Monday, September 8, 2014

Beauty Will Save the World

Dostoyevsky
One of the discoveries that came to light during my research for The Moral Premise, and which to this day continues to be true, is that a true and consistently applied moral premise is at the heart of all successful stories. (Where "truth" is coincidence with Natural Law, and "success" relates to audience acceptance on a broad scale, e.g. box office). 

If a movie has a slew of A-list actors attached, with a big budget and strong marketing but the moral premise is false, the movie will bomb, or come in less than expected. At the same time, having a true and consistently applied moral premise does not guarantee success, because there is the Natural Law of craft and marketing. But success cannot come without that central idea that binds the talent to the heart and makes it all work as one.

A properly applied moral premise elevates the otherwise diverse collection of talent and money to secure a story as a work of art that reminds us and encourages us to embrace all that is good, true, and beautiful in life. 

 I thought of all that again when today as I read an essay by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn titled "Beauty Will Save the World" which is his reflection of Dostoyevsky's enigmatic phrase. The entire essay is here but here is the part that reflects what I've been trying to say about the moral premise's importance.
Dostoyevsky once let drop the enigmatic phrase: “Beauty will save the world.” What does this mean? For a long time it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty had provided embellishment certainly, given uplift—but whom had it ever saved? 
However, there is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart. One can construct a political speech, an assertive journalistic polemic, a program for organizing society, a philosophical system, so that in appearance it is smooth, well structured, and yet it is built upon a mistake, a lie; and the hidden element, the distortion, will not immediately become visible. And a speech, or a journalistic essay, or a program in rebuttal, or a different philosophical structure can be counterposed to the first—and it will seem just as well constructed and as smooth, and everything will seem to fit. And therefore one has faith in them—yet one has no faith. 
It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm.
Exploring this a bit further I came upon this explanation of Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot at A Heedful Idiot blog by French priest Fidor, who quotes Pope Benedict XVI Address to Artists, about the importance of beauty, which I think describes profoundly why stories, as art, told truthfully, will save the world:
If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day.”
That's what successful movies are to me, they give their audiences the joy of seeing what is good, true and beautiful about humanity and creation once again. We leave the theater of a great film story with a firmer grasp on the profound meaning of our existence and mystery of which we are apart. And that understanding draws us closer to fullness, happiness and the passion to engage life joyously everyday.

Meanwhile allow me to recommend my friend Gregory Wolfe's book Beauty Will Save the World on the intersection of this concept and the demise of the modern culture.

Monday, August 25, 2014

D. M. Cumbo's Dreamside Book Series Uses The Moral Premise

David Cumbo is a veteran concept artist who has been at Ratchet & Clank and Resistance developers Insomniac Games for the past 7 years. He is one of those extreme talents and is not applying his trade to story books, and motion pictures. 

Some time ago he enlisted my help with a story concept for a series of animated e-books he's calling DREAMSIDE, the first of which is coming due soon.  It's the uplifting story of a child's search for meaning amidst a deadly disease. 

The story and his art are truly amazing so I'm glad he's given me permission to share his project with you. 


Media coverage so far:

David's site is http://www.dmcumbo.com/ where you can watch him (in time lapse) draw Dreamchild. Here's the trailer for the series: http://youtu.be/gXUbo8EA5Js

Congratulations, David, it looks truly beautiful. 

stan

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Great Summary of The Moral Premise

Karen Schravemade
@TaraGoedjen included @MoalPemise in a tweet with a link. I followed the link and came across two comprehensive blog posts by Aussie Author-Blogger-Mother Karen Schravemade about The Moral Premise book.

Karen has done an excellent job of summarizing Part 1 and Part 2 of the book.  I suggest that she may understand the book better than the author, ber posts reminded me of a few things that I didn't even think were in the book, but had always wished were. Duh! Maybe I ought to reread what I wrote. Thanks, Karen for doing that for me. Here are links to her helpful summaries.

The Moral Premise - Part 1

Applying the Moral Premise to your Story (Part 2)

She also did a great job of analyzing FINDING NEMO and articulating a moral premise statement which I will post on the Moral Premise Statements Page of my main site. I may have to use her explanation of the Moment of Grace in NEMO in my workshop. Gotta watch the  movie again, just for the "You just have to let go!" line.

Karen is one of the contributors to the writer's blog, The Writers Alley: Inspirational Tips Write Up Your Alley.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wobbly Moral Premise Statements

I received this comment and question from a reader in Hong Kong. He apologized for his English, but it was actually pretty good. Nonetheless I've edited it in the post below for clarity. In honor of this question, I must post a picture of the Chinese edition of The Moral Premise. (I had nothing to do with the cover design...neither did my publisher, or so I'm told.)

      Dear Dr. Williams, 
I am a screenplay writer from Hong Kong. Yes! You have a loyal fan all the way from China. : )  
I really love your book and your blog. You have such a kind heart to share your ideas.
Here's my question: I always find the moral of my story wobbling. Maybe I want to say too much within one story. Or, maybe, I don't know how to shorten the moral to a one-line moral premise statement.  
Regarding a recent project here's my dilemma. 
Is self-preservation, survival or stability of life enough of a motivation to carry an entire story?  Is survival and stability more important than the basic human need to love, to be loved, and to make real friends? Should one take risks for love and justice? 
Self-protection leads to safe, stable life and money, but also loneliness and isolation. By protecting oneself, one must lie, and to reject chances to help others.
Meantime the hero might be haunted by his own action, because he does not confront the righteousness in the bottom of his heart. 
In the beginning of my story, the hero always ignores justice by remaining neutral; at least that's how he comforts himself. He is says to himself, "I am only being neutral, I don't take sides." Later on, he finds the youngster he 'trained' has become evil. The youngster has become so self-protective that he wants to destroy justice. That's one of the moments that awakens him that he's going at it all wrong.  
I find myself stuck in condensing al this in a one-sentence moral premise statement. It seems that the story is about self-protection, but it's also about "what one does returns to him."  Does "self-protection" articulate what I want to say? Is it that I am looking at my story from too many perspectives or trying to include too many moral concepts, thus diluting a central theme? 
Is it okay to dig deeper into such philosophical questions? Or, will that only make my story more wobbly (or ambiguous)?  
G

Dear G:

It may seem that you are taking on too many moral concepts and thus you're not sure what the story is about at its moral core...thus it seems wobbly and not about one thing.

