Saturday, November 24, 2012

Life of Pi

Ang Lee is an author of an eclectic but well-respected series of films in several genres and languages.  He's done kung-fu, superheroes, comedy, Oscar bait, and movies about gay cowboys eating pudding.  Unfortunately, for all his critical acclaim, he has never actually made a good movie.  When it came to the basic action films, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" focused too much on social status and emotions instead of fighting, and "Hulk" tried far too hard to establish an emotional undertone to the Incredible Hulk, when really all I wanted was for some Hulk Smash.  "Brokeback Mountain", for all its controversy was still a painfully dull and generic forlorn love story, only with dudes.  Ang Lee's best movie, ironically, is the mostly mediocre "Taking Woodstock", and half that movie's charm comes from it being Dmitri Martin's only starring role.  Ultimately Ang Lee gives me the impression that he doesn't really get it.  He makes complex technically-competent, if not even beautiful films with grand emotions about rejecting society or giving in to furious passion, but oddly his movies are oddly inert.  They're about emotions, but they don't really have much emotion to them.  They try terribly hard to make an impression, but they never really seem to quite work.

"Life of Pi" is based upon the 2001 adventure novel by Yann Martel, which I have not read.  Personally I make a point to avoid reading books about upcoming interesting movies.  If the book is good, the movie will bungle the meaning and cut out too many important details, and if the movie is good, than that means I can appreciate the story and if I'm sufficiently interested, I can read the book.  Then if the movie is bad, like really bad, I can read the book and realize how badly the filmmakers screwed up*.  Personally I enjoy movies more than books, its just the kind of person I am.  "Life of Pi", luckily, seems to be a movie that managed to rather brilliantly fit in all of the most important pieces of meaning from the original novel, so I'd say "Life of Pi" as a movie is fulfilling enough that I can skip Yann Martel's novel.  Its also Ang Lee's first truly successful effort, he was bound to get it right eventually.

At its core "Life of Pi" is actually a rather clever parable about the nature of faith.  There is a frame story around the tale that Ang Lee included which deals with a fictionalized Yann Martel meeting his character, Pi Patel, and learning the man's story.  Pi tells his life story, where he was shipwrecked all alone on a lifeboat with a single companion, Richard Parker**, a Bengal Tiger.  This mismatched pair have to brave the endless deserts of the Pacific Ocean all alone in the middle of the endless blue.  Unfortunately, that pay-off is rather subtle and requires spoilers.  I'd have no choice in this review but to give it away, so I'd say you should watching "Life of Pi" first before reading further.  Not that you'll be very bored during the viewing, since again, its a story of a boy and a tiger lost at sea.  Its also a gorgeous movie with amazing visuals.  Ang Lee films nature beautifully, and the CG work on the tiger is perfectly photo-realistic.  Not a movie that should be missed.

"Life of Pi" begins with the frame story featuring Yann Martel, played by Rafe Spall, the easily-lost zoologist from "Prometheus", visiting Pi Patel in his home in Montreal in order to find inspiration for a new novel.  In face, Martel has been promised nothing less than proof of the existence of God.  This framing process is both to the movie's detriment and addition.  On the one hand, Rafe Spall's bland eagerness and awful pube-like beard makes his role pathetically one-dimensional, little more than the Student in a Socratic Dialog.  But this voyage to everyday American life helps give the movie variety, since roughly 90% of it takes place in open water.  It also grounds the tale in reality, separating our North American existence from the magical world of Pi's story.

Pi was born "Piscine Molitor", after a pool in Paris, and lives in a zoo in India.  This led to endless trouble for him, since "Piscine" sounds virtually the same as "Pissing" in English, so the boy decided that from now on his name would be "Pi" after the Greek letter and irrational number and atomic bond type.  Pi lives a strange life of the junction of several cultures and religions.  He grew up in Pondicherry, a former French territory where European and Indian architecture met.  He also is a believer in Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam at the same time, thanking Vishnu for introducing him to Christ, all with apparently no contradiction.  I'm thinking that the original author meant for Pi to be microcosm of an idealized India, where so many different cultures and faiths could intermingle harmoniously with a single path to God.  That seems to be an unfortunate assumption for too many fanatics throughout history, that God can only be found through one specific esoteric series of actions, and it has led to endless conflict, literally tearing India into pieces.  However, Pi's biggest threat, at first, is not the contradictions of his beliefs, but rather the challenge of rationalism to faith, which is the real theme of the work.  Pi's own father, whose life was saved from Polio by Western medicine, is upset that his son can believe in so many things "blindly".

Eventually Pi's father decides to leave India, sell his zoo animals in America, and start a new life with more certainty.  The family travels on board a Japanese freighter across the Pacific with all of their zoo animals in storage.  Tragedy strikes, however, once the ship is hit in a massive storm and is sunk beneath the waves.  Pi becomes the lone human survivor on a lifeboat made for thirty, lost in the middle of the ocean in a bizarre ark with four other animals.  One is a zebra with a broken leg, another is a little orangutan mother named "Orange Juice", another is a vicious hyena, and the last is Richard Parker.  The hyene kills the broken zebra and Pi cannot save the little shocked orangutan.  However, Richard Parker in one bite.  Now Pi is lost in the middle of the ocean, with his little boat taken by a huge fierce animal.

