try to pit one side against another, I haven’t backed calls for road signs with ‘get out channel 4’ or anything else. I believe in a free press, I believe in a society where people should be able to express themselves. But I don’t believe that is what is on offer here, and nor do many others, which is why I and others are at a kind of war with Channel 4.

But as it happens I don’t like using the rhetoric of warfare, I don’t really approve of the use of war as a metaphor in this way, it helps to embed an idea of war as normality in our thinking.

And in reality there is not one voice about this issue in our town, there are a large and vocal group of people who oppose the series, there are a smaller and vocal group who welcome it, and there are the vast majority who don’t much care – in reality it will be them who make the running.

The fallout from Skint will be something that I have to live with and work amongst, as it will be for John Ellis and others of us who have committed ourselves to the betterment of our communities. Ours will be the legacy of children who are kept off school, or ‘good’ families who move away from stigmatised areas, or families at war with themselves, or neighbours who never speak again. Long after Channel 4 have gone, and empty promises from local politicians with no money or mandate to deliver them are blown away like sand, there will remain those of us who don’t believe that its right to blame the symptoms for the causes, or to set up targets to be knocked down to spare the blushes of a political class living in times of austerity.

(Edited 4/4/14 to remove typo from line one where it read ‘Kidd’ instead of ‘Pidd’ which will teach me to wear my glasses while writing.)

universal soldier – pilotless planes and the future of war?

My bullet’s bigger than your bullet.

Universal Soldier was one of those 1990s cyborg nonsense movies, built on the back of the kind of  post or transhuman mythology originated by the likes of Philip K Dick and William Gibson.

Van Damme’s Luc Devereaux, the cyborg who does war – was, depending on your perspective either an optimistic or pessimistic view of the future of warfare, inhumanity meted out by unhumans.

Like many of the best sci-fi stories, there is a hint of reality in the story. War has gradually been removed from the harsh reality of hand to hand combat, armies no longer charge towards one another with axes and clubs raised – ready to stab and bludgeon one another. Unless you count football hooligans or rioters of course.

But rioters and hooligans are not deliverers of ‘legitimate violence’ – that is the prerogative of the state, and the state needs to be seen to be as humane as possible in its dispensing of death. In particular it is politically awkward for soldiers to be seen to die in foreign fields, although its less bad if those soldiers are themselves foreign.

Footage of planes ‘delivering’ their digitally targeted ‘payload’ looks much more like a computer game than something inherently ‘real’ – Baudrillard’s seminal ‘The Gulf War did not take place’ develops this theme in much more devastating analysis, pointing to the fact that the way air strikes replaced hand to hand combat effectively made the warfare unreal in terms of ‘conflict’.

What I am leading to with this is the latest iteration in this post humanised process – the removal of pilots from fighter jets. There are already a plethora of remotely operated vehicles capable of delivering bombs and sending/receiving imagery and intelligence. Now legitimate death machine merchants BAE have developed a remotely operated fighter jet which can do all that the famous 80s helicopter Airwolf could, but without the need to involve risk to a pilot. So long, Stringfellow Hawk.

Warfare is always inhumane and removing pilots from planes does not mean that fewer people will die, just that death will become less politically embarrassing to the most powerful warriors.

But without him,
how would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau?
Without him Caesar would have stood alone
He’s the one who gives his body
as a weapon of the war.
And without him all this killing can’t go on

He’s the universal soldier
And he really is the blame
His orders comes from
far away no more.

They come from him.
And you and me.
And brothers can’t you see.
This is not the way we put an end to war

Buffy Sainte Marie – Universal Soldier

Riots, stigma, name calling and zombies

A little over thirty years ago the Clash released a song called ‘White riot’. It’s an anthemic rallying call of fury and frustration:

White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own
White riot – I wanna riot
White riot – a riot of my own

It talks about the idea that the white community is too ‘afraid’  to exercise some ‘power’ on the streets – noting:

Black people gotta lot a problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick

An’ everybody’s doing
Just what they’re told to
An’ nobody wants
To go to jail!

