Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Masked Pedagogue

To begin: two fundamental premises.

That Noah is speculative fiction; which is not to say that it concerns itself with the extrapolation of a logical system against a realist backdrop.

That Noah is not speculative fiction; which is not to say that it doesn't have some pretty impressive monsters.

Prior to this, however, it should be noted that Noah is the sort of film that seems decidedly uncomfortable with its being watched. There is something slippery about this seeming, though; unlike a Rear Window, which confronts this same discomfort by insisting that it is so busy watching itself that it doesn't even notice that the viewer happens to be in the room with it, or an M which pours itself onto the screen with such intensity that it seems it must be attempting to project its own onto the viewer, or even a Funny Games attempt at wild fingerpointing to indict the world, itself included, Noah simply trudges along, desparate to look over its shoulder but unable.

There are reasons for this, of course, from Aronofsky's avowed atheism to the co-screenwriters description of their decision to "make [race] not a factor" by only casting white folks to a $125 million dollar price tag and the involvement of Paramount Pictures. Films that thematize their particular relation to form may have once appeared to be the purview exclusively of auteurs like Lang and Hitchcock, but money has always been a weird universal, and the auteur was never much more than a forged signature. Breton may have skipped town before the checks bounced, but Freud and Paramount know how to recognize a market once it's been fabricated, and somehow* they've continued to make a killing on it.

The Aronofsky is not a particularly lucrative forgery, but it is a phenomenal lie. The signature's signature is its focus on flawed characters set in extreme situations, which require outsized emotional investments. This is, of course, cosmetic; the Aronofsky is, like all signatures, a means of control. It is a pedagogue.

First and foremost among the impressive monsters on display in Noah, and the greatest testament to its disinterestedness in the emotional exploitation of fictional constructs, is the magnificently wooden, despicable Russell Crowe as the title character. At the center of the film is a laughablre redux of the spectacle that Tree of Life was built around, reconstituted through the alienated patriarchal form par excellence, as explored most recently in The Croods, the campfire story.

Crowe's recounting of one of the creation myths in Genesis is done, as one might not expect, in the language of the New International Version rather than the King James; as much as this is a continuation of the film's reactive colorblind ideology (by way of the fiction of universality, as buttressed by the fiction of internal consistency as a consequence of its opposition to the Political) in its canny** refusal to mark its own historicity, it is (especially through The Croods, in which Nicolas Cage's subdued performance is, in retrospect, a thing of tiny brilliance) hardly unmarked, cementing the earlier only (violently) suggested continuity between the patriarch and the monstrous other*** as a tertiary concern of the film.

And so to anticipate the objection: tertiary concerns do not justify fundamental premises. To which: soon, hopefully.

The forgery is, of course, the product of some agent, and is the means by which that agent conceals itself; and so it is in its way a mask. Lets call that mask by its initial, M, and, purely for sake of differentiation, refer to that weird universal by its slang, cash: C. The C dons the M; the M allows the C to return, in supplemented form (hopefully) The forgery is a simple process; C-M-C. A useful formula.

This M, as developed through historical precedent, transitions from a resource predicated on artificial scarcity (talent) to one of pure exchange, with the conditions of the auteur becoming generalized to the industrial apparatus (primarily through Star Wars). It is the industry, then, which itself performs the forgery.

The masked pedagogue, the industry itself; that $125 million hidden behind the Aronofsky is transmuted into the story of an ahistorical man who himself is the mask of a pedagogue. His monstrosity is in his being enmasked, or claiming to; he is an expression of the Will of the hidden other, the Creator, on whom the end is blamed and through whom the means are interpreted. This, much more than the apparent theme, is the real material that the forgery has become associated with; the man who masks himself to teach, and his discomfort in being seen doing so.


Noah begins with a young Noah's ceremonial induction into manhood proper to his ancestry, with his father's wrapping a shed snake skin around his own arm to touch the boys finger and make it light up. The father fails to complete the ceremony and is murdered. It ends in incomprehensible quotation, as Noah, the skin returned to him (and now revealed to be that of the Edenic snake, which for some reason already lacks legs in this version of the Garden), performs the same ceremony on his twin infant granddaughters. With two generations skipped, it is perhaps appropriate that the ritual undergoes a certain amount of revision.

