Music moves me – duh – and that is like having a window opening on a heightened reality, but the effect is fleeting: When the music ends, the magic, the uplifting, vanishes and the window slams shut. Words, on the other hand, by the nature of how they work, emotions evoked by dint of carefully laid out thoughts, have a more lingering effect. — Yann Martel
Enter the theater, descend a ramp, climb the steps to find a good seat. If we’re lucky we’ll be running late, cutting it close, so maybe we’ve missed most of the commercial noise that litters the last few minutes of mental prep before a movie begins. The lights dim down and we’re led into trailer territory, the last distractions to bug us. Then the light source shifts. Studio logo rolls up. The film we’re there to see finally comes alive. We’re pulled inside another dream, one of a thousand dreams we’ve all seen and shared onscreen.
We might start a series to take a closer look at how credit sequences are put together. A movie’s opening shots can clutch us tight by the hand or hold us by the throat when done right. Good directors use those moments to ease us into the proper frame of mind while we’re still suspended between between light and dark, between reality and dream state. Great directors grab our attention with flash and dazzle. Genius directors do all those things and then go a step further, setting up signposts to guide us through the journey we’re about to take together. As the credits roll in the first four minutes of Life of Pi, Ang Lee lays out a tidy diagram of the visual schemes he plans to employ and hints at some of the themes we’ll explore. Right away he begins to engage our minds so we’ll be revved up in the right gear when the story proper gains traction.
It wasn’t until the second time I saw Life of Pi that I noticed the very first shot features a hyena emerging from behind a bush to look around and regard a grazing giraffe. For a hyena, he appears to be a placid mellow fellow — and why shouldn’t he be? He’s safe, secure. There’s no threat or danger in sight. His habitat is so lush it might pass inspection as a real forest if not for the barred fence and stone wall in the background. He’s a happy hyena because all his needs are satisfied. No reason to be defensive because he’s not hurt. No need to stalk prey because he’s not hungry. Of course, all this will look a whole lot different in future viewings, won’t it? Next time we’ll know the bad news in store for this hyena, but even in the midst of all this serenity Ang Lee has already introduced us to a villain in the first 15 seconds of nimble foreshadowing. Another thing we see is how “Fox 2000 presents” hangs projected on another plane, thrust forward in 3D relief. Cool enough, but I’m a 3D skeptic. I knew going in that Ang Lee had said he didn’t think he could tell this story as well without 3D, so on first viewing I was anxious to have him prove it to me.
He had me at hummingbird. In the second shot of the credit sequence, a three-toed sloth hangs from a branch upside down. Anyone who’s read Yann Martel’s novel will know how Pi describes the lifestyle of a sloth, so it’s a kick to see this slacker make a cameo in a nod to those wonderful paragraphs. But this familiar face barely has time to register before a bright flutter of feathers darts in from the edge of the screen, and then — in the first moment of Pi that made me catch my breath — a hummingbird flies out of the screen and hovers over the audience. We’re no longer just visiting a zoo — we’re in the zoo, inhabiting the habitat ourselves. Not by accident, the composition of this shot is wall-to-wall nature, edge-to-edge jungle. No fence or evidence of human intrusion can be seen. As the hummingbird virtually bursts through the fourth wall, the sloth lazily looks out across the audience too. For a moment he breaks the fourth wall himself, looking directly at the camera and straight into our eyes. He’s watching us watching him, but he’s seeing us upside down (telegraphing another recurring visual motif in the movie that we’ll see time and again — animals, often inverted, making direct eye contact with us as if we’re the ones being studied). I didn’t notice until 3rd or 4th viewing that the dense leafy backdrop behind this sloth has a dark gap of pure black that opens like a keyhole into the jungle — and that dark recess perfectly mirrors the last shot in Life of Pi, the shadowy path back into the wild through which Richard Parker will make his last exit.
