Ed and Ryan Wedding

Wedding-Title-CardBeautiful wedding with Ed and Ryan from back in July. I’ve been doing photos for a year now, but this was my first wedding. And I have to say I have way too many favorites. From the prep to the sheer joy that carried Ed and Ryan through the day, I couldn’t be happier with the experience. Eide-Wedding-For-Web-100 Wedding-2-For-WebEide-Wedding-For-Web-316 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-254 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-177 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-424 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-307 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-163 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-137 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-131 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-167 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-185 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-189 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-562 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-50 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-76 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-78 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-97 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-118 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-120 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-123 Eide-Wedding-For-Web-412
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AHS: Freak Show – Monsters Among Us Review

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After months of speculation, fan-made promos, teasers, and hauntingly beautiful official promos, we’re finally met with the premiere of the fourth season of the anthology juggernaut, American Horror Story, this year in the Freak Show.

If it’s not already abundantly clear, I’m a huge fan of this show. But because of that, I hold it to a very high standard. First season was excellent. Smart, well-filmed, challenging, and stylized. Second season started to lose me in the near-mess of horror tropes thrown at the audience. But it regained my trust in the final few episodes, which, while to some fell a too-rapid shift in tone, for me it brought together the themes the season played upon in an elegant and subtle way. The aliens were stand ins for divinity and the achievements of science, the asylum stood as a sad pinnacle of religious corruption and our lack of progress at the time. Together, binaries were fuzed and meshed and reversed and the entire season came off a huge artistic success.

Then, of course, season three hit. True to form for third-season-ruts (see: Supernatural), Ryan Murphy and co. decided to lighten the show’s tone after Coven, which I was fine with. The shots were still beautiful. The eeriness blended well with the synth-heavy musical score, given a fresh, modern feel on the witches genre. It worked. Until it didn’t. The first episode gave us a taste of what could have been to come: female empowerment, reversal of race issues, sexuality (as always), the struggle against mortality. It was trimmed down from Asylum, sleek… and then it just stopped. Halfway through, the season became witches being bitches, and the race dialogue was lost in throwing away our black characters because the plot ran out. It tried to pull an Asylum and save it in the final episode, but the big themes were pushed aside. Literally, too little, too late.

Now, I know, some were fans, and some were not. Indeed, that’s my first point going into this review of Freak Show today. Horror is a tricky genre because everyone approaches horror with different tastes and expectations. What scares one person won’t phase another. Some want to simply be scared and entertained. Some want to be intellectually challenged.

So before going into Freak Show, I want to set my expectations of the show. After seeing how smart a show it could be from the moment I hit first season, and the moment Asylum floored me, I knew this show was brilliant. The very premise, even, that in the horror genre, yes there are frightening monsters, but the most frightening issues are the societal ones. Boom. That’s it. There’s our one-sentence show pitch.

But along the way, AHS picked up some brilliant cinematography and editing. The show is a breath of fresh air compared to much of television in its uniqueness of style. The acting was great, with Jessica Lange perennially stealing the show. And the scares, well, like I said, everyone has different triggers. But compared against most of TV? It’s happily in the horror genre.

SO: Freak Show.

If my rambling prologue there wasn’t indication enough, the first episode is usually strong. The show has history with getting rough as it gets going. So the first episode review should only be taken as far as you can throw it.

That said, I mostly totally dug it.

The cinematography was still gorgeous. I love the wide angle shots that have become staples. And the twilight carnival shots with the lights… well that hits me right in the feel goods. That’s my sandbox right there.

The acting, of course, is always exciting to see how the actors mold to new characters, and it was done well. Good to see Jessica Lange staying steady as the manipulative matriarch with some well-buried brokenness.

Twisty the Clown was trending all Wednesday night on Twitter, and I can see why. web_ins_gallery_detail_series_dsktp_ahs_01

He’s probably the scariest clown I’ve ever seen. I’m not scared of clowns, myself, so perhaps some folks would disagree, but he’s creepy as hell. Perhaps overdone? But dirty, dark, gritty, murderous, and with secrets yet to be revealed, I like it.

I thought it was a curious decision, but one that I wound up liking, to reveal Twisty first in daylight. It seems to me that this speaks to the team’s confidence in their creation sustaining scares no matter what the time of day. It worked for me. The creepy Louisiana (okay, “Florida”) wilderness tied to a violent illustration of just how dark humanity can be was very reminiscent of HBO’s True Detective, which I was very okay with. In the end, yes, the folks who don’t like clowns aren’t gonna like Twisty, and he’s dark enough that he could literally scare some away, but I’ve never gotten the impression AHS cares too much.

The real heart of the show though is the themes. And AHS has seemed to strip this season down to, literally, just freaks. What makes someone a freak. What physical deformity means socially. How freaky are human beings in general. What’s the appropriate response to social marginalism.