It is true that a single moral premise can affect other thematic issues other than the one explicitly stated in the main moral premise statement.  But you need to be able to understand how all the "sub" themes reinforce the "main" theme.

A good example of this is explained in my blog analysis of the moral premise themes in the movie KITE RUNNER. http://moralpremise.blogspot.com/2011/10/kite-runner.html#more

In KIT RUNNER the central virtuous theme is COURAGE. But the movie embraces other themes that are logically related to courage by helping us understanding that the total lack of courage can lead to paranoia, and that an excess of courage can lead to arrogance. Further that the courage is needed to be able to forgive and seek justice. The blog diagram of the inner journeys shows the relationship of nine themes: paranoia, courage, arrogance, bitterness, forgiveness, tolerance of evil, lazier-faire, justice, and totalitarianism. That sounds like a mouthful, but each of those concepts are logically related...to courage.

The same may be true for your story.

If the central virtue is "self-preservation" then the absence of that virtue could lead to "self-destruction" or "suicide." Similarly the excess of that virtue would be "arrogance," "tyranny," or as you say, "the destruction of justice."

In a similar way an excess concept of justice (tyranny) can lead to isolation as people stay away from individual that like bullies.

And as you suggest when your protagonist acts a certain way, that may cause others to treat him the same way. So if he bullies others they may bully him back. Of if he bullies a bigger bully, he's sure to be in for a surprise.

So, your moral premise statement may not be wobbly at all, but just needs to be focused.

Just be sure that the various theme (or values you're writing about) ARE logically realated to the core moral premise and it's SINGLE conflict of values.

It could be: "Self-destruction" or "Arrogance" leads to isolation and death; but a "healthy self-preservation" and "generosity to others-for-the-sake-of-your-own-safety" can lead to friendship and life."

Again, see what I do with these movies and their moral premise arcs: http://moralpremise.blogspot.com/search/label/Nicomachean%20Ethics

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Are Super & Myth Movies Only about FIGHT v. FLIGHT?

A Screenwriter Asked:
Hey, Stan, 
I find myself thinKing about your stuff; the thing I like best about “Moral Premise” is it’s the book to turn to when you’re suddenly asking, “Why am I writing this again?”   
It seems to me that all the “myth” movies, from Superman to Spiderman to Batman to Iron Man to Gladiator to Matrix all are about the responsibility of saving everyone when you have the power.   
I just read an outline for Gladiator, and I could see that Maximus (Russel Crowe) wants “nothing to do with politics” but gets pulled into a battle with evil.  It’s like the Edmund Burke quote: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  Is this the point of all these movies?   
Is my moral premise: 
 “Running away from evil leads to disaster and isolation; but  
Facing and fighting evil leads to victory and freedom and togetherness”? 
I guess my question is, do I have no wiggle room here?  Should I embrace that moral premise, and stop wondering why I’m writing this??? 
Thanks,  Mike

Dear Mike:

I think most of the “super” stories can be defined by a moral premise that you articulated. But in such clear cut hero/villain stories I think there are dual moral premises that are related to a foundational one, like what you suggest. We might call these “secondary” moral premise statements, which are organically related to the foundational one. But it’s the secondary premise that is more likely to connect to non-super human audiences.

But in both cases the values in conflict must be universal … if you want to avoid niche audiences.

What you wrote:
Running away from evil (isolationism) as a value to find happiness vs. Fighting evil (engagement) as a value that leads to happiness...

...is the proverbial FLIGHT v FIGHT dilemma. It is definitely a universal concept that appears at all levels of the humanity condition.  It's evident in (a) a confrontation I witness on a street corner between a pimp and a whore, or (b) the Bush Foreign Policy Doctrine vs. the Obama Foreign Policy Doctrine. Fight or flight is everywhere and the answers are not easily answered.

You are perfectly safe keeping this simple and direct moral premise as the heart of your story, if that is what you focus on.

But you can give your story more personal and human death by looking deeper into the “human” story that exists in the “super human” diegesis.

For instance:

THE INCREDIBLES is also about:
Battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat; 
but Battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory. 

BLIND SIDE (yes it’s about fight vs. flight) is also about:
Courage to do what is difficult but foolish leads to dishonor;  but
but Courage to do what is difficult and wise leads to honor.

SUPERMAN II (1980) is also about:
Pretending to be someone we’re not leads to fragility; but
Being whom we were made to be leads to superlatives.

DARK KNIGHT (2008) is also about:
Revengeful, self-service leads to nihilistic  desperation; but
Sacrificial public service leads to purposeful hope.

And there are manny other examples.

So, I think your fight or flight is a good place to start, but I think you can also go deeper, to another layer, that will give the basic “super” movie an even more “human” connection that everyone in the audience will get. Not everyone will get “saving the world” because they can’t. But the secondary moral premise (exampled above) are value dilemmas we all deal with.

This moral identification is one of the  20+ techniques filmmakers and authors use to get audiences/readers to identify with their characters on a physical, emotional, and moral level.