Along with other Clash songs, such as ‘London’s burning’ I dont think White riot will be getting a lot of air play any time too soon. But a look at the lyrics demonstrate that many of the frustrations of the time are still those voiced today:

All the power’s in the hands
Of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street
Too chicken to even try it…

Are you taking over
or are you taking orders?
Are you going backwards
Or are you going forwards?

I saw at incredibly close hand the ‘race riots’ of 2001, indeed I was the first journalist on the scene as Oldham erupted into violence. I could sense even then the amazing otherworldliness of seeing yourself as pitted against the forces of oppression and injustice, and taking out your anger with bricks and petrol bombs. I will never forget the blistering heat of an unattended police van burning on an empty street, or the feeling of adrenalin as I accelerated my car to get through a makeshift roadblock.  I can even understand why people would suddenly think  ‘they can’t stop us, we can do anything we want!’

But what Strummer and Jones in 1977, the Asian youths of Oldham and Rochdale in 2001, and the rioters of 2011 all failed to understand was that they were never going to prevail against the system by force, because we’re all part of it.We are effectively oppressing ourselves by buying into a worldview which prioritises aquisition and answers ‘wrongs’ with violence.

I read and hear a lot of people talking about ‘feral scum’ – I suppose in some ways its a natural enough desire to lash back and to try and hurt those who have hurt or offended you – but really name calling does nobody any favours.

In fact the ‘feral scum’ label is more or less meaningless. The rioters are no homogenous group of disenfranshised youth fresh from smoking drugs and giving each other diseases in a bed sit, they are a range of people, from 11-year-olds to professional people, who have fallen for the lie that the individualistic consumer is king.

Seemingly sports goods and flatscreen teles are the two ‘must loot’ categories – both of these being two of our best examples of ‘conspicuous consumption’. We have bred a culture where we to consume is good, if you dont have the cash to buy stuff, you are the underclass. I’m afraid that looting and rioting is not simply attributable to ‘feral scum’ but is the result of a cocktail of circumstances, all underpinned by a worldview or culture of individualistic consumerism.

The best way I can conceive of this is to reflect again on a metaphor I used a little while ago, that of zombies. The zombie is a perfect image of the individualistic consumer, and its no coincidence that our streets have seemed more like a zombie movie than the ‘real world’ recently.

So my hope is that we can stop pointless namecalling, call a halt to arguments over who is to blame, and accept like GK Chesterton that for any of us here, actively involved in our society which is built upon greed and injustice, the answer must be:  ‘…What’s wrong with the world? I am.’

I grieve for those who have lost loved ones in this mess, and feel great sympathy for those who have lost livelihoods and livings at the hands of criminals. Adding layers of stigma and calling names while failing to realise that as a society we have been breeding this kind of problem for decades however, will not solve anything.

Arrested leader of Drug ‘cult’ had Wild At Heart as required reading

News broke yesterday that Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas aka El Chango (the monkey), the leader of ‘La Familia’ had been arrested by federal authorities in Mexico.

The arrest of the Cartel boss who had a $2M bounty on his head, may or may not spell the end of the group’s five year reign of terror.

La Familia was founded in 2006 by Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, who was killed in December. Gonzalez had split off from the Los Zetas cartel – a notorious group of gunmen who were originally set up as a mercenary army by former Mexican special forces soldiers. He set up La Familia as a kind of vigilante syndicate to crack down on crime in the state, but things changed very quickly, and after seizing control of drugs manufacture and smuggling routes, it became a massive organised crime body itself. Left: Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, right: Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas. 

But the story of La Familia, also known as La Familia Michoacana after the state in which they are based, is made all the more bizarre by its incorporation of evangelical Christian teachings into its indoctrination of new members.

And notably – or at least newsworthy, the bizarre inclusion of the evangelical Christian self help book ‘Wild At Heart’ by well known author John Eldredge – as a kind of ‘set text’ for gang members.

La Familia were/are known as the biggest exporters of methamphetamine into the USA. But they are involved in much more than just smuggling drugs, they have been running a kind of parallel economy in the state of Michoacan where they charge taxes and run a violent protection racket, seemingly controlling elements of local government across the state.