Of course, some won’t have it. Some will. And likely there’s gray space in between where the show is actually operating. I watched headlines before the premiere about what a terrible show it is to exploit the disabled as horrific. I just read a Buzzfeed article about how AHS isn’t as progressive as we think. And it goes on.

For the ones who won’t have it: AHS, as I said above, is about reversing many illustrations of what’s monstrous. There’s always extremes (usually the big bad murderer) for the scares, but the heart is in reframing what should be scary. If it fails, a la Coven, and winds up reinforcing these social issues, then yeah, it should be held to that. But I think the intentions are here, it’s a matter of the skills of the writers, and so far, given the pilot episode, we have a lot to work with. The deformities are played upon, but that’s of course the AHS style. It’s always right in your face.

Ariane Lange’s Buzzfeed piece was accurate. If AHS is as progressive as we think/want, it needs to do more than normalize the inner human of the disabled, and instead examine them as abnormal, but abnormal because of society’s treatment and their experiences due to that treatment and to the disability.

To which I say, A) give it a chance. we still have 12 episodes yet to see if Murphy and co. will move beyond the “they’re just people too” theme. But also… B) I think it’s already going beyond that. If we want to examine the true ways that “freaks” are abnormal, which is to say, who they’ve become because of marginalization and efforts in a world that doesn’t provide for them, then this is an excellent space for it. Right off the bat, we have two murders by the “freaks” (three more if you count Twisty), and an instant questioning of where those murders fall on the morality line. I think that by reframing “freaks” as “normal” so quickly that we can jump right into looking at the moral nuances that their situation provides, AHS is already being relatively progressive. I very much don’t expect to find the conclusion of the season being that freaks are freaks and normal people are normal.

We’re not in AHS’s sandbox until we’re questioning everyone and watching the plot unravel because American culture is really, really good at being freakish and horrific. That will again and again be the attempt of the theme of this show.

Now, of course I’m worried that there’s not going to be enough to chew on to stretch this out for a season. Already in episode one we’ve had emphasis on society’s sad treatment of the “freaks”, we’ve had illustrations of their experiences and humanity, and we’ve got the classic AHS plays on what’s freaky, what’s justified freaky, what’s extreme freaky, what’s human, and how much of the horror is in our nature.

All those things I want to see twisted and reversed and changed and explored further, but I worry it’ll be tired by January.

But also, I hope. I hope that with all that time, Murphy and Co. will address those issues that Lange points out, and progress a good, dark, Asylum-level dark (but smart) story.

That’s one that time will tell. But there’s more than enough here at the start to keep me on board and happy… even if they always start that way.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, went on to work with the GHI team. He’s the author of Hallowtide, and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He contributes to the TAPS Paramagazine, leads the weekend ghost hunts and the Stanley Hotel, and shoots conceptual and portrait photography in Colorado. More can be found at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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AHS:FreakShow – Cinemagraphs

First time playing around with Cinemagraphs. Lots of great tutorials online. I couldn’t help myself, so I decided to adapt some of the AHS: Freakshow promo clips into some promo gifs. Check ‘em out and spread them around!

While I’ve played many hands of making my own fan promos, these of course are all property of FX. But I hope they find them as cool as I do.AHS-Hands

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Future Seasons of American Horror Story

I wrote a post very similar to this one after the end of Season Two and, while I kept that post updated, it’s beginning to fall a bit out of date, and so I wanted to revisit the post with some new ideas and sexier photoshop work.

So, a bit of a recap, shall we? American Horror Story is a show defined by iconic marketing imagery, a frantic-yet-elegant cinematic style, an ensemble cast that’s always excellent, pitch perfect thematic studies, and interwoven anthology plots.

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In season one, we visited the Murder House. The setting was a haunted house in California, and it allowed the writers and directors to study such American Horrors that the supernatural horrors are only caught up within: the real horrors — the way people react to and perpetuate social issues. Adultery. Abortion. Gay rights. The 21st Century family. School shootings. Depression. Teenage romance. Bullying. The themes that circle the home.

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With second season, we had a big switch, moving into the Asylum. Though first season was dark, it was so in a sexy, elegant, nature. The scares crawled around inside your head a bit. But with season two, Murphy and Co. turned it up to eleven. The sexiness was out the window. The show was a period piece for the 60’s, a time that’s beginning to seem almost pre-historic to us. The setting and time period allowed the writers to explore the big issues of the time (many that are unfortunately still very prevalent), and what made the season brilliant by the final episodes was the way the writers spring-boarded from social issues to philosophical issues. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, the role of the Church in the world and within institutions, the treatment of the mentally ill, the ways science can twist and corrupt, and the ways science can redeem. We got some supernatural scares, but not so much of the ghostly, super-powered variety. We saw aliens as a brilliant stand-in for God, we saw possession unrecognized in a place of god, and of course we saw our seasonal historical murderer.

