Wednesday, 27 February 2013

"Life of Pi", in words and pictures, or: storytelling for those that choose it.


A novel by Yann Martel
A film by Ang Lee (2012, Tawian/USA)
(More than ever, this will contain huge spoilers.)

-1-: In Words

Yann Martel’s novel “Life of Pi” bears what I consider to be all the hallmarks and clichés of award-winning literature: a protagonist with a gimmicky name; religious overtones and symbolism (mistaking this for automatic poignancy); post-modern usage of and reverence for story-telling (story-telling is magical!); unreliable narrator; magic-realism; throw together and stir in some historical national crisis. At worse, these feel like the tropes of authors with affections of importance and significance whilst feeling a step disconnected from what is authentic. But Martel’s novel is an example of how these tropes can be made to work and is a fascinating and playful confection, setting up a fantastic premise of a young man trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger and milking and working the limitations of this scenario for all their worth. How would you survive this scenario?, the book asks, and proceeds to pay great attention as to how our protagonist Pi uses his knowledge, resourcefulness and trial and error to stay alive and fend off the big cat. Martel does not anthropomorphise the tiger – named Richard Parker – but respects the animal for all its primal splendour and terror. By the time the book segues onto the carnivorous island, the sleight-of-hand into more magic-realism is barely jarring due to the lengthy attention paid to detailing already incredible circumstances.

The older Pi, recounting this remarkable tale of survival, says that this is a story that will make the listener believe in God. As a child growing up in India in a zoo, amongst the animal kingdom, Pi is named after the French word for swimming pool, piscine, but abbreviates it to a transcendental number to avoid being mistaken for “pissing”. He trades the crude mispronunciation of his name for something that implies that, well, he is the centre of a watery universe. Pi tries and adopts features of many religions that he becomes fascinated by – a little of this, a little of that – creating in effect his own belief system whilst ignoring the incompatibility and conflicts between any two faiths. When his family is forced to move to Canada – due to national troubles – taking the zoo along with them, the ship is sunk in a storm and only Pi survives, alone with a small menagerie that is quickly reduced to just he and the Bengal tiger. He is indeed strained to his most primitive state, albeit one that calls on his God to guide and save him; but these prayers do not in a way that smother his dilemma and the detail. Keeping from being eaten by Richard Parker becomes his life cause and purpose.

Of course, it is the ending that truly elevates ‘Life or Pi’, for Martel’s work on making the life boat scenario convincing works to distract us from the fact that we are reading a fable. Which version do we wish to believe, Pi asks in conclusion: the one where Richard Parker is the manifestation of his primal, murderous side needed to survive catastrophe, or the prettier version with the animals? And ultimately, does this not cast religion simply as recourse to denial, storytelling and lying in order not to confront our very natures and the truth of things? Does it not cast into light the very brittle nature of the civilised when confronted by nature? In a Godless world where you can pick-and-choose your beliefs and faith, what would Noah do had his Ark been sunk and only he and a few hungry animals were left alive?

Pi’s tale is full of ambiguity. Does it condone lying because storytelling is so “magical”? Or is it a colourful exposure of the fiction of religious fancy? For all its dressing-up in faith, “Life of Pi” never loses sight of the carnivorous, chaotic and arbitrarily cruel inclinations of nature. Its symbolism is far more in the service of the world and psychology around Pi rather than religion. Rather, the key to the novel is surely the fleeting passage where Pi mentions that all animals are a little crazy. Temporary craziness is the key to the novel and religion may certainly be seen as mostly decoration acting like the main attraction.

