I dragged my heels for a long time on seeing Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, but it was hard not to succumb once he won the best director Oscar for it; the film is still playing in some theaters after five months, even though it’s now available on DVD and on-demand. As the world knows, it’s based on the novel by Yann Martel: I haven’t read it, which might have been an advantage, if it meant an ability to view the film through fresh eyes.
Life of Pi
The centerpiece of the film depicts how the teenage Pi survives for months in a lifeboat after a shipwreck, sharing the space with a Bengal tiger. Lee has talked about how long it took to get the technology to the point where the animal could be rendered convincingly, and in this regard the film’s a significant success – the tiger, along with various other animals of shorter-lived tenure, is extraordinarily convincing, seldom showing signs either of digital trickery or of soft-hearted anthropomorphism. This is no doubt Exhibit A in the case for Lee’s award.
From my perspective, it might be just about the only exhibit, because everything else about the film is mostly dire. Early on, in a framing device where the adult Pi tells his story to a visiting writer (in scenes carrying the soppy ambiance of a Lifetime flick about two guys on a tentative first date), the story is trailed, several times, as one that’ll make you “believe in God,” and the preamble to the shipwreck, recounting Pi’s formative years, is laden with intimations of significance. This starts of course with his name, short for “Piscine,” which allows both a “quirky” cultural reference, a scatalogical sounds-like detour, and then in its shortened form a mystical, canonical harmony. What it all means, I have no idea (like many things in the movie, maybe it made more sense in the book) but the film lays it out there as though covering the selection of a new Pope. Indeed, this is one of those films where no one ever just talks – everything is measured, calibrated, nuanced, and thereby dead on arrival. Lee has always been known for his supposed sensitivity to human interactions, but on this evidence that’s disintegrated into goory affectation.
Then in the end, as far as I could tell, the narrator abandons the spiritual line, and the movie becomes a short-lived meditation on the nature of storytelling, the unknowability of truth, or some such thing. This line of reflection wraps up almost as soon as it got under way, to no great end that I could see, culminating in the most unimpactful final minutes I’ve seen in quite a while.
This is not cinema
Well, I guess it wasn’t my kind of movie. So, you might say, I should just focus on the bits I liked. But even there a queasy feeling sets in, from the sense that you only like bits of Life of Pi for the same reason you like ingesting crap pumped full of processed sugar. And how could it be otherwise, given the vastly expensive commercial undertaking it represents? The cinematographer Christopher Doyle, asked in a recent interview what he thought about Life of Pi’s Claudio Miranda winning this year’s Oscar for best cinematography, exploded into a magnificently profane rant, of which the following is just one heavily cleaned-up extract: “ I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy and I’m sure he cares so much, but since 97 per cent of the film is not under his control, what..are you talking about cinematography, sorry. I’m sorry. I have to be blunt and I don’t care, you can write it. I think it’s (an) insult to cinematography. I’m sure he’s a wonderful person, I’m sure he cares so much. But what it says to the real world is it’s all about us, we have the money, we put the money in, and we control the image. And I say…Are you..kidding? That’s not cinematography. That’s control of the image by the powers that be, by the people that want to control the whole system because they’re all accountants. You’ve lost cinema. This is not cinema and it’s not cinematography. It’s not cinematography.”
Doyle admits later in the interview to not having seen the film, his point being in part one of principled opposition to digitization. Well, as someone once said, you don’t need to eat an egg to know it’s rotten. And once in a while, in matters of art as in those of human behaviour, maybe it shouldn’t be necessary to go any further than “Are you kidding?” Is this what we value and want to succumb to, irrelevant drivel about a kid with a silly name, messing round with a tiger with an even sillier name? Are we meant to be anything other than insulted when we’re fed a cheap line of calculatingly multi-denominational “spiritual” pandering, and told this might actually weigh on our metaphysical calculus? Are we meant to be such idiots that we don’t care if a film makes no visible attempt to engage with the world we actually live in?
Honestly, I don’t see any meaningful distinction between Life of Pi and one of those here today gone tomorrow action atrocities that invests comparable time and loving care into finding gruesome new ways to kill people. Whether we’re distracted from reality by violence and sickness, or by soothing piffle, either way we’re not spending time on anything that might actually inform and strengthen our engagement with our surroundings. Defenders of the film, like the Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen, tell us it “will definitely restore your faith in the divine magic of the movies.” But Groen, I fear, has been taken by the same con artists who undermined his “faith” in the first place – drawn back to the table with a more artful illusion, and so happily opening up his wallet of superlatives again. Start counting the days until the bubble bursts for him again, cueing a woebegone “the magic’s gone” weekend opinion piece.
Writing briefly here about Lee’s last film Taking Woodstock, I said this: “a truly great director would never make something so shallow and slack. The film, depicting the turmoil surrounding the classic rock festival, certainly has interesting things going on in the background. But there’s not an iota of personality or texture to it. It feels like an assembly, never like a piece of cinematic writing.” Before that he won another Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, which of course was inherently more stimulating, even if the film’s real authorial personality might almost in hindsight be Heath Ledger as much as it was Lee. Either way, Oscars for two of his last three films constitutes grotesque over-valuation. I mean, are they kidding?