Life of Pi

Watching Life of Pi is like sitting through a pretty engaging seminar on religion, coupled with other existential matters, in a large auditorium. You just paid to have someone tell you a story that you’ll either want to believe or want to dismiss as good fiction. You’ll laugh at all the right humorous moments, feel sad when the bad things happen, and maybe be on the edge of your seat when the action gets intense. But you’ll ultimately walk out of the venue looking at life the exact same way as you did when you walked in…

LOP-068    Pi Patel takes in the bioluminescent wonders of the sea.

Or maybe I’m wrong. In one way I feel like maybe I gained something from the experience of viewing this movie, but there’s no changing my mind about the way I choose to believe. The whole premise which director Ang Lee is trying to exploit here is the idea that if I tell you a story and embellish it to the point of near non-belief, you’ll listen more intently, and ultimately gain more from it when it’s over. However, if I tell you the same story, as it actually happened, you’re likely to be far less interested and possibly even dismiss it. A good, possible argument you might make for the purpose/power/impact of the Bible.

Lee works outside the bounds of Yann Martel’s simple story, and uses his artistic license to basically create expositional scenes that help steer the viewer into the right frame of rational, questioning mind. That, in and of itself bothers me, because whether or not the story is made up, has little effect on how I will perceive the point it’s trying to make (or whether I will believe it). In fact, I walked out of the theater angry because the version of the story I wanted to believe, was indeed deemed to be false by the close of the film.

The film uses the cinematic formula of story-within-a-story, by literally having someone (in this case Pi, himself) tell the story. While Lee provides some much needed background, the bulk of the film takes place on the water after Pi’s family (and the rest of an entire Japanese cargo liner die when it sinks to the deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean). Pi, who had up to many years before as an adolescent found himself to be very in touch with nature and the world, finds that he is literally trapped and threatened by the world after the horrible event. As a young boy, he felt as close as counterparts, and so deeply trusting of the world that he would attempt to feed a tiger with his small bare hands. His father quickly excised this beautiful, innocent quality which Pi had, and cut-to many years later, Pi’s 16 and sharing a lifeboat with the same tiger, but now intensely afraid of him instead of able to coexist.

Now, you could look at this from the perspective that Pi should never have been trusting of a wild animal to begin with (coexistence with animals and nature for many humans simply means keeping them at bay so as not to disrupt their lives), and fortunately as a child Pi’s father taught him there is not only love and happiness in the world, there is also suffering and cruelty; but I think you’d be looking at it wrong. I think, if Pi hadn’t been taught to fear everything, he would have been able to coexist much sooner once he was trapped on the boat. The lifeboat in which Pi becomes (literally) tethered to, contains an interesting little circle of life. In hierarchical order, there’s the tiger, Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a rat. Coexistence and harmony are not possible on the boat, because fear, hunger and self-preservation are all that either man or animal can possibly think of when faced with such an ordeal, but coexistence is still ultimately achieved as a simple method to staying alive.

life_of_pi_8Instead of happiness (or even mutual respect, really), the boy and the tiger end up in a sort of symbiotic relationship, each dependent on the other for existence. They are literally yin and yang. It’s only for the shift of power, that Pi finds himself interacting with the tiger and eventually doing what he considers to be training him. I’d argue that it’s much less an achievement in training the tiger, than it is the tiger actually resolving to his fate: which is the boy has a better ability to aid in the tiger’s self-preservation. The boy can (and does) catch fish for him. The boy can (and does) save him when he leaps overboard and cannot get back onto the boat. The boy can (and does) provide shelter for him and early warning of emanate danger. In reality, the tiger is using Pi.

This is further exemplified by what turns out to be my favorite scene in the whole film: at the moment when they’re at their most vulnerable, the moment when they finally get what they’ve wanted for the entirety of the movie, the moment when they finally reach land; you’re waiting for the heartfelt goodbye, the overblown instant in time when the tiger shows that the relationship he formed with Pi was indeed meaningful to him, and not just a necessity; you’re waiting for the sign, but you get nothing. The tiger never even looks back at the boy as he wanders off onto the solid ground and into the forest. The tiger didn’t care. He just survived, and that was his only use and intent from the relationship to begin with.

I find that I can identify with this moment on so many levels, that it changes the whole meaning of the movie for me. Life is all about conditioning. Love and hate are merely emotions we decide to project based on the way we’ve been conditioned to handle the interaction we’re experiencing at that moment in time. This is exactly what’s exemplified in Life of Pi.

From a filmmaking standpoint, there are a lot of things about Life of Pi that I don’t like. First off, the handling of the passage of time is relatively unclear. If this is on purpose, it fails to add anything to the viewing experience. It’s actually frustrating to see a 16-year old boy at sea for months, only to see his hair grow a tad unruly and nothing else really ever change. The tiger gets thinner, but that’s easy, the tiger’s CGI.