-2-: In Pictures

Craziness is also the one theme that Ang Lee’s film of the novel does not truly address – screenplay by David Magee. Nevertheless, its symbolism remains intact because it is faithful to Martel’s text. When stranded on the life-boat during the storm, who does Pi see swimming towards him in the manic waves but Richard Parker, the symbol of his pending madness and violence? Pi screams and seemingly fends the tiger off, but the big cat appears again from the depths beneath the tarpaulin at the precise moment that Pi becomes confrontational and murderous. Pi spends his time taming the madness that threatens to consume him, but almost gives in to it during the second storm where he throws open the tarpaulin. And so on. The affection Pi eventually and inevitably has for Richard Parker has great resonance. (But there is a clue that Pi senses he may be losing his mind earlier, for when he swims mid-storm to the cabin to save his family, a zebra swims past him: How would a zebra be come to be there? we briefly think – knowing later that the zebra represents a friendly sailor, this moment nods towards Pi being overwhelmed by tragedy earlier even than Richard Parker's appearance.)

The film is a little softer version of the novel, mostly because the novel is gorier and the ending is perhaps less spelt out. The ambiguity is there almost despite the film being more literal: it is as if Magee’s script takes Pi a little more at face value but Ang Lee isn’t quite buying it. Perhaps this is why Rafe Spall’s writer character seems to embody the film’s weaknesses, as being the journalist that plays into the parlour game of fable-telling (the character acts as the equivalent of those in the audience being distracted by shiny objects). In truth, the lengthy back-story serves well to hint that Pi is in fact a fabulist all along, a bullshitter of the most charming degree. The writer is the sentimental audience, missing Pi’s greater heroism and the true horror of his ordeal by choosing a fancy tale. Nevertheless, Martel’s novel does leave it’s mark in showing how we tend to fall for stories and Lee matches that with a similarly fanciful and beguiling aesthetic.

Visually, the film is a wonder, an extravaganza of physical and computer-generated special effects. The storm sequence is a small masterpiece of action, effects and size; literally awe-inspiring (it is film that really needs to be seen on the big screen). The shot of Pi suspended in the ocean looking at the sunk ship on the seabed below is perhaps the one moment in cinema where I actually wondered if it could be matched by 2D (of course it can, but it is the first time in my cinema-going that I have actually doubted). Indeed, ‘Life of Pi’ is the one 3D film where 3D felt complimentary, and mostly subtle. It is a very bright and colourful film, which helps immensely to combat the light-loss that 3D currently carries; it looks somewhere between splendid animated nature book, state-of-the-art cinematic wonder and Asian kitsch, and it is always surprising, inventive and beautiful.

And the storm sequence is then matched by Richard Parker as a remarkable and convincing special effect. Richard Parker is as much a marvel as “The Lord of the Rings’” Gollum, rendered with convincing physicality and fearsomeness. It is true that so engrossing is the performance of the tiger and Suraj Sharma as Pi that it is easy to forget just what a special effects piece the entire film is. And we are invited in by the warmth of Irrfan Khan as the elder Pi and the vitality of Sharma as the younger, and then to be devastated by Sharma’s near one-take, heart-rending performance where he reveals all from a hospital bed.

But for all this, it is in truth an upsetting tale that has remarkable crossover appeal. I myself am surprised that it has seemingly metamorphosed into an instant family favourite: both times that I saw “Life at Pi” in different towns, the audience was made up of parents and very young kids; there were many children as young as five watching. I would have felt it too distressing at times for younger children, and yet there they were engrossed. As Fox UK boss Cameron Saunders says, with the typical condescension and cynicism of salesmen and businessmen:

“‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was perhaps the closest comp, because we knew it was going to be great filmmaking, run into the awards corridor, have an ethnic slant, and it was a challenging film that could appeal to audiences.”