As soon as hints and clues like these began to tickle my senses, I already knew we were in for something special. In the confident hands of Ang Lee, playfulness puts us at ease and playful is the main sensation in these opening minutes. As fast as the hummingbird first appeared, he’s outta there just as quickly, he’s gone. Cut to the third shot, a mural of an Indian prince in white robe and pagri turban, armed with bow and arrow and riding astride a war elephant. The mural is a chipped and faded painting on a wall that occupies space parallel to the same focal plane as the movie screen — so it’s essentially a screen within a screen. The first time in my life that I noticed the screen-within-a-screen trick in a movie, I was in grade school, figuring out that when Dorothy was lifted up inside the tornado and looked through her bedroom mirror to see the Wicked Witch transform from riding bicycle to broom — I thought, “Hey, that window is the same shape screen as the movie I’m watching. Different level of reality? Maybe so.” (I was never a normal kid). So whenever I see a screen within a screen like that I look for whether it might be there to carry another level of meaning. The shot of the elephant mural goes by pretty fast and our attention is divided when a flock of flamingos wades into frame — but on repeat viewings you might notice there’s something really odd about that elephant. This warrior prince is riding an elephant that appears to be built out of dozens of people and other creatures. The elephants entire body, legs, truck, tail, all merge and mingle in a mash-up of what seem to be scenes from the life of this prince, from his birth, through adventure and romance, to his death. See the guy lain out prone in the belly of the beast? — that’s the same guy riding the elephant. I don’t know enough about Hinduism to understand the spiritual significance of all this, but it’s not hard to come up with half a dozen intriguing theories. And no, I do not think for an instant that this image is accidental. Because anyone who loves Life of Pi will know there is an identical image 90 minutes later, when Pi and Richard Parker share a vision of the horrors undersea — a hallucinatory scene of a giant squid that wraps its tentacles around a whale, and the pressure causes the whale to break apart into dozens of animals that hold significance in Pi’s life story. Whale and Elephant, both built out of a mosaic of other creatures? I’ve never seen that before, ever, so when I see it twice in the same movie, I know its placement is intentional.
Bear in mind, we’re only one minute into Life of Pi — with so much going on visually, so many messages already being embedded in our heads. Then, at the one-minute mark, the opening theme music, a dreamy romantic lullaby, kicks in with its full melody just as Ang Lee’s name first appears. But instead of 3D graphics, his name emerges from the stone wall mural as if it’s painted in the same 2D flat perspective to match the medieval style of the mural itself. Lee isn’t shunning 2D. Far from it. He’s still embracing the power of flat 2D images and letting us know he’ll be artfully including that viewpoint as part of his paintbox.
The title of the film, Life of Pi, appears in the fourth cut — a wide establishing shot of the zoo with too many elements in the frame to absorb or analyze right now. I’d rather jump ahead to the fifth shot, where a gawky young Red-Cheeked Gibbon sits alone in the frame as if posed for a formal portrait. What’s so amusing and charming here is how the name “Suraj Sharma” appears right next to this gibbon in what clicks mentally for me as a sort of photo-caption effect. We know that gibbon isn’t Suraj Sharma, but they do bear a resemblance in their lanky body language. It’s a subtle cue, I think, to prepare us for the possibility that personalities of man and beast can be folded together in this film. The book and movie both make a pretty big deal about how Richard Parker got his human name because of a clerical error when someone got the names of hunter and captured tiger reversed. In the novel, that was a neat literary device used to plant the seed of that concept in our head — the concept that the line can become blurred between civilized man and our spirit animal nature inside us. Fairly important theme of the novel, right? and I think Ang Lee is playing with a way to express that visually. What’s my proof? None, except that this isn’t the only shot where an actor’s name gets reverse-anthropomorphized into an amusing photo-caption. Just 3 shots later a burly bear will rise up on his hind legs and stand like a stocky barrel-chested man — and the name Gérard Depardieu appears onscreen to label his species.
If pressed, I could probably tease out meanings like these in every shot but I’m aware that some of my interpretations are a stretch. I’m not trying to make a hard sell But indulge me just a little longer. Two and a half minutes into the credits, there’s a process shot that strikes me as too unusual to be accidental. Cut to a view that’s entirely out of focus — all we see is a wet blur of green. Then the lens begins to adjust and while the wild zoo enclosure remains out of focus we see the hard bars of a cage come between us and the background greenery. For a few seconds, it’s only the bars of the cage we see — they’re as sharp, stark and architectural as the bars of a jail cell. The background in the distance is completely blurred. But then, with a transition that’s meant to look like rack focus but must surely be visual effect, the bars of the cage go out of focus and the habitat on the other side of the bars can now be sharply seen. Except the bars don’t just blur out. They seem to come undone before our eyes. Remember, this is happening in 3D, so the bars of the cage that have been projected out over the audience now seem to dissolve and fray into atomized strands, unwinding like a row of ropes unraveling. It’s a gorgeous effect and feels strangely like psychological liberation to me every time I’ve seen it. I believe it’s one more way for Ang Lee to have us accept that he’s about to lead us out of mental enclosures and help us pass through solid objects that obstruct our vision. Again, there’s no way to validate my interpretation — except to say Ang Lee will use variations of this very same dissolving bars effect no less than 4 or 5 more times in Life of Pi — often at a key point in the narrative when Pi is on the edge of an enlightening situation — and another variation once more when he has suffered an emotional trauma that will forever alter his perceptions. Watch next time. Look for the 5 transitions where bars or barriers dissolve away, and see the wonders revealed when they do.