Since you have been writing "short" stories for years, and your material is well accepted by the mainstream public, (if I were you at this point), I’d just write it and see if a moral premise (at the secondary level) doesn’t pop out later on. Don’t feel you have to figure it out beforehand. That can be a hinderance. Trust your instinct.

stan

Monday, June 9, 2014

Can the "Moment of Grace" Be at the End

Recently, I was asked this question: Can the Moment of Grace (MOG) for the Protagonist be at the end of the story?

There are several ways to answer this.

A. IF you’re writing a straight ahead redemptive film, the MOG for the MAIN PLOT (13-18 beats), for the PROTAGONIST must be in the MIDDLE. This is because you want to create a fairly even roller emotional coast ride for your audience both (1) morally and (2) physically. 

1. The moral up and down is related to the psychologically of your protagonist’s and the audience’s understanding of the truth of the moral premise. This is a very subtle roller coaster ride because it is NOT explicit or obviously visible except in metaphors and non-verbal. Yes the MP is true, no it’s not, yes it is, no it’s not. But it is very critical because it is the foundational motivational factor in the protagonist’s actions and are seen on the screen. 

2. The physical up and down is the explicit answer to the story questions: Will your protagonist’s reach his/her goal and will your audience reach it’s expected cathartic moment when the goal is reached? Yes the goal will be reached, not it won’t, etc. Those peaks and valleys of those two interrelated roller coast rides must be evenly spaced or the movie will flatten out and you’ll have too long of a dry or boring sequence.  

Recall the macro effect of the turning points, how every other one is from the antagonistic force or the protagonist making a decision to pursue the goal in the face of that force.

B. NOW, if the MOG for the Protagonist’s main plot is put off to the end and the film is still redemptive then you have a near tragedy where the audience is taken down, and down, and down a very dark roller coaster with tunnels ….and there’s no hope too close to the end. Aronofsky’s NOAH did this. As you may have read on my blog posts about that film, I liked it and found it Biblical etc. BUT, the MOG for the film's main plot is not until the very end of the film, and to the audience you have what looks like a tragedy with a madman at the center of the story. He’s mad to do what he thinks the Creator wants him to do, he doesn't see the clear ways in which God is communicating to him, and thus the MOG is not until the end... and many Christians could not understand that kind of a story character. In his defense I understand how Aronofsky could see the character that way because (a) so many of us humans can't "hear" God clearly, and (b) since Aronofsky was 10-years told he always saw the Noah story as very dark because of all the people and innocent babies that died in the flood. All his life he wondered if he was in that situation, would he be good enough to get on the ark?  But the structure of such a film requires that the protagonist NOT understand (even a little) the truth of the moral premise until it’s almost too late. (In Noah's case it's almost axiomatically, Too Little, Too Late.) … and it’s a hard, dark ride for the audience, even if it is true. I’ll point out that the NOAH movie did not do that well at the box office, and I think what I just pointed out is there reason.   

C. THERE is a horror film titled CLOVERFIELD where the MOG is at the Act 1 to Act 2 crossover. The act breaks is late (44% instead of 25%) and the MOG is early (44% instead of 50%) and because there is no emotional bump in the middle where the MOG should be, and because the crossover is late, I think the movie suffers from being  to slow in a couple of places like in the middle. The coaster track levels out, so to speak. I blog about here: CLOVERFIELD: Is There Danger...

D. YOU may think you have a MOG at the end of your story, but it may be that you’re confused by the placement of the MOG and the final realization by the protagonist.  You may be working on a story where the final TURTH is CONFIRMED at the end, but you can still have a MOG in the middle. Usually the MOG is not a “come to Jesus” moment where everything changes. But rather a moment where the truth is realized and now must be tested. Thus, the truth of the MOG is not confirmed until the battle is finally won. But from the mid-point's MOG to the Act 3 Climax (the last 50% of the story) the truths of the MP are being applied with increasing effectiveness. Remember the roller coast hills get steeper in the end of a movie, which is the opposite of a real roller coaster. 
In such movies the audience experiences a great cathartic moment at the very end. That is not the MOG, but the final confirmation of the truth of the Moral Premise's truth. 

FINALLY, just to tie up the obvious loose end of this question: The minor characters can have their MOG at the end, as Collette in Ratatouille does when she's running away from the kitchen on her motorbike.  She stops at a red traffic signal, sees her former boss's book in the bookstore window (Any One Can Cook), has a realization of the truth (the red light turns green), and in the next scene we see that she's returned to the kitchen. In fact, such minor characters can have a MOG just about anywhere in the story, but they work best when their MOG is after the main MOG of the protagonist, and before the main plot's final climax, say from 55% to 95%. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Aronofsky's NOAH, Story Structure, and the Christian Backlash.

Here is the link to my earlier blog about: NOAH's Moral Premise and Its Biblical Accuracy.

During the 2014 Biola Media Conference Jack Hafer moderated a way-too-brief panel about the controversy surrounding Aronofsky's NOAH. On the panel were Dr. Stan Williams, Brett McCracken (both who generally found merit with the film), and Brian Godawa who disliked the movie. Because our time was so short on stage we agreed to continue the conversation at Biola Campus later in the week. Unfortunately, Brian was unable to make the taping, so Williams and McCracken gave it a willing crack.

Dr. Stan Williams & Brett McCracken at Biola's Cultural Conversation Studio


Here is the link to the menu of all six videos on the Biola's Cultural Conversations site.
http://open.biola.edu/collections/discussion-of-darren-aronofsky-s-noah

And then the individual videos embedded from YouTube.
Comments are welcome and moderated.

