“Life of Pi” - Ang Lee (2012)

Everyone seems to love Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012), based on the 2002 Man Booker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel.  Well, almost everyone. Since the novel is a philosophical fantasy about a lone teenage boy on a lifeboat, it would seem to be almost unfilmable.  Yet Lee’s film was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece and nominated for eleven US awards, including Best Picture. Certainly on the cinematography level, the film is a marvel – as one watches, one can’t help wondering, “how did they do it?” Nevertheless, I have my reservations concerning the ultimate merit of this work as an effective film narrative, and I think it pales in comparison to Lee's wonderful Eat Drink Man Woman (1994).

The narrative structure of the film is somewhat complex, and this accounts for part of the film’s popularity.  At the outer level, the film itself has an implicit narrator, the filmmaker, who is telling us a story by visual means.  Then within that narrative we have the character of the Writer, who is evidently telling us the story of his encounter with Piscine “Pi” Patel, who survived a shipwreck and is now a Canadian academic in theology.  Then within the Writer’s narrative are two conflicting narratives by Patel about the same events, the “Animal” story and the “Human story”.  The Writer and the viewer are then forced to choose which of the two stories by the unreliable narrator Patel is more believable.  So the outline of the story proceeds as follows:

1.  The Writer Meets Pi
A successful novelist, the “Writer”, wishes to interview Piscine “Pi” Patel, an academic in Toronto, because the Writer has been told that Patel has an amazing and true story that will help him believe in God.  Patel is known to have miraculously survived a shipwreck years ago, and it this experience that constitutes Pi Patel’s story.

2.  Pi’s Upbringing
In a somewhat desultory fashion, Pi begins to recount his upbringing in India, where his father owned a zoo in Pondicherry.  The main items covered are how Patel acquired his name, “Pi”, and how a Bengal tiger in the family zoo came to be called, “Richard Parker”. He also relates his growing fascination with religious truth.  Even though from a middle class Indian family and with a father who was a rational humanist and discounted religion, Pi embraced traditional Hinduism and its ethical precepts. But Pi subsequently converted to Christianity and then to Islam. Each time he converted, he did not renounce his previous religious affiliations, but apparently embraced additional truths offered by the newly adopted faith.

When Pi is about sixteen years old, his father sells the zoo in Pondicherry and loads his family and animals onto a ship headed for Canada.  Somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean, however, the ship encounters a heavy storm and founders.  At this point one enters the “Animal” story.

3.  The Animal Story
Most of the film’s running time is occupied with relating what happens in Pi’s “Animal” story.  Almost everything is dramatized in this section, and Pi’s explicit narration recedes from the viewer’s focus. 

In the chaos of the sinking ship, Pi alone winds up in a lifeboat, along with some animals who accidentally fall into the lifeboat, too.  These turn out to be a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and the tiger Richard Parker.  The rest of the ship, crew, and passengers go down.  On the lifeboat the hyena soon kills and eats from both the zebra and the orangutan before suffering a similar fate from the tiger.  The rest of this part of the story concerns how Pi manages to coexist with his lethal feline shipmate, Richard Parker.

Eventually the lifeboat makes it to a mysterious floating island featuring a vast horde of meerkats. This appears to be a safe haven with an abundant food supply for Pi and Richard Parker, but they both discover that they are inhabitants of an island that is a huge carnivorous plant that may at some point eat and digest them. So they get back into the lifeboat and eventually make it to Mexico, where Pi is finally returned to civilization and Richard Parker disappears into the forest.

4.  The Human Story
Noone, including the authorities, believed Pi’s fantastic story about living 227 days on a lifeboat with a tiger, so he tells the Writer that he gave the authorities an alternative story about his lifeboat experience.  This story, which is told to the Writer in words rather than being dramatized, involves not animals on the lifeboat but three human companions, several of whom (and ultimately Pi, himself) engage in murder and cannibalism in order to survive.

So the Writer and the viewer must choose which story to believe.  Both stories seem implausible.  The "Animal" story suggests that a person could rise to the implausible heights of taming a tiger; while the "Human" story suggest that people could readily descend to implausible depths of bestiality. In any case, as we know, the most important stories we tell are those that we tell to ourselves. Pi asks the Writer which of the two conflicting stories he wants to believe, and the writer says he prefers the “Animal” story. Pi responds by saying, “and so it goes with God.”  This is presumably the philosophical message of the film.

OK, it is a challenging thought, but I will outline why I don’t think this film really amounts to what its supporters claim.  There are two basic problem areas with respect to Life of Pi: the narrative, itself, and the philosophical implications concerning what is shown.

