Tag Archives: Life of Pi

Josh Kinda Just Wants To Talk More About Star Wars

The Force Awakens’ planet-obliterating Starkiller Base is powered by absorbing its system’s sun and firing it as a weapon. This mechanic allows fighter pilot Poe Dameron to utter the phrase “but as long as there’s light, we got a chance” without it feeling remotely hollow or contrived. It reflects, as well, the standoff going off in another part of the planet and, even bigger, the general concept of the Star Wars saga as a whole. See, Star Wars is about the Light Side and the Dark Side, good and evil, all that. It’s a cosmic conflict, one that’s rendered all the more powerful when given a distinct visual flair — it’s no coincidence that when the climactic battle is at its bleakest the sun has disappeared and it’s in victory that it comes back. The understanding of the climax, then, is that the heroes lost all hope (note which scene we’re in when the light fades for good) but were still able to win in the end. Talk about story-theme-image synergy.

That a line like that can be worked so effortlessly into a story is a mark of director Abram’s mastery. By rights, it should be too corny to work, and in all honesty, yes, it is pretty darn corny. But we don’t care (or at least I don’t) because it fits perfectly in with what’s going on. Poe isn’t lecturing about some deeper issue; he’s appraising the battle’s situation.

Now, it works for Star Wars since the franchise, at its best, wears its heart proudly on its sleeve. But it doesn’t make being able to work its central theme so effortlessly any less impressive. It’s not something a lot of movies can do, but is one that Star Wars can because, well, science fiction.

So here we are again, talking about how the silliness of scifi (a weapon powered by absorbing a sun?) allows it to go places non-genre fiction can’t. Heck, not just scifi. Life of Pi is all about stories. Because it deals with such an outlandish situation (in a lifeboat with a tiger. Also mysterious floating islands), Pit’s retelling of it to the company men at the end forces us, as readers, to reconsider all that happened. Ultimately, we’re left with the same conclusion that Secondhand Lions came to: the factualness of a story is less important than the Truth of it. But because we’ve been with Pi throughout his adventure, him asking the company men (and us) what makes the better story feels downright natural.

You can’t just throw ideas at a thing and hope it sticks. Avatar tried its darnedest to embed a green message in its narrative, but it felt heavy handed because it had so little to do with what the story was really about (finding your true self in another culture that— okay, so maybe Avatar would have benefitted by keeping the green theme more front and center). The best themes are so well worked in that you only realize them subconsciously at first.

Anyway. I’m still exhausted from my movie shoot. And my copy of The Force Awakens gets to my apartment in a few days and I can’t wait. And I love that Abrams was able to work that line into the movie so effortlessly.

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Science Fiction, Parables, and Gravity

Yes, I’m still on my science fiction apologetics kick. As I’ve established over and over again, as a genre, science fiction can say a lot that normal fiction can’t, or say it in ways it can’t. Gravity is a fine example of this. Because like it or not, Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece is science fiction. If Super 8 and Moon are science fiction, then so is Gravity.

Super 8, like E.T. before it, is fundamentally a movie about growing up and moving on. Moon isn’t about Sam Rockwell mining Helium-3 so much as it questions ideas about what it means to be human. Pacific Rim is as much about togetherness as it is about canceling apocalypses. Similarly, Gravity is a movie about faith,the will to live and what exactly being alive means. All these movies use the trappings of science fiction as the backdrop for their stories and to tell stories that could not be told otherwise.

Pacific Rim communicates its refusal to settle for the world we’re given though Jaegers and Kaiju. We’re presented personifications of fear and devastation and then told a story where those beasts can be stood up to and defeated. The movie’s centered around this idea, with other themes wound into it. It’s the clear-cut line of all of humanity against the invaders that allow it to be conveyed so clearly and yet so artfully. It plain works.

Moon uses its lunar setting to heighten the feeling of isolation that permeates the film. It also uses its twenty-minutes-into-the-future time period to address its central issue in a unique way. Duncan Jones’ film gives physicality to the question of identity and humanity; rather than having characters discuss it they’re forced to confront it. We, as an audience, don’t choke on the philosophizing, instead it’s presented to us through the story. Through the use of science fiction, storytellers are able to smoothly communicate themes and ideas that, in another setting, could feel heavy handed or just plain out of place. Gravity does this magnificently.

