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Jan 24, 2013

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Life of PI

It must have been quite a spectacle on the big screen in 1956: Charlton Heston, staff in hand, eyes blazing above a god-like beard, splitting the Red Sea. But for left-leaning Hollywood, religion has never really been a cool factor in popular movies.

Occasionally tinsel town presents religion in the guise of an exotic brochure (for example, Martin Scorcese’s Kundun), but more commonly as a means to ruffle feathers. The Last Temptation of Christ (another Scorsese film, 1988) and Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999) are good examples of studio filmmaking as epic Catholic troll bait; both, on those terms, can’t be considered as anything less than bona fide success stories.

But a big budget movie that engages with religion in broad strokes — exploring “serious” talking points of faith, belief, omnipotence, the power of parable, nature versus creation etc — is a rarity.

Studio executives must scoff at the idea of bringing anything resembling a sermon to the multiplex. It sounds like a sure-fire line to scare audiences into staying at home and fiddling with Facebook accounts on a Saturday night, or splurging on the latest Adam Sandler gunk: “Hey folks, wanna see a movie about God?!”

There’s a distinction — in content and frequency — between films that explore religious ideas and films that tell religious stories, but both are rare. The former is rarer. If religion is the opiate for the masses, Hollywood ain’t the dealer.

Enter Life of Pi, the Oscar-nominated box office behemoth from lauded filmmaker Ang Lee, which arrives ensconced in a bubble wrap of eye-watering CGI. There are plenty of reasons to admire it and Lee’s sumptuous production values are first port of call. Even the small number of reviewers who weren’t enchanted wouldn’t have the gall to grouse about how beautiful it looks.

But a critic’s job is to look for something more meaningful than pretty postcards, and the film (like the book on which it was based, though the focus of this essay will remain on Lee’s adaptation) offers plenty to chew on. The way Life of Pi packages religious discussion for mainstream audiences will cement its place in history after the special effects look dated, though those days feel a distant CGI-embossed horizon away.

There is not a trace of condescension in the manner Lee unfolds the story of his eponymous protagonist, a promiscuous follower of religions and self-professed “Catholic hindu” who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The story Pi recounts — described as something that “will make you believe in God” — is an adventure at sea narrative of biblical proportions. A reference to the Good Book arrives: “Welcome to Pi’s ark,” Pi says to an orangatang when it hops on board, a greeting that ought to provide some indication of the film’s scope and intention.

Given Life of Pi is narrated by the doey-eyed protag as an adult man, sitting down to lunch with a hopeful writer on the hunt for a new project, it’s hardly a surprise he is rescued at the end, and that he credits his rescue to God. What will surprise audiences unfamiliar with the novel is a last minute epilogue that casts different light on the story’s many improbabilities (a boy and a tiger on a small boat, a green carnivorous island populated by meer cats, a human tooth hidden in a piece of fruit…).

When Pi — thin, rakish, and semi-hysterial — is rescued and tended to in hospital, Japanese investigators visit and don’t believe his account of events. Which is to say they don’t believe the story the audience has just sat through, a narrative that bore no indication its internal logic would be questioned. Their cynicism forces viewers to extend the critical parameters with which we contextualise what we’ve seen.

The investigators ask him for another story, something that won’t make them look like idiots. Pi’s subsequent recounting of a contrary version, in which the animals are humans and the carnivorous island doesn’t exist, strips the story of its magic.

Here Life of Pi’s true purpose becomes apparent: to springboard a discussion of Big Questions by means of casting doubt on the reliability of the narrator. From Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) and David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), unreliable narrators are nothing new, but this one is different. The film never implicitly tells us whether Pi is lying or confused.

It’s an audacious gambit. Has the audience been Münchausened?

The obvious question, though not necessary the right one, concerns which story is true. Lee doesn’t lock in an answer. To do so would have created a) a devoutly pro-religion film about the power of faith and/or the benevolence of a Higher Power or b) a cynical exercise dismissing believers as little more than susceptible sods with overactive imaginations.