1. Why Are Christians so Divided About Darren Aronofsky's "NOAH"?



2. Justice, Mercy and the Darkness of Aronofosky's "NOAH"



3. Gnosticism, Environmentalism and the New Eden in Aronofsky's "NOAH"



4. Message, Moral and Myth: Christian Approaches to Film


5. Why Christian Filmgoers Should Care More About Beauty


6. Can an Atheist's Art Bring Glory to God?

Novi, MI Workshop - June 7

Dear Filmmakers and Novelists Friends: 

If you're in Michigan...

I am presenting a 3.5 hour workshop on the 20 Secrets of Successful Story Structure at the GloryReelz Film Festival and Conference, June 7 (1:45 PM - 5:15 PM) at the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel in Novi, located behind the Emagine Theaters. This is the same workshop I presented last month on the CBS Television Lot in Hollywood. I understand you can register just for my workshop at a reduced price. 

Hope to see you there. Register http://www.gloryreelz.com/REGISTER_SPONSOR_VOL.html

General Content Info on the Workshop: 

Stan Williams 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Stan Freberg and the Moral Premise


While preparing for my involvement with the 2014 Biola Media Conference I discovered they were going to give the BIOLA Media Lifetime Achievement Award to satirist STAN FREBERG ("The United States of America Parts 1 & 2," "GreenChristmas," "St. George and the Dragonet," "John and Marsha," et al). I thought the man had died some years back, and so had others. It seems there was a typo in the news accounts when his long time wife and producer, Donna Freberg passed away. Well, he's still kicking at about 86. In 2001 he remarried, one of his fans, Betty Hunter, who produced with Stan a typically hilarious album of satire titled: "Songs in the Key of Freberg: Songs about Life." Stan's accomplishments came from his life motto: "Ars Gratia Pecuniae," Latin words meaning "Art for money's sake." He's the winner of 21 Clios for his advertising campaigns, multiple Emmy's for a show starring sock puppets (Time for Beany) that attracted Albert Einstein as a loyal fan.  And he still refuses to be sponsored by alcohol or tobacco products, a principle that cost him the follow up to the Jack Benny show years ago. 

Here was my introduction and my quick remembrances of how he changed my life:
Ladies and Gentlemen. In the next few minutes you're in for a treat. You're going to meet one of the great icons of entertainment history.  
I remember when I first heard this man's voice. It changed my life. It was July 4, 1965, 10:35 at night. I was just out of high school - on my way to pack Sealtest ice cream into delivery trucks. Over the radio came the voice of Thomas Jefferson. He was trying to persuade Benjamin Franklin to sign a petition he had begun to pass around the neighborhood. "Just a harmless piece of paper," he said. Franklin was hesitant and suspicious. After all, looking over the document all of Tom's "S's" looked like "F's." Finally after a musical interlude, and after Tom promises it won't start a revolution. Franklin signs.
It was a record track on a vinyl LP on this man's presentation of the United States of America, Part 1. I would wear out the grooves on the record I bought, and wait 35 years with thousands of other fans for Part 2...fortunately, this time on CD.  (both albums won Grammys)
This is the man who, before computer graphics were invented and to the astonishment of audiences listening to pay radio (you had to go into your record store and buy one) -- drained Lake Michigan, filled it with Hot Chocolate, bulldozed in a mountain of whip cream, then arranged for the Royal Canadian Air Force to drop a ten-ton maraschino cherry into the mess, accompanied by the cheering of 25,000 extras.  
He's the man who convinced King Ferdinand of Spain, under doctor's orders, to go with Christopher Columbus - to Florida for the Winter.  
This is the man who can play the flight of the bumble-bee - on his lips.
This is the man who counted Lionel Barrymore and Albert Einstein as loyal fans of the world's first televised show featuring -- sock puppets.  
And here to introduce this, ah...original wizard of Oz, is another fan, our host, your friend, Jack Hafer. 
Stan Freberg's Wikipedia Article:

Here's a great bio about Stan written a few years ago from the AP: http://freberg.us/apwire.html



Monday, April 7, 2014

GONE WITH THE WIND: Her Own Worst Enemy

This is a blog post from Moral Premise Workshop attendee, Ed Godwin.