Gravity could be called Life of Pi in space without a tiger. Like Yann Martel’s novel, Gravity centers itself around people trying to survive where people aren’t supposed to survive. Also like the book, it examines the meaning of life, insofar as what’s the point of being alive? Gravity explores this theme through its two astronauts drifting in space, dying to survive. Where better to ponder God then miles above the atmosphere? Where else to examine humanity’s need for connection than in the isolation of space? By setting Gravity in space as opposed to in the middle of the ocean, a desert, or vacant island, Cuarón can hone his film to what he wants to address and mask it beautifully in a sublime story about survival. There’s little preachifying, instead its message is communicated through the story and characters.

Science fiction, like fantasy, can be a parable. Within its lack of limits we’re able to personify evil itself or present a helplessness beyond the scope of anything we know. Within it lies the capability to eloquently communicate a message unique to itself. Does all science fiction explore the depth its afforded? No. But then does all non-genre fiction?

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Heroic Motivation

I’m gonna do something a little different this week. A few weeks ago I wrote a post as a sounding board for a Research Paper I had to write for a class. Now I figured “hey, why don’t I post that research paper?” So I am. It’s much longer than a usual post (nearly 5 times as long), but I feel like it’s one of the best things I’ve written. So here it is, in all it’s A-, MLA-ish glory:

Heroes. There’s no such thing.” So says Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin in Iron Man 3 as he threatens the titular hero and, to an extent, the villain is right. Lately, heroes, particularly in adventure narratives, have taken a turn for the unheroic. Where once there were heroes like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins who, through and through, were good to the core, now heroes are of a murkier sort. Even Iron Man is not a clear cut hero. In the past, protagonists were motivated to do their heroics simply because it was good. They were the good guys; the prince saves the princess and slays the dragon because he’s good and the dragon is evil. But time went on and fiction began to explore princes who weren’t so clean cut, heroes who weren’t good for the sake of good. Yet these protagonists remained heroes; they would still ultimately rise up to do the right thing and save the day (even if saving the day had little effect on the outside world). So what is it that motivates these protagonists who aren’t strictly heroes to heroism? Perhaps it would do to examine reluctant heroes from books, movies, video games, and television as diverse as Pi Patel, Tony Stark, Nathan Drake, and Malcolm Reynolds in the hopes of finding some commonality between them. What drives characters who are ordinary teenagers, irresponsible playboys, selfish treasure hunters, or lawless rebels to acts of heroism?

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With Regards To Motivation

I have a research paper I should be writing. I also have a stack of books near me ranging from On Free Choice and The Will by Saint Augustine, Iron Man and Philosophy, Campbell’s The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Finding Serenity, The Existential Joss Whedon, my own annotated copy of Life of Pi, The Philosophy of Joss Whedon, and a few others too. These are what people in academia call ‘sources’. I think I know what I’ll be writing about, but I’m not quite sure yet.

So, once again, I’ll be writing an essay (that’s not a rant) to hone in on it.

One of the ‘texts’ (a fancy word for story, apparently) I’ll be looking at is Uncharted 2. Because I love said game and the class is called ‘Adventure Narratives’ so it must be done. I wanna explore the tension of Nathan Drake between the two women: Chloe Frazer and Elena Fisher. No, not the love triangle, but rather how they represent his inner conflict. Chloe, who’ll pursue her goal with a keen sense of self-preservation versus Elena, who’s sense of justice overrides everything else. They represent Nate’s struggle to choose between what’s smart and what’s right. It’s fascinating, really, a layer of depth you wouldn’t expect in a video game. Ultimately, Nate chooses to do what’s right, to follow his duty.

(Note: Elena and Chloe are far more interesting than just representing Nate’s duality. But that’ll be in an essay for Games 101)

So maybe I’ll write about the duality of man/the hero, how the hero must choose between right and wrong. Interesting, but let’s read further.

In Christopher Robichaud’s essay “Can Iron Man Atone For Tony Stark’s Wrongs” he explores the duality of Tony Stark and Iron Man. Tony Stark was the one who screwed up his life and put weapons in the hands of criminals. Iron Man is the one fighting to make things right. Iron Man is an atoner; he does the hero thing to try and redeem who he was as Tony Stark. There’s his motivation, and that’s why he does what he does.

Wait. So maybe instead of looking at the tension, let’s ask why an adventure hero does what they do.