We’re only 3 minutes into Life of Pi and Ang Lee has sketched out some incredibly profound themes he wants to explore with us — and perhaps more importantly. he’s giving us a quick lesson in the visual grammar that he’ll be using so that mentally we can key in on what the visual cues are telling us throughout the movie. I can’t claim to have picked up on all these things on first viewing — but isn’t that what we love about movies that are rich with visual layers and meticulous attention to composition? Now 3 and a half minutes into the credit sequence, the graphics “based on the novel by Yann Martel” appear — and guess who shows up again for an encore appearance? It’s the gangling young gibbon again. The same monkey who posed next to the name Suraj Sharma comes running along some swinging ropes and then begins to leap from branch to branch of a tree. Climbing higher and higher, the camera climbs with him. When he makes it to the highest limbs I can’t help but be reminded of the treetop wire-fu spectacle in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. It’s that graceful, that astonishing to watch. The ‘Y’ in Yann Martel dangles like a piece of ripe fruit about to drop before those credit graphics fade away and our young gibbon friend stops in the treetop to survey his world from the highest spot in the zoo that anyone can reach. The gibbon’s gaze then drops down. And we fall back to earth in the final shot of the credit sequence, on eye level with a red bird perched on a lily pad. The scene is already is rife with spiritual significance — and then the water in the lily pool ripples. Out of the ripples emerge the black and orange stripes of a Bengal Tiger. The pattern wavers as if the life force of the tiger fur itself is causing the disturbance on the water’s surface. The name Ang Lee appears again in the pool and seems to float along for several moments in a current. Richard Parker — seen only in reflection — passes out of frame, the red bird pecks and feeds on seeds, and Ang Lee’s name dissolves into the lily pond. Off-screen the voice of the writer is saying, “So, you were raised in a zoo?” Pi answers, “Born and raised.” And then Pi begins to tell his story.
There’s so much to fill our eyes and tickle our senses in Life of Pi, I find new touches of depth and whimsy like this every time I watch it. Throughout the film we’re shown unexpected perspectives, often playing with the idea of surface, and flipping our vision upside down so that we see a swimmer do a breast-strokes across the sky and a life boat drift in a sea of stars, lost amid dark constellations. These are extraordinarily gorgeous images, but what’s even more important to me is how beautifully the visuals serve to illustrate the philosophical concepts being examined. You can probably tell I could go on like this for hours, but it’s now 2 a.m. in the morning before Oscar night. Looking at these shots from Life of Pi again tonight, it seems inconceivable to me that any other film could take the awards for Cinematography, Visual Effects, Art Direction, Original Score, and both Sound categories (although Les Mis is a sound threat). That’s 5 or 6 Oscars to hope for, and a 7th possibility that feels more like an impossible dream.
But in fact, no matter what happens tonight, Life of Pi exists in my head already as an impossible dream. When movies come along like Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Amour, or Lincoln, or Life of Pi — it feels as if I watch them in some sort of fugue state. These films hit me with their elegance and depth in a way that’s almost hypnotically dreamlike, and I sometimes get an palpable physical sensation behind my eyes when the sounds and images of beautiful movies strum harmonic tingles on my brain cells.
Back at the movies, when the last frame fades to black and the lights come up, I’m often nearly all alone in the room if I’ve stay to hear the end credit music play all the way out. We leave the theater, retrace our steps down corridors and into the lobby. Out the door and back into the real world, we’re forced to rouse from the dream the movie has given us. But don’t you love that feeling when you step outside and see the light has changed from the matinee swelter when you arrived to a quickening dusk when the movie’s over? Or when the sun that was shining when you bought your ticket is now behind clouds and and it’s drizzling chilly rain in the parking lot when you leave? Maybe that’s such a fantastic feeling for me because it’s a sensation I’ve associated with part of the movie experience all my life. The change in light reminds us that the planet kept spinning its predictable cycle while we were inside looking up at a movie screen, feasting our eyes and ears on the dreams of a thousand enormously talented people who made that movie possible.