Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Forest Of Symbols: Life Of Pi and Chaos

Why is this film so good?
To receive 11 nominations from the Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, is no small feat, and it won 4 awards, more than any other film this year (Best Director, Cinematography, Visual Effects and Original Score). How can a film receive so much praise, even elevating it to the level of "the miraculous?" For two reasons: first, it teaches us that miracles do exist; secondly, it teaches us the power of art. It's my interpretation that the entire story is an encoding for events occurring in India during the 1970s, but if the author were to put it in those terms, the historical, the economic, corruption, poverty, human suffering, his story, his experience, would become lost in the "sameness" of all the other stories which tell stories about that; translating the Indian government as "the ship of state" that sinks, and his sorrow at having to leave India behind doesn't convey a story to the audience, rather, it weaves a vivid, singular experience with which we can invest our own emotions and personalities to bond with the art in the perfect consummation of the spiritual and intellectual. In short, Ang Lee's Life Of Pi deserves each and every award.
The reason it has taken me so long to get this review up is due to research efforts: not knowing much about Indian history, I have been studying a specific aspect presented in the film which I have been unable to confirm, even after consulting the original story, which leads us to a interesting problem I will elaborate upon below. Life Of Pi will be released on disc March 12 but you can watch it now at this link on Amazon.com. People either love or hate this film: if you enjoy the decoding we do on this blog, you will thoroughly enjoy the film; if you, or someone you know, only enjoys movies as "entertainment," they will not enjoy the film because, like Beasts Of the Southern Wild, it employs elements of magical realism but what many don't like is, at the end, the film decodes its own story: Pi supposedly turns the real, human survivors of the shipwreck into animals so he can better cope with what happened: the orangutan was Pi's mother, the zebra the French Cook kills to eat and use as bait is the sailor with the broken leg, and the hyena was the French Cook, killed by the tiger, Richard Parker, Pi himself; the animals in the boat (like the animals at his father's zoo, who he compares to hotel guests), are codes to decipher; as we begin to understand one code, we find more and more in the film needing to be decoded and deciphered. 
There has been much discussion about how they didn't even think this film could be made because of the nature of the story of a boy being on a boat, in the middle of the ocean, with a tiger; there is another reason they story might not have been able to be made: people wouldn't get it. Films such as Jurassic Park (“Nature will find a way,”), the character of the Griffin in Men In Black III and the ideas of universal harmony in Beasts of the Southern Wild, has prepared us for a narrative based upon the use of Mandelbrot sets which we first learned about (if you didn't take a seminar on chaos theory in college, that is) in Darren Aronofsky's 1998 geek-thriller Pi. In Pi, when the numbers of the famous equation begin repeating themselves, a “set” has completed and a new set begins all over again, and every facet of life, from people coming to our doors, to the stock market to the very name of God Almighty, is revealed by this number. The exact principles are resurrected in Life Of Pi, because it's not only the life of a little boy leaving India, but also the very life force contained within the equation Pi.
Please notice the trees in this poster: they are just like the trees we see Pi's girlfriend standing amidst when he follows her after dance class and he asks her the meaning of the last motion she made during her dance; she is the lotus hiding in the forest, and that forest is found on the floating island of meerkats with the carnivorous plants hiding Pi's own tooth.
Without a doubt, this is a complex film: it invokes mathematics and all the major world religions, so how do we know where to begin in finding the most comprehensive interpretation we can? We start by piecing together what we have, and when we have enough of the picture of symbols the narrative employs, we can deduce a thesis. There are many places where we could begin, but let's start with the floating island. We know it's in the ocean, it gives food, water and rest to Pi, there are meerkats, Richard Parker runs away from the island, and Pi finds a human tooth in a flower and decides the plants are carnivorous...okay? If this seems strange to you, congratulations, because it's supposed to be strange so we dig deeper. Unlike the insurance agents looking for an actual floating island or a map or navigation chart, we are to look for the floating island within ourselves, and what is a possible answer? It symbolizes love.
