Movie review

Grumpy movie review: Life of Pi

There are spoilers in this review, but since the movie has been out long enough to make it into Walmart’s $5 bin, I’m not too concerned.

The movie begins with a writer who visits an Indian man in Canada to hear about his experience of surviving 227 days in a lifeboat on the ocean. However, the Indian goes into detail about his life in India before the shipwreck: his name is Piscine, which means “Swimming Pool”; after getting called Pissing in school (it was Pipí in the Spanish soundtrack we used), he memorized the number pi out to a vast number of digits and began introducing himself as Pi; he grew up in a Hindu family but was fascinated by Christianity and Islam as well; he briefly had a girlfriend; his dad had a hotel with a zoo; Pi attempted to hand-feed the tiger, but his father interrupted the proceedings and made Pi watch the tiger kill a goat.

First grump: The Spanish voice-over actor’s fake Indian accent wore on me. It was almost as bad as the “ethereal” voice of the giant Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen.

Second grump: The sappiness of Pi’s religiosity. He’s profoundly impacted by a visit to a Catholic church, where he sees the images of the Stations of the Cross and marvels at the idea of the Incarnation and Christ’s redemptive suffering. He begins to worship this God, explaining that Hinduism is polytheistic so he can add one more god without problems. A few minutes later in the film, he’s also struck by the solemnity of a Muslim service, and begins doing the Muslim prayers as well. Oh, how profound, someone who sees beauty and meaning in each of the great religions. Why didn’t they put earlocks and a black hat on him and have him bob and sway at a synagogue as well? Come on. It made me sympathize with his atheist father, who at least appealed to reason in his arguments.

As a result of political turmoil and declining fortunes in India, Pi’s father decides to sell the hotel and take his family and the animals by freighter to North America. The ship’s disgusting cook has no sympathy for their vegetarianism and serves them the same garbage he serves the crew. A friendly Japanese sailor introduces himself as a Buddhist and explains that he survives on rice and gravy because the gravy contains no meat.

Pi goes on deck during a massive storm. The freighter is swamped, and Pi is unable to rescue his family from their flooded stateroom. He does make it onto a lifeboat, however, where he is joined by zoo animals that have escaped from their cages in the hold: a zebra, which breaks its legs while jumping in; a hyena; an orangutan; and the tiger.

The hyena kills the zebra and the orangutan. The tiger kills the hyena and presumably eats all three dead animals, because they disappear after a while. Pi makes a raft of life vests and oars and drifts beside the boat out of reach of the tiger, returning occasionally to get supplies of food (cracker packets) and water. Eventually he ends up training the tiger to keep its distance, and the two learn to share the boat. They survive on fish, mostly serendipitously.

At one point, the boat drifts up to a floating island with edible vines, pools of fresh water, and thousands of meerkats doing that cute meerkat standing-around thing. They rest there for a few hours, but at night when Pi climbs a tree to rest, he discovers a human tooth inside a flower growing in the tree. He also sees dead fish and a dead shark floating in the pond where he had swum and drunk shortly before. He comes to the conclusion that the island is malevolent, and runs back to his lifeboat to escape. The tiger had already returned to the boat at nightfall.

Third grump: So far the movie has been reasonably plausible, if unlikely. Why in the world does it suddenly shift to magical realism? We will find out at the film’s conclusion, unfortunately.

The boat drifts for an unspecified amount of time and washes up on the Mexican coast. Pi jumps out and drags the boat ashore, collapsing on the sand. The tiger leaps ashore and staggers off into the jungle without a look back. Pi is hurt because the tiger doesn’t acknowledge him in any way. His conclusion is that his father was right, the tiger is a beast and was never his friend.

After this, we return to the scene with the writer and Pi in Pi’s home. Pi reports that, as he recovered in a Mexican hospital, two Japanese gentlemen interviewed him on behalf of the shipping company, trying to discover why the ship swamped in the first place. He has no answer to that question, but tells them about his survival experience. They are profoundly skeptical and tell him that they can’t report that to their employer. He tells them an alternate narrative: he was initially accompanied in the lifeboat by the Japanese Buddhist, who broke his legs dropping into the boat; the disgusting cook; and Pi’s mother. The cook killed the Buddhist and used his flesh for bait to catch fish. The cook killed Pi’s mother. Pi killed the cook and survived by eating him. Pi points out that this story also fails to explain why the ship sank.

The writer comments on apparent parallels between the two narratives: the zebra is the Japanese sailor, the hyena is the cook, the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the tiger is Pi himself. Pi congratulates him on his perception and asks him which narrative he prefers. The writer says that the one with the tiger is a better story. Pi responds, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.” When the writer looks at the Japanese men’s report on the shipwreck, he sees that they also opted to report the tiger version.

