Sunday, February 24, 2013

Pre-Oscar Night Reflections

I'm looking forward to watching the Oscars tonight with my friends Rick and Brian. In the past I've shared "Oscar reflections" after the awards telecast. This year I thought I'd mix things up a bit and share some thoughts before the winners' envelopes are opened!

I should say from the get-go that I have not seen all of the films nominated for Best Picture. In fact, I've only seen three of them: Lincoln, Life of Pi, and Les Misérables. From what I've read, the two main contenders for the 2013 Best Picture Oscar are Lincoln and Argo. I'm sure one of them will win, but I'm actually rooting for two other films, hoping one of them will be announced Best Picture.

The first of these is Ang Lee's Life of Pi . . .

I've noticed that many reviewers are dismissive of Life of Pi's spiritual themes. More often than not, these themes are maligned as trite or "new agey." One reviewer even attacked the film for reducing belief in God to adherence to the religion that tells the best story. I think part of what's going on is that these reviewers are unaware that, like the book upon which it is based, Life of Pi the film seeks to highlight not only the narratives and myths (in the best sense of the word) of numerous religious traditions, but also an awareness of the one great mystery toward which all of these stories attempt to direct us.

The theological and spiritual themes of Life of Pi are not the catechetical kind. There are no quick and ready answers, no lingering on the surface of things. In a key scene in the film, Pi observes Richard Parker, the tiger with whom he is sharing a lifeboat, gazing down into the still, starlit ocean. "What are you looking at?" Pi asks the tiger in all sincerity. Richard Parker looks briefly at Pi before returning his gaze to the mysterious depths. Pi follows his example and is transported beyond, experiencing in the journey a profound expansion of awareness and sense of connection with the universe. Such a journey is incapable of being facilitated by dogma or doctrine. No, we're in the realm of spirituality as understood and grappled with by folks like Rabbi Alan Lurie, Karen Armstrong, Jeanette Blonigen Clancy, Rosanne Cash, Joan Timmerman, Michael Morwood, Daniel Helminiak, and Zainab Salbi; a spirituality distinct from religion in ways succinctly articulated by Joan Chittister:

Spirituality is about the hunger in the human heart. It seeks not only a way to exist, but a reason to exist that is beyond the biological or the institutional or even the traditional. It lifts religion up from the level of the theoretical or the mechanical to the personal. It seeks to make real the things of the spirit. It transcends rules and rituals to a concentration on meaning. It pursues in depth the mystical dimension of life that religion purports to promote.

I have come across some reviews of Life of Pi that recognize and acknowledge the film's efforts to "make real the things of the spirit," or what others have called the depth dimension of life. For instance, here's part of Tim Martin's review . . .

Everything about Life of Pi combines to make it a wondrous experience, not only a visually spellbinding spectacle but also a thought-provoking and emotional piece of storytelling.

Life of Pi is based on the allegedly unfilmable novel written by Yann Martel about a young Indian man who undergoes a sweeping journey of spiritual and personal discovery while lost at sea in a lifeboat with a bad-tempered Bengal tiger.

As easy as it is to reduce the plot to a single sentence like that, that same reductionism does a huge disservice to this detailed, philosophically rich story.

And the film's ill-considered trailer (which says nothing of the story while focusing on the special effects showpieces, set to a smug, incongruous soundtrack by Coldplay and Sigur Ros) gives the impression of a fairly shallow technical showpiece, rather than the deep, textured meditation that it really is.

And then there's this insightful review I found at, part of which reads . . .

The scenes with Pi telling his story in flashback, of his quest for religious unity in a world where gods and deities abound and haunt his imagination, his conversations with books late into the night, along with altercations and loving interludes with his close and inseparable family is contrasted with the uncompromising self-reliant individualism that Pi is subjected to in that fateful journey across the seas. The long migration to Canada initially seems like a fool's quest but the deeper emotional notes in Pi's odyssey across the seas have an empowering tragic sense of life that has no equal this year at the movies.

Ang Lee stretches his own range of interests in his quest for a deeper emotional connection with religious themes in Martel's novels. Pi's lone quest in a raft, struggling to come to terms with his demons, in the open sea, also opens up a range of interpretations. . . . The sheer beauty and detail of the digital imagery that unfolds on screen, the breathtaking vision of young Pi lost in the ocean is, in and of itself, only spectacle. But these visuals, become a beautiful, even consoling, vision of a human being absorbed in his infinite struggles and longings. The brilliant decorative pieces on the cinematic canvas become vast signifiers of life's deepest meanings. And none of this gets ponderous, or pretentious.

