Rod Tweedy

Iain McGilchrist, Ang Lee and the Revolution of Perception


Ang Lee’s remarkable film adaptation of Life of Pi (2012) is a revelation both of the nature of perception and the nature of film. Its extraordinary luminous multi-dimensional canvases, revolving in time, are surely the start of something wonderful in cinema, and in the twenty-first century’s understanding of what human vision involves. Certain scenes from the film develop perspective techniques and challenge representational assumptions about reality in the twenty-first century in surely similar ways that Vermeer and Raphael did in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Something magical is happening in cinema.

Ang Lee’s mastery of visual form and perspective is everywhere, effortlessly, visible – or invisible – in this remarkable, floating paean to adventure and transformation. His use of depth and distance within the screen, opens up the images we are invited to participate in – you find yourself looking not at the image but through it: and gazing not at the screen but through it as well, in a mode of perception that Iain McGilchrist defines as being characteristic of ‘right hemisphere’ perception and its particular mode of engagement with the world.


McGilchrist’s choice of artist to illustrate the nature of this engagement is Claude Lorraine, in whose vast, transcendent canvases he sees a reflection of the right brain mode of perception itself: “The subjects of Claude’s paintings are not the tiny figures whose history forms their pretext, but the depth, spatial and temporal, of our relationship with the world, for which colour, light and texture act as visual metaphors.”

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‘Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia’ by Claude Lorrain. “There are at least five successive planes of vision here, subtly modulated by colour and light, and the temple ruins appear already as old as the foundations of the world” (McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)

Claude’s canvases transform two-dimensional reality into three dimensional worlds into which we are drawn and transported, but what’s being depicted are not primarily “things” but rather a sense of “relationship with the world”.  “Evocation of depth is both the means by which we are drawn into a felt relationship with something remote (rather than just observing it, which would be the effect of a flat plane), and, at the same time and inseparably, the incontestable evidence of separation from it. Distance in time and place not only expands the soul, but inevitably enters it into a state of awareness and loss – the primal condition of the Romantics” (The Master and His Emissary).

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Tzimtzum: allowing “necessary distance” to emerge

It is this sense of both separation and “betweenness” that lies at the beating heart of Ang Lee’s vision in Life of Pi: an exploration and a confrontation of our complex and fractured relationship with being itself. It is no surprise to learn, for example, that the name of the boat caught in the storm and from which Pi narrowly escapes is Tzimtzum, a Lurianic Kabbalistic term to denote this sense of the ‘brokenness’ within this world and the need for its repair, on every level. Pi too, seeks to repair something that is broken in this world, a vision that has been lost (one represented by his father and family – relentlessly naturalising in the way that all families are), and in his story it takes the form of a different sort of “shattering of the vessels” – in this case, that of a Japanese freighter.

Throughout the film there is a longing for engagement and depth, together with a co-existent sense of alienation and distance.  And – which is terribly exciting – for perhaps the first time in cinema’s wonderful, relatively brief history, the innovation of three-dimensionality has found a vessel to contain this. In Ang Lee’s hands, or perhaps one should say in his eyes, three dimensionality becomes a metaphor to reach beyond the unconsciousness of a ‘rationalised’ form of perception of the world (object-subject, human-natural), to break down these fixed mental cages, and tired, dead concepts, and allow a much more interesting and imaginative sense of apprehension and relationship to emerge or escape.

As a child, the young Pi recognizes a form of affinity in the tiger’s eyes: he recognizes that it has what he calls “soul”. To Pi’s scientific father, this is all nonsense of course, and to teach him a lesson (which is the lesson dissociated left-brain rationality always loves to teach – vide David Attenborough) he invites the tiger to behave according to reason’s laws of use, function, and power. Curiously, these are of course exactly the same laws that he believes the Tiger to live by and embody.  But Pi is the one who actually evolves – for whom this view of an objectified and naturalized, alienated “nature” is inadequate and ultimately unrealistic. It is this sense that ultimately saves him.

Ang Lee’s film is of course about more than simply perspective and depth.  It is a story about story-telling, just as it is a vision about how we see things, and almost casually it annihilates the basis of racism (non-identification with perceived ‘other’), partly through its wonderful and compelling casting –Gautum Belur, Avush SUBTLE_tumblr_ml703lOCkM1r90kepo1_500_largeTandon, and Sural Sharma (in different stages of the young Pi growing up) give remarkable and engaging performances. And, as an extension of this latter aspect, it challenges and readjusts six thousand years of dysfunctional cultural conditioning with respect to another kind of perceived ‘Other’: what the dissociated rational mind perceives as, and labels as, “Nature”.  It is this painful and dissociated relationship between the left brain and being (one that by turns seeks to dominate it, and to worship it; to put it on a pedestal and to eat it – a dynamic spewed forth in early Mesopotamian myths of ”the Bull” and “the Goddess”) that is the central one of the film: captured and conveyed here in the changing dynamics of a young Indian boy cast adrift with the ultimate predatory symbol of “Nature”, the Bengal Tiger, ‘Richard Parker’.