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And then season three happened. Drawing mixed reviews from critics, season three moved us down south, with Coven. Coven aimed to iron out some of the kinks with Asylum: to give the audience a breath of fresh air from the deep darkness of the Asylum, to shave off some of the abundant themes and plotlines that slowed the second season in the middle of its run. They went after feminism and racism in the south, tracking the split of two witch clans and the battle between them as it was reignited. The first episode was a powerhouse, but the show stumbled along after that, missing the opportunities to sneak in genuine frights, and, sadly, instead of deconstructing many of these themes, wound up reinforcing them by season’s end.

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And now, in the late summer of 2014, we move into the fourth season, where we’ll step right up to the Freak Show. I’m utterly pumped for this season (and utterly disappointed in myself that I never thought of the carnival/freakshow idea in my earlier blog post: thanks commenters!) Where Murphy first confessed he was going for a lighter tone and a funny feel the way of Coven, he realized as he got into the plot that this season was, in fact, darker than Asylum. And, I hope, more on track with its thematic study of the nitty gritty. The promos are already exceptional. The clown is going to be scary as shit. And for the first time in more than half a century, we’re really going to get a piece of film/television that digs around in a very much overlooked piece of American history: the sideshow carnival. Looks for more civil rights type issues, post-WWII racial scares, and another season where the monsters are never the monsters.

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(And of course, the alternate title card used with the actual-footage teasers)

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So where do we go from here?

Ryan Murphy has on multiple occasions mentioned that the season following Freak Show was going to be followed by something very much out of left field. While I’ve got a few good ideas, I don’t think any of them are quite as out-of-left-field worthy for the fifth season as Empty Space. Space has a myriad of setting-style titles, so it could be tough for fans to guess this subtitle. But space is a rich American horror soil, and very much do-able for Murphy and Co. I have regular debates with my good buddy CJ about the possibilities of such a season. He argues that aliens shouldn’t make an appearance to throw viewers, whereas I think they can. Granted, AHS has already done aliens in Season Two, but they were brief and very much an image-centric stand-in. They could easily do some creatures heretofore unseen. But with the potential for deep space survival, fear of unknown planets, rebellious robots, rebellious other ships, and with a wealth of horror-movies to nod to and reference, I think we can count on seeing Empty Space in the near future for AHS, hopefully as near as Season Five.

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Almost equally as obvious and overdue as space in the AHS franchise as my vote for Season Six? I’ve subtitled it the Woodlands. (Part of me fought with debate over calling it “Sticks” — a play on the folk phrase for the backwoods mixed with the River Styx from Greek mythology, a thematic allusion very much up Murphy’s alley). The Woodlands locale is rich for AHS. It’s the setting of many in the classic staple of American Horror: the Slasher film. We set this at a cabin or lakeside retreat, and let havoc play out. We’d get the classic slasher killer (likely somebody historical), but there’s room here to play with more modern manifestations from the woods, like Slenderman or cryptid beasties. Murphy has spoken in recent interviews about the nature of death on television, and how it’s different than in movies. Because of the way a 13-episode television run connects you with characters for six times longer than the average movie, you become far more attached, and so those deaths are more meaningful. While in many ways this can be a deterrent for a slasher season, I think it’s territory to play with those losses as the horror that they are.

Thematically we’ve got play by looking no further than Lars von Trier’s disturbing film, Antichrist. Von Trier, in interviews, pointed out that one of his main thematic goals with the film was to explore the dichotomy between the woods currently illustrated in Romantic tones, as a place of peace and finding one’s self, as a Walden, but whereas historically, the woods are a terrible, terrible place of darkness. That’s where you go to fight for your life, where the food chain spins endlessly, and human wit is tested against animal ability.

So I say, let’s do that. Let’s pit the humans against the wild. (And don’t even get me started on what a gorgeous season that would be to watch, cinematically).

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* * *

THE season I’ve been waiting to see from Murphy. This show had better not run dry by the time we make our detour into Lovecraft Country (perhaps a better subtitle, but it’s clunky). Innsmouth of course is the setting of HP Lovecraft’s classic tale, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, about a small community of inbred and hybrid creatures living on the coastal shores of Massachusetts. Lovecraft has been one of the most defining characters in modern horror, introducing us to Cosmic Horror and a strange philosophical place of Nihilism and mysticism. This topic is hot right now after being constantly hinted at in HBO’s first season of True Detective, so I think it’s time for something more overt to hit the airwaves. Certainly themes are easy enough to play out. Let’s look at science and religion, cults and isolation, the power of nature, sprinkle in some Storm of the Century and tales of epic sea monsters for flashbacks, and we’ve got one of the tightest, darkest, rainiest, and creepiest American Horror Stories yet. Perhaps the topic will dry up by Season Seven, but I doubt it. Lovecraft never leaves us.