For me, the trailers for “Life of Pi” were mostly a  misrepresentation of the text, focusing on selling it as a boy-and-his-tiger high adventure: “A life of adventure! A life of hope! A life of triumph! A life of Pi!” Hmm, not a life of tragedy, horror and stark survival, then? And a little more apt: “Believe the unbelievable”. Another trailer, which is otherwise mostly a good summary of the film, adds “A life of friendship”. To which I raise an eyebrow and become sniffy. But it really isn’t quite a Disney’s Mowgli tale (and Disney’s Mowgli is not Kipling’s Mowgli) and yet one can see how this pitch would have helped make this a family film, getting an audience to try out something both appealing and testing. Some critics have berated it for being simplistic in its discourse on religion, but it is not that film either; and if it is simplistic in some way, it is still more revealing and insightful about the mechanics of religion than Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life” (“Tree of Life” has other virtues, but its smug symbolism are surely only poignant to those satisfied with themselves for identifying them: and for them, at least Pi ends up on a beach in a crucifixion pose).

Just as Martel uses each sentence, Ang Lee uses all tricks and resources of cinema to make us buy into the splendour of storytelling, to fool us into believing that storytelling is perhaps one of the greatest forces of nature of all, if not faith. If it feels soft and superficial to some, making it look like a cosy mainstream adventure yarn, well the film itself is all about deceptive appearances. Indeed, it is a film where, more than most, you can take away from it what you want most to see.

P.S. - Rhythm & Hues, the special-effects company that won an Academy Award for "Life of Pi" has filed for bankruptcy. A bizarre and sorry state of affairs. (Thanks to Steve H for the heads-up.)

Saturday, 16 February 2013

"Tonight's class - Adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein..."

 My friend Kiri runs films courses at the Oxford University and is currently working on a book on the history of British film studios. A status update on facebook about her course triggered a brief discussion on Universal monsters, Lego, et cetera, which I shall share here...  (Thank you Kiri and John)

KIRI BbWALDEN:           Tonight's class - Adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein...
BUCK THEOREM:           Have you seen guy Maddden's "Dracula: pages from a virgin's diary", Kiri? It mades good work of the boring half of Stoker's novel by giving it a dancing theme (and indeed, ignores the entire Gothic first half).

KIRI BbWALDEN:           No, I haven’t!
JOHN A C ALLEN:           Many of each. None definitive in my opinion. Always close but no cigar

KIRI BbWALDEN:           It's interesting though that Lego have chosen the Lugosi and Karloff versions for their recent figures. The 1931 Universla films are still iconic, no matter how far from the characters in the novels thet actually are.
JOHN A C ALLEN:           I see the Universals and Hammers as separate stories in their own right really. Like you said they have virtually nothing to do with the novels. Some adaptations have come close but always fail in one aspect or another. People can't seem to resist interfering and there have never been 'pure' versions. I always thought animation was the answer. Imagine Dracula in a Mignola-ish blocky style with a colour pallette of black, white and red only.

KIRI BbWALDEN:           I’d watch that!

BUCK THEOREM:           I think "Dracula" has a weaker, more rambling second half - the rambling is fine as prose, but a problem for film - which leads to wide interpretation and re-invention ("Oliver Twist" has a similar problem) and perhaps this is why there has never been a "definitive" version. "Dracula" and especially "Frankenstein" end on fairly contemplative and metaphysical notes too, where the showdowns have elements of anti-climax, so this also contributes to the disconnect between original text and the demands of Gothic-horror cinema. ... On the other hand, Guy Madden's re-invention of "Dracula" as only the novel's second half and done as dance wins points for sheer gusto, surely? And Universal's versions are so broad and mimicable, no wonder they have become the enduring staples they are (the wolfman has not weathered so well because the prospect of the werewolf has been met mostly by the progress in special effects). Karloff's version of the Frankenstein monster in particular is a fantastic piece of mime and I am not sure it has been bettered, despite being only distantly related to Shelley's novel.