Her Own Worst Enemy
by Guest Blogger Ed Godwin
In the fall of 2012, I had the opportunity to hear Stan Williams give a luncheon speech at Rochester Writer's Conference in Michigan. I learned more about story structure in that hour than in all the advice columns and classes before and since. So when the opportunity arrived in April of this year for an all-day workshop, I jumped at the chance.
Listing the various key elements of a good story, he of course included the role of the antagonist, and how it was important that it be embodied in a person and not some vague concept. (Read his evaluation of CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE DAWN TREADER for a good example of this omission.)
Suddenly I was terrified that I might have to rewrite or abandon the story I'm currently working on. It didn't seem to have a clear antagonist, at least not at the beginning. So in an attempt to salvage my pride (a weakness nearly every writer has at some point), I searched my mind for an example of a successful story that had no clearly defined antagonist. And I found one--or I thought I did--in one of the most famous movies of all time: GONE WITH THE WIND.
I love stories with strong women, and Scarlett O'Hara of course is no exception. I find delicious irony in that her greatest asset, her will to persevere no matter what the cost, also blinds her to her ultimate goal of true love. But therein lies the clue to the dilemma. Who is her antagonist?
First, we have to realize that she has more than one goal: not only to (1) find true love, but to (2) save Tara and lift herself out of poverty by “beating [the Yankees] at their own game.”  The Yankees are a clear antagonist for the second goal, but this is a late subplot, starting with the defeat of Atlanta and the destruction of her way of life. Her desire to find love begins in the very first scene, and it isn't resolved until the very end.
So if finding true love is her main goal, who is her main antagonist? I first thought it was Ashley Wilkes. He's the one she's constantly pining after, yet his honor and fidelity always thwarts her devious schemes. But this goal is not a goal at all, it's an illusion. In a scene near the beginning, her father Gerald says "I want my girl to be happy. You'd not be happy with him." And like all good stories do, that sets up the main conflict right at the beginning: the pursuit of an impossible dream. I suppose even a false goal could have a “false antagonist”. But what she really desires is true love. She just doesn't realize it.
Is Rhett Butler her antagonist? In a minor way, yes. He comes and goes in various forms throughout the story, and is often the foil for her lesser schemes, such as paying the taxes on Tara. But in many ways he is as deluded as she is. He marries her, knowing her motivation is pure avarice, yet hopes she will eventually forget Ashley and love him instead. In that sense she is the clear antagonist for him, until his frustration drives him to seek comfort with Belle, the prostitute.
But Scarlett is so determined to win Ashley's love that it blinds her to the real thing, even when it's staring her in the face. It takes the tragedy of Melanie's death for her to realize she's been deluding herself all these years. If this is Scarlett's turn of events toward the truth of the moral premise, when she finally sees the truth, it is a complete departure from the recommendation that it should happen somewhere in the middle act. Any previous hint that she may be waking up to the truth is when Rhett carries her up the stairs for a night of passion, and she wakes up the next morning beaming with pleasure. But even that moment is less than thirty minutes from the end of a film nearly four hours long.
We love Scarlett. We also despise the scheming side of her (she treats criminals like slaves and her husbands like dirt), and at least partially applaud when Rhett walks away with his immortal "I don't give a damn." We love her and love to hate her at the same time because they both tie into the same moral premise in different ways, one of hope and perseverance (against poverty), the other of hope and perseverance taken to an extreme (her treatment of people and her obsessive infatuation). Scarlett O'Hara is her own worst enemy, both the hero and the villain, and therefore her own antagonist.
Margaret Mitchell only published one book during her lifetime. But what an impact that book made. All because she had the guts (or perhaps the sheer ignorance) to defy the rules and combine the antagonist and protagonist into one person. What resulted was one of the richest characters in literary history.

Ed Godwin
---
So readers what do you think? I've not studied GWTW, but one of these days I'll look at the movie and scan the book. Let's hear from you. GWTW appears to be a tragedy. Is it? Is this a valid moral premise statement for the movie and its main characters, one of which might be the Confederacy? 
Clinging to lost hope leads to poverty and lost identity; but
Advocating delusions leads to destitution and anonymity.
Stan Williams

Sunday, March 30, 2014

ARONOFSKY'S NOAH - The Moral Premise and 31 Things That Agree with the Biblical Account



SPOILERS AT THE BOTTOM

Pam and I took in Darren Aronofsky's NOAH last night at one of Emagine Entertainments E3 screens. Great ride. Did not disappoint. Good story structure. Criticism from Christian circles is unfounded and based on confusion about the mythic nature of stories. The criticism from religious circles that the story is pagan, atheistic, and anti-Biblical is a scandal.  I try to show why below... while revealing how filmmakers or story makers can be faithful to the source text why making the story fully anew.

[For an explanation of movies, myths and truth, see The Truth of Myths.]

For YouTube Conversations I had with Brett McCracken about the film and why some Christians disliked it and others loved it see NOAH YOUTUBE VIDEOS.

An early derivation of the moral premise for Aronofsky's NOAH is:

Justice without mercy leads to dread, death, and annihilation; but
Justice with mercy leads to hope, life, and a new creation. 

[If you're unfamiliar with the moral premise, it's a single statement that describes the physical and psychological arc of the story. If it's true to natural law and consistently portrayed in a story, we have a strong indicator of audience connection and financial success.]

This moral premise for Noah, is true, and appears to be consistently applied in all the character arcs, especially in the various subplots that surround Noah's character. The truth and consistency of this premise will resonate with audiences as true at a subliminal level and will be a major reason for the film's success.

Sub-Themes & Moral Premises

One of the sub-moral premise statements, which dovetails well with the above is:

Belief in the Creator without righteousness leads to annihilation; but
Belief in the Creator with righteousness leads to salvation.

There are clearly no atheistic characters in this movie. EVERYONE believed in the Creator. The difference is that NOT EVERYONE obeys the Creator. Those that believe and disobey are evil, those that believe and obey are righteous. Faith alone doesn't save Noah and his family. It's faith and righteousness, or to put it in more common language, faith + good works (c.f. James 2).

Another sub-premise statement might be this:

Embracing a selfish understanding of what it means to be man 
leads to evil and annihilation; but
Embracing the Creator's understanding of what it means to be man 
leads to righteousness and salvation. 

This is made explicit in the speeches and actions of Tubal-Cain in how Ham is tempted and led astray.

Cause and Effect: The Logic in Ham's Subplot

Oftentimes source material (in this case the Bible) tells us what happens but doesn't provide the backstory for why it happens. But Natural Law demands and audiences require that every story event has a cause. So, when source material doesn't tell us what that cause is, filmmakers have to imagine the cause, so audiences can follow the logic. That is one of the challenges of adaptations. (By the way, there's a good explanation of this in the Behind the Scenes documentaries for Peter Jackson's The Hobbit where Tolkien only provides a few words to describe something for which Jackson needs to create whole scenes.)

