Thursday, February 14, 2013
Life of Pi: An Appreciation
I love seeing places I know in film. They feel like a secret shared between me and the movie, a whispered "We know this place, you and I." Here, Ang Lee uses recognizable locations in Pondicherry and Montreal in a way that maintains the integrity of the local geography alongside the imaginary geography of the story. He announces: Space matters and will be treated with care and attention to detail.
3D is a spectacle of depth attempting to deny the flatness of the screen. Objects are close or far. They are in front of or behind. In moments of frenzied action, Life of Pi uses 3D in this way. More often however, 3D is used to make empty spaces deep: air over flat water, light on rippled water. Space expands quietly offering room for thought.
Unexpectedly, during its most spectacular moments, the film arranges objects in the frame so as to flatten the image. A boat floats on a black pool of brilliant stars; or it floats in a field of buttery light, sky and sea indistinguishable except for the thin horizon drawn through the center of the frame. These moments of flatness are announced as a compositional strategy in the animal montage rolling under the opening credits, most memorably in the picture of a bird and the flowering branches of a tree. The 3D technology cuts the image’s foreground from its background, creating an illusion of depth, but the photography cancels that illusion by composing its subject in the manner of a silk painting.
The shallowness of objects pitted against the depth of emptiness. This strategy is thematic. It is also the only intellectual use of 3D technology that I have seen.
The action of the story is both constrained and enabled by the geography of the lifeboat and raft. Distances between the raft and the lifeboat, between the front of the lifeboat and its back are crucial here. The 3D underscores the distinction, and here too, it is thematic. What after all is a dance between too close and too far if not a love story? And this film is about nothing if not love.
Two images capture that story for me. In the first, a tiger hangs to the edge of a boat by a claw, desperate and lost. A young man, ax in hand and desperate too to live, looks down from above and recognizes the tiger as real and alive and worthy of care. In the second image, a tiger sits in a boat as night falls waiting for the young man (who looks on from afar) to come back to their home. Between these moments is a story of generosity and kindness given freely until the giving becomes a habit and the habit a joy. That feels like a definition of love to me.
Poetry in 3D
by Caitlin Murphy
Prose writers uncertain about cinematic adaptation would do well to trust their work to Ang Lee. In Life of Pi, based on the novel of the same name by Yann Martel,Lee reveals again, as he did so strikingly in Brokeback Mountain, his deep integrity as a story-teller and sensitivity to source material. What results is a film that is visually glorious, entertaining and profoundly moving.
Pi, an Indian teenager, is so named not as an allusion to math (we are told in playful backstory) but to a famous swimming pool in France. He is voyaging to Canada with his family – and the many inhabitants of their former zoo – when a massive storm strikes. As the sole human survivor of the shipwreck, Pi ends up sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, and must devise ways to survive at sea with his impossible companion. As anyone who’s read the novel knows though, Life of Pi is actually the story of this story, and an exploration of what it means for a story to be ‘true’. In a framing narrative adapted from the novel, but adjusted for the film, a middle-aged Pi recounts his unbelievable experience to a curious writer who has heard of his tale and sought him out to hear it. Filmed in Montreal, mostly in the old Port, these brief scenes add an extra little thrill for Montrealers.
To my delight, the film is populated with essentially unknown actors. Having originally cast and filmed Tobey McGuire as the listening writer in the framing narrative, Lee eventually abandoned that footage feeling that McGuire’s star status detracted from the centrality of the story. This strikes me as one choice among scads of smart others that Lee made to protect and priviledge Martel’s material. First-time actor, Suraj Sharma, is compelling and forceful as Pi, especially given that he spends most of the film not only acting opposite a non-human, but opposite a non-flesh being even – 86% of the images of tiger Richard Parker were created with CGI. To consider the amount of blue screen work this entailed for Sharma, and the resultant workout his imagination endured, is to find an evocative behind-the-scenes parallel to Pi’s own story.
At heart, like the novel, the film is not so much about survival, as about storytelling and faith. We don’t tell ourselves stories because they’re true, but because they keep us intact. Pi’s memory of his near-death experience serves as metaphor for the role of religion, but more generally his relationship with Richard Parker also stands in for impossible situations of all kinds and what we manage to do with them – an admission that life itself is essentially an untenable proposition, full of suffering, pain, loss and fated from its inception to end, that we negotiate as best we can.