Below I detail an possible alternate reading to the one I am offering, but I don't feel it's as strong. Usually, the ship symbolizes the "ship of state," but not always; even with a spiritual-based reading, we can still understand the ship in these terms as the ship of state of India sinking and that dislocating of Pi causes his spiritual journey; however, I feel understanding the ship in terms of the soul is more rewarding, so let's try that, especially since the boat crosses the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, so this moment is also the deepest part of the film. Given that the name of the ship is Tzimtzum, a Hebrew word referring to God and "concealment," (the way Richard Parker is concealed in the lifeboat), and Pi teaches Kabbalah at a university, this is most likely the fruitful reading. The idea of a passenger freight is rather like a hotel, and the point is made that a hotel is like a zoo (if you have seen Grand Hotel lately, you know what I mean). The freight, then, carries people along in general, however, Pi is special, and his life cannot be like everyone else's so he has to endure the shipwreck of life. The shattering of a vessel, then the repairing of that vessel, is a part of the process of God's plan (Tzimtzum) to make a person perfect, which is why audience members can identify with it because we have all been through varying degrees of purgation whether we acknowledge them or not. Pi initially enjoying the storm could be taken one of two ways, or both ways: one, sense he goes outside, he's capable of introspection where others are not (he can get outside of himself and look inside whereas the others stay inside); secondly, he first enjoys God's power displayed in the storm, thinking he is safe, but then realizes he is not safe from God's power when the giant wave washes over the ship, like the tail of the whale smashing his lifeboat later. The others surviving on the lifeboat could be said to be like God sifting the wheat, and disposing of the shaft, as each one slowly dies and only Richard Parker and Pi are left.     
Specifically, the love of the girl he met during the dance class. Remember the dance she performed, and how each move had its own meaning and interpretation, but Pi didn't understand what one motion meant, the lotus flower in the forest, so he followed her to find out, and when he found her, she was standing in the forest of trees. Those trees, and the lotus flower they discuss, are examples of a Mandelbrot set because we see it in one place as an example in the narrative, then we see the forest and and lotus flower on the island in another place and example; further, we see the tooth within the flower on the island, then later, when Pi is in the hospital talking to the insurance agents, we see his own tooth is chipped, linking him to the tooth he found. So, how do we piece it all together to make sense?
Because women almost always symbolize the passive principle, the island itself is the girl. Let's stop a moment and consider our own experiences: if we look at our own, personal history, what stands out amidst all the schooling, jobs, moving, friends, losses, etc.? Our romantic relationships. Like an oasis in the ocean of time, a romance usually marks a milestone we look back on to see our growth and maturity as individuals over our lifespan. The island makes a fitting symbol in this narrative because it shows how, unconsciously and emotionally, Pi felt they would “drift” apart anyway (because the island drifts). Likewise, the swim he takes in the clean water symbolizes sex because water either symbolizes baptism (as when Pi, as a 12 year-old boy, goes up the mountain and is dared to drink the Holy Water) or sex: baptism is coming to know our Father in heaven, but sex is “knowing someone” in the Biblical sense of sharing knowledge of their body (whether they engaged in intercourse or not is not a part of the film, but we know from this scene that what physical intimacy they did share was “refreshing”).
So why does he find the tooth?
Award winning director Ang Lee directing the scene when Pi changes from "Pissing Patel" to "Pi Patel" by writing the digits of the famous number on the board. Why is this moment important? It demonstrates two things about Pi: first, he is interested in the world of the abstract, whether expressed in spirituality or mathematics; secondly, knowing "the course" that Pi (the number) takes, Pi affirms the path he takes because he wants to be Pi (the number). He achieves both names however, Pissing Patel when he marks his territory of the boat against Richard Parker by urinating on the cover and he becomes Pi Patel when he looks into the eye of the whale and sees the universe (what is reflected in his own soul like a Hindu god discussed earlier in the film). Pi writing out the number Pi on the board demonstrates that he knows what is going to0 happen to him in life, because life follows a pattern (we will discuss this more in depth in The Hobbit) so he shouldn't be surprised at losing everything and that he experiences shipwreck because it happens to the best.
