Thursday, April 11, 2013

Life of Pi

No offence, but this has to be the worst movie I've seen in years. People liked the spectacle of it, I think, and perhaps on the big screen it looks great. On the not-so-big screen it all looks fake. And indeed the whole thing struck me a deeply phony. I'm not sure which was more annoying, the smug whimsicality (everyone is either charmingly quirky or inexplicably mean-spirited) or the long stretches of dialogue that consist of a man shouting "Aaaaargh!" at a tiger. The quirkiness and the painfully raw simplicity come together in the central metaphor: a man on a boat with a tiger. The only reason to watch till the end is to see how, or whether, this metaphor develops. I am a sucker for attempts to address the meaning of life, and quite fond of metaphors too. Plus I can't help wondering (although I think the answer is surely No) whether this image is taken from Wittgenstein, who writes in one of his diaries:
Is being alone with oneself--or with God, not like being alone with a wild animal? It can attack you any moment.--But isn't that precisely why you shouldn't run away?! Isn't that, so to speak, what's glorious?! Doesn't it mean: grow fond of this wild animal!--And yet one must ask: Lead us not into temptation! 
So I watched the whole thing. But what does it all mean?

Several things, I think:

  • Near the beginning of the film, the very religious (which in his case seems to be more a matter of having many religions than of being unusually devout) boy Pi (guess whether this quirky name has a quirky origin) is taught a lesson by his anti-religious father. When his father catches Pi holding meat through the bars of a tiger's caged home he shows him how dangerous this is by tying a goat there and making the boy watch as the tiger kills it and drags it through the bars to eat it. He tells Pi and his brother that anything they think they see in an animal's eyes is just a projection. Really, the lesson seems to be, nature is heartless, even cruel. The boy starts reading existentialist literature and feels the world to be disenchanted. So this is part of the point: being stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger is like being in the goat's position. It means having to come to terms with nature, with creation (and hence, in a way, with God), having to learn to live with it, and, in the end, befriending it, as Pi does the tiger named (quirk alert!) Richard Parker.
  • I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think that the boat in which the tiger and the young man travel is also like our own earthly vessel, the body. Within it are two competing forces: the person and the wild beast, the ego and the id, the rational part of the soul or inner man and the insatiable monster of appetite. How can the two coexist harmoniously? Well, shouting "Aaaaargh!" a lot apparently helps. God works in mysterious ways.
  • At the end of the film Pi tells another version of his voyage in the lifeboat, one in which the various animals (at one point there is a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra on the boat as well) are replaced by people. He explicitly says that the tiger is him. So, I am the tiger. Each of us is a wild beast, capable of great evil, etc. 
  • Finally, now that we have two versions of the story, each consistent with the available evidence, Pi suggests that we choose the version we prefer. He also suggests that belief in God is like this. And he chooses to believe.  
If this has any value I think it might be in showing (at least part of) what Wittgenstein meant when he said, "And yet one must ask: Lead us not into temptation!" If we think of being with God as like being with a wild animal that can attack at any moment, whose presence is glorious precisely because of this danger, and that we must grow fond of, then we need to beware of seeing this as an easy task, and of sentimentalizing God.


  1. The worst?! I guess I see why it might all seem phony to you. There were points where I see that, and maybe the problem is that the ending can seem a bit phony...and perhaps if you dislike fictionalism, then the end will seem insipid. But on the other hand, I liked the various ways in which religious belief was challenged and stretched in certain ways. I like that a "big Hollywood" film was going there because I suppose it's good for people to think about those things. Anyone who thinks the message is just, "Believe the story you like," (was that that message) will perhaps see the problem that if I just like the story, that's not enough for belief, etc....and then there's more work to do. I also enjoyed having a conversation with my 7-year-old about why Pi was so upset about eating the fish (and why he didn't eat fish before that). (We still eat some fish sometimes...)

    Or maybe I was just seduced by the spectacle. :)

  2. my old prof.Charlie Winquist use to ask undergrads to entertain the idea of God as a tiger in the room to give them a sense of old school fear&trembling, not sure that it really makes sense to talk of choosing to believe (or not believe).

  3. Matt: You're right, it's not all bad. And I'm glad Hollywood is making movies that encourage thought. If I had seen it on a big screen, or with a child who was interested by it, then it might have been a very different experience. I found the CGI and all the shouting off-putting, and the acting didn't seem great either. The fact that I'm writing about it suggests it had some substance though. I did think that the message at the end--I mean a message that was delivered then, not the cumulative message of the whole film--was that God's existence is consistent with the facts so why not believe if you want to?, and isn't it nicer than the alternative? That seems pretty shallow to me. But there were other messages too, about the difficulty of faith and the violence of nature (the fear and trembling stuff, I guess). Those are better, but the shallow stuff kind of spoiled the taste for me.

  4. I completely understand that, and I do think my experience of the film might have been different had I not been watching it with my kids (who are 3 and 7; my three-year-old still refers to the film as "stuck on a boat," which I find endearing and which I hope isn't some kind of scarring!). I guess I didn't find the acting and style of the film problematic; the film is, as it were, "stylized"--although that might be taken as a kind of lack of a certain kind of seriousness (e.g. the violence in a Tarantino film is "stylized"...).

  5. True, it is stylized. Somehow I like that in Tarantino but not here. This probably affected my suspension of disbelief, which is a problem for any storytelling. And "Stuck on a Boat" would have been a great title for the movie!

  6. I think having liked the book so much (note: I realize that I'm probably too much a mark for this kind of thing) actually made me like the movie more, because I do agree with you that much of the movie was the kid just screaming at the tiger.

    I did find the scene where he thanks Vishnu for incarnating in the fish he's just killed to be very moving.

    I actually found the end of the movie horrifying, because if the kid was also the tiger then he cannibalized his own mom (somehow that didn't occur to me nearly as forcefully when reading the book, just because the book is so much more charming and enthralling).

    Let me also note that I think that nearly everyone is misunderstanding the religious point of the book and film. They are not saying that the religious and rationalistic ways of looking at the world are just two different perspectives. It's rather a meditation on how to remain holy when the rationalistic perspective gives lie to what you might take to be the religious one.

    The religious point of the book/film is that after he's saved he is able to turn from a cannibal into a gentle man with a loving family. So I think the film is really profoundly about grace. In this respect I think the real key scene is *not* when he asks the writer which version is true, but rather when he is explaining why he cried as a child after Richard Parker walked away and his saviors carried him away. This kind of problem is much, much closer to the central problem of the Bhagavad Gita (and there are analogues in every other religious tradition) than the Forest Gumpy thing of reality is what you make of it. Can we be holy while still living in the world? How can the kingdom of heaven be at hand yet still in the future?

  7. Thanks, Jon. I haven't read the book and can't quote the screenplay, but wikipedia confirms my memory about what is said near the end: "After giving all the relevant information, Pi asks which of the two stories they prefer. Since the officials cannot prove which story is true and neither is relevant to the reasons behind the shipwreck, they choose the story with the animals. Pi thanks them and says, "and so it goes with God.""

    I don't think it's very mysterious, given this, why nearly everyone misunderstands the religious point of the story.

    But I agree with you that this is not the only idea about religion to be found in the film, and that it is far from being the best such idea there. The questions you raise at the end of your comment are good ones, it seems to me, and the movie does have something to say about them. I just thought, or perhaps felt, that the Forest Gumpy message and the shouting obscured any deeper thinking that might be there. I should read the book.