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Okay, fine, Maize isn’t a setting, but it was the best I had, and I loved the play on Maize meaning corn, as well as the wordplay of Maze. Look no farther than the Shining for the maze/minotaur trope in classic horror. Mash it up with Children of the Corn and we’ve got something special. Now, though Murphy says he has as many as 13 different settings in mind, I’m worried themes come less varied than settings, especially if he continues to pack them in the way he did in season 2. Eight seasons is already a bit long, but I think these are the quintessential settings that absolutely have to be covered, and the Maize season would be the quintessential finale, wrapping us up for season Nine. The Native American connection brings the end back to America’s beginning. Dig around in America’s roots, explore the monsters in the soil,  Native American legends, the horror stories from before the genocide, then toss in some Dark Romanticism and Sleepy Hollow, maybe pepper in some Celtic Halloween roots to stir the melting pot, and we’ve got an incredible finale to an incredible show.

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Ian and Kate Engagement Shoot

Ian-Kate-8BA barista at the coffeeshop I attend all too often asked me the other day if I enjoyed doing engagement photos. She asked it with the kind of wariness much of my generation shares about sentimentality and the hollowness of tradition. Even this couple, who I just did these engagement photos for, were reluctant, after perusing Pinterest for days, to wind up forced into dumb sappy engagement photos. At the coffeeshop, I shrugged and said, “yeah, I guess.” I’m not sure I want to exclude all others, but I like it okay.

But then I’ll sit down for a few hours and I’ll work on my coffee after it’s gone cold and I’ll turn out a batch from a session like this one and I fall in love with the work all over again. No matter how many headaches or stresses, capturing a real moment, whether that’s between two people or just one person and the camera lens, translating an emotion through the lighting and the small ways faces move, that’s what I love. There’s a kind of sublimity in that, and it appeals to the inner Romantic in me, who’s always searching for the transcendent in the details.

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American Horror Story: Freak Show (Conjoined Twins)

Just realized that we put this poster/art together two months ago, but that I never tossed it up on the blog (and hence, it’s not showing up on Google), and now has missed the big conjoined casting announcement revealing that Sarah Paulson would play a two-headed/conjoined twin this season, that went out last week. Balls. But here you guys go if you haven’t seen it over on my Facebook page.

American Horror Story Freakshow Conjoined Twins

American Horror Story Freakshow Conjoined Twins

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Pseudoscience and Paranormal Research

I don’t want to get too deep into this issue at the moment, as I think there will be other article and blog opportunities in the future to explore this more deeply, but I did want to write a quick response to an article I read recently on the Huffington Post that demanded a bit of thought longer than 140 characters.

For the past couple months, I’ve been following the Society for Psychical Research Twitter account, which retweets and shares a number of fascinating articles and stories about all aspects of current ESP research, whether these articles be positive or negative. Today as I was browsing the tweeter, I came across a really interesting article about Pseudoscience and how it corresponds to paranormal research, written by Stafford Betty. Normally, “pseudoscience” is a term thrown around by skeptics to demean research into “paranormal” or anomalous phenomena. And it bothers me to no end. A quick perusal of the wikipedia article about Pseudoscience raises my blood pressure almost immediately.

And so, reading an article that responds to this issue in support of the scientists doing serious research into this issue should make me happy, but unfortunately I have to be the guy who, while agreeing with the premise, disagrees with the justification (which usually means I get to upset everybody!).

The thing about Betty’s article is that he tries to defend paranormal research (again, the scientific work being done in laboratories rather than the ghost hunting work being done in the boob tube) as not being pseudoscience by justifying the validity of the potential for the phenomena to exist, rather than defending the science that’s being done.

Which, on the whole, the article is fine. He begins by pointing out the negative feedback in regards to a cover story about reincarnation research published in Virginia Magazine. (Most of this feedback is deeply biased and despite being promoted in the name of science, is in itself a stain on the true work of science). One such commenter called the work being done “pseudoscience”. Betty then used the rest of his article to briefly defend the topic of research (loosely, consciousness and whether its existence is a causal effect of brain biology or whether it’s something separate entirely), which I think he did well for a non-scholarly editorial defense.

The problem is that he never actually describes how the work being done isn’t a pseudoscience. He just justifies the potential for the phenomena to exist. Which is important. But, not what the article claimed to address in the headline. And, more to the problem at hand, another article pointedly defending paranormal research but missing the mark is more than fodder for the critics and these same science trolls who seek to discredit the research. It doesn’t advance much because most folks who are firmly on one side or the other on the issue don’t see past the neglected argument.

