A few weeks ago my wife and I saw the movie of Life of Pi. It was our first time seeing a movie in a theater in months if not years, and it was the first modern 3D movie I’d seen. I hadn’t read the book, and I was disappointed that the movie was dubbed into Spanish instead of subtitled, but it was an enjoyable experience all around.
I don’t think I’m sold on the 3D movie thing. It didn’t add anything to most of the movie, and much of what it did add were little gimmicky moments—a hummingbird hovering in the foreground of the screen, a tiger leaping at you. More importantly, the mechanics of a 3D movie mean that you don’t control what you focus on on the screen. In a regular movie, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie may be kissing in the foreground in a Cambodian village, but if you want (and you are somewhat autistically-inclined, like me) you can focus on a kid sitting on his porch in the background, or the jungle canopy framing the image. With a 3D movie, everything is severely out of focus except for what the director wants you to see. You lose control of what you’re observing and noticing. That said, my wife liked the effect in the underwater scenes. She felt it was a very accurate representation of what we saw the time we went SCUBA diving, the odd dimensionality and interplay of light.
Aside from the 3D, I was disappointed at the overuse of computer graphics in The Life of Pi. The tiger didn’t always look like a tiger, the kid in a boat on the open ocean often looked more like a kid in a boat on an open bluescreen. And knowing that the movie relied so much on CGI probably had me thinking an image was computer-generated even when it wasn’t. Again, as with the 3D I felt that the CGI was an example of a filmmaker’s becoming so fascinated and fixated by new technology that he molds the movie around the technology, instead of using technology to complement and improve what is at base a good, fundamentally sound movie. In this case the technology detracts from the storytelling instead of adding to it.
So I believe that The Life of Pi was a misstep for Ang Lee, but I have to admire him for always trying new things and challenging himself. This is a Taiwanese director that has done simple stories that are surely within his comfort zone, as in Eat Drink Man Woman, an excellent analysis of food and family in a modern city, but has since gone way beyond his comfort zone. Crouching Tiger was a mainland Chinese historical set piece with an old-fashioned story overlain by stunning visual and acrobatic effects. And Life of Pi is a foray into what might be called electronic filmmaking. Interestingly enough, through all these distinct genres, Ang Lee’s movies bear a certain artistic signature common to them all. His thematic focus seems to be love and distance, and sweet melancholy that drives us to do good or even great things.
By far my favorite film of his is Brokeback Mountain. This film has to figure in the all-time top ten of gay sheep rancher movies, certainly in the top twenty. Honestly though, it is perhaps my favorite film. Again, I marvel at how an urbane Taiwanese director gets into the mind of a Western cowboy. The story is compelling, and the visuals are amazing. I’m sure glad Lee didn’t try to use computer graphics for the sweeping panoramas of the Wyoming High Plains.
Brokeback Mountain is about a lot of things. The most obvious theme is the pain and the thrill of a love that cannot be, which I think anyone can relate to, whether they’ve experienced it firsthand or not. But the film is also a contrast of strengths and weaknesses. Ennis Del Mar can bear anything, and is the clearly the stronger of the main characters in this respect, but he is a coward when it comes to facing himself and rocking the boat. The two are related—his ability to live indefinitely with an unpleasant situation also inclines him never to try to change the conditions around him. Jack Twist is brave enough to be himself at all times, and it eventually leads to his death. But the flipside of this bravery is that he can’t ever control his impulses or put off gratification. He is weak in this way.
Brokeback Mountain is also about a changing, fading USA. In the day-to-day lives of Ennis and Jack over various decades, we go from the agrarian and industrial golden age of the 1960s to the bleak, suburbanized 1980s. In their youth the rural US still has something to offer them, there are still possibilities of creating a decent economic existence. But by movie’s end, Jack has had to forsake the rural lifestyle he loves for a neutered suburban existence as a salesman, while Ennis has held fiercely to the ranching life, and for this is condemned to live penniless in a trailer far from his family.
Anyway, I’ll forgive Ang Lee for Life of Pi, and I’d even forgive him for ten more duds like it. Brokeback Mountain has cemented his reputation as a filmmaker in my eyes, and nothing can change that.