Fourth and biggest grump: The film rubs our noses in the concept of the relativity of truth. According to Pi, truth is a story, and you choose your own, ideally opting for the best-written one; we can choose to believe the stories of religion or the bleakness of atheism. I have no patience for this kind of pretentious irrationality. If my only choices are either a meerkat-occupied floating island where the flowers hold human teeth, or an unpleasant but at least plausible narrative about people doing horrific things, I’ll believe the latter, even if it isn’t as good a story. As they say, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

Returning to Pi’s father: while I disagree with his atheism, I resonate more with his reason-based worldview than with Pi’s relativism. As a Christian, I am also rational. I don’t believe in Christianity just because it’s a great and powerful story. The Christian story is presented in the Bible as history, with evidence for and multiple witnesses to its miraculous events. Jesus did or did not exist historically, and did or did not do the things recorded about him in the Bible. If he didn’t exist, or if the things reported about him in the Bible are not true, then my belief in him is pointless.

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I picked up a collection of stories by Life of Pi’s writer Yann Martel before I watched the movie. The first two stories were somewhat entertaining and moving. The latter two were just weird. My main gripe about all of them was that the writer was too clearly present. It reminded me of a book by Max Lucado that I once tried to read. I only made it through a few pages. It was sappy and pretentious, and Max was also too visible in the cutesiness of the writing. Pretentious, narcissistic writers make me grumpy.

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My life

Where my family lived when I was born (more Google Maps)

House on Floyd
My parents actually built this house themselves in the late 1950s, with the help of a carpenter. I’ve never been inside it, other than my first 11 months of life, but it was pointed out to me in my childhood. I can’t really imagine a family with five kids in a place that looks this small, but it may be bigger on the inside, like the Tardis.

Across the street was the Bible Chapel where my family attended. When my folks became missionaries, the Chapel was their sponsoring congregation, which meant vouching for them to the other churches in the network and providing a portion of their financial support. I have many warm memories of the Bible Chapel and our friends there. On Easter Sunday, the church we attend here in Tampa sang an old hymn that brought back the memory of heartfelt four-part harmony in the Chapel, often a cappella.
Bible Chapel
The congregation has since moved to a larger building in another KC suburb. I’m friends with many current and former members on Facebook.

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My life

My grandparents’ house on Google Maps, and some reflections on Grandma’s death and the family doctor

Grandma's house
My grandparents had this house built in the 1920s in Merriam, KS. My mom and most of her five siblings were born while the family lived here. It was an odd design; a full but only roughly finished basement, first floor with two bedrooms and the only bath, and a large second floor divided into two rooms. Eventually a toilet and shower were added to the basement, screened off by a shower curtain, and my dad built a Florida room onto the back. On the left end was a screened porch, where I used to sleep when I visited. There was usually a bed and a glider out there.

During WWII, when many of the male relatives were off fighting in Europe, there were as many as 17 members of the extended family living in the house. Grandma had a huge heart and a gift of hospitality. In 1965-1966, during our first furlough from Colombia, Grandma and Grandpa stayed with a son-in-law, and we occupied the house. For our second furlough in 1970-1971, we rented a house in Kansas City, Missouri, but had lunch every Sunday with the grandparents. It was a weekend haven for me during my college years in the late 1970s, a 45-minute trip from Lawrence when I could bum a ride.

Grandma and Grandpa both died in 1980. My sister lived there for a year or two, and then the house was sold. The current owners have enclosed the screen porch and made many other necessary improvements, such as central air conditioning. My grandparents lived there for more than 50 years without so much as a window unit. I installed the first one after my Grandma’s stroke the summer of 1980, when the record was set for most days with temps over 100.

The family doctor was an excellent man named Dr. Leigh. He delivered my mom and her siblings back in the 1920 and 1930s, cared for them through childhood and adolescence, and then delivered me and my older sisters in the 1950s and made sure we got all of our immunizations. We consulted him during that furlough in 1965-1966 and again in 1970-1971. When I had a swollen lymph node in my neck in 1977 just before I went off to college, Grandma took me to see Dr. Leigh. He looked after her in 1980 when she had a stroke. She was hospitalized for a week or two, then sent home.

That weekend, a Sunday in August, I took her to see Grandpa at the horrible nursing home where he was staying. It was clean, but the poor old men just lay around on beds with no entertainment or activities, nothing to look at or do. Grandma and Grandpa had a very touching visit; Grandpa clutched her for a very long time. Later, when I wheeled her out and stopped in front of the car, she sat there until I asked her to get up. “Where’s the car?” she asked.

“Right in front of you, Grandma,” I said.

She couldn’t see it. I finally picked her up by the armpits, turned her so she was over the seat, and held her there until she finally relaxed and dropped into the seat that she couldn’t see. When we pulled into the driveway back at the house, she commented that the neighbors must be off camping, because their RV was gone. It was actually parked in its usual spot next to their shed.

I took her into the house, helped her to bed, and went off to do some shopping. Upon my return, I showed her a corduroy jacket I had bought at Burlington, and then left for Lawrence.