A man survives on the ark as a stowaway, his leg broken and untreated, eating only scraps and snakes for nine months. The greatest dictator the world has seen and a prehistoric industrialist, he fails to convince a boy that his father, who is threatening to murder outright his own grandchildren, and who he watched sacrifice the only friend he had ever made, is worth opposing.

Angels, made of light but cursed to live in stone bodies, have to alternate left-side, right-side when hammering stakes but can sweep men in three different directions at once.

Women are abducted and dragged through the streets, screaming, traded for scraps of meat. There is blood on Russell Crowe's foot, seeping through the soil. He wakes up. He returns home from town, calling off the search for wives for his sons.
A correct judgment of the picture-puzzle results only if I make no such objections to the whole and its parts, but if, on the contrary, I take pains to replace each picture by the syllable or word which it is capable of representing by means of any sort of reference, the words which are thus brought together are no longer meaningless, but may constitute a most beautiful and sensible expression.
The logic of fantasy is generally semiotic. Signs are given material effects, which heredity or mastery (or, more often, both) unlock. The logic of horror is generally psychological, the mind-half of the dualism distilled down to a single concept given flesh (or metal or bone). The logic of science fiction is generally temporality, expressed through technology. None of these are definitions.

Like the cod-universality of mythological time, the dream sequence is a sort of narrative blind spot. It is a hole in time which pretends itself to allow direct (albeit obfuscated) functional access to the semiological or psychological core. It is, of course, no such thing. 138 minutes. The only temporal holes are the production company logos. Perhaps the credits. The dream sequence cannot even be said to be a suture; it is only ever, in the most straightforward sense of the word, sentential. A dream is a painted-over infodump.
Now the dream is a picture-puzzle of this sort, and our predecessors in the field of dream interpretation have made the mistake of judging the rebus as an artistic composition. As such it appears nonsensical and worthless.
Each of the three genre umbrella'd over by Speculative Fiction are more than their logics. There are many which reorganize them or outright refuse them. They are not reducible to them. The logics are often discursive, modes of reading more than modes of writing. They remain only insofar as they provide an initial point of differentiation from the realist mode that all three predominately operate within. Noah, in lacking any of these contrastive logics****, as well as any systematic presentation of itself in a mythological idiom, is a case study of speculative fiction which lacks the capacity for worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is probably nothing but the accretion of incidental details which suggest a coherent framework that bridges the apparent gap between the realist base of the fiction and its logical superstructure. The degree of coherence required is the point at which the reader generally enters the frame, and becomes the writer (or, I suppose, the critic, if you must). Worldbuilding makes no sense in, say, a Lukacsian analysis of Realist fiction, because the point is to synthesize the logic (capital) with its base (the world, its sociology and psychology). One could say that it was exactly the idea of worldbuilding that Lukacs was attacking in his assault on Expressionist and Modernist literature. In, say, Joyce's emphasis on the fractured psychology as a product of capitalist space, Lukacs sees the refusal to perform the synthesis necessary between the part and the whole to provoke an efficacious response to the mode of production. Instead, a simple bridge is built, and the gap traversed. Incredible bourgeois apologism.

Which is, of course, why Noah has lead directly to the proliferation of soviets throughout the most advanced industrial countries in the world.

The point, at least partially, of terms like magical realism and slipstream is that they too adopt certain generic capacities without structuring themselves around that gap. How successful that is, or whether it even serves as sufficient differentiation, or whether what I'm saying here with regard to these terms is even remotely accurate, will have to remain an open question.

Given that the elaborated logics are not definitive, the capacity for worldbuilding is not a fundamental requirement of the classification of speculative fiction. Noah is exemplary in this regard. The whole film is a failure to bridge the gap. From its narrative refusal to even systematize a gap to its forgery that only ever reinscribes the mask, it is, as they say, (w)hol(e)y.

A religious absence, marked by its conspicuous unmarking; a formula for accumulation. A pedagogue, melted into air. And not unlike that weird universal, it appears nonsensical and worthless.

*material conditions


***shockingly, a white as fuck film is especially amenable to an analysis that finds continuity in monstrosity and racially-marked otherness

****in keeping, perhaps, with its adamant, hole-ridden ahistoricism

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