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.