Thus, in Ham's subplot of Aronofsky's NOAH, we are given an understanding of the causes that effect Ham's exile in the Biblical story. The Bible suggests that Ham was exiled because he looked on his father's drunken nakedness. But "cause and effect" asks the question, "why did Ham disrespect his father and look on his nakedness in the first place?" The Bible doesn't explain that...so Aronofsky' and Handel (Aronofsky's co-writer) offer some suggestions to complete the story thread.

Explicit Biblical Accuracy

There are two levels of criticism often leveled at Biblical motion pictures. One is explicit and on the surface, and it has to do with whether the motion picture (or other media presentation) is "accurate" to the Biblical narrative; (this point is addressed in this section). The second level of criticism is implicit and perhaps even subliminal in the critics mind, but it uses the first level as it's excuse; this will be covered in the next section.

As to a movie's explicit Biblical accuracy, critics should be careful to discern between three different sources of information:
  1. The original Biblical text, which many religious scholars claim is inerrant, 
  2. The hundreds of various translations which can be reasonable extrapolations of what the original texts said, and 
  3. The interpretations and imaginations generated by the translations.
Of the three items above, only No. 1 is inerrant, and unfortunately none of those texts exist today. Yes, Biblical texts are said to have been reconstructed with good accuracy. But the extrapolations are not inerrant.

Thus, Biblical proponents should also be aware that the following are not inerrant, and that these are what most people refer to when they claim what the Bible says:
  • a particular Bible scholar's opinion (of what the Bible) text means to say. 
  • a particular translation's footnotes
  • a particular Bible translation,
  • an individual, pastor, or other authority's opinion.
  • a parent or friend who embellishes what they heard like gossip.
In terms of spiritual truth, all of the above are more or less trustworthy, but to claim they are inerrant is false.

Arguing from Silence or Anecdote

Another thing that Bible critics should be careful about doing, when claiming something is not Biblically accurate, is arguing from silence. Such arguments are fallacious if it claims something did not happen simply because it is not mentioned in the text. For instance: Did Noah get angry at God? Did Noah doubt his mission? Did Noah confuse his mission? Did he rail unjustly at this family? The Bible leaves open the possibility that all those questions could be answered "yes" without infringing upon the Biblical record. 

And there is arguing from anecdote.  Similar to arguing from silence, this argument hypothesizes a cause which is not mentioned in the Bible from the effect (Noah's drunken nakedness) which is mentioned.  The Bible mentions that Noah got so drunk he passed out, naked. Now, why would Noah do such a thing? Aronofsky and Handel suggest it was because of the great stress that Noah experienced. Can such a man of faith and righteousness like Noah get naked and pass out drunk. You bet, if you believe the Bible. All that Aronofsky posits is some of the logical particulars of WHY that happened.

Implicit Biblical Accuracy

Two ways of communicating truth are: (1) through stories, and (2) propositional statements. The first is risky for the seriously religious because through the use of symbols, metaphors, anecdotal experiences, and the visceral arc of a character's journey... the interpretation of the story is left up to the audience or reader. But with propositional statements there is little left to the interpretive imagination.  Stories find home in novel,  movies, news article and such. Propositional Statements find home in theology. A well-told story, while it leaves some of its essence open to interpretation, will emotionally and intellectually involve the audience in such a way that the story's meaning (or moral lesson) takes on a personal and cathartic identity. The audience "experiences" the story as if they were in the story. [This works well because "experience really is the best teacher" and the simulations of life that movies and novels provide are the second best thing.] In such, stories SHOW the verisimilitude of real life, audiences make the moral decisions along with the characters, and the audience emotionally lives out the natural law consequences. Memories are made through such simulations.

None of that happens, however with propositional statement presentations (like we find in most homilies and sermons). Although sermons filled with propositional statements may be laden with absolute and clear truth, the statements fly at the audience one after the other like rubber cup tipped arrows hitting flannel. They don't stick. Why? Because the audience is TOLD what to understand and believe, and there is no internal identification with the concreteness of life, there is no internal emotional or experiential processing.

Movie goers who may be seriously religious have little philosophical trouble with the propositional style of communication because truth is made clear in the formalized, precise language. Remove the propositional element, however, and insert a story that requires personal processing of the elements to derive the meaning, and these same people become uneasy, and unsure of what meaning is being communicated. To counter that fear they will look for ways to question the vehicle in order to protect the truth.

Okay, enough of the didactic explanation...back to the movie.

SPOILER APPROACHING FROM THE LEFT

Let's examine one other instance from the movie that is fairly easy to explain but to some seems unBiblical. The Bible says that the wives of all three sons were on the ark? Emma Watson plays Ila, Shem's wife. But did the movie show the wives of Ham and Japheth on the ark? Many people who think they are correctly interpreting the Bible will say that the Movie did not include the wives of Ham and Japheth, and therefore the movie disrespects the Bible's infallibility. But the movie leaves open the interpretation that Shem and Ila's two daughters become the future wives of Ham and Japheth. And those two little girls were conceived before Ila gets on the ark. So, if you believe that life begins at conception, then the movie allows that the wives of Ham and Japheth were indeed on the boat....especially if you're writing about this perhaps 1,000 hears in the future as Moses is claimed to be. And thus, Aronofsky gives us a story that indeed follows the Biblical account that there were eight souls on the Ark, 4 women, and 4 men.