The beauty of the film is that, even for a cynic/skeptic like myself, I wanted to believe the story so badly, that everything needed to be rationally explicable. There are a lot of seemingly inexplicable scenes in the film though, and the last quarter of the movie can actually be rather frustrating if you’re taking everything seriously up until that point. If you tell me something’s true, I’ll find ways to think about how to question or disprove it, but if you tell me something’s fiction, I’ll listen intently and let myself fall into the story.

Life-of-Pi-ShipwreckBasically, when Pi is finally rescued some investigators from the shipping company come to interview him in his hospital room and ask him for the story of how he survived. They don’t seem to believe (nor like) the story that he tells them (the one which we are told), and so they ask for another as plainly as that. In the space of a really long take, slowly closing in on the face of the disheveled Pi, Lee forces us to watch as he retells a concise version of his survival beginning from that fateful night on the ship. In his retelling, there are indeed no animals, and instead people which he’s substituted for the animals. His mother is one of them. I immediately lost interest during this scene of the film, and having only seen it the one time, I couldn’t tell you much of what this version of his story is like, but I promise you this: it doesn’t matter at all. Even if it’s the true story, no one will care.

I won’t say that I didn’t like Life of Pi, it certainly has a very Forest Gump-y quality to it which will no doubt endear some viewers, but I wasn’t appreciative of the way the discussion and depiction of evaluating religion, spirituality and the meaning of life was addressed. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life had more to offer in this respect than many films on the topic which I’ve seen in a long time. Instead, I found Ang Lee’s Life of Pi to be more of discussion on why religion is embellished, presented and taught the way it is, and how that only serves to further help with the mass brainwashing of our individual cultures.

As Pi himself says at the end of the film, “If I told you two of the same stories, one as it happened, and one like this – which one would you believe?” Well, we all know the answer to that.

Look Not At The Mountains!

The Younesi Brothers are the kind of filmmakers you follow no matter what their next film is going to be. Akin to a Darren Aronofsky or Paul Thomas Anderson, they take filmmaking for the short subject to an auteur level which demands to be seen despite itʼs unmarketable running time. If I had my way, every film at theaters would be prefaced by a short film which it compliments cinematically, similar to a concert with an opening act. The Younesiʼs latest short is Look Not At The Mountains! and itʼs an intriguing piece of cinema.

Itʼs hard not to instantly relate it to other films similar in tone and concept, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, respectively, but even if you werenʼt a fan of those, Look Not has itʼs own unique quality about it – and ambiance nearly. Itʼs a simple story, combining colonization and industrialization as its impetus, and I like the cold feeling it leaves you with even when every shot is steeped in warm sunshine.

Still from Look Not At The Mountains! Courtesy of the Younesi Brothers.

Ultimately, the characters are a little two-dimensional, which is the only thing that detracts from the overall film. The story follows a group of men who are crossing the African desert, two of which appear to be British Anglo-saxons, the rest are indigenous people. While they all appear to have redeemable qualities, they are also all consumed by their own motives and this is where it gets good: for about half of the film, itʼs almost unapparent who is leading whom and for what reason.

With some POV camera work that almost feels Biblical at times, but yet so edgy and not Passion of Christ-y — I canʼt say that I wasnʼt totally engrossed, despite the overwrought lead performance. Whatʼs more, the pensive denouement and the big reveal, may, to some filmgoers (who are just looking for flash), go unappreciated, but I think itʼs the beauty of the unapologetic realism at the end the film which is most impressive. It leaves you sitting there, wanting to know more, wanting to get angry that it just cut to black, but then realizing that itʼs annoyingly and deceitfully perfect – because you already know what happens next.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Look Not At The Mountains! is not in theaters yet, but is expected to have its theatrical run early next year. In the meantime, you can watch a trailer and find out more here.

Jesus, You Know

I don’t claim to know Jesus, but I do know the work of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl and for a filmmaker whose previous work I’ve seen a limited amount of (thanks to the fact that not more international films are distributed in the States), I sort of expected this documentary (if one can really call it that) to attempt to shed light on what it saw to be the inconsistencies, ambiguities or contradictions in religion. I was wrong. The movie instead seems to want to peel our eyelids back and force us to bear the private confessions of a select group of devout Catholic Austrians. On the whole, there is really nothing more to this film than the invasiveness it attempts to portray as cinematic, when in reality the “story” is more akin to a play (or anti-play) by Ionesco or even Beckett, with it’s dramatic structure accentuating the simple-minded, puppetry of its characters.

The film concentrates on the seemingly paltry confessions of local residents in all their unglorified normalcy; some of them interesting, some of them not. Of the interesting ones there is the housewife who dusts the many large crucifixes and wipes down the bloody chests of the crucified martyr suspended from them. Her confessions are of how she longs for her Muslim husband to accept her Catholicism. He does not and they fight about it often, furthermore the scenes involving both of them depict just how wide the gap is between their faiths, something which seems to be preventative of them embracing their relationship and continuing to share any love which they used to have for each other.