JOHN A C ALLEN:           The Universal movies (and the early Frankensteins in particular) really boil down to the strength of the lead players and the indelible charisma they managed to show. Karloff had been in (I think) over 200 films by the time Frankenstein came around and he and Lugosi (Lugosi in particular) were very undervalued as actors (critics of Lugosi's 'wooden' acting should look at his portrayal of Ygor in the third and fourth Frankensteins where he is as blackly comic as Ernest Thesiger is in 'Bride'). James Whale of course has to be included as pivotal with his assimilation of expressionism and mixing together or many elements into a strong whole. Once the Laemmle family lost control of the studio, Whale concurrently lost control of his movies and retired. And let us not forget Jack Pierce (who incidentally died a pauper!) who created most of the stable of iconic monsters we know so well today, and that Universal Studios profit so much from. As Pierce was unceremoniously sacked (for being too slow and painstaking) during the late forties he didn't give us Creature from the Black Lagoon but he was behind all the others. In recent years the Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney estates have managed to claw something back in the way of licensing of likenesses but decades after the money horse bolted the stable.

KIRI BbWALDEN:           Another interesting thing, both Chaney and Lugosi later played Frankenstein's monster too, with the Karloff makeup (it didn't look right).
JOHN A C ALLEN:           Chaney was the only one who played the big four - wolfman, dracula (Son of Dracula), Frankenstein's monster (Ghost of Frankenstein) AND the mummy once or twice. In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (actually a really good film) Glenn Strange injured himself just before an elaborate stunt and Chaney (in a rare sober moment of magnanimosity) put on the Frankenstein outfit (he'd already played the part years before) and did the shot to keep the film on schedule (at was running late thanks to Bud Abbott's drinking and the 'zany pair's card games).
Glenn Strange was cast when producers were stuck for a big guy to play the monster in House of Frankenstein and Strange (working as a stuntman and heavy in westerns) appeared in Jack Pierce's make up room to have a scar applied. Legend has it Pierce took one look at his griselled face and straight away rang the horror producers saying 'I've found your new monster!'
Fact: Glenn Strange was Butch Cavendish in the Lone Ranger TV series.

Monday, 4 February 2013

"Barry Lyndon": something classic; something classical

Stanley Kubrick, 1975, UK

Kubrick imagines Thackery’s novel as a sequence of classical paintings come to life. There is indeed a mostly static, painterly quality to Kubrick’s version of Redmond Barry’s picaresque tale; it is a quality that creates the sense that the drama is not so much in motion as dried before the eye in watercolours and acrylics as the dialogue ossifies into the paintwork. The innovation to achieve this effect was for Kubrick and his crew to utilise new lenses and lighting techniques deliberately aimed at capturing the natural light of the era. The mostly Irish landscapes, castles and drawing rooms are breath-taking, standing in for a variety of European locations. It is a sumptuous visual feast. Indeed, the film’s detractors accuse the film of being all style over substance, but this visual emphasis surely acts as surrogate for Thackery’s literary eloquences and authorial indulgences; how better to translate the descriptive passages of a nineteenth century novel? Perhaps none condemn quite as much as Chris Petit: 

Given the singular lack of drama, perspective or insight, the way the film looks becomes its only defence. But the constant array of waxworks figures against lavish backdrops finally vulgarises the visual sumptuousness

[Chris Petit, Time Out Film Guide 2011*]

The lack of what might be seen as conventional engagement with the characters may indeed be the point: that is, we always seem to be at a remove from them and never asked to follow their emotional wavelength, but rather to observe. They are mostly all players and poseurs of one sort or another, and how petty they seem against the magnificent countryside and extraordinary halls decorated in gigantic paintings. When we do need to engage, where it seems to count the most are in the instances and issues of parenthood in the film, and here Kubrick does take time to ensure that we connect. This is not only between Barry and his fated son, but also his rivalry with his stepson Lord Lyndon, Lord Lyndon and his mother; and indeed Barry and his own mother. The other characters that register most with Barry are also those that represent father-figures to him, but nearly all these relationships are doomed or absurd. Everyone is so very much playing their part and affecting their role in society that Lyndon’s lies infect even the deathbed of his unfortunate son. But then, what else does Lyndon have but his lies?