When a food-starved, tiger-befriending, day-tripping narrator tells the audience “I couldn’t tell my night dreams or my day dreams from reality” we ought to have suspected he may not be an infallible source of accuracy. Nevertheless the epilogue surprises.

A more interesting question than if Pi did not tell the truth is: ‘Why?’ We know from development of his character that Pi is a genuine believer  and thus not interested in taking the mickey out of religion, or using his incredible story as a means to hoodwink a writer for the purposes of some kind of perverse pranksterism.

Perhaps the most sensible explanation is that Pi, driven to near madness on a bobbing lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a giant feline and a diet of raw fish and faux muesli bars, muddled facts. The guy got some things wrong and some things right, and the veracity of his tale lies somewhere between both versions. But suppose he lied. Wouldn’t a story about surviving in his circumstances be enough to champion the existence of God? Why bend the details of something already fantastic?

When people recount stories that combine the deeply personal with the deeply spiritual, words like “logic” and “reason” crumble like dried out cheese. Perhaps Pi, believing in the steering hand of the almighty, couldn’t explain how he survived using something as arbitrary as words — what mystical force in his eyes spared him when his family floated in a giant death trap to the bottom of the ocean. Or maybe, inspired by what he believed was the hand of God, shaped a narrative that could closest represent indescribable emotions.

The conclusion of Life of Pi rewards mostly by its secularism: atheists can read it on their terms, followers of God and agnostics on theirs, if they aren’t entirely lost in the spectacle.

Because a spectacle it is. Flying fish, a phosphorescent whale, underwater hallucinations that turn animals and stars into the face of a beautiful Indian women, weird changes in aspect ratio, glorious wide angles of zoos, animals, lifeboats, shipwrecks and glowing islands shaped like giant moonlit human beings…Ang Lee, a Christian-raised agnostic, may be simply more interested in a different kind of church — the church of cinema.

I took my mother and sister, both practising Christians, to see Life of Pi, and asked them about the ending. My mother linked the story to the tale of Daniel and the Lion’s Den. Me, I thought about Adam and Eve — not so much the story but the unusual way it is regarded by ambassadors for the great man upstairs.

Plenty of Christian parents do not believe in Adam and Eve as an event that actually happened. And yet they share it with children while also teaching the ten commandments — in this case, most pertinently, that one about not lying. The same can be said of the way parents treat Christmas and Santa Claus. I was raised in a relatively orthodox Christian household, where I was encouraged to believe in both Adam and Eve and Santa (one I believed for longer than the other, especially when I noticed Santa’s handwriting was identical to my mother’s). I was also taught that lying is wrong.

Rather than deriding this as a form of double-think or hypocrisy, it’s interesting to think about how lying in terms of actual facts/events can reinforce the liar’s belief in a spiritual truth. Christian parents see the value in teaching faith over tangible properties. They share messages about holding onto things that cannot be touched, held or plausibly re-enacted. Belief in God is central to the spiritual orbit, but capacity to believe in belief is more important, given the first cannot exist without the other. These stories are often used to champion larger values. For example, that being a virtuous person (i.e. nice not naughty) should lead to reward, whether that reward is an extra gift stuffed into the stocking or residence in heaven for eternity.

Life of Pi begins at a time when the reward has already been served. We know the protagonist has transcended incredible hardship. It goes on to show us how he achieved this, then how he might not have achieved it. It builds an interior logic, then ultimately questions it. Interpreting the film as a exploration of faith is, in a sense, an act of faith itself.

Film reviews

Dec 7, 2012

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In any other film, a line such as “your mother is the orangutan” would sound like a vulgar schoolyard slur.

But in Ang Lee’s lavish spare-no-CGI adaptation of novelist Yann Martel’s best-selling lost at sea story about a boy who shares a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, thus marking a level of odd couple freakishness matched in cinema only by Tom Hanks’ infamous bromance with a volleyball, it rolls warmly off an actor’s tongue in a poignant moment of reflection and meditation.