In another woman’s confession, we are shown the desperation at the thought of being alone at an old age. A little old woman quietly sits in the front pew of the church by herself confessing her thoughts at poisoning her husband who she believes is having an affair. She admits she simply doesn’t want to be alone. When she does confront him at a much later date, he leaves her anyway, and we watch as she takes sleeping pills to help herself cope with the fact of being alone at night.

And while these two individuals stick out for me, there are also other interesting storylines which crop up during our time as a voyeur in the various Catholic churches of Austria. It’s interesting to see the way Seidl cuts the dialogue of the “documentary” confessions almost as if the individuals are having their conversations with God. And one might argue from a religious point of view, that they are having conversations with God, and it’s validated in the way Seidl will always cut to a crucifix, or an adorned altar, or even the church itself just as the confessors conclude, as if to show the “reaction shot” or response of their listening Lord.

Seidl does a good job of showing us all sides of the devout. Some of the patrons only seem to call on God when they need him, some asking him for selfish things to boost their lapsing vanity—actually most all of them ask for selfish things, now that I think about it—with the exception of the one little lady who cleans the church floors and dusts the crucifixes; she prefaces the entire film by praying for all those who view Jesus, You Know. Now, that is truly someone who knows Jesus.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things

There’s a sense of purposeful exploitation in The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things which I was disappointed by, because in a film as tastefully-while-punkishly directed, I did not want to be needlessly distracted by the bad acting by way of cameos. This film is the directorial debut from the actress Asia Argento (aka the daughter of Italian horror director Dario Argento), and is taken from the autobiographical book by the same name written by JT Leroy. Controversy surrounded this author when (after Argento had shot her film), it was discovered that JT Leroy was not only lying about the horrible events of his childhood, but was really a non-entity, imagined by a woman named Laura Albert, who it turned out was the true writer of the book.

Despite all this, I found this film to be an amazing debut from a rather obscure indie pop culture icon whom I’ve never so much as admired, more than been enamored by. I have to say, I’m surprised she could make such a harrowing film, keeping with the originally harrowing story, and never going over the top to employ extremes or gratuitousness in order to get a point across. Instead, the whole film feels as though it could have been made by the 7-year-old little JT himself.

One place Argento went wrong though, however slight, was in keeping with the “celebrity cool” of the production. For instance, Marilyn Manson as an actor brings nothing to this picture whatsoever; in fact I had to look twice to make sure it was him (which distracted me from the rather critical scene). Winona Ryder as a disaffected children’s therapist seemed out of place and unnecessary in the already cold, anti-establishment tone of the film. Lydia Lunch as a heartless social worker – also a useless walk-on. Michael Pitt as a drugged out biker – too pigeonholing. Need I say more?

Argento herself was actually palatable after the first 15 minutes in, but I’ll admit it took time to acclimate to her supposed Southern white trash drawl, and even after I’d got used to it, I could never really think it was anyone other than that Italian vixen Asia Argento, playing a slutty, selfish whore. Each scene was like a way to show her character’s various costumes.

The young boy (played by Jimmy Bennett) in this film, was superb. His acting never seemed to be forced and he was in some scenes which I can only imagine would take some general “forcing” for a child of his age and exposure. The character he plays actually has room to metamorphose throughout the length of the film. We see the literal transformation of an innocent young boy into a desperate lost child. By the end of the film it is apparent he does not even know what gender he is, what is right from wrong, and especially what the meaning of love truly is.

Little JT (called Jeremiah from the psalm in the Bible which the title comes from), is forced to mature much too soon in order to appease his mother (if that’s what she can be called for not even she wants him to address her as that). Jeremiah believes that it is his job to protect her, love her and support her. She constantly fills his head with untruths and misgivings about his previous foster parents and other people he comes in contact with, just as she constantly fills his head with her abrasive reasoning for why she treats him as she does: because he wasn’t supposed to happen, because he is a “shitty bastard” who only drags her down. Yet, for as much as she obviously loathes him, and leaves him to fend for himself in horrible displays of negligence, she always pops up again to find him and rub her dirty little nail polished hands all over him.

The film pulls together other integral elements which make it so meaningful to me. There are a number of scenes in which the young Jeremiah mentally goes to another place while he’s being whipped by one “father” or molested by another. In comparison to a far superbly directed film dealing with such taboo subject matter, Tim Roth’s The War Zone, Argento’s film makes the scenes of pain for the child a hair more disturbing for the audience, by showing us the images the boy is forced to call up in lieu of facing what he is presently experiencing. This brings the viewer to a whole new level of sorrow for his character.

And that’s what the film’s all about, feeling sorrow for these characters. I guess we are supposed to feel something for Argento’s “mother” figure (judging by the back-story of her ultra-Christian conservative Peter Fonda-for-a-preacher/father upbringing and the final scenes of the film), but I was unable to. If the hearts of the viewers are supposed to be deceitful in the sense that we feel sorrow for the mother by the close of the film, when we know consciously that we should feel nothing but contempt for her and what she’s (potentially) irreversibly done to her own child, I am proud to reaffirm, my heart was conversely very true. I didn’t feel sorry for her at the opening scenes and I don’t feel a bit different now even writing this.