Welcome to the first of many debates that the contributors to The Irrelevant will have here on this site! The topics will range from movies, to food, to sports teams, to anything really. All debates will follow a format loosely based on the Lincoln Douglas debate rules. At the end of the debate you'll be able to vote on who you think won the debate! There will be 2 reading comprehension questions beforehand though because we want to make sure you actually READ the post.
There is a great scene in Life Of Pi in which Piscine, our protagonist, and his family are sitting at the dinner table when his father announces they’ll be sailing across the sea “like Columbus” to which Pi answers “But Columbus was looking for India!”. This is the biggest strength of Life Of Pi, it’s a movie which has very clearly told it’s viewers what it is and yet people have continued to look for a deeper meaning despite that. There is perhaps no greater strength to any work of art, let alone a movie, than earnestness and Life of Pi is one of the most earnest simple movies ever made. Pay no attention to the overwhelming use of special effects and the push for 3D, this movie is a simple story ABOUT stories and the role they take in understanding our own lives.
The majority of the movie takes place on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific occupied by a young man and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. When he was a child Pi tried to have a close encounter with Richard Parker by hand feeding him meat in the zoo his father owned but his father stopped him at the last minute and warned him, “When you look into an animal's eyes, you are seeing your own emotions reflected back at you, and nothing else.” Not long after this though he’s stuck with this dangerous animal on a boat and it is because of this animal that he is able to survive. The fear of succumbing to the beast ultimately leads to him overcoming the animal to the point where he is able to coexist with him successfully on the small boat. Richard Parker is in you and me, it is that untamed wild spirit in all of us that refuses to give up and it is the potential in all of us that both inspires and terrifies us. As Pi said it himself, “Without Richard Parker, I would have died by now My fear of him keeps me alert Tending to his needs gives my life purpose” the Tiger is in fact a reflection of ourselves. This is why when the ordeal is over and Pi safely arrives on land the tiger cannot look back to him, he must keep moving forward, if he had looked back Pi himself wouldn’t have moved on to the point of being able to tell the story.
The movie, like all great fables, has many heavy handed symbols in it. The Carnivorous Island is perhaps the most obvious, warning us of how what seems comfortable can have more dangers than we previously imagined but before we can even “put our thinking cap” on, the narrator himself tells us of the point of this island, “And yet, if I hadn't found those shores I would have died, if I hadn't discovered that tooth I would have been lost alone forever...and when I was beyond all hope of saving...He gave me rest and gave me a sign to continue my journey.” This is the simple pleasure of this movie, it’s a fable like the ones we grew up on.
The thesis of this movie is made in the last part of it where an adult Pi speaks to the author and asks him to compare the story he’s told him with the much more gritty and grounded story he told the Japanese insurance adjusters. In both stories the outcome is the same but one is a constructed fable with animals and carnivorous island, which do you prefer? This is the question that is being asked of the viewer as well, when confronted with the choice do you want the stories you’re being told to be done so with imagination and heart, with style and earnestness or do you prefer something that ticks all the right boxes of what “an audience wants to see” and not the stories original story tellers have to tell? Are you as a viewer ok with being told a story that might make you look like a fool when you tell it to others? It is for its approach of openly embracing the fantasy aspect of this entirely human story that this movie is elevated to be an entertaining and heartwarming spectacle. It for this and many other reasons that Life of Pi is good.
Near the end of the film, as we hear the author confess he prefers the “one with the tiger”, Pi responds, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.” This, to me, is the essence of the movie’s continual attempt to take a simple story and turn it into something much deeper. Full of philosophical one-liners and phrases meant to turn the viewer into a deep-thinking intellectual, Life of Pi simply cannot find its own identity. Theoretically, yes, it’s a movie about storytelling. However, despite being visually interesting, the story itself had no idea which direction it should take. We are given snippets of a coming-of-age, heartwarming childhood, then we move quickly to tragedy and the survival of man in harrowing circumstances. Then, at the end, after the viewer has been asked to suspend their disbelief for only the twentieth time, we find out that nearly the entirety of the movie has been a farce. We are seemingly given the choice of whether to believe the “ugly” and unpopular story, or the more enchanting story with a tiger; with the intended “choice” being obvious.
It’s incredibly ironic to me that a movie that is intended to embrace the beauty of storytelling and portray its importance does so with so little skill. Any viewer you ask will gladly tell you that the film was beautifully shot and the imagery throughout was stunning. Indeed, the film relies so heavily on graphic imagery and psychedelic cinematography that there is little else to be remembered. For all of the stories and storytellers we are given, the disjointed nature of this film leaves much to be desired. I was aching to adore the little bullied boy who finds a way to fit in and attempts to find himself through religion, but half an hour into the film, I was presented with a third representation with a character I really wasn’t all that attached to. We see Pi fight a variety of forces, both human and inhuman in nature, but what is the real end result? What could have been a resolute story of survival was tainted by a plethora of extemporaneous details like a weird carnivorous island and moments the viewer could relate to the animal far more than the human.