I’m not writing this blog to fill in the blanks, but simply to clarify them. I’m not a scientist, and there have been thousands of experiments executed by well-credentialed scientists over the past century into these more anomalous categories. Each set of experiments can be gauged on its own merit toward whether or not it’s pseudoscience.

To point out these blanks then, I want to first clarify the definition of Pseudoscience, (which I’ve snagged from Wikipedia, despite my frustrations with the rest of the article).

Pseudoscience is a claim, belief or practice which is presented as scientific, but does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status.[1] Pseudoscience is often characterized by the use of vague, contradictory, exaggerated or unprovable claims, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, a lack of openness to evaluation by other experts, and a general absence of systematic processes to rationally develop theories.

Now, there are some components of this definition that Betty addresses, primarily the issues of plausibility, which, ultimately, does work toward validating the the work against pseudoscience claims, especially when the commenters are disputing the plausibility of the issue. However, the real argument should be placed in defending the scientific structure of the work being done to validate or invalidate the claims of such anomalous phenomena. Because it is being done. It’s been worked on for a century now by people who know the scientific method, who trained and were educated as highly and deeply as any other scientist in any other field.

If an article is going to be written defending paranormal research against pseudoscientific claims, the real heart of such an article shouldn’t be the continued volleying of argument toward the plausibility of such phenomena (though obviously an interesting discussion, I’ve learned a long time ago that it’s useless against the close-minded). It’s the science that’s going to persuade people. It’s going to be illustrating the process, the breakdowns, the results, the recreations, the predictions, the implications.

The main buzzword in the pseudoscience argument isn’t plausibility (that’s just a buzzword in general), it’s the “scientific method”, a phrase that’s been rather unfortunately muddled for paranormal research in its application on many Ghost Hunting shows, who claim to be following the scientific method, when in reality, they aren’t. That’s undeniably pseudoscience. There are no delicately controlled, recreatable experiments. No predictions. Just lots of theory and multi-variabled experiments. It’s loosely scientific. There’s a basic structure that’s followed and is even respectable toward exploring the plausibility of such phenomena. But it’s not real science, and so falls into that pseudoscientific category.

But real genuine scientists are doing good work. And that work needs to be defended more thoroughly. The articles that need to be written are the ones that explore and break down whether these experiments that are being/have been done are good science. I’ve read dozens of overviews that suggest that yes, these scientists are doing thorough and recreatable work. They are restraining from theorizing and throwing around out-dated terms that carry folk definitions hundreds of years old. And they have results.

The articles that we need to see published on such sites as Huffington Post are the ones that go deeper than just butting heads over plausibility, but the ones that refute each of these other claims, defending the work (not just the theories or phenomena) as very much adhering to the scientific method, as producing strong evidence, as thoroughly tested, and with provable (and proven) claims.

Some experiments might not hold up. Some may very much hold up. But it’s time to move beyond the head-butting and help this well-deserving, genuinely scientific field see a positive light of day.

Karl Pfeiffer is not a scientist, but he’s deeply passionate about paranormal research. He’s the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and the Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, and he lectures across America about approaches to the paranormal. He graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in Creative Writing and an emphasis on Religious Studies. He leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel and won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, appearing briefly on Ghost Hunters International. He’s also a photographer. 

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American Horror Story Freak Show: Nails

Still on a roll with our American Horror Story: Freak Show fan posters and teasers. This video might be my favorite we’ve done so far.

As always, huge thanks to our director, CJ, over at Something Random Media for getting everybody together to do these!

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Gotteskritik and Noah

So I haven’t done a movie review in a while (mostly because the horror angle dries up considerably in the spring season), but I feel compelled to write something about Noah.

I’m not sure it’s really to convince anyone of anything, but it’s a movie that stuck in my mind after seeing it, and I feel compelled to write about it. And, as usual, if you haven’t seen it, my reviews try to get at the themes and heart of the movie, so there are spoilers if you haven’t seen it.

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Outlook:

I went into Noah open minded, but worried. I knew a few things: 1) I love Darren Aronofsky. Black Swan and The Fountain are in my top five all-time favorite movies. 2) This was a big-budget feature that needed to make its money back. 3) When I saw this movie being advertised in the commercials for Nascar, I began to grow concerned. Nothing against Nascar audiences, but generally speaking, I saw this as an emphasis on reaching the Biblical audiences rather than the Aronofsky audiences. Knowing what I do about marketing, I wasn’t prepared to assume one thing over another about the movie by the marketing, but I was a bit wary. I also knew, 4) that the movie was drawing generally favorable reviews while also bothering Christian fundamentalists alongside atheists alike.

