Saturday, 2 February 2013

The truth is elliptical; Notes* on Life of Pi, the debt of films to their source materials, musing on what makes a good movie and dealing with films you cannot love

There has been a recurring element I’ve felt essential to so many 2012 reviews I’ve written – my ardent appreciation for the directors in the year’s ability to turn their films into visually distinct pieces has maintained despite issues I’ve had with the actual centres of the films. It’s a double edged sword. On one hand it’s a good way of showing how – to state the obvious – cinema is a visual medium and even when story conceits fail I’m still able to appreciate, and even like, but on the other it’s a situation which frustrates when a film teases with so much potential for greatness but is unable to deliver. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a fine example – a good film, one which I mostly liked, but one which irritates me in some ways making it impossible for me to enthusiastically succumb to its pleasures. Which is a shame, because it has so much to offer. What I feel it emphatically does NOT have to offer is a nuanced script, or better, a nuanced premise.

I have not read the reportedly very popular novel on which Life of Pi and at first I wondered whether I had any right to opine in detail on the story of the film and the worth of its screenplay when I was unfamiliar with the work from whence it came. It occurred to me that so often in criticising a film’s issues, sometimes critics are in turn criticised for not realising that the “faults” in the films are actually attributes of the source – so it’s not a film’s fault. Right? Er, wrong….at least that’s what I think. I always get suspicious when the response to a film is something along the lines of “you’d get it if you read the book”, “it happens just like that in the novel and it works” or something along those lines. Stating the obvious, yes, but cinema and literature are two different mediums but even ignoring change I medium and when ones takes a story and transposes it to a new wok (same medium or a different one) the threads are cut and new rules begin. Inconsistencies in the predecessor cannot be excused – clean-up the issues of the original or choose a different piece to adapt.

The reason for that preamble is because, from what I’ve gleaned, Life of Pi is a mostly faithful adaptation of its source which would suggest that on a broad level the film’s issues are the book’s issues and when there are…issues…to discuss is it Magee’s screenplay at fault or Martel’s novel? After all, Martel is the one who started it all. Obviously, I disagree with that edict. But, let’s get talking about the Life of Pi first. The film’s prologue where a writer encounters a man (old Pi) promises us that we will now be privy to a story which will make us believe in God. That’s about as lofty a claim as any piece of art could begin with – but we shall trudge on regardless. We meet young Pi and we learn of his family before the film launches into its main thrust – teenaged Pi shipwrecked on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a Tiger. He survives – we already know this – despite being adrift for over 200 days. His very existence speaks to the existence of God…except, there’s more.

....on the final "reveal" of the film...
...and the centre of my issues with Life of Pi below the jump...

Michael C. (Serious Film) examined that final “twist” – I grudgingly use the word – in discussing his inability to succumb to the films’ final conceit. His well thought out piece mirrors mine in some fundamental ways. The film’s coda when it comes is, clearly, imperative to the story Magee and Lee (and by extension Martel) are trying to tell us but (and, again, I’m so tired of having the need to utter this refrain at so many 2012 films) I do not believe its existence in the slightest. It threatens to put everything which previously occurred at sea and it’s even more worrying for Life of Pi because other than a boy surviving on a boat there is no true “narrative” to it THAN that ending coda, so the shift in focus of the final ten minutes becomes even more difficult to manoeuvre because so much is resting on it. But, that isn’t the half of it. As a non-religious person the source of my troubles with Life of Pi did emanate from its immersion in the spiritual but in the way the film seems unable to justify it. The way the energy seems to peter out at that point in the film betrays its own inability to truly make the material sing. The film's own capabilities seem to doubt the coda and the way it, as Michael writes, stacks the deck against the opposition prevents any organic development of said coda and when a film's climax reeks of heavy-handedness it plays a significant role in diminishing the effect of the entire piece. Further annoying because the centre-piece of the film with its vivid visuals and effective editing have been working so hard to succeed in effectiveness.

Life of Pi is best described as a parable, and in that way those final moments represent the meat of the story. And, it’s unfortunate because when those final moments work so poorly it only evokes the feeling that Life of Pi is the case of a beautiful, gorgeous mansion mounted on sand. It’s not that the film is toppling, but it so easily could be. For us to take credence in the film’s faith it seems simplistic for the narrative to so stolidly hit us over the head with “X is the correct answer!”. A subtler tact could very well have buttressed the rocky ground of the film’s “explanation” but with the insistence on telling but not showing in that final piece the vigour of the film stalls. Life of Pi seems to think it’s saying much but it seems to have little to truly say about the subject at its centre. I probably ask too much, but when your own piece promises to tell us about spirituality it does not feel wrong to feel robbed when the resolution comes off as so effete.

And, I spend so much time opining on that theme issue when it’s not even the true crux of where Life of Pi leaves me coldest. The trouble with Life of Pi is, for me, Pi himself. The most frustrating aspect of Life of Pi is that I suspect that Li means for the crux of this story to rest on its emotional profundity and although I was riveted by Pi’s journey I was never emotionally invested. When Pi drags himself ashore near the end of the film I didn’t feel any joy or excitement, and I realised that for all its gorgeousness, and despite my interest, my appreciation and my affection in parts I never cared what became of Pi. Sharma’s performance is never bad but it is also never inspired, and it’s never truly his fault. Or, I’m never sure if it’s just his fault or Magee but as Pi wanders around in the film’s middle and various things keep happening to him his passivity does not become a towering issue I suspect that a protagonist worth fighting could justify – even marginally – the iffy dénouement.

It’s something of a death knell in parts, the film spends most of its time with Pi doesn’t the film fail if I don’t care him? And, then, I realised – no. Who dictates when a film is effective? I was charmed, I was entertained and I was thrilled – not always and not completely, but I was. I was never moved…but, I can’t have everything.



Colin Biggs said...

That was my problem with the film too, everything looked fantastic, but I couldn't connect with the lead.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Andrew, Andrew, Andrew...we need to talk, buddy. Remember, Pi says it's "a story that will make you believe in God." Not that there IS a God. But why we NEED one. And why Pi needs his story.

Debby M said...

Well said Yojimbo_5. Also, as one who did read the book, I think your involvement with Pi is greater just in terms of time spent reading the book. Before seeing the film, I was wondering if Lee would take the time to show the coda, even quickly, THAT would have been very interesting.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

everyone, i might be inclined to be on board if the film was suggesting that the story make us believe in god but by stacking in the deck it's FORCING us to believe in god. as in, there's one way to remember the events "or else", which works against the film for me.