Narrative Issues
Despite the spectacular mise-en-scene carried out by Lee, the fundamental problem with Life of Pi is that the narrative core to the film, the “Animal Story”, is one long shaggy dog story [1]. The interaction between Pi and the tiger Richard Parker doesn’t evolve into a relationship. We can perhaps accept certain aspects of it by imagining that the tiger becomes exhausted from hunger and becomes more familiar with the other “animal” on board, but we really don’t have any idea of how a tiger thinks or feels.  There is a conflict here in terms of narrative presentation, because by Lee’s real and physical depiction of the tiger, he sacrifices the metaphorical insinuation that some sort of relationship is evolving.  Now one might possibly counter by arguing that everything is going on inside Pi’s head and that he is “taming the tiger within”.  But what is shown onscreen is the direct interaction between the tiger and Pi, and that has to work as a narrative.  Instead, the viewer’s interest is more occupied by what is really a distraction – how did they film this thing?

Interesting narratives must evolve, usually by means of changing attitudes among key personages in the story.  But the viewer of Life of Pi cannot understand the motivations of Richard Parker, the hyena, or the orangutan – motivations which are essential for a narrative to hold our attention. So we are only left with Pi’s experiences.  Moreover, although the performance of Suraj Sharma as the 16-year-old Pi shows a certain sensitivity, he many times seems entirely too calm for a boy going through such horrific catastrophes and ordeals.  So even with Pi, it is difficult to get a feel for his motivations and what is going on inside his mind.

A further complaint that I have about the narrative is the decision to have the Writer articulate the explicit correspondences between the “Animal” story and the “Human” story.  This connection should have been left to the viewer to make, and it makes the story structure even more artificial and explicitly schematic.

Philosophical Issues
But there is still the philosophical side of things to consider.  Can the issue of “and so it goes for God” make up for the shortcomings of the film’s narrative presentation?  Again, I feel the film falls somewhat short along several lines.

  • Taming the Tiger Within.  If the “Animal” story is to be taken allegorically, then we might consider Pi’s relationship with, indeed identification with, the tiger (Richard Parker) as his attempt to tame the tiger within himself.  He says that his preoccupation with Richard Parker is what enabled him to survive.  But what he ultimately arrived at was merely a form of peaceful coexistence with the tiger. Originally a devout Hindu and therefore a vegetarian, he compromises his ethical values and eats animal flesh, and thus gives in to being part tiger. This wasn’t truly a taming, and it doesn’t bring Pi closer to God, even if it did help him to survive on the material plane.
  • Moral Condemnation.  By seeing his lifeboat shipmates as animals instead of humans, Pi could avoid the feeling of disgust and moral condemnation he had towards cannibalism. This altered perspective might make Pi more sympathetic, but it would also lower his companions from the status of morally responsible sentient beings to that of beasts.  Rather than holding the compassionate vision that all sentient beings, including animals, are higher souls, this reductive re-perspective operates in the reverse direction. It is true that this has the advantage of removing his shipmates from moral condemnation and therefore utter rejection, but it also makes them lesser beings and consequently eatable – a compromise that is also not exactly godlike.  
  • The Carnivorous Floating Island.  In the “Human” story there is no episode that corresponds to the carnivorous floating island of the “Animal” story.  We might fill in this gap and guess that when Pi first returned to the civilized world in the “Human” narrative, he was still accompanied by the tiger within and was still participating in a seemingly civilized world that masked its underlying carnivorous nature. So he presumably had to make an additional escape, this time to a more humane world in order to find a harmonious existence.  This is a point worth making, but it seems to have been dropped from the film and therefore leaves an unfilled gap.
Ultimately, the film suggests to us that all religions have a story and that we should adopt the one that “works” best for us, i.e. the one that contributes most effectively to our survival.  This strikes me as a utilitarian prescription and is not something that elicits the feelings of loving compassion.  Pi was a sensitive, loving boy when he was a teenager.  The older Pi who narrates the story is living a comfortable life; but he seems not to have the same spark of caring engagement, and I don't think he is closer to God now.  We need to do go beyond just taming the tiger within – we need to evoke the loving and compassionate heavenly being within.  Then we will be closer to God.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaggy_dog_story

1 comment:

blessed-rain said...

I searched and surfed all the web but didnt find any rational comment on Life of Pi
First of all you MUST read Yann Martels novel - it makes many questions clear
Second - try to find the third story within the movie or novel
It is a new vision - absolutely new dimension - and not Ang Lee is main person - Martel himself made it all
I will try to post more detailed comment - hope i will not brake the rules of Sufis - Martel Yanns novel is undoubtedly SUFI NOVEL just like Mathnavi of Rumi or ISLAND of Idries Shah