At the ticket counter, I grumbled shelling out extra money because the film was in 3D, and even considered not seeing it. In my limited exposure to the trendy gimmick, 3D has felt like a sad add-on meant to vaguely “intensify” the film-watching experience; usually no one has taken the time to think through what it’s actually supposed to be contributing to the film beyond its own ‘trippy’ effect. Here, its use is so refreshingly elegant, restrained, and thematically relevant, that it actually felt integral to the story-telling. The cinematography, heightened by the 3D effect, is so uniquely stunning that water, animals, stars, trees appear re-invented, served up new again.
Indeed, the film’s exquisite imagery made me feel like I’d been forgetting the sublime beauty of the natural world – suddenly an animal’s colours, stripes, movements, whiskers felt previously unseen or unimagineable. Putting the audience in this naïve place of wonder is perhaps the film’s single greatest achievement.
Watching Life of Pi is to be reminded of how very much we have to marvel at. Which could be a cheap, pat or cheesy lesson. Except that it’s coming from Ang Lee, who is always doing something else altogether.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Genre in Bad Faith
by Brian Crane
So I wasn't going to watch Silver Linings Playbook. I'd seen the trailer and was pretty sure that it would be terrible. Then one day, I found myself heading to a theatre to watch this thing with Caitlin as part of our Best Picture screening list. Sitting down, I was genuinely confused: how could a trailer be so misleading? I quickly learned, it wasn't.
This movie is clearly a romantic comedy. But in what I take to be a bid for contemporaneity or seriousness, it makes a big deal about cutting through the bull, getting real, and addressing the problems of relationships today. The hard truth this film proposes is that a lot of us are sick, diagnosable, requiring accommodation. To know each other, the characters don't need to communicate. They just need to be brought up to speed on their case histories. And so, in scene after bathetic scene, we listen to unpleasant characters announce their diagnoses to each other as if these constituted personalities. "I AM" he says. "I AM" she says. "I AM" he says. And so on and so on. And who cares?
For all it's self-importance, this approach to character is much more simplistic than the approach native to romantic comedies of the classic 1930s sort. Watch Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story or It Happened One Night and you'll see movies about adults made for adults. They have happy endings, yes. But these movies earn those endings in complicated and emotionally complex stories that transform their characters and launch them forward into life. Nothing in romantic comedy--the cinematic genre most closely related to the theatre of Shakespeare--is simple or easy. It only seems that way because we want so badly for its faith in us to be true.
Silver Linings Playbook may believe its view of humanity is smarter and truer than romantic comedy's, but in the end, it can't pull off the picture it wants to paint. "I AM" plus "I AM" doesn't equal "we." And so in it's final moments, the movie generates the romantic closure it seeks by embracing (without avowing) the romantic genre it has worked so hard to repudiate. Out of the blue, this movie about him saying "I AM sick, that's just me," and her saying "I AM (not) a slut, deal with it," becomes a movie about a dance competition, one part Strictly Ballroom, one part Little Miss Sunshine. Untrained, outclassed and with all of the family's fortunes on the line (don't ask), the characters decide to try their best, dance their hardest, and in the end, against all odds, discover they can do it if they just let go and have fun. The family fortune is saved, and the two, now lovers, find each other and kiss in the empty nighttime streets, happy finally together.
I think this movie wants to update a genre. It wants to make those silly, old-fashioned movies take account of what we "know" today about human experience. How after all, if so much of what we feel and experience is actually symptomatic of illness, can you find love? It is telling (and reassuring) that the movie can't offer an answer any different than the established generic answer. That four-hundred year old tale of marriage delayed but achieved through work and conversation still rings true to our experience and aspirations. The tangle of diagnosis this film takes as our lot does not.
…and yet, all those awards and nominations…
Something in us wants to believe in the new story of sick people this movie can't figure out how to tell. And that's terrifying.
