Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Life of Pi

Movies frequently play on the need to believe. Skeptical characters in movies are punished; believers are usually rewarded. In the movies, ghosts are real; animals and inanimate objects can talk. The audience suspends its disbelief and therefore knows as Dorothy does, that Oz in all its technicolor glory, was not just a dream. We learn, as the girl played by Natalie Wood learns in Miracle on 34th Street, that we should believe in Santa Claus.

So Life of Pi presents a perfect subject for a movie. Its elements of fantasy deserve to be brought to the screen in the hyper-realistic 3D style Ang Lee has chosen. While watching, we know, if we think for two minutes about the logistics of filming this story, that most of the time the tiger we are seeing on the screen is not real, and to the extent they used a real tiger, which I understand they did to some extent, the tiger can't really be on the same boat with the boy. But we believe the boy and tiger are on a lifeboat together just the same. That's the power of movies. Thinking about the artifice involved in making this film makes us ponder one of the themes of the book, which is whether what we are being told could actually have happened.

Life of Pi asks us to choose between two stories. The main story is inherently implausible and utterly fantastic. It contains elements, like the floating island, that have never been seen before. (The movie even leaves out one of the most unbelievable sequences from the book, where Pi, temporarily blinded and in the middle of the ocean, bumps into another blinded shipwreck survivor on another lifeboat. What are the odds?)

The whole story about the tiger could easily have been made up. When Pi encounters a skeptical audience at the end, he decides to offer them a more realistic story, a story of human cruelty and tragedy that is inherently believable. It rings true because it is similar to many documented stories of survivors of disaster. But we don't want to believe that story. It's too depressing. Hearing the horrible second story only persuades us to believe the uplifting first story even more. Pi also persuades us that he could not have survived without the tiger, because the tiger gave his life a purpose. And so it goes, Pi says, with God. If the story of a boy and tiger doesn't prove the existence of God, as is claimed, Life of Pi proves at least the powerful human need to believe in miracles and salvation.

[Richard Parker, by the way, is the name of the actual cabin boy who was the victim of two shipwrecked sailors in the famous case of Dudley and Stephens, and also, even more amazingly, the name of a fictional shipwreck victim in a Poe story written before the events in the Dudley and Stephens case took place. (other Richard Parkers listed here) But you still want to believe that Richard Parker is a tiger, don't you?]

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1 comment:

  1. Remarkable movie. I am glad I read your review first.