In Life of Pi (which is a book I read for this class, and I must include one from the reading list), Pi tries his best to stay a moral man adrift in the lifeboat because he’s a religious man three times over. His motivation is to please God, to serve him even when things look bleak.

Swell. Now let’s look at Firefly, because this is my research paper and if I want to write about Firefly for class then I damn well will. K. Dale Koontz wrote the book Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon which is proving to be a fascinating read that I’d like to give a proper look at when I’m not hunting for sources. In it he explores Mal’s faith and morality, exploring why he does what he does. In becomes apparent that after Mal’s loss of faith at Serenity Valley, the man chooses to rely only on himself and his crew. Threaten them, you threaten him (see Ariel, 1.09). But why? Koontz believes that underneath his calloused shell, Mal has a wealth of love for his ship and crew. It’s love that makes Mal take action, it’s love that drives him. This is driven home at the end of Serenity, when Mal tells River what the first rule of flying is: “Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.” (Whedon) Love is at the core of Mal.

But does this motivation of love apply to the others too? Pi’s religious reverence is certainly fueled by a love for God, so love is there too. That’s an easy one.

Nathan Drake chooses to do what’s right perhaps out of a love for Elena and her sense of justice. We see this echoed in Drake’s Deception when he apologizes for letting her down. His love for her means he wants to do what’s right by her. Hence his going after Lazarevic and being the hero, like what she would do.

It’s with Tony Stark that things get hairy. Or does it? In the film Iron Man, he saves the day at last when he stops caring solely about himself and is willing to love his fellow man.

So I guess it’s love, love of something more than oneself that motivates heroes to, well, be heroes.

Now let’s write this paper.

Btw, I have a new video. Check it out here.

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Earn Your Ending

Did you see Warm Bodies? Because you really should. It’s a great movie (and has zombies). And I mean a really great movie. We’re talking that sucker gets added to my BluRay collection the day it comes out.

Of course, the comparisons to Zombieland are inevitable and rightly so: both have the same ‘genre’ and tone: zombie films with a level of comedy and romance. It’s their themes, however, that set them apart. Warm Bodies is overflowing with heart. See, Warm Bodies decides to set aside the dark and somber mood oft considered a prerequisite for a zombie film and instead gives it a blast of life and hope.

Warm Bodies has a legitimately happy ending. Not like I Am Legend or Zombieland but a real happy ending. Even though things got dark, even though sometimes it looked almost hopeless and the world was coming down, they still got their happy ending. A real happy ending, not the “the world’s gone to hell but they have each other” ending, a proper happy ending.

It’s the same sort of ending you find in Paperman or The Princess Bride or Star Wars. That sense that there’s good in the world, that it can be found no matter what. But more than that it’s the sense that what’s wrong can be set right, that happy endings exist.

Sometimes the idealistic happy ending doesn’t work. I love Serenity, but that movie’s ending is more bittersweet than happy. It’s not bad: good stories don’t need happy endings. Sam said it best in the film adaption of The Two Towers when he tells Frodo about the stories that really mattered. They’ve got darkness and fear, but they’ve got heroes too, the ones who keep going even when things look bleak. But good wins and there’s hope. The Lord of the Rings embodies this so well. Aragorn and the rest are fighting a hopeless battle against the forces of Mordor, Frodo and Sam are struggling to get to Mount Doom. But the Ring gets destroyed and good wins.

What’s important is that the characters earn their ending. They can’t have it just given to them like in fairytales, they have to fight for it! The guy in Paperman could have given up and gone back to his life, Westley could have not rescued Buttercup. Mal could have aimed to behave. But they didn’t and we get the story, we get the ending that leaves us hopeful. We see them prevail, we seem them fight for it.

In order for an ending to provide the appropriate catharsis there needs to be a a something at stake. It doesn’t have to be life threatening: look at Paperman. If we hadn’t seen the guy’s dull job and his boredom with normalcy we wouldn’t have cared about him trying to win the girl. Knowing that he’s tired of life as is, knowing that he wants this break. Furthermore, if we hadn’t seen him fail and fail again we wouldn’t have wanted him to succeed as much. All this makes the happy ending worth it.