The fact that Life of Pi is is a fable chock full of symbolism and deeper meanings is just another contradiction of the film. The same movie which states, “If it happened it happened. Why should it have meaning?” also has multiple blatant morals and lessons to be taught through its story. In relating the less flowery of the two survival stories, Pi states, “He was such an evil man. But worse still, he brought the evil out in me. I have to live with that.” Yet, instead of delving into this and other incredible questions of man’s condition in the midst of survival, the film reverts once again to the shallow and fantastical: “the one with the tiger”. This is, perhaps, my biggest regret with this movie. If Life of Pi had picked just one path and stuck to it, it could have truly lived up to its great potential. But, for all of its earnestness and heart warming moments, Life of Pi simply cannot rise above the status of mediocre and, unfortunately, is not good. To quote the movie itself, “Spectacle. Don’t let the pretty lights fool you, boys.”
The illusion of choice is a concept that is addressed in the movie at the very end while this can be seen as a “removal of the veil” and revealing the farce it can also be seen as a sobering moment of introducing reality to the story. The fact of the matter remains that in life we have very little control over the reason why tragedies happen to us what we DO control is how we see it, it is in this way that the story of Life Of Pi resonates the strongest. The metaphors of the animals and super storms and carnivorous islands as I stated before are the big heavy handed symbols the storyteller is using to guide us along. To fault a movie for making sure its viewers understand the point is not a fault on it but instead of the viewer who is not complacent with taking something at face value.
To criticize Life of Pi for being too much of a spectacle is the highest compliment one can give to the art department behind a film. A movie with dull art direction or visual effects, especially when the vast majority of it is in the land of fables would be far worth more criticism than one that excels in the area. If a movie that is built on the imagination of an excellent story teller with flourish unlike any other is not allowed to also have equal visual flourish then what can?
As I stated earlier, this movie has very clearly told it’s viewers what it is and yet people have continued to look for a deeper meaning despite that. The viewer identified with the Tiger more so because Richard Parker is in you and me, it is that untamed wild spirit in all of us that refuses to give up and it is the potential in all of us that both inspires and terrifies us. As Pi said it himself, “Without Richard Parker, I would have died by now My fear of him keeps me alert Tending to his needs gives my life purpose” the Tiger is in fact a reflection of ourselves.
The movie can be challenging in it’s simplicity, the question that is being asked of the viewer is when confronted with the choice do you want the stories you’re being told to be done so with imagination and heart, with style and simple earnestness or do you prefer something that ticks all the right boxes of what “an audience wants to see” and not the stories original story tellers have to tell? Are you as a viewer ok with being told a story that might make you look like a fool when you tell it to others? Life of Pi rewards viewers who can open their hearts and watch a movie without trying to get a PhD out of it, yet it respects us enough to give us a life lesson. It is a good movie.
Again, it is the movie itself that attempts to guide the viewer into reaping deeper meanings from the story presented. The idea that a simple concept is challenging to the viewer not only affronts the viewer as a thinking, feeling receiver of the story, but complicates the idea in and of itself. Life of Pi could certainly be considered simple if the ideologies presented were more shallow and “heartwarming”, but the hard realities presented deserved much more attention than they received. Among them is this idea we are shown that we must come to grips with the “tiger in all of us”, which is certainly no simple concept to absorb, as the implications run incredibly deep. Love, loss, religion, self-identity, and death are only a few of the themes presented in the film, yet each was touched on with no real depth. These are important, incredibly human concepts that deserve great care, but instead are simply given phosphorescent jellyfish and CGI meerkats.
No life is simple. This is a fact we grow to understand and appreciate as we grow older and wiser. Yet instead of celebrating this diversity and depth of life, Life of Pi tries a great deal harder to perfect its stylistic image. In fact, spending more time focusing on the sensational graphics of the film certainly “ticks all the right boxes” far more than actually cultivating the ideologies presented in the film. Humans are rational and thoughtful by nature, so to present an audience with a story that addresses innate issues of the human condition will ultimately lead that audience to desire to delve deeper. Even the idea that a fable can be just a story about a story is illogical, as the entire point of a fable is to teach a lesson or moral of some kind.
Unfortunately, this lesson presented by Life of Pi can hardly be identified. Are we inherently dangerous, or do animal have souls, or do we simply need to make sure we let the people around us know we love them before we could lose them forever? Life of Pi never answers any of these questions, but instead tells us, “If it happened it happened. Why should it have meaning?” If this is the end of a fable, the world has no clear concept of what a fable truly is. This is only one of the reasons Life of Pi is not a good movie.
Ashley has said it herself, no life is simple. This movie however is simple in its affirmation that life is not simple, and it it are a multitude of experiences and emotions that can be viewed at from any number of lenses neither of which makes them any less true or valid. It is not necessary to metaphorically travel to the other side of the world to look for a deeper meaning or life philosophy from this movie. Life Of Pi shows us that it’s already in us.