As we have had numerous times to discuss, sex is related to the appetites, and flowers often symbolize female sexuality (think of the painting flowers by Georgia O'Keeffe, for example). The placement of the human tooth in the flower—and Pi deciding that the plants must be carniverous—leads us to the problems with relationships: they devour us. In forming a relationship with someone else—if it's at the wrong time in our life—they can consume us as we are consuming the good things that come from a relationship (the fun, security, love, friendship, intimacy, etc.) and that's why the plants are carnivorous, because it's Pi's own tooth he finds buried in the flower (and we only know it's his tooth because his tooth is chipped at the hospital; this could also be a reference to oral sex, but, again, the film doesn't go into that). There are two other elements we must explore regarding the island: the meerkats and Richard Parker running off the island.
Please note how pale Pi's lips are, signifying he has no appetite, but this is when he discovers Richard Parker "hiding" or being "concealed" in the lifeboat. Again, this lifeboat, and the little raft Pi constructs for himself illustrates for us the Hebrew philosophy of Tzimtzum, the way the whale coming, and destroying Pi's food supply, might invoke the story of Jonah and the Whale from the Old Testament.
What do the meerkats symbolize on this island of love? Everyone. When we are single, it's easy to envy the happiness we see other couples enjoying, and when we have found that special someone, we then feel—because we belong to that one person—we now belong to the whole human family, symbolized by the meerkats (who move in unison with each other like a herd). There's a great comfort in this, to be a part of something, and to be like everyone else, but this too is a reason Pi has to leave the island: he's not like everyone else, and the comforts of his relationship—while nourishing and rewarding—also keep him from becoming who he has to become which leads us to who Richard Parker is and what part of Pi Richard Parker symbolizes.
 It seems that Pi takes off a red bracelet from around his wrist and lays it down at the base of one of the trees as he gets out of his boat and explores the island (it's been awhile since I have seen it), it's strange that this happens because we hadn't seen him wearing it before,... or did we? We saw him exchange the red bracelet with Anandi before his family left India, another reason to understand Anandi as symbolizing the isalnd. Just as Pi's mother symbolizes India (the motherland that gave birth to him) we can say that Anandi symbolizes the future Pi would have had there had he stayed, in other words, Anandi is the India Pi finally found for himself and started to love. One way of understanding all the foreign authors we see him reading (Dostoevsky, Camus, etc.) is that he was in love with the West, but in finding Anandi, he also found the India of his time.
We must remember two things: when we first see Richard Parker, it's in a pool of water reflecting him (just as water reflects him in the image below); secondly, Richard Parker is the hunter and there was a “clerical error” naming Richard Parker the tiger instead of the hunter, however, Richard Parker is also the goat eater, and who else do we see eating an animal in the film? Pi's father,Santosh, when he is at the table having dinner with his family and he eats the lamb while the vegetarians eat their dinner. So what does this all mean? Pi is very comfortable with the part of him that is like his mother, but not comfortable with the part of him that is like his father, in other words, the killer in him (because his father ate the lamb, Pi views his father as much of a killer as Richard Parker) but also Pi looks down on his father because, to Pi, Santosh is unable to "reflect" the way we see Richard Parker "reflecting" in the water throughout the film (that is, Santosh doesn't have the ability to be self-aware and that is what blocks Santosh's ability to be a better, deeper person and why Santosh doesn't want Pi practicing all these religions instead of just choosing one to practice). Pi also associates his father with "killing" because Santosh is a meat-eater.