AND A FEW OTHER SPOILERS...
31 Things Aronofsky Gets Right About the Biblical Account


Here are the numerous ways in which Aronofsky's NOAH follows the Biblical Story or, at least, does not contradict the story.
  1. Noah is the man that God chooses to build the ark and lead a righteous family to safety.
  2. The flood destroys all life left behind. 
  3. God supernaturally communicates with Noah, and Noah obeys, even though what he's asked to do seems ridiculous. 
  4. Everyone believes in God. Even Tubal-Cain the villain. 
  5. In a great show of consistent faith, Noah reminds his family that the Creator will provide all they need. Noah: "The Creator has supplied all our needs," even wives for Ham and Japheth, although Ham could not trust God.
  6. We see miracle after miracle by the creator and illustrates general and particular grace.  
  7. Noah obeys God, and is so desirous of obeying God, that he becomes obsessed about it to near madness. Like many of us he wants to listen to God, but can't always discern how that is happening. 
  8. Noah is tempted many times to turn from the Creator, but he remains true. He repeatedly proves his righteousness.
  9. Redemption is possible, even for the fallen. We see this in HAM and in THE WATCHERS. I particularly thought the redemption of The Watchers was true to the Biblical concept of redemption, even if the Church says it can't happen. Even though The Watchers are fallen angels, when they make a moral decision to get back on God's side and help Noah and defend God's will against evil even to the point of death, they find redemption where they didn't expect it. Such sequences remind us of how the most sinful man can find salvation by turning back and obeying a God who forgives.
  10. As already mentioned, there are eight souls (4 men and 4 women) who survive the flood. Looking back from the time of Moses to Noah, it's easy to say (per the movie) that the three girls are the wives of Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
  11. The Creator created EVERYTHING from NOTHING. We can debate how, but the movie makes it clear that GOD did it. It wasn't chance.
  12. The Bible doesn't say how the ark was built, but it befuddles the mind how 4 men and 4 women could have done it alone, even given 100 years. You can't argue from silence to determine how such a huge craft was made ready without supernatural help. God provides.And it's just like God to provide using those that seem alien to goodness. Throughout the Bible God transforms evil to good.
  13. Another fallacious argument from silence is that Noah never got angry or mad at God or anyone else. Considering the task that faced him, at the time it faced him, and the miracles that were required to make it happen...any normal, human man is going to be tested to the limits of patience, endurance, and faith. Aronofsky shows us this verisimilitude. And Noah comes down on the right side of the issue.
  14. The flood springs not only from the skies but from the ground.
  15. The Creator is Just but he is also Merciful. Mankind has always struggled with the balance of these attributes of God's character. Noah struggles. With the help of his wife's spiritual insight they both succeed. When Noah shows mercy it's because of God's mercy to him.
  16. A bird brings back a twig to the ark signifying that the flood is receding. 
  17. Noah gets drunk, Ham looks on his nakedness with disrespect, Shem and Japheth cover their father's nakedness.
  18. Ham is exiled. 
  19. In the end Noah and his family give thanks to God for their salvation, and Noah recites the covenant from God.
  20. There is a glorious rainbow.
  21. (Here's one my wife recognized.) Adoption and being grafted into the spiritual family of God is a ubiquitous Biblical theme we see in the lives of personages like Ruth and Rahab. Then in Christian New Testament Scriptures we read how believers are grafted into relationship with the family of God as part of salvation. This is perfectly illustrated in the movie's portrayal of Ila who is an orphan Noah's family adopts. With Shem, she gives birth to two little girls and at the end she is the one to tell Noah that you didn't let the Creator down. He was giving you the chance to join with him in showing mercy and you did.
  22. Noah asks for God to speak to him to tell him what to do. Noah's expecting another vision or a voice from heaven. But, as is true throughout the Bible and our persona lives, God speaks loudly and clearly in ways that surprise us. In the movie's case, the sign from God is the twins born to Ila about which Noah says,  "All I see is love"... and bends down and kisses them. It is a perfect representation of redemption from God to man, and then from man to those he's charged with protecting. 
  23. When Tubal-Cain mocks Noah for standing alone against his army, Noah says, "I'm not alone." This is Biblical -- that the people of God, even though persecuted and out numbered, are not alone. The first thought that comes to our mind is that Noah has God. But the filmmaker's challenge is to make visible what is normally invisible. Aronofsky choice surprises, but it's an apt metaphor for how God works in strange and unexpected ways. 
  24. The movie shows us that "the Creator" is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.
  25. The movie shows us that "the Creator" created all the land, the animals.
  26. The movie shows us that separately form the animals (if you're worried about evolution of animals to humans) that God created human beings separately.
  27. The movie shows us that "the Creator" created Adam and Eve.
  28. The movie shows us (repeatedly) that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and that the fruit of a tree was involved.
  29. The movie shows us that Cain murdered Abel.
  30. The movie shows us Tubal-Cain (a Biblical figure) was a leader and builder of cities and metal worker worker. 
  31. The original creation is visually portrayed as "good," Noah reinforces this in dialogue with his defense of nature and the environment. Genesis makes it clear that material creation is good.  (This should squash the claims by some that the movie is Gnostic in nature. Gnosticism, in its basic form, claims that the material world is bad, and only the spiritual realm is good.)
Adding as I get comments back:

Reader wrote
I’ve only heard on the news unanimously from "experts" plus Fr. Morrison on Fox news and others, the fact that it seems to put the climax of humans ruining the earth rather than their sin and pushing God aside which is the reason for the flood. Of course there’s more as well.
My partial response: The line in the film about humans ruining the earth is there. But it is minor and it can be understood in several ways:
  • Humans disrespected creation…. which is true.
  • Humans disrespected God’s moral rule on earth…. which is true.
  • Humans were responsible for the flood through their disobedience… which is true.
Thus, the environmental destruction we see in the film, and Noah's line about man doing it, becomes a valid visual metaphor for man's moral destruction, which is generally invisible. While I'm not an environmentalist, per se, the environmental destruction we see in the movie fits the Biblical precept given to man to care for the Earth and all that's in it (Gen. 2:15).  To the extent we screw that up, we’re responsible. We can debate how much man has screwed it up, but sin does that… to everything God has created. So, I’m confused as to why Christians sometimes make it sound like humans have a right to mess up what God told us to care for. Fr. Morrison is clearly wrong. The film is much more about faith and obedience to God and the consequences of obeying God or not. And the comments about the environment and such, while perhaps a little P.C. for modern times, are not in contradiction to the movie's overall moral premise nor do they conflict with the Biblical account and man's charge over the Earth.

