Monday, January 21, 2013

At last, a Hollywood movie worth an Oscar

Richard Parker, burning bright . . .

It took me a while to catch up to Life of Pi, because I believed the claims of some the dimmer movie critics: with its soulful, shirtless young star (Suraj Sharma), and its high-concept, digitized Bengal tiger, Ang Lee's latest did sound a little New-Age woozy, with over-obvious "spiritual" metaphors all but drowning in an ocean of color-saturated pixels.

But boy, was I wrong - and don't make my mistake. I've sat through several of the Oscar nominees recently; some, like Spielberg's Lincoln, made me almost doze off; others, like Django Unchained, made me feel like Marcellus Wallace taking it up the keester in Pulp Fiction.

Only Life of Pi has held me in anything like what we used to call "its grip" - although trance is probably the  better term, for its imagery is so ravishing you often feel that rather than watching a movie you're experiencing a kind of floating dream. But then "floating" is central to Ang Lee's vision. His protagonists, "Pi" Patel (Sharma), and a Bengal tiger amusingly named "Richard Parker" (a clerical error traded his name with his hunter's) are literally afloat with each other in the Pacific Ocean for most of the film, after the freighter carrying them, and the rest of Pi's family - and their zoo - sinks in a cyclone.

It's also worth noting that Pi's full name is actually "Piscine" - yes, he was named after the French term for "swimming pool" by his intellectual father (who ran an improbable zoo in Pondicherry). So in a way, he is literally a floater in a wide variety of pools; even his nickname references an irrational number whose value floats free from any attempt to pin it down (indeed, in one scene we watch as Pi tries to nail its elusive final digit across a dozen blackboards).

Okay, if all that symbolic exposition spooked you a little, I don't blame you - and yes, the movie is stuffed with exotically lovely locales, and often feels perfumed with a Whole-Foods-profundity that equates hygienic sex with spirituality, and vegan-ness with godliness.  (In fact, at the film's opening, Pi styles himself a vegetarian.)

Floating among stars above and stars below.
But wait. The Portlandia preamble only exists to kickstart the fable at the heart of the story - the one about the boy and the tiger in the lifeboat. And once Pi and Richard Parker have begun their cruise, the movie transmutes itself into a kind of spell that mixes the low comedy of Aesop with the hard heart of Homer and the soft touch of Scheherazade (with perhaps a hint of ripe, Michael-Powell-esque fantasy).  And Lee sustains its strangely focused atmosphere for almost the entirety of the movie.  I have to say, I've never seen such mature work from this director before; Life of Pi has been wrought with the kind of confident, un-showy command that you would have expected from an old master like Lean, Hitchcock or Hawks some fifty years ago (only they wouldn't have had the tools to conjure the transporting imagery that Lee does).

Indeed, this is that rare film that I'd recommend seeing in 3-D for thematic reasons: as I mentioned, a sense of floatation is at the core of its spiritual and moral concerns, and in 3-D, Lee's many evocations (and conflations) of suspension and flight are all but hypnotic. In general, "magic realism" is  a self-conscious mode of infusing post-colonial culture with some hint of native shamanism - and here Ang Lee brings the technique to amazing new heights of digital prestidigitation.  His Pacific Ocean is at one moment a roaring mantle of purple wrath, and the next an undulating hammock of liquid glass. We watch mesmerized as Pi's tiny boat slides over a rippling plate of sunlit sky; or nods gently between galaxies of stars above, and jellyfish below. And slowly, we begin to accept the narrative's essential premise that we are always suspended in judgement before fearful symmetries and incomprehensible mysteries, whether beautiful or terrible (the film's most stunning sight may be the moment when Pi, plunged underwater, watches helplessly as the freighter carrying his parents nose-dives like a doomed starship into the Mariana Trench).

Of course the main action of this fable (or rather parable, for that's what it becomes) is the long détente between the hungry Pi and the hungrier Richard Parker (who disposes of the other animals who struggle onto the boat with calm alacrity - so no, this isn't a film for the kiddies). Needless to say, they do work out a mode of co-existence, even perhaps something like a relationship between subject and object; thus the moment near the close of the picture when the exhausted tiger finally begins to sink toward death proves in its own way very moving.

But Lee isn't actually interested in sentimental anthropomorphism; indeed, he has one final trick up his sleeve that banishes any trace of Disney treacle from his movie entirely. The film returns at the finale to a domestic frame: we are reminded that this whole tale has been an "as told to" story, by the surviving Pi to an unnamed writer (perhaps Yann Martel, the original novelist, who has, amusingly enough, admitted he borrowed the backbone of his story from someone else).

Here Pi suddenly mentions that his narrative admits an entirely different interpretation, one of an even more terrible savagery than that of Richard Parker. I won't give the precise shape of this final coup away; but I will offer a few hints: the tiger has a human name for an unspoken reason - and it may be worth remembering that Ang Lee's cinema has oft been concerned with the acceptance of one's true nature. Pi promises his listener that his tale will "make him believe in God" - although it hardly proves God's existence; rather it suggests that denying the divine leaves one naked before the most terrible quandaries imaginable, which few can view without some kind of psychological veil.

As a boy, young Pi insisted that he was, improbably, a follower of Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam; this sounds patently impossible, yet out on the open ocean, he instinctively voices a mingling of the three faiths when he drops his vegan scruples with lines like "We thank you Lord Vishnu for appearing to us as a fish and saving our lives!" Yet perhaps the deepest resonance of Life of Pi lies in its intimation of an even more basic kind of spirituality, deeper than any of those three, which perhaps is the only one that can help us survive the cruelty of life's most terrible symmetries.

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