Ang Lee’s next challenge is to do the same with a “yo’ mother is so fat” joke, and — going by the jaw-dropping success of this, his 12th feature film — I wouldn’t put it past him.

Perhaps Life of Pi’s greatest achievement (there are several) is to finally and spectacularly lay to rest the notion that any book is “unfilmable”. David Cronenberg landed some blows with Naked Lunch (1991), Terry Gilliam severed limbs in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and now Lee, using a much more classical style, has killed it for good. A stunningly decorated cathedral of atmospheric indulgence is the box he buried it in.

You won’t see the “actor” who “plays” Pi’s Richard Parker at the Academy Awards ceremony next February, but plenty of his colleagues will be there. Parker is the aforementioned tiger with whom 16-year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma) shares an expectantly difficult relationship in a story modestly described to one character as something “that will make you believe in God”. Continue reading “Life of Pi movie review: a cathedral of cinematic indulgence”

Taking Woodstock

Here’s a good idea: take a watershed moment in contemporary music history and recreate it for the big screen, minus the music! That’ll work, right? Actually yes – it works a treat in Taking Woodstock, an unprepossessing personal/cultural coming of age yarn told from the perspective of, er, event management and directed by the ever-unpredictable genre hopping auteur Ang Lee.

Forget Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Santana and that hippy dude with the fluid fingers and the trippy headbands and the Purple Haze – what about the rental agreement for the land they used? What about the security arrangements? The struggling family next door? The townspeople living in fear of an imminent hippie invasion? Says one local: “they’ll be high on drugs – robbing us by day and raping the cattle by night!”

In T.W. Ang Lee answers the questions nobody asked and views the milestone peace-love-understanding-and-total-lack-of-hygiene event in the same way most people who attended would probably regard it as: not a world-revolutionising moment but a party big and wild enough to mean something significant in their lives: a fresh perspective, perhaps; a wider outlook; an inspiration for change; some kind of intangible high-water mark underscored by the sensation that whatever transpired on that patch of soiled pastures will surely never come again…

Ang Lee convincingly captures the enormity of organising Woodstock, how it must have impacted the local infrastructure and the strange amorous air the town must have been breathing – but all that is second fiddle along with the music and the party-making to the story of Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin), a straight-as-an-arrow dag who bends with the drugs and music en route to forging independence from his parents. He works with ma and pa for the family business, El Monaco motel, a dilapidated hovel where the sheets are dirty – skinflint mom says detergent costs $$$ – and the air conditioning is nothing more than a plastic box on the wall. Similar to the Bill Pullman plotline in this year’s Bottle Shock (also inspired by a true story) El Monaco is in debt and the Teichbergs are failing to make the bank payments. Elliot pleads for another couple of months of credit and then voilà – a miracle presents itself in the form of half a million freaks revving up to par-tay like it was – funnily enough – 1969. The Teichberg family land is swampy and no good for it but down the road, at Eugene Levy’s place – he makes awesome chocolate milk, though the upcoming visitors will be partial to things a little stronger – the grass is crisp and green and fulsome and just beckoning to be trashed. Continue reading “Taking Woodstock film review: it’s not about the music”

Ang LeeAng Lee’s films are nothing if not varied. Lee’s body of work almost seems deliberately intended to defy expectations; like Aussie auteur Rolf de Heer he’s an impossible to pigeonhole filmmaker who swings from genre to genre and rarely if ever treads the same ground twice. How else to explain the one man directing films such as Eat Drink Man Woman, Hulk, Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm?

Lee’s latest is Taking Woodstock. The trailer (watch it below) introduces us to Elliot (Demetri Martin) who runs the family business: a crappy motel on the verge of repossession. Elliot volunteers their land for the site of a music festival, which of course will go on to become the most celebrated hippy hoedown of them all.

The film will be released theatrically in Australia August 13 but Melbourne cinemagoers can get in early for a preview screening of Taking Woodstock at Cinema Nova next Tuesday night (July 21) , which will be introduced by Ang Lee himself via a satellite hook-up.