Like a Lead Balloon
by Caitlin Murphy
A few years back, the Best Picture Oscar category was expanded from a list of 5 nominations to a maximum of 10. The change seemed to have merit: create room for the less conventionally epic, the more comedically inclined, the smaller budgeted – or otherwise just somehow humbler – cinematic offerings to enter the fray. It’s a move that’s allowed the Oscars to embrace such gems as this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which might otherwise have fallen off the radar. But it’s also a move that’s backfired, letting in riff-raff like Silver Linings Playbook. Written and directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter) and based on the novel by Matthew Quick, the film is a warmed-over rom-com that manages mediocrity at every turn.
Set in Philadelphia, the film opens with Pat Solatono (Bradley Cooper) being released from a mental health institution where he’s been staying since a breakdown 8 months ago. He comes home to live with his football-obsessed father (Robert DeNiro) and snack-making mother (Jackie Weaver), armed with a new determination to always find life’s silver linings (why haven’t other bi-polar sufferers come up with this yet?). Pat strategizes to re-establish his life, regain his job, and win back his wife (currently holding a restraining order against him). Out for a run one day, he meets Tiffany, a sultry, recently-widowed 20-something, who’s been self-medicating with sexual promiscuity. In exchange for getting Tiffany to hand-deliver a letter to his wife (not sure why the American postal service wouldn’t work), Pat agrees to be Tiffany’s partner for a dance competition. And thus the bumpy wheels of the ‘romantic’ plot are put into crunchy motion.
In the vein of As Good as It Gets, the film attempts that awkward blend of actual mental illness (as opposed to mere personality quirk) with light romantic comedy, trotting out that old chestnut that true love can fix any noggin. It seems the only recent revision to this rom-com narrative of “fucked up guy, meets redeeming girl who saves him from himself” is “fucked up guy, meets similarly fucked up girl, who saves him from himself.” Equality at last.
Pat’s behaviour though never quite feels ugly or complicated enough to do service to the reality of serious mental illness. His capacity for violence is typically tied to ethical outrage: his initial breakdown, for instance, resulted from discovering that his wife was having an affair and losing it on his romantic rival. Well, who wouldn’t do that, right? At least a bit. And once he’s out in the real world again, the only time Pat’s violent rage re-surfaces is when he defends his Indian therapist from a bunch of racist football fans. Awww.
Focusing also on Pat’s father’s OCD-like behaviour surrounding his beloved football, as well as his own history of violence (he’s banned from stadium games), the film seems interested in suggesting that we’ve all got our own case of the ‘crazies’ and some are just more official than others. But it’s a theme that never really gathers much momentum, and limply lies on the ground by film’s end.
To return to the Oscar noms, the film also somehow wound up in the undeservedly distinguished company of films like A Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virignia Woolf with nominations in all four acting categories (leading and supporting). Bradley Cooper, (who no matter what he does in his career I will always comfortably reduce to ‘that guy from The Hangover’) demonstrates precisely why he’s always expressing red-carpet bafflement to have found himself with an acting career. His performance is so much fluff. As for Jennifer Lawrence, I like her – her husky voice, solid build, no-nonsense posture, Juliette Lewis-like snark. She had me at Winter’s Bone and it will take quite a bit to undo that love at first sight. But she’s wasted here. One-note and predictable.
When Pat’s father loses a huge football bet that he wagered based on a rabbit’s foot faith in Pat, everyone rallies around to help him. What follows is a long, sloppy scene in which the players plot out an elaborate parlay bet to win back his money by pairing up the results of a football game with those of Pat and Tiffany’s dance competition. The scene was reminiscent of a bunch of squabbling screenwriters sitting around past midnight trying desperately to figure out how to ‘end this thing.’ And this is exactly what the film felt like far too often – watching what the filmmakers were ‘trying’ to do, the awkward plot-making machine churning away.
And the bow that ultimately wraps up this turd? A boy-girl chase scene that ends with a kiss in the middle of the street. Of course. Like every other moment in Silver Linings Playbook, it’s precisely something you’ve seen before, or else something that vaguely stinks of it. The entire film lacks texture and specificity, and when it does manage to scrounge some up, the results are so contrived and self-conscious, that it might as well have crept back to its sleepy den of cliché.