 Because Richard Parker is associated with Pi's father, he can also be associated with capitalism because Pi's father owns the hotel/zoo and because of his lack of business prospects, he moves his family to Canada hence they get into a ship wreck and die; where else have we seen a struggling business man move his family into danger? Sinister, with Ethan Hawke: as a writer trying to come up with a new novel, he moves his family into a house haunted by a demon and they all die. As the loving and nurturing vegetarian, Pi's mother can be seen as an example of socialism because she married beneath her station, so not holding onto her class-standing, she bucked the social and economic system and we could say that is what Life Of Pi calls us as a country to do. In this context, without doubt, the ship Pi stays on is the “ship of state” and the struggle is with a young economy that is vegetarian (Pi, as a young male symbolizes the economy) and Richard Parker is the capitalist within himself that he must struggle to overcome so he can be free to live the way he wants to, as a totally tolerant of all things vegetarian in Canada. I am not going to make a big deal about this line of analysis because I don't think it's really all that strong in the film; while I do see these elements in place, there are far too many other plot issues and symbolisms at work to really focus on a socialist agenda at the forefront of the film, even if it is lingering in the background.
Because Pi sees an image of his mother when he looks into the eye of the whale and sees the universe, and because it's Richard Parker who sees it first, then Pi, we can say that Pi's mother symbolizes the eternal and immortal within us, that part of us closest to God, whereas Richard Parker symbolizes that earthly part of us that—even though we are the Children of God—must exist to help us through this mortal part of our destinies. Finding the balance between Richard Parker the mortal part of him, and the immortal part of his soul his mother represents, is not only Pi's struggle, but the struggle in which we all either engage or ignore. As a child growing up and practicing different religions, Pi was prone to the immortal part of his identity, (why he wanted to be “Pi” instead of “Pissing Patel” because Pi exists abstractly as a number instead of concretely in the tangible world) but he ignored coming to grasps with the part of his identity that was earth-bound, and after the shipwreck, the basics of eating and drinking water become as real for him as Divinity. 
 Art does not always support “balance” of two sides of our being: in Silent Hill: Revelation, which I thought was done quite well and with a definite Christian angle to it, the main character must overcome a part of herself because, just as that part seeks to destroy her, so the film argues, that same part within all of us seeks to destroy society, in other words, when there are self-destructive forces at work within us, if we don't manage them and discipline ourselves, it not only destroys us, but society as well (consider, for example, the price on society of a single person's drug addiction, or a person who becomes a criminal, alcoholism, prostitution, etc). The danger Richard Parker poses to Pi is clear when Richard Parker runs Pi off the boat, but Pi's “revelation” that Richard Parker was a part of his own self—and the multi-levels of spirituality contained within the narrative—supports cohesion of the self and resolution of inner-struggles rather than vanquishing a part that “doesn't belong,” but this is merely a superficial treatment of such a grand scheme and could easily be book length if we so desired.
But is this all Richard Parker symbolizes?
No, but to further answer this question, we have to analyze a different part of the film. What was the cause for Santosh taking his family from India? Ambiguously, the only answer is the politics of Mrs. Gandhi; it seems, however, there was a war taking place with the French, and a “day of reprisals” that disrupted Indian politics. I will be the first to admit I don't know much about the history of India, but my efforts to research this aspect has failed to bear fruit, which is interesting in and of itself. If there wasn't a war going on with the French in the 1970s when the film takes place, what is Pi talking about?
A cultural war.
In a scene such as this, where "illumination" comes from is important because the whole film is about "illumination": that the jellyfish illuminate the night from "beneath the surface" extends an invitation to us to peer beneath the surface of the film to find the illumination we seek for our own lives.
We see Pi reading books, Dostoevsky and Albert Camus' The Stranger. Even though Dostoevsky is Russian, and Camus was French-Algerian, we can say that Pi is feeling the inner-dichotomy between the East (India) and West (Europe and America) and that war Pi mentions might be more this war of ideas and lifestyle (it's easier to run a business in the capitalist west so Santosh moves the family to the west) than a war with guns and explosives, but that doesn't mean it isn't a real war, and this leads us to Pi's uncle swimming in the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in France, because Pi's uncle swimming in the French pool is like Pi swimming in the pool of water on the floating island; whereas Pi's swim signifies his relationship with a woman, Pi's uncle swim signifies his relationship with the west and Western Ideas and identity, and him wanting Pi to be “westernized” instead of Indian, so they name him after the pool, which leads us to the real conflict between Pi's mother and the French Cook (Gerard Depardieu) over the sausage.