I first read Life of Pi seven years ago and now I’m reading it again for school. At the end of Part One, right as the family gets set to sail to America, author Yann Martel takes a break from Pi’s story to return to the metanarrative of Martel listening to Pi tell his story. Martel recounts him running into Pi’s son and shortly after seeing Pi holding his daughter with all the love a father can muster. At this point in the story we don’t know what happened to Pi, just that it was something terrible that haunts him to the present. But we get this glimpse of him with his young daughter and it’s here that Martel writes one of the most important lines in book:

“This story has a happy ending.”

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Quality and The Oscars

So it’s Oscar time. Which means award times. And, well, I’m mildly disappointed with some of the nominations. I find that movies, video games, and so on can’t be judged subjectively or comparatively. Least not on a flat scale of quality+writing+cinematography+explosions.

Here’s how I judge stuff: did it accomplish what it set out to do, and did it do it well? It’s an odd scale, yeah, but it’s one that works. Like Lincoln, the movie that snatched a dozen nominations: Spielberg set out to create the definitive cinematic biography of Linocln and the passage of the 13th Amendment. Not only did he accomplish that, he made it look good. So yes, Lincoln was a good movie.

In a similar but different vein, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter presented itself as a biography of Lincoln’s life, only this time vampires were woven in as the primary antagonist. Did it pull it off? Yep. Was it the dramatic/kickass action movie it billed itself as? Oh yes. So yes, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was also a good movie. But it would never win an Oscar.

Do I want Lincoln to win Best Picture? No, not really. It’s a great movie, but it’s, well, it’s obvious. I guess Amour is too, though I haven’t seen it and won’t say anything. I’m going to watch Beasts of the Southern Wild sometime before tonight because I want to see it.

And the others? Zero Dark Thirty had the best portrayal of a military raid in cinema that I can think of. Not only did it follow proper procedure, but the whole way it was done gave it the tension and moral ambiguity that it deserved. Les Miserables was a great musical and definitely deserves the nod, but that’s about it.

I read Life of Pi seven years ago on a ship in Norway and enjoyed the book and the movie captured it perfectly. Lastly, Django Unchained is Tarantino being Tarantino, and hey, no complaints there. It’s not as good as Inglorious Basterds, but it’s not crap either.

That leaves Argo and Silver Linings Playbook and they’re my favorites of the nominees. Why?

Argo was different. It was a drama/thriller, but it was also funny. It was intense, but it remained fun without negating any of its intensity. Any idea how hard that is to pull off?

Then Silver Linings is about broken people and I love it because it takes a movie about a romance and gives it weight and worth. But it won’t win because it can be passed over as a romantic comedy and who’d want one of those to win? (Also: Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in that movie was fantastic)

So what movies would I want nominated and why? So glad you asked, dear reader, because you’ll find out.

Right off the bat: Skyfall. Yes, it’s a James Bond movie which means it shouldn’t win, but it’s just too dang good for it to not even be recognized. It’s smart, well made, and, hey, I’ve been over this before. At least we all know it’ll get the Oscar for Best Original Song.

My favorite movies of 2012 will forever be The Avengers (with Silver Linings second). Joss Whedon and crew set out to create an ensemble superhero movie and they pulled it off. At least give the man a writing nomination for being able to balance six main characters without any being terribly overshadowed. It’s simply a well made movie but gets precluded due to its ‘light’ subject matter. So no Oscar.

Beyond those two, Looper should’ve gotten a nod at least for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s makeup and Ted for special effects. The Cabin in the Woods had a wonderfully clever script, but we all knew it wouldn’t be nominated.

At the end of the day, though, doesn’t really matter who’d I want to win. Heck, I’ve never even watched the Oscars before (I will tomorrow, though). All they do is piss me off because the movies I want to win never win. I find them to be so… not predictable but routine. Up or District 9 or True Grit would never win because they were either genre or just too fun. By nature Oscar movies have to be better than other movies. Not The Dark Knight better than Batman and Robin sort of better, but rather the Lincoln better than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter better. Oscar movies need to be serious, maybe inspirational, but certainly dramatic; earnestness, spirit, and heart need not apply. But movies like Silver Linings Playbook and Argo have heart to spare.

Finally: If Paperman doesn’t win Best Animated Short I will strangle a baby narwhal.*

*Writer’s note: I will not strangle a baby narwhal due to a) my lack of access to a baby narwhal and 2) why would anyone want to strangle a baby narwhal (besides Paperman not winning)?

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