Tiger, Tiger, Burning Blight: The Problem With Pi-ety

If A. O. Scott’s description of Ang Lee’s movie Life of Pi is accurate, then he’s confirming my suspicions about the hollowness of the narrative’s heart. That is to say, he’s assuring me that the movie preserves the fundamental wishy-washiness of the book’s core ideas.

Please note: I am not condemning the film. I haven’t seen the film. I suspect I’ll enjoy certain aspects of it. I have great respect for Ang Lee; he’s made some of my favorite films. I am commenting here only on the narrative, on the source material, on the ideas at the heart of the film.

Scott describes the main character, Pi, as

… an all-around holiness fan reluctant to declare a rooting interest in any particular team. He likes them all. After receiving a quick précis of the Gospels from a kindly priest, Pi offers up a prayer that summarizes his amiable, inclusive approach to the notoriously divisive subject of theology: “Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ.”

No problem! He will go on to embrace Islam and study kabbalah. Thousands of years of sectarian conflict, it seems, can be resolved with a smile and a hushed, reverent tone of voice.

“If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all,” warns Pi’s dad, who is committed to the supremacy of reason and who is, as rationalists often are in the imaginations of the devout, a bit of a grouch about it. But this piece of skeptical paternal wisdom identifies a serious flaw in “Life of Pi,” which embraces religion without quite taking it seriously, and is simultaneously about everything and very little indeed. Instead of awe, it gives us “awww, how sweet.” …

What is and isn’t real — what stories can be believed and why — turns out to be an important theme of “Life of Pi,” albeit one that is explored with the same glibness that characterizes the film’s pursuit of spiritual questions.

See… this is what happens when we start saying we’re “spiritual… but not religious.”

It’s like saying, “I love mathematics, but don’t try to teach me arithmetic or algebra. Those formulas are too confining.” Or “I love sports, but I’m not one of those people who believes that there should be any rules about how games are played. Rules and regulations dare to place limits on what I want to do, and you wouldn’t want to hurt my feelings, would you?”

When we start repeating nonsense like “all religions are basically the same,” we expose our ignorance about the fundamental differences between the claims of those faith traditions, and at the same time we express a sort of arrogance and superiority to people who actually think things through, practice a discipline, and humble themselves in the presence of an idea larger than themselves.

When we say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” we’re saying, “I believe in some of the stuff of various religions, but ultimately the only Higher Authority I serve is Myself. My preferences and my desire to do whatever I want, without accountability, is what I revere. If I were to actually declare any particular convictions, I’d be responsible to behave accordingly, and I prefer the freedom of irresponsibility.”

In other words, it’s like saying, “I believe in sailing, but don’t be ridiculous, I’m not going to climb into any particular boat.”

UPDATE: 

Drew McWeeny at HitFix says:

If all you care about is the visual experience, “Life Of Pi” offers some of the lushest imagery of the year, and Lee really has embraced the potential of 3D in a way that very few other filmmakers have even attempted.  It is gorgeous, often jaw-dropping, and if the film ended at a certain point on a beach, I would probably be giving it an enthusiastic recommendation.  Instead, I found it to be a heart-breaking experience to see this much good work used in service of a story that is, ultimately, nothing but empty calories, a spiritual shell game.  “Life Of Pi” is the most impressive empty container of the year, and one of the most frustrating movies I’ve seen in recent memory.

UPDATE #2:

Timothy Dalrymple writes:

The important point here, though, is that The Life of Pi is a major motion picture event that provokes us to ask such questions in the first place and discuss our answers with our friends. That’s worth celebrating. Try though I might … I could not find a way of reading “And so it goes with God” without concluding that Yann Martel succumbs in the end to a view of religion that boils down to therapeutic convenience. But it’s earnest and deeply felt. It’s the cry of a person who has despaired of finding (or being grasped by) an ultimate answer, and yet it’s the cry of a person who desperately seeks the truth and desperately wants to believe that there is more to life than bloodstained teeth and claws. And if that’s not exceedingly valuable, and the basis for an excellent conversation among friends, I don’t know what is.

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  • http://www.thewebtheologian.com mstevensrev

    The movie is visually stunning and a treat, and yes it does not overcome the inherent challenge of the content. While the book nailed the twist for me, perhaps because I had invested so much time in believing, the movie did not even make an attempt to make the twist dramatic. Both the book and the movie run into a similar challenge related to spirituality, while Pi’s religious pursuits provide him some grounds for praise, gratitude and deeply thinking about the world it does not provide enough depth to overcome his evolutionary animal instincts when it matters. The story is interesting and, in my opinion, the spiritual elements are window dressing to the deeper theme, when it comes down to it all that matters is survival. Pi might frame it differently (g)God chooses that some survive (by any means necessary) and others do not.

  • http://thenicsperiment.blogspot.com Nicholas

    I read the book. It tasted like a mealy apple. Not planning on visiting the theater for this one. If I just want to see something pretty, I’ll watch the sunset.

  • Rick

    I saw the film, and I suppose you’re right about the moral of the story, although taken as a whole the story does include a lot of interesting things to think about. That said, as a film enthusiast please don’t let the half-baked moral ruin the whole experience for you. As you suggest in your book, Jeff, a movie is not limited to the moral that’s explicitely mentioned at the end. To quote Ebert: it’s not about what it’s about, but how it’s about that. And visually this movie is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. For me, the images and a lot of the individual scenes transcended the overall fable. As a critic I’ve seen a lot of movies this year, but this is my favorite so far.

  • Evan

    So, the claim from the trailer that Life of Pi is the next Avatar is accurate in more regards than just the visual effects? Thanks for the heads up, if I see it, I’ll keep my expectations in check.

  • RuffReader

    Seems like a straw man argument to me. I don’t recall anyone in the book or the film saying that “all religions are basically the same”. The message I got from the material is that this character, Pi, found something in each religion that excited him, inspired him, and ultimately allowed him to cope with tragedy. Saying that different religions can serve similar purposes for someone is not saying that all religions are all the same thing.

    • mildred

      I agree. Many feel they with their particular religion have all the truth and answers. They are afraid to look past their particular church taught beliefs. I have found they often are both prejudiced and very narrow minded. So this film would confuse and perhaps unnerve them. I so enjoyed it.

  • Erik Naydiuk

    I completely agree. I read the book over the summer, and while I suppose the story was engaging enough, the spiritual ideas it presented got old fast. Ultimately the book seemed sort of precious, but not something that could really be taken seriously, though it was pretty clear that the author thought he was writing something uncommonly amazing (mostly because he said as much more than once throughout the book).

    That said, I saw one of the “preview clips” that were released in 3D before the actual trailers came out, and it looked pretty marvelous, so I might go out and see it anyway. We’ll see.


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