 This is possibly the second reference to Alfred Hitchcock's Oscar nominated film Lifeboat of 1944 (the first being in a film no one saw, Nazis At the Center Of the Earth, which I, in my strange taste for films, thoroughly enjoyed because the theories were so anti-socialist and it was so anti-Obamacare, but also because so many parts of the film were so bad it was a great laugh! Please see The Coming Of the 1000 Year Reich & Zombies: Nazis At the Center Of the Earth for more). Why would it be possible for Life Of Pi to be referencing this long-forgotten film? Lifeboat is about English citizens on a boat sank by a German U-boat, and a German soldier gets rescued by them and plans on turning them over as POWs to a German submarine, but they kill him instead; this same kind of struggle exists in Life Of Pi between Pi and Richard Parker, and most of the film—like Lifeboat—takes place on a lifeboat, but further similarities is probably up to individual viewers to determine. As mentioned, I think this is probably a pro-socialist film because the ideas of the capitalist west being associated with his father, a meat-eater, and hence, Richard Parker, is in line with films associating capitalists with vampires (such as Gangster Squad, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Dark Shadows, just to name a few). As a capitalist, for example, I would correlate the Bengal tiger Richard Parker to the Nazi socialists because it was the Nazis who hunted down the Jews and tore them to pieces for gold teeth and using their skins for lamp shades, as well as starting World War II in the cause for world domination; socialists, of course, would deny this and even deny that the Nazis were socialists, which is highly convenient for them. Again, depending on your own views of politics, film and culture, will determine how—if at all—you correlate Life Of Pi and Hitchcock's Lifeboat.
The French Cook wanting Pi's mother to eat the sausage, and Pi's father speaking French to the Cook to communicate with him, and the racial slur of "curry eaters," echoes the real conflict of the story: the French (the West in general) telling the East to take what they have and eat it and like it. This confrontation illuminates the East and West conflict over everything; that Pi's father knows how to speak French is a condemnation by Pi that his father speaks the language of "the killers" and Pi can't and won't forgive his father for it.
Something to consider is that the name given to the tiger Richard Parker, all ready has many associations with shipwreck, which the author was undoubtedly playing with in choosing the name Richard Parker. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe's 1838 short story The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a character named Richard Parker convinces other members of a shipwrecked boat that one of them must die in order to sustain the others, so he is picked through the drawing of lots and loses to become the "sacrificial victim."  
As we mentioned above, Pi views his father, like Richard Parker, as a meat eater; the French Cook also is a meat eater, not only demonstrated by the sausage episode in the ship's cafeteria, but also on the lifeboat with the rat the Cook wants to eat which disgusts everyone else on board. While Pi's uncle sees the French as builders of culture to be enjoyed and taken in (the swimming in the pool), Pi sees the French—and the West itself—like the French Cook: controlled by the appetites, even to the point of eating a rat. Rebelling, however, at the appetite-controlled French Cook brings out the worse in Pi, Richard Parker, and a Bengal tiger is a greater predator than a hyena (the French Cook). So it's not just the French Cook Pi kills,...
One of the great questions the film leaves us with is, why did Richard Parker leave Pi on the Mexican beach without even "saying good-bye?" Because Richard Parker didn't leave him, they became perfectly balanced as soon as Pi realized that Richard Parker was "keeping him alive," in other words, that even the "animal in him" (that he condemns in others) serves a good and is thereby worthy to be a part of his life. Richard Parker, so to speak, retreats into the jungle of Pi's soul since his time of exile has come to an end as deemed by God, but Richard Parker has not ceased to be.