My aunt told me later that Dr. Leigh came by that Sunday afternoon after I left, peered into Grandma’s eyes, and said in no uncertain terms that she needed to be hospitalized because she was having a brain hemorrhage. Somehow, no one thought to call me, and it was Thursday when I found out that she was in the hospital and had been comatose since Monday. I took my sister’s car and hurried to Kansas City. My aunt was sitting with her in the hospital, and Grandma appeared to be sleeping peacefully. Aunt Dorothy showed me where she had jotted down things Grandma had said over the past few days. She was under the illusion that she was in the hospital to have a baby, and had asked when she could see it, and if Dorothy’s son Joel would mind if she named the baby after him.

She died quietly that next Sunday, without waking from her coma. Grandpa died that October of pneumonia contracted in that miserable nursing home. His heels were raw to the bone with bedsores.

I’m not sure what became of Dr. Leigh. I think he died a few years later. It is remarkable that he was the family physician during seven decades!

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Colombia, My life

Another childhood home on Google Maps

From 1967 to 1970 we lived at the house on the right at this location in Robledo, overlooking Medellín. The house looked very different; it was a single story, and had a big front porch. The area to the left was a vacant lot, and there was no tower in the background. There was no tree blocking the view.
Our+house+Robledo (2)

Below is a view from around the bend to the right. The steps and alternate entrance were added at some point. I suspect those are the same mango trees that were there 45 years ago. My friend Murray and I frequently used one for a rocket, inspired by Tom Swift and Star Trek.
Lucas!-1 (2)
The neighbor’s house can be seen at the right; there is a captain’s walk on top of the house, and if you look close, you can see a man standing up there. Our grumpy neighbor in the 1960s was often up there, yelling for his son or grandson: “¡¡¡Luuuuucaaaas!!!” There was a time when he also yelled at my brother from up there, possibly because Danny and a friend had thrown a bunch of rocks through his windows.

When we lived here, there was no construction across the street. We had a spectacular view of the whole city. This family picture from 1969 or 1970, taken in the front yard, gives you a glimpse. You can probably tell which one I am:
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Colombia, My life

The church my father founded in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, Colombia

Puerto Asis chapel
This morning I did more exploring on Google Maps and found the chapel built by my dad and other men from the church he established in the early 1960s, a few blocks closer to the center of town. It’s the building on the left, and looks basically like it did 50 years ago, with the addition of the wall in front and the buildings overshadowing it. The house to the right (barely visible behind the tree) served as a little school, also founded by my father. I took first grade there when I was five. The church is still going strong. I don’t know how long the school lasted.

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Colombia, My life

My childhood home on Google Maps

Puerto Asís house
My first memories are of the jungle town of Puerto Asís in the Putumayo province of Colombia. We lived on the road to Cocaya, at the edge of town. My dad built this house. Our lot must have been an acre or more. Across the street we had a sugar cane field, and to the right of it, Dad set up a little cemetery for people from our church. He sold the house and the cane field when we moved to Medellín (as I recall, he got gypped on the sale, which took place after we left), and eventually the house ended up as a residence for a group of nuns.

Today I started fooling around with Google Maps and I followed the Cocaya road into Puerto Asís, looking at all the properties on the left side of the road. About halfway into town, I spotted this church. Look what’s behind the wall! The roof line and the windows are unmistakable.
House

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Music, My life

Music for a healthy high school love: Three Dog Night’s I’d Be So Happy

My second girlfriend was and is a totally admirable person. We dated our senior year in high school. It was a great relationship; no conflict, no weirdness, healthy boundaries, a lot of fun. We were involved in everything: softball, volleyball, yearbook, drama club. She and my best friend Murray were on student council. I edited the school paper. I remember lying in bed one night listening to this song and marveling at my good fortune.

As high school drew to a close, it was clear that we weren’t really made for each other. We didn’t so much break up as head our separate ways after graduation. I went to the University of Kansas. She attended a Christian university where she majored in PE and played varsity volleyball. She met and married another volleyball jock. Together they have raised a beautiful family and had a life of ministry.

The song stirs feelings of gratitude for that senior-year relationship. I feel a bit of nostalgia for the best year of my youth, but no wistfulness for what might have been. Thank you, Kathy. Blessings to you.

Once in a while I could look at you
See the twinkle in your eyes
With not a word between us
See you smilin’ ’cause you read my mind

Once in a while I could hold you
Not have to say a thing
Though I was giving you all my love
Just by what you were feeling

Oh, I’d be so happy
Happier, happier than I’ve been
Oh, I’d be so happy
Happier, happier than I’ve been

Once in a while I could wake up
Find you lyin’ there touchin’ me, oh, my little girl
Once in a while I could wake up
Find you lyin’ there touchin’ me

Once in a while twenty years from now
After all that we’ve been through
I could tell you by one caress
That it’s been good bein’ loved by you

Oh, I’d be so happy
Happier, happier than I’ve been
Oh, I’d be so happy
Happier, happier than I’ve been

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