This final point was perhaps the most encouraging, because that’s exactly where I tend to fall. Generally, I am not a religious person. I grew up Methodist until my folks grew unhappy with the more modern slant that our church was moving, and they’ve spent the last fifteen years or so “searching for a new church”. Needless to say, that never really went anywhere. But I’d always enjoyed the security of — at least hoping — that there were greater forces in the universe. My drive toward paranormal research manifested in college, where I took courses in Religious Studies (examining mythological texts and their religious aspects) and Philosophy of Religion (in which arguments for and against religious propositions are considered). These classes have come to define my religious outlook. Because of my research into the paranormal, I am inclined to believe that there’s a possibly-spiritual component to our world largely unrecognized, and that through very similar pursuits into mysticism, there seems that these boundaries overlap, and suggest there to be a kind of divinity beyond the physical world we make up.

And for the most part, it stops there. I’d like to pursue a more personal mysticism more in the future. Mysticism is the practice and attempts to have a direct and personal spiritual experience, possibly of divinity, where much of our western religions (read: Christianity) tend to minimize the mystical component in favor of a dogmatic component. Many people tend to connote “dogma” with something negative, and it can be. But functionally, dogma is when you’re told to take a certain belief as true rather than learn it for yourself. Science has dogmas. Religions have dogmas. Christianity puts weight on them specifically because they believe that faith is their biggest point of salvation, and that the act of having faith is far more important than a path to knowledge, given that it tests you in different ways. I’m a bit Gnostic in the sense that I think knowledge is very important, and a bit Zen in the sense that I’d rather be put in a position to experience something than being told about it, especially given how fallible interpretations of spiritual experiences tend to be.

What this boils down to is that I’m very much a religious pluralist. I do think it’s very important for religious practitioners to select one religion and follow it because, if left to their own devices, people tend to pick and choose the easiest elements of each religion, where it’s often the hardest components that can be the most revelatory. My leanings toward pluralism come in that I think spiritual experiences are inherently ineffable. I think that they come from a realm outside of our physical construction, and so can’t be encompassed by language. Therefore I think that when people try to distill such an experience so far beyond them, they inherently build an explanation that’s heavily weighed by their culture and their limited language. In this way, I’ve always loved the metaphor of the three blind men touching the elephant, where the one who touches the tail believes it’s a rope, the one touching the legs believes it’s a tree, and the one touching the trunk believes it’s a snake. Taking these experiences back to their homes, each man is going to construct a wildly different interpretation of the same thing.

That being said, I fall into a strange blend where I love science (I think that there are avenues toward spiritual experience that can be explored scientifically), I have a deep respect for the spiritual and components of the religious (as I explored above), but where I’m also very heretical to some religious folks (in that I challenge many religions assertions that there is only one “right” way).

But it’s this blend between perspectives that put me in a very unique position to watch Noah.

The Theater Experience

A lot of reviewers are talking about what a spectacle this movie was, and how you should really go see it in theaters. I’m in between. I think that it’s an experience demanded to be seen in theaters. It’s  larger than life and it’s a movie about the destruction of the world. That’s big. You should see it big. But there are many moments where, because the CGI is so extensive through the whole movie, that the graphics are a bit disappointing, even ripping me from the immersive experience. Aronofsky also tends to direct his movies in very specific and beautiful ways, with shots that are often lost if you’re gazing up at the screen. Black Swan for instance, is a very different experience at home than it was in the theaters. Not that one is necessarily better over another, but there’s reasons to see it in theaters and to wait.

Formally

This movie was excellently filmed (other than the CGI hiccups), and excellently acted. Russell Crowe was an excellent Noah, playing the blend between warm and fatherly with just the right amount of rugged, hardcore, batshit crazy. The other actors I think did their jobs well, but I wasn’t ever all that blown away.

Thematically

So. With all that front-matter out of the way, I want to dig around inside the film a bit on a thematic level, which is where movies do their truest work for me.

This movie, while clunky at times, especially in the pacing, was very much a movie that built upon itself. We begin with this predilugian world that’s different from our own. This may well be a part that turns off many atheists, as it very quickly plunges you into a world that echoes, again and again, the “Creator” (read: Old Testament God). The bad guys are the ones who live in excess and violence and arrogance, and the good guys are the pious and the environmentally-minded who maintain a reverence for the Creator.

You can see how this is quickly divisive. Many more right-leaning Christians are immediately turned off by the very Granola-feeling “save the environment from the polluters” theme, and many Atheists are turned off by the overt God-centric world the characters are living in.