This is a tale told simply, furiously, of Pi's resolve, of his sadness, love, loss, and protests. Pi's scream in a crucial moment, when he is numbed by thirst, hunger, and exhaustion . . . is the best single scene at the movies this year. His protest transcends the infinite stretches of the skies and the ocean above and below him. Lee's attention to Pi's anguish, this moral epicenter of this grand visual spectacle, is a moment on screen that reminded me, again, of the aesthetic power of cinema. Great directors do this constantly and Ang Lee manages to bring these moments to the screen this year more than any other film I have seen. A young man striving to remain true to his calling – as a son, an orphan, and finally a representative human being striving beyond his native strength – is a great moment of cinema, [one] where tragedy and triumph meet without separation.

Finally, here's an excerpt from Moses Ma's Psychology Today article about the film, an article that very deliberately seeks to explore "Meaning, Faith and the Life of Pi."

To understand the jewel of wisdom buried deep within the story – which is pronounced to be “a story that will make you believe in God” – we need to understand that the story is actually about wrestling not with a physical tiger, but a metaphoric one . . . with questions of meaning and faith. This story is a gedanken experiment for the worst case scenario, a modern day story of Job, all about how you can find spirituality and the meaning of life in the throes of all that is horrible and terrible in the world today. It is by surviving and making sense of all that goes wrong in the world, that the meaning of [our humanity] is uncovered.

Okay, the second film that I wouldn't mind seeing 'upset,' as they say, this evening's awards ceremony by taking home the Oscar for Best Picture, is Tom Hooper's Les Misérables . . .

I plan on writing in more depth about this beautiful and epic film in a future post. But what I will do here and now is share some thoughtful observations by author and Baylor University professor Greg Garrett. He notes, for instance, that many of the 2013 Oscar Best Films "tell stories of great loss and heartbreak redeemed by grace and hope." Both Life of Pi and Les Misérables certainly fit this bill.

Here's what Garrett has to say specifically about Les Misérables:

[L]ove is at the heart of Les Misérables, which concludes that "to love another person is to see the face of God." The Christian love of the Bishop (Colm Wilkinson) for vagabond thief Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) allows Valjean to renew his hope and reshape his life to become one that ultimately saves many besides himself. Valjean's own compassion for Fantine (Anne Hathaway) leads him to rescue her daughter and raise her as his own (and later, to rescue the one she loves and carry him away from the barricade to safety). Love is the one thing that the pursuing constable, Javert (Russell Crowe) never truly understands. He and Valjean each face a dark night of the soul – with identical music! – but he cannot see what Valjean does, that love is the necessary flip-side of justice. In his pivotal moment, Valjean embraces hope; Javert leaps to his death, broken inside and out.

Above: Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert
and Hugh Jackman as Valjean in Les Misérables.

Recommended Off-site Links:

Nobody Said 'Racial Equality' in 1865: The Anachronistic English of Lincoln – Benjamin Schmidt (The Atlantic, January 10, 2013).
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and the Historical Drama of the Civil War – Tom Mackaman (World Socialist Web Site, November 12, 2012).
What Argo Gets Wrong: People – Spencer Kornhaber (The Atlantic, October 12, 2012).
Former Canadian Ambassador Renews Criticism of Argo – Ian Austen (New York Times, February 22, 2013).
Torture in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty – Jane Mayer (The New Yorker, December 14, 2012).
The Intellectually Bankrupt Defenders of Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty – Davis Walsh (World Socialist Web Site, February 22, 2013).
Ten Things You Should Know About Slavery and Won't Learn at Django – Amara Jones (, January 9, 2013).
The Impossible: A Narrow View of a Major Disaster – George Marlowe (World Socialist Web Site, January 31, 2013).
Life of Pi: In a Lifeboat Alone With a Tiger – David Walsh (World Socialist Web Site, December 15, 2012).
Life of Pi – A Review – Philip French (The Observer, December 22, 2012).
Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables: Social Misery, With a Vengeance – Hiram Lee (World Socialist Web Site, January 21, 2013).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Five Oscar Highlights (2008)
Oscar Observations (2009)
Oscar Observations (2010)
Beatrice Marovich on Divinity and Animality in Life of Pi
Colin Covert on Biutiful: "A Work of Extraordinary Vitality"
Where Milk Gets It Wrong
Pan’s Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
Reflections on the Overlooked Children of Men
Reflections on Babel and the "Borders Within"
Christian Draz's Critique of Brokeback Mountain
Frank D. Myers' Long Hard Look at Brokeback Mountain

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