Pi of course has to overcome the massive struggle of surviving alone in the Pacific, thousands of miles away from any other human.  But he also must learn to live with a tiger that will do a little more than simply pouncing on him when he gets back from school.  Richard Parker is also Pi's curious friend, since without any kind of companionship Pi would have to resort to drawing a face on a volley ball or something.  Avoiding his jaws and keeping Richard Parker alive is enough stimulation and interaction to keep Pi sane in an increasingly insane ocean.  Along the journey he runs into schools of flying fish, glowing jelly fish, giant wales, and floating islands of maneating plantlife.  The sea is glass-like, reflecting back the heavens showing that Pi is not merely on a survivalist adventure story but also a spiritual journey to understand why God has let all this happen to him.   In the end, Pi is so distraught to see Richard Parker escape into the Mexican jungle and leave him, as a feral animal will do, that he weeps openly even when his life has been saved.

Strangely, there is a major twist to the story.  Two Japanese insurance agents travel to Pi to hear his story in order to find out what happened to the ship when it sunk.  They refuse to believe Pi's fantastic story about tigers and maneating islands, and want something plausible.  Pi's also has a second version of his story, where his animal friends instead become other humans.  This time there is an injured Sailor, a Cook, Pi's Mother, and himself.  The sailor is murdered silently in the night by the Cook as food.  Then the Cook attacks and kills Pi's Mother.  In the end, Pi kills the Cook and survives on his own across the sea.  This story is told by Pi to the Japanese investigators with complete passion, crying, as if this were no invention.  The Japanese investigators prefer the story of the tiger, and so does the writer listening to middle-aged Pi's story.  Its impossible to know which version of the tale is true, since we only have Pi's own word to go by.  The writer, however, is able to point out that the Sailor is the Zebra, the Cook is the Hyena, Pi's Mother is Orange Juice, and that Richard Parker is Pi's own indomitable spirit against the elements.  Even so, he prefers to believe the story with the Tiger, its the better story.

Pi, enigmatically says, "so it is with God".  The entire story is a huge metaphor for our own uncertainty with faith.  Nobody can really know if God exists, if there's some kind of divine force in the universe leading us onward towards a greater harmony, or if its all a random collection of nonsense created by freak chance - little more than a series of particles that fell together in a pot and just so happened to create the universe, humanity, and the words on this computer screen.  Its a crisis of modern times, since we cannot simply take the words of elder fathers or magicians, we have science giving an alternate and horrifying version of what the world might actually be.  Faith is a choice we have, either to hope for a universe ruled by some kind of higher power, or one where we alone must face the emptiness of eternity without any guidance.  Which version is the better story?  The one with God, or the one without?

I personally choose to believe in God.  He*** isn't a particularly important part of my life, I don't pray, I don't ponder why God allows such awful things to happen to people I love, I don't think of God as a very active force in the universe.  He's there, someplace, unknowable, but probably not all-powerful, watching from a distance as we live our lives.  I guess I'm a deist, but I don't particularly care for labels.  Science explains a lot, however, I'm still superstitious.  I travel with a St. Christopher's medal in my car.  I pray to the gods of my host.  Also, I will never go into a haunted house with a group of my horny friends, because I know that Leatherface will murder us all.

I also like the version of the story better with the tiger.

* A few years ago I saw "All the King's Men" starring Sean Penn and it was a damn miserable mess.  Then I read the book by Robert Penn Warren, and its one of the best things I've ever read.

** Basic research has told me that Richard Parker is the name of a character in an Edgar Allan Poe novel who was eaten by his shipmates after their whaling ship capsized.  Then in weird coincidence, in 1846 a real Richard Parker drowned in a shipwreck.  Then in 1884, another Richard Parker was eaten by the others in a lifeboat after yet another ship sunk.  Yann Martel knew of this odd coincidence, and made a reference to it with his tiger character.

*** English forces me to genderize the Divine, its an issue I don't give very much importance to.  I'll go with "He" since its more similar to my own.


  1. Wow this sounds very thought provoking. And anything that makes me question fate is OK by me!

    All jokes aside if you like then it's ok to watch. I was going to avoid it, because they kept saying on the commercials "It's as good as AVATAR". Which in movie cases I found to be a real turn off.

  2. Never made a good movie? I thought your points were legit, but have you seen Sense & Sensibility? It's a Jane Austen film (zzzzzzzzzz) but it was pretty well done, that might have been mostly due to the script & amazing cast though..

    1. I haven't seen Sense and Sensibility for exactly the reason you described: "ZZZZZZZZZZZZ".