But the mindset you have to put yourself in, for the more Atheistic thinkers, is that this movie is in a fantasy world, where there is magic and rock-creature-transformer-angels and spark-rocks that make epic fire, and seeds that can grow an entire forest overnight. For the more Christian thinkers: if you make it through the movie, you understand that the tree-hugging theme is really one of respect, and sets more a tone for the premise than it does the conclusion. It returns a perspective to the Edenic perspective, of the innocence that many Christians idolize, in which a kind of harmony with nature was idolized, in that sense that we were unaware of good and evil, and very much just another animal ourselves.

Later in the movie, there was another potential turnoff for fundamentalists, in one of the most gorgeous and Aronofsky-esque sequences in the film, where the creation myth was told overlaying a very evolutionary sequence of the creation of the earth, a perspective I’ve always loved. Of course, I come from a religious-studies background, in that I have a very heavy respect for the cultural myths that were told about creation as purely that: stories. But, as an English Major, stories that talk of a deeper truth, and consider rich meaning.

Just like this one, in fact. This movie is art. It’s a fictional illustration of deeper meanings. And if you’re so literal that you can’t appreciate the dialogue happening underneath a sequence that suggests a non-literal interpretation of Genesis, well, that’s unfortunate. I’m not sure this review will mean much to you if you made it this far anyway.

But I loved that sequence, because it reflects an important blend of different beliefs (a theme Aronofsky explored extensively in The Fountain).

The deepest heart of the movie though, once we move beyond the places where believers and non-believers alike would be turned off, is in the emotional and ethical struggle DEEPLY RUNNING through this entire story.

Most of us know the story of Noah, whether we were taught in Sunday school or just through the society we live in, where such mythos are common. God wants to destroy the wicked. He entrusts Noah to build an ark to save the innocent. Noah builds it. Floods come. Everyone dies. Bird comes back with a sign of land. Noah and family repopulate the earth.

It’s a story I’ve shrugged off dozens of times. But I mean, holy shit. That’s HEAVY. God, the Creator (in hindsight, the God who’s supposed to be all-loving and benevolent and all that) is going to WIPE OUT THE EARTH, women, children, innocent, good, evil, wicked, WHOLE CULTURES in one go, because we’ve become so bloodthirsty and wicked.

People are dying. People who it’s VERY much up to debate may indeed be good-hearted and innocent. How much good is in a person to require their salvation? How much evil for their damnation? When is it decided that a person is so evil they’re not worth saving? That they can’t be rehabilitated? Are human beings inherently evil? Should any be saved?

I mean, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that these are the big questions and themes that really become driven home by the second act. But they’re themes that are very much at the heart of many Old Testament stories, but left for discussion and inference, as the Bible isn’t really big on fleshing out these ideas, but as illustrative and conversation-inspiring.

Anyone who can appreciate being placed in the context of this magical, God-structured world, and who can appreciate the severity of the ethics in the story itself (these questions are implicit right there in the Bible, they’re just less dramatized), should absolutely see and chew on this movie (yes, I’m saying you Atheists, and you Christians).

Because these are great questions. Weighing the amount of goodness or evil in a human being, and then discussing how seriously we should take a punishment for such evil… that’s fucking huge.

And Aronofsky handled this very deftly.

I said on Twitter after seeing the movie that I wasn’t sure it was great or just really goooood. I’m still leaning toward not-great. I was worried the movie wouldn’t be very deep as it started. I wasn’t seeing the themes or a real dramatic manifestation of these themes at first, but they came on like the deluge by the end, and that much I loved.

Watching Noah buckle under his ethical dilemmas was wonderful. Watching him get drunk in a cave by himself because the weight of whether he’d failed his god and/or failed humanity was extremely powerful. He did it because of Love. And whether that decision was a wrong decision was very challenging, because, I mean… what does that say about God?

2014-noah-wide

GOD.

My perspective on God is that, if there is such a being, he’s a kind of consciousness and energy. I feel that many interpretations of him are a personification. We’ve made him into a character, a kind of manifestation of themes and ideas, and in so doing, we’ve created an idea that can be interpreted and critiqued. I don’t feel that God is a bearded old man on a cloud, but to consider him as such, a human-esque character, we can weigh these ethics and themes in a more tangible discussion.

I understand that that’s very heretical for many religious types, but I feel that it’s important to discuss these things.

And here’s where I loved the subtlety of the movie. And perhaps where some sharp Christians may have started to falter. Because the movie asked some hard questions about God. They were subtle. They were respectful. God was a presence in the movie, but was never overtly a character, and this was a really wonderful choice by Aronofsky.

I, for one, really love critiquing the character of the Christian God. Because it’s a very complicated one. We have so many different visions of God, even in this one religion, and many are at odds with each other, and for such an encompassing figure, these are really big discussions.