When the French Cook kills the rat to eat, the film makes a statement about the West in general; when the French Cook kills Pi's mother, it's the West killing the Indian motherland, the land and culture which gave birth to Pi (the logic and capitalism of the West killing the spirituality and mystery of the East), and when Pi revolts (goes to war with) the French Cook, Pi's revolt unleashes within himself his own predator, his own appetites and weaknesses, Richard Parker, because Pi has become a hunter just like the man who captured the tiger to begin with, but again, a greater “monster” is unleashed with Richard Parker being “uncovered” than the French Cook's hyena (far more analysis is possible with Richard Parker and this entire story; these suggestions are meant only to stimulate your won thoughts and deepen your own interaction with the art, not act as a definitive reading and interpretation). This interpretative angle explains why Richard Parker leaves the floating island to return to the boat: he symbolizes logic and the island-as-love relies upon the emotions, but this also reveals something else about the floating island.
 Great works of art invoke other great works of art, and the idea of “eating a rat” leads us to another potential reference Life Of Pi makes: Pulp Fiction, when Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) are in a diner and Vincent eats sausage (like the French Cook) and tries to get Jules to try some, and Jules replies that sewer rat could taste like pumpkin pie but he would never know because he wouldn't eat the filthy thing. In its separation between those led by ideals and those bound to the earth by their appetites, Life Of Pi shares quite a bit with Pulp Fiction, more so than Lifeboat perhaps (for more, please see Pulp Fiction: A Study In Plato and Aristotle).
While love is good, it's not the ultimate good, as young Pi might have thought leaving his girlfriend back in India. Just as the island floats, so we “float,” or drift, in and out of love with someone. Love, then, is its own appetite which can divert our attention away from the greatest good, love for and understanding of God and our relationship to God; until we understand, accept and explore that Love, any other love will consume us and we will consume it, our appetite being enlarged by it instead of satisfied with what we have. When Pi's wife enters their home, we see that Pi has, not only his individuality, but a family, and he has his family because he went through the exile and concealment of God out on the desert of the ocean.
 As I have been suggesting all year, the primary difference between chaos theory (which is used extensively in Life Of Pi and many other films) and evolutionary thought, is that evolution excludes any possibility of God existing, whereas chaos theory allows for the existence of God (although it doesn't directly state God does or must exist). Life Of Pi clearly supports this thesis from the grand scheme of the film to the minor details, no just in the good brought out of Pi's suffering as he drifts in the ocean all that time, and how his life is preserved, but how his life becomes better because of it and he becomes better, and only God our Father can accomplish that.
The film will leave you with many questions, but also many answers; the last question we will address, however, is the question the film itself asks of us: which story do you prefer, the real story with the Cook, sailor and mother, or the story with the tiger and floating island? In the film, everyone prefers the "fantastic story" with the tiger; why? Because that's what art does, it shows us, it doesn't settle for just telling us. By decoding itself, the film demonstrates that it is art, that it knows it has a message it sends out "in a bottle" (like the message Pi himself drops into the ocean) waiting to see if we the audience will find it. So, in preferring the fantastic story, we prefer art to documentary, because while documentary is good, the mystery that is our deepest self cannot be documented, only suggested, and only reflected to us, not grasped.
As always, I have only provided some possible angles on the story to aid you in your own engagement with the film; no one ever has a "final reading," including the author or film makers, but Life Of Pi is a story worthy of viewing at least once (numerous times, in my estimation) and will be available on disc March 12, or you can watch it instantly via Amazon.com at this link. Here are two clips:
While Pi has been starving, and the fish offer a sudden abundance of food, Pi--being a vegetarian--won't eat the fish because it violates his beliefs, but his struggle to "dominate" Richard Parker is the dominating of his appetites. In this wonderful clip, the food Pi has been eating from the lifeboat supply is destroyed by the tail of the whale, demonstrating the importance of food in the film, and how Pi learns he can't survive on just earthly food, or just heavenly food, but that he needs both:
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner