THE LIFE OF PI

In terms of visual imagination, no active director can top Ang Lee. Even in his lesser efforts, Lee paradoxically unites his sense of childlike wonder with a belief in a deterministic nature. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for instance, the leaves blow like sails in the wind while ninja warriors fight on them. The stark beauty of Brokeback Mountain foreshadows a doomed romance that can’t happen anywhere but that backdrop. Often, Lee’s passion for color and motion and detail consumes the story; yes, Brokeback is a haunting and iconoclastic love story, but I came away remembering the tableaus, even when it was the craggy surface of Heath Ledger’s face as he struggled to articulate something he (in the movie’s cruel world) shouldn’t feel. For my money, the key scene of Lee’s ouvre is the final one: when Jen evades paternalistic authority forever as she dives off a mountain. As Jen’s relaxed body vanishes into nature, this movie about dreams ends with a fantasy of immersion and tranquility that the world she escapes from can’t offer her. We can take this scene as metaphor, but I don’t think Lee does.

As the world closes in you, you fight back with your own rituals. Lee repeats this scene, with sea and rain replacing mountain and fog. It’s not an original moment, but Lee holds these scenes dear – they become the centerpiece of his films even when they aren’t the most memorable thing about them. That’s why Lee is a fitting choice to take on Yann Martel’s gripping novel Life of Pi. The first part of Martel’s book, and Lee’s movie (a section that he captures with masterful economy), captures the means by which belief and ritual have a power outside of orthodoxy. And the second, and most vivid, shows the way they’re necessary for survival, as young Pi is trapped at sea with a Bengal Tiger.

I would imagine Lee wanted to direct that move once he heard that high concept premise. It gave him a chance to play around with CGI, with 3d, with the ocean as a bottomless pit of translucent beauty. But while critics are quick to argue that Lee is only interested in a formal exercise attached to some hokey hoo-haa spirituality, [1] it sounds like they came up with the thesis when they saw the trailer. Lee simplifies (again, to good effect) an already simple story, one that Martel saw no need to muddy up with the complexity of an outside perspective. Pi is all about the simplicity – the way his name reflects the way an endless mathematical constant can be translated into a symbol. I think there’s a group of Mr. Spectator types who are angry that a certain class of reader is thinking that the book is more profound than it actually is, without ever talking to those people. And the movie draws out that same arrogant critique: here’s Slate Dana Stevens, resplendent in the authority of her detachment: “The movie’s energy peters out in a series of book-club conversations about divine will, the power of storytelling, and the resilience of the human spirit.”

Because, of course, there’s something wrong with “book-club conversations about . . . the resilience of the human spirit.” At those moments, there’s no critic around to correct you for finding storytelling powerful in an uncomplicated way. At book clubs, no one uses the word “meta-narrative” as a way to shut down what you might have liked about a particular story.This is coming from the same publication that argued that you need to stop binge-watching TV shows because the best viewing experience is to follow along with the indispenable commentary of TV recappers.

Lee’s Life of Pi doesn’t just put the cookies on the bottom shelf, it revels in its simplicity and its instincts, much like the animals who are the real stars of the movie. Martel refuses to give into anthropomorphism except for one of the weakest scenes in the book. [2] Tigers act like tigers; hyenas are terrifying, not conniving; if meerkats are adorable, its because meerkats are adorable, not because they act like cartoon kittens. There’s a remarkable detail  that suggests the authors know what they’re up to – whether its Lee the director, Martel the author, or Pi the storyteller. They forgo easy sentiment by understanding that tigers can’t become domesticated, but they still get seasick. And forgive me if I find a complexity in the “power of storytelling” that belies Stevens quick deflation of it: the power wouldn’t have any effect if this weren’t a well-told story, and it clearly is. Lots of publicists write “a ripping yarn” on the book cover, but few deserve it as well as this one. And rather than emphasize the “rip,” Lee brings along his canny patience, one of the trademarks that rarely gets commented on. Movies about kids on lifeboats with tigers shouldn’t be slow, but at moments this one is, and it works.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it’s so decidedly PG. This is also one of its strengths: because its content isn’t going to offend anyone, there are going to be ten year olds who are going to be allowed to see it and fall in love with the potential of movies. However, the book opens up itself more to the nasty side of being ship-wrecked, including a disgustingly potent section about the possibility of eating tiger shit [3] and the joy of a long-awaited bowel movement. But its a fable about something that movies rated PG rarely touch on: sadness and loss, even if its yoked with inspiration. And you can roll your eyes at the human spirit, laugh at the earnestness of its presentation, but I didn’t.

GK Chesterton wrote, “But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.”[4] He was talking, I think, about the fact that modernity had left us bored with creation, and that when children love fairy tales they do so because the logic makes more sense. It’s the reason a kid looks at a tiger and wonders what she’s thinking, and if she likes being a tiger. But it seems we don’t want to go to the zoo anymore. Maybe if we hang with Pi, we might just share his wonder.

1. That’s what Joe Morgenstern said in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Ryan’s go-to source for movie reviews.
2.I’m referring to the scene in the book when a blinded and perhaps delusional Pi thinks he is talking to Richard Parker, a scene Lee wisely cuts.
3. A waste of fresh water, apparently. Predictably unflavorful.
4. From Orthodoxy, read it free online.

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