The problem of evil, for example: How could an Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent (read: all knowing, all good, all powerful) allow evil? If he knows of it and doesn’t do anything about it, he’s evil. If he knows of it and is all good, he’s impotent, and if he is all powerful and good, then perhaps he doesn’t know about it. It’s an important problem, and one that’s been discussed for hundreds of years, with excellent arguments on both sides. So here I don’t mean to suggest it in any way antagonistically toward Christianity, but in Religious Philosophy, it’s a big and important issue.

And it comes to manifest frequently in the Old Testament. We have a very wrathful, vengeful, emotional God who dishes out punishment right and left. Some of these for SERIOUSLY NO REASON. The psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung has a fascinating breakdown of this God Character, in which he blends very Eastern ideas (who see good and evil as halves of a whole, rather than polarized the way we see them in the west), and he makes a very interesting argument toward God being a totality of good and evil seeking to balance the two.

If you’re a deeply Christian person, much of what he says comes across as very blasphemous, but I for one love it, if not simply for the interpretation of how such a god could do the things done in the Old Testament. He continues his analysis by suggesting that Christ was a manifestation of himself as human so that he could understand human suffering, as well as understand himself by having a second perspective. Christ dying on the cross was then, in Jung’s vision, a sacrifice to not save humanity from our sins, but to save God from his own.

Radical, challenging stuff. I know.

Now, I’m not trying to convince anyone or offend anyone with this. But I wanted to illustrate how challenging this Old Testament God-Figure can be in ethical terms, and how this movie very much explores that. What makes it brilliant is that it’s exploring it in a very subtle and dramatic way. It’s easy to watch the movie as a story about Noah’s own personal struggles with both faith, as well as ethics.

But the brilliance lies in the parallels between humanity and God. I don’t believe it’s in error that it was mentioned so many times that humanity was created in God’s Image. And that if we’re to be destroyed for being too inherently evil, that’s a very focused dialogue about the nature of God himself then. After all, who created the snake in the garden? (I’ve always been fascinated by the proposition that if God knowingly created the tempter, then obedience to him was more important than utopia).

But I digress. Consider though too, where Noah’s  ethical dilemma of killing his grandchildren falls. It’s very much a parallel to the later Christ story. Noah is in a position of whether or not to kill his grandchildren for the sake of ALL CREATION. God himself had, it would seem, a similar dilemma all those years later with his own son on earth, dying for the sake of ALL HUMANITY. Less genocide, different stakes, but a similar ethical choice.

Look at the temptation of the middle son, Ham, to kill his father in order to save all of humanity.

Though we never really see a positive side of his tempter, Tubal-Cain, he isn’t in an obviously evil situation when he convinces Ham to kill his father in order to let humanity continue to flourish.

How different is a son killing his father to save all of humanity from the later story, in which a father sacrifices his son in order to save all of humanity?

These are delicate dialogues and parallels happening below and within this movie. I would argue (and not just because I’m more open minded to Gotteskritik than most) that they’re not blasphemous, but posing ethical questions on a archetypal Old Testament story, one loaded with ethical and moral dilemmas. The dilemma of punishment, of genocide, of elimination of evil, of the nature of evil and the human being, of the nature of God himself.

Conclusion

Part of me wishes there was a bit more exploration of these themes than really the second half of the movie, but I understand that there was a certain amount of buildup to these themes that was important. The construction of this predilugian world, and the audience’s acceptance of it, was a very important narrative construction that needed to be ensured before we could be challenged in the second act.

And, while upon first viewing, the movie seemed almost disappointingly straightforward (humanity tries to get on the ark, Noah wonders if he must kill his family off too, and Ham must decide whether to kill his father), these things, upon analysis, were very BIG situations that were VERY thematically loaded, particularly as they extended to God.

Maybe this final element, the criticism of God — or, even less severe sounding: the questioning of God — will turn off many religious folks from the movie, but I hope it doesn’t. This is what made the movie for me, because it went BIG, but it did so very subtly. Noah’s story has always demanded an ethical illustration and discussion of one man’s handling of the need for genocide, but what’s always been there (more overtly in the story of Job) is God’s same handling of such a need. Any religious Christian has studied the story of Job and had discussions around why God would punish a man for no reason. And the story of Noah is very much a less challenging but no less BIG story of why God would punish man for GOOD reason. Asking questions about whether God was right, why he made his decisions, and the significance of the implications of such decisions is important for any religious follower, and certainly does not imply a path to rejecting God.

It’s cause for this movie staying very carefully to the Biblical story. It’s posing the questions that have always been there in dramatic fashion. Questions that make us FEEL, questions that make us cry, questions that make us scared. That’s art. Those are questions that need to be asked. And, I think, why Noah was really brilliant.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the book Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team. He now leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, lectures about the paranormal and religion across the nation, and shoots portrait photography in Northern Colorado. 

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