Their reputation is one of extreme violence, but that violence is only directed towards men (not women or children), and in particular only those who they say ‘deserve to die’. They mete out what they consider to be ‘divine justice’ via beheadings and other brutal actions, and celebrate family values through a commitment to a sort of evangelical Christianity.

The founder, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez aka El Mas Loco (the craziest one), who died last year wrote and self published a ‘bible’ of Christian aphorisms inspired by his own beliefs. These were of a kind of muscular Christianity, one which allwed for brutal killings so long as they were ‘just’ – and presumably allowed also for drug trafficking and other criminal activities, which suited a bigger purpose.

The cartel has become known for – as well as its extreme violence – establishing large scale poverty alleviation projects and encouraging people through de-tox programmes. These outlets invite comparison with the outlaw legend Robin Hood, who famously ‘robbed from the rich, and gave to the poor’ and had God on his side as he battled the corrupt authorities.

One of the strangest parts of the story is the incoporation of the book ‘Wild At Heart’ by American author John Eldredge in to the teachings of the cartel. Spanish translations of Wild At Heart, which has become a popular text for Evangelical Christians around the world who are eager to recapture an image of masculinity from an ’emasculated’ church culture, have been found in the group’s safe houses. It is thought that it was originally brought back to Mexico by Gonzalez after a smuggling trip. He went on to incorporate many quotes from the book into the group’s handbook.

Critics have pointed to Eldredge’s characterisation of masculinity, which includes the idea that men instinctively love weapons, and that they need to have a ‘battle to fight’ and a ‘divine mission’ as having fueled the fire of Gonzalez’ messianic urges.

Eldredge on the other hand has defended his book, pointing out that many texts have been misinterpreted, and later suggesting that perhaps reading his book may help gang members change their ways.

He said that if gang members actually read the book: “they would know that submission to Jesus is central to the entire message. They seemed to have missed the central point, which gives context to everything else.”

It is not clear what will happen next with La Familia, the cartel which had begun life as a vigilante group claiming to protect the state from evil, had offered to do a deal with Federal authorities, saying they would disband if Mexican government officials promised to safeguard  Michoacan. They wrote: “We have decided to retreat and return to our daily productive activities if the federal and local authorities … promise to take control of the state with force and decision.”

La Familia’s claim that if they were to disband without an agreement, then their base would be taken over by rival gangs and corrupt authorities is probably true. At any rate, there is no shortage of candidates for the post of Jefe within the cartel, and if it does collapse, it is more likely to be through internal strife than because of this arrest. So whatever happens next, things are unlikely to get much better in Mexico, where President Calderon’s drug war has seen 4,000 people die in the last five years.

Endo’s Silence, and the problem of the impossible question

Whenever one has a discussion about an issue like pacifism with somebody who doesnt share the same convictions, there usually comes a point when an impossible question is posed. In that case, the question is usually something like: ‘What would you do if your family were being horribly slaughtered, and you could only stop it by shooting the assailant dead?’

The question is intended to demonstrate the futility of the pacifist position, the basic faulty thinking that lies behind a pacifist response.

But of course, just because there is an obvious thing that one probably would do – doesnt mean that it would be morally ‘right’.

In his incredible novel ‘Silence’ the Japanese writer Shusako Endo tells the story of a Christian missionary in Japan a few hundred years ago. This was a time when the Japanese were extremely antithetical towards this foreign religion, and there was a great deal of persecution of both missionaries and converts.

Part of the plot revolves around the question of whether the main character should deny Christ, in order to save others from torture. The already suffering peasants are put through terrible pain, because the priest won’t ‘step on the fumie’ or apostasise.

So one could ask a committed Christian, who is sure of his or her faith – ‘but what if your family were being tortured and killed, and you could stop them by blaspheming and renouncing Christ? What would you do then.

This impossible question is perhaps a sister to that asked of pacifists – and demonstrates (perhaps) the futility of a faith position.

What they really demonstrate though are the impossibilities of asking such questions. Endo’s ‘Silence’s is a fantastic book for anyone interested in pursuing such thinking, and meditating on the silence of God amidst pain and hardship. But do consider the pointlessness of such questioning if you are ever challenging a pacifist – what might be thought ‘necessary’ or ‘the only choice’ is not necessarily the right one.