But it is through its use of 3D that this film really delvers and amazes: it surely marks a departure not only in the technological craft of film-making but in our phenomenology of the perception of film itself.  In its many shimmering, colliding, superimposed perspectives, its luminous awareness of light and form and perspective itself as the human template (or ‘matrix’) with which to engage with reality, it reminds us of who it is who is looking out. Certain scenes – a stilled boat resting on the silent canvas of river, or clouds and skies that exist impossibly beyond swimmers and waters – draw attention to perception itself as a medium. Film is a wonderful medium to reveal the nature of media itself.


Whilst Ang Lee is the focus for this vision, it’s clear that many others were involved in it, including the wonderful young Chilean director of photography, Claudio Miranda. In fact the IMDb website lists an extraordinary number of artists who worked on the film – over 750 people working in the ‘Visual Effects’ department alone. The modern democracy of film-making recalls in some ways the collaborative (and less egoic ‘cult of personality’) ethos of earlier artists’ workshops – such as Verrochio’s in Florence, where Domenico Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo di Credi and many others studied and worked. This reminds us that vision is itself a shared, collaborative process – and that how and what we see also depends on the nature of the particular two- or three-dimensional ideological glasses we choose to put on (just as Pi’s father can only see the sort of tiger that his rational, utlitarian programs tell him to see).


Leonardo da Vinci: The Vanishing Point

Like many of Verrochio’s students, da Vinci became skilled at creating the illusion of depth and distance on flat walls and canvases  – the cinematic screens of his own day –  by using the techniques of linear perspective and the concept of the ‘vanishing point’ (which involves creating a sense of depth and three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional frame, most evident perhaps in The Last Supper).

But as McGilchrist notes of Claude’s canvases, this sense of depth and dimensionality is always ambiguous: what allows us to stand back and appreciate distance, also forever separates us from what we are part of.  The great danger of 3D technology, as manifest in 95% of current 3D films, is that it merely draws upon and reinforces a sense of contemporary left-brain devitalisation:  like Frankenstein’s monster it can resemble a rationalized and rather desperate ‘mockery’ of actual, dimensional existence (delivered as it is by the right hemisphere of the brain): merely a succession of two-dimensional planes, without any real sense of depth, or longing, or transcendence.

This is what is radical and thrilling about Ang Lee’s work in Life of Pi: his use of perspective suggests how much we as human perceivers bring to the party:  that vision is not a natural thing, one object frozen in space and time gazing at another object locked in time, but is itself a form of empathy, a mode of engagement with what it constitutes as “reality”.  As I discuss in The God of the Left Hemisphere, this understanding of the two differing types of vision available to human perception and therefore to our knowledge and experience of reality, has recently been explored by McGilchrist in his compelling discussion of the differing types of ‘attention’ that the right and left hemisphere bring to bear upon their respective evaluation of the world.  This sense of inner attention is crucial not only in understanding the sophistication of brain lateralisation but also in comprehending the particular and peculiar mode of detached and alienated attention that is characteristic of contemporary science. For, as he argues: “attention is not just another ‘function’ alongside other cognitive functions.”  Rather, “the kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to”.

Ang Lee brings a new ‘right hemisphere’ kind of attention to the world of cinema, and through this film he allows us to glimpse the deep dimensionality of human consciousness as well. Not just to glimpse: to participate in it, to help create it, and above all to enjoy it. Leaving the cinema, you are momentarily aware of this shift, the subtle impact of the film upon the senses – and wonder what the future holds for cinema-goers in a hundred years, and how it might transform our view of ourselves as multi-dimensional beings.  I’m looking forward to someone of Ang Lee’s stature and genius one day making a 3D film of Blake’s Four Zoas  – or perhaps Shelley’s Queen Mab, or Plato’s ‘Simile of the Cave’ –  and being able to watch the most imaginative and mind-bending, as well as breath-takingly simple and beautiful, evocations of the world ever dimensioned. Perhaps the revolution will be televised after all.


Roderick Tweedy, PhD, completed his education at Oxford University in 1997, researching the poet Shelley’s interest in contemporary science and natural philosophy. He has written a number of articles and reviews on Romanticism and the English Romantics, and is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience, and vice versa. He is Secretary of the William Blake Society and an enthusiastic supporter of the user-led mental health organization, Mental Fight Club.