Does NOAH lead to Godless Humanism?

Brian Godawa continues to claim that because Aronofsky is atheistic the movie must subvert God and lead to something contrary to traditional Judea-Christian religious principles. In making this claim Godawa subjects reason to the ad hominem fallacy that a message cannot be other than a man's claimed philosophy. I'm not convinced Aronofsky is an atheist, but Godawa claims that Aronofsky has claimed the title, and therefore anything Aronofsky says or does must have the pure intent of leading people to atheism. On it's face, this type of argument is silly. If it was true then Godawa's intent to be a Christian would make everything Godaway does purely Christian. But since Godawa (like all of us Christians) are imperfect, we can hardly claim our actions, words, and thinking to be as pure as our intent. In a court of law "intent" is sometimes admissible, but intent can never supplant action. When I run a red light and get a ticket, it's not likely that my intent "not to run the red light" will stand a chance of obliterating my action.

So, it is with the ad hominem fallacy. You cannot judge a message or action based on intent or even the character of a man. What judges the character of a man is his actions.

So, in Noah, the best counter-argument to the movie leading the audience to some godless form of humanistic  philosophy, is the final dialogue between Noah and his step-daughter, Ila. She explains to Noah (and to the audience) what was going on in the near tragedy of the Noah we see depicted on screen. She tells Noah that it was the Creator who was in control.

Here's the end of the movie  (transcribed from the DVD).

EXT. BEACH - DAY

Ila sits on a beach alone. Noah is dressed now, coming off his bout of drunkenness, comes and sits next to her on a rock facing the waves. 
ILA: I have to know. What did you spare them?
NOAH: I looked down at those two little girls, and all I had in my heart was love. 
ILA: Then why are you alone, Noah? Why are you separated from your family?
NOAH: Because I failed Him. And I failed all of you.
Ila lets a smile escape, one of compassion for Noah.)
ILA: Did you?
Noah looks curiously at Ila)
ILA (CONT): He chose you for a reason, Noah. He showed you the wickedness of man and hew knew you would not look away. But then you saw goodness, too. The choice was put in your hands because He put it there. He asked you to decide if we were worth saving. And you chose mercy. You chose love. 
Shot: New born antelope getting to its feet to feed from its mother's breast.) 
ILA: He has given us a second chance. Be a father.
Shot: Bird feeds its young in a nest.
ILA: Be a grandfather.
Shot: An adult monkey cuddles its young.
ILA: Help us to do better this time.
Shot: A mother grizzly protects its cub near its breast.

EXT. HILLSIDE GARDEN - DAY
Naameh stops hoeing a new garden to watch Noah returning from the beach. She's reticent about seeing him. She doesn't know what to expect. She kneels in the dirt and by hand clears the small rocks. Noah kneels beside her, and gentle begins to help her. He takes her hand still in the wet dirt and caresses it tenderly, as if to ask her forgiveness. She breaks down and sobs. He leans over and kisses her forehead. They embrace. She cries. He holds her head. Looking at him she smiles, laughs and places her arms around his neck in gladness.

EXT. MOUNTAIN TOP - SUNSET

Noah stands with his family and a standard of posts and cloth.
NOAH: The Creator made Adam in His image,... 
Noah removes the illuminated snake skin from a linen pouch.
NOAH: (CONT.) ...and placed the world in his care. That birthright was passed down to us. 
Noah wraps the skin around his hand. 
NOAH: (CONT.) To my father, then to me, and to my sons, Shem, Japheth, and Ham.
Noah completes the winding of the illuminated snake skin around his forearm. 
Noah turns to Shem.
NOAH: (CONT.) That birthright is now passed to you, our grandchildren. 
Noah reaches out with the skin wrapped around his finger and touches the finger of the infant in Ila's arms...
NOAH: This will be your work...
He then moves his hand of blessing to the hand of the infant in Shem's arms.
NOAH: (CONT.) ...and your responsibility.
Naameh smiles deeply.
NOAH: (CONT.) So I say to you, be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. 
Noah looks heavenward. The sky fills with a glorious rainbow.

FADE OUT

The critics of this film may argue that letting Noah decide and Noah voicing God's post-flood blessing, is pagan humanism. But it's Judea-Christian humanism: God puts the power in man's hands to decide. Ila tells us that the power to decide  comes from God's mercy:  "The choice was put in your hands because HE put it there." God's gift of dignity to humanity is freewill. The movie depicts this. The movie does not depict mankind as a puppet of God, nor is man autonomous. Noah is a prophet, and God chooses his prophets and lets them decide. That is not pagan, that is Judea-Christian theology.

Other Supportive Links


Peter Chattaway's Extensive 4-Part Interview with Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel
where Aronofsky explains Noah's character arc and the conflict of values between Justice and Mercy and challenges Chattaway to come up with something that contradicts the Biblical record (and not argue from silence). 

David Buckna's TERRIFIC list of 30 reasons Noah is Biblical, many of which I did not list. 

DR. JANET SMITH, a Catholic theologian, has posted a remarkable analysis.

DR. LORI PIEPER, SFO

More from Chattaway on Aronofsky's Environmental Take on Genesis

Elijah Davidson's Reel Spirituality Reivew