Overall, the film is populated by perfectly formed little sequences of dialogue and interaction, acted by a litany of brilliant character actors. We can luxuriate in the ridiculous dandyish mannerisms of the men of titles and money that Barry and his cohort Chevalier de Balibari (a ridiculously made-up Patrick Magee) con of their money. The mostly highly stylised performances are delightful in their detail: consummate, preposterous, just the right side of caricature. And see the minister turn the wedding into a hilariously overheated pulpit sermon; watch as Barry’s humble rose-cheeked mother becomes a formidable pasty-faced matriarch. A personal favourite is Leonard Rossiter’s early turn as a blustering English soldier. It is the men that are the most ridiculous, preening, blustering, indulging in ridiculous duels. Kubrick is quietly scathing at the artificial nature and ridiculous performances of the patriarchy in this society, which is the one that Barry invests in so much that he pursues the status far beyond his means and loses his own self in that pursuit and never seems to learn how artificial it all indeed is.       

Redmond Barry himself is a somewhat intangible character: Ryan O’Neill does not possess a twinkle of eye to make Barry a rascal and, although he is certainly treacherous and mercenary. But we never really get a grip upon him. Perhaps then this is the point: he is trapped in the ever-changing events of his own life. Desperately trying to manoeuvre himself around the other players on the social stage, coveting their positions, Lyndon lies, elaborates and trudges on ahead to any token status he can get himself into. This is why, when he finally marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), he barely knows what to do in the marriage except have affairs and put on airs. The impression is that O’Neil only really finds his footing and actor’s strengths in his role as a father, and the loss of his son being the one sequence of true emotional resonance. But actually Ryan gives a great anti-performance, as Jason Bellamy elaborates: 

for the most part his performance is quiet, reserved, inward, even when Barry is puffing out his chest with pride or arrogance. It's an approach that serves the character well, underlining Barry's lack of original character, right down to that light Irish accent that sounds as if Barry was never fully invested in his roots. O'Neal is, in essence, an actor playing an actor. And what's remarkable is that while Barry is always in the midst of a performance, O'Neal never seems to be.

Perhaps the weakest link is between Lord Lyndon in his incarnations as a boy and as a man: the casting feels inconsistent. As a child, Lyndon is played by Dominic Savage, who comes across as composed, watchful and defiant; as an adult played by Leon Vitali, he suddenly becomes immature, over-emotional, possessed of a sobber’s mouth given to quivering at all concerns.

What “Barry Lydon” also possesses is one of the greatest voice-overs in cinema. Where most are redundant and insulting, Kubrick offers a droll, amusing, critical, detached commentary, perfectly voiced by Michael Hordon. Its commentary allows criticism and narrative flow; it does not so much guide, fill in gaps or tell you what you are already seeing; rather it waves its hand archy, points and shrugs and pours another drink whilst elucidating on the cautionary tale that is Barry Lydon’s life. It does not truly moralise either, keeping its aloofness to the end so that ambiguity and our own conclusions can be made.

In a discussion about ‘pure cinema’ ~ which is seemingly to mean the triumph of the visual over narrative ~ it seems incongruous that “Barry Lydon” has seemingly met with the most indifference of Kubrick’s oeuvre as a pretty piece of nothing when modern critics are enraptured by the arguably indulgent gesturing of Malick’s “Tree of Life”. Kubrick’s film is about the superficial, the pursuit of it when natural beauty is in plain sight; it is about the rotten absurdity of Nineteenth Century society and a dry scathing satire on the pursuit of money and celebrity and all those shiny tokens that have led many to lead empty lives. And Barry’s life is ultimately an empty life, a search for all the wrong things. If he ever becomes self-aware is left open to conjecture by Kubrick, but there is no doubt that it all plays out like pretty tragedy and farce. Also, it is surely one of the greatest period pieces ever made, as much as ‘2001: a Space Odyssey’ and ‘The Shining’ are the epitome of their respective genres.

* [Chris Petit, Time Out Film Guide 2011, (Time Out Guides Limited, London, 2010) pg. 73]