The number 3.14159 (etc., etc.), better known as pi, expresses the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It’s an endlessly fascinating paradox in mathematics: How can something so simple and perfect as a circle yield a number of such infinite and seemingly random, pattern-less variation? It’s an irrational number, expanding into decimals that never repeat themselves and never end; supercomputers have been able to calculate pi to a trillion digits, but haven’t made it any less elusive fundamentally.
Through much of his insanely ambitious first feature Pi, Darren Aronofsky uses the number as a way to explore fundamental philosophical questions: Is there order to the universe? Is there a God? What is the nature of consciousness? Is the world around us connected and explicable? Or is it simply a random—and perhaps Godless—chaos that defies our feeble attempts to make sense of it? These are not the sorts of questions that get asked all that often in independent films, and though I’m not entirely convinced that Aronofsky addresses them successfully, you have to appreciate the effort. Right out of the box, here’s a filmmaker who demands to be reckoned with; when his hero says, at one point, “I’m out on the edge, and that’s where it happens,” it may as well be Aronofsky’s thesis statement as an artist. And judging by his follow-up films, Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain, he’s made a habit of it.
It’s no coincidence that I chose to follow-up last week’s New Cult Canon entry Primer with a look at Pi, because the two films have an awful lot in common. They were both shot on 16mm instead of video, despite having budgets ($7,000 for Primer, $60,000 for Pi) that would seem to forbid the expense of film stock. In the face of expensive space adventures passed off as science fiction, both demonstrate that sci-fi can be a genre of ideas, too, and that those ideas can be left to ferment in peoples’ minds for next-to-nothing. Both get maximum value out of minimal resources, enough to where they can be considered seriously without any “good for its budget” qualifications. They also share a nerdy affection for out-of-date analog equipment, with jerry-rigged erector-set machines and computers that probably haven’t been used since the Apollo launch. It’s part of their homemade aesthetic: True innovation doesn’t require anything fancy.
Shot in high-grain, high-contrast B&W; by Matthew Libatique, Pi has a disturbingly tactile quality similar to David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and an unnerving soundtrack to match. (Though it should be said right away that Aronofsky’s film doesn’t go nearly as far into nightmarish abstraction.) The great advantage of black-and-white—at least when it’s used this expressively—is that it can draw the eye to whatever the filmmaker believes is essential. In this case, Aronofsky gets us inside the headspace of a paranoid savant named Max (Sean Gullette) who looks for patterns in the everyday. He’s someone who can pick up a nautilus seashell at the beach, think about Da Vinci, and wonder how its perfect spirals connect it to ram’s horns, a whirlpool, fingerprints, and the Milky Way. Aronofsky’s commitment to this severely myopic point-of-view makes the film extremely uninviting, even suffocating, especially as his hero’s genius is eclipsed by his narcotic-fueled schizophrenia. But it can lead to some mind-blowing revelations, too, as in this early scene, where Max wanders the streets of New York and lays out his three “assumptions”:
For those who hate watching clips, here are those assumptions again: 1. Mathematics is the language of nature. 2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge; therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature. As Pi opens, Max is looking for a pattern in the stock market, though unlike the guys in Primer, he’s motivated less by greed than the obsession of a good challenge. After all, the market is an organism that’s influenced by many hands, so predicting its behavior with any precision would seem like a fool’s game. Max’s work naturally draws interest from Wall Street barons, who stand to gain infinite wealth from knowing in advance how the market will fluctuate. At the same time, Max is also getting attention from a Hasidic sect that’s searching for a pattern in the Torah, which they believe was written in a code sent by God. Aronofsky draws the battle lines perhaps a little too starkly here: On one side is Capitalism, on the other side is Religion, and poor, tortured Max, who’s really just seeking knowledge, is caught in the middle.
Outside of an attractive neighbor—whom he’s too preoccupied to notice anyway—Max’s lone ally in this mess is his mentor Sol (Mark Margolis), a wise old professor who tries futilely to save Max from himself. Sol has spent a lifetime laboring over the meaning of pi and seems relieved to have found his way out of that rabbit hole. Sol sees himself in his former pupil and he knows that Max’s pursuit of his magical 216-digit number will lead him to a very dark place. (One of the clumsier exchanges in the film hits the nail too squarely on the head. Sol: “This is insanity, Max!” Max: “Or maybe it’s genius!”) Of course, Max isn’t the sort to let go of his obsessions, so he flies on, Icarus-like, until his world completely collapses at his feet.
As we’ve learned so far in Cult On The Cheap month, working with no budget allows filmmakers to do whatever they want: Kevin Smith (Clerks) can be as crude as he likes; Shane Carruth (Primer) can shed all the exposition he likes; and Aronofsky can push his madhouse-of-the-mind aesthetic to punishing extremes. When you’re making movies for nothing and for nobody, the only audience you really have to please is yourself. Though Aronofsky would be given larger budgets later for Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain, the remarkable thing about Pi is that his go-for-broke personal style was evident right out of the gate and nothing has changed much since. He’s fearless and uncompromising, even if he risks looking a little foolish (and he does, I think, with The Fountain, though that movie has its champions around these parts).
For Pi, Aronofsky pulls out every cinematic device from his bag of tricks: Aggressive handheld camerawork that darts chaotically around the city and Max’s apartment; a propulsive drum-and-bass score, courtesy of Clint Mansell; abrasive screeching noises on the soundtrack; the use of rapid-fire montage to show repeated patterns of behavior, like Max’s drug regimen (a tic Aronofsky would employ more rigorously in Requiem); and lots of jump cuts, extreme close-ups, dream sequences, and geometric diagrams. Many of those tricks can be found in this scene, in which Max starts losing his proverbial shit:
Frankly, it gets to be a bit much—and I say that in all due respect to Aronofsky’s considerable achievement. In retrospect, Pi seems like a trial run for the symphonic miseries of Requiem and bombastic lyricism of The Fountain, which feature many of the same Aronofsky touches, only more elegantly and palatably employed. (Palatable being a relative term, given Requiem‘s unrelenting bleakness.) About halfway through Pi, once Max’s sick obsession and paranoia begin to overwhelm his intellectual curiosity, the film starts to lose momentum and the mood turns oppressive. As much as Aronofsky’s stubborn refusal to vary (or at least modify) his style keeps us attuned to Max’s frayed mental state, the repetition is wearying over time. It makes Pi a movie to respect more than love.
Part of the problem is that the mathematics-as-key-to-the-universe hook, which gives the beginning of the film such a charge, ultimately turns into one big red herring. As a result, most of those fundamental philosophical questions Aronofsky asks at the start are no longer in play by the end, which devotes itself more toward Max’s mental deterioration and his showdowns with bruisers from the Wall Street and Hasidic camps. Pi ceases to be about the quixotic quest to find order in the everyday—which is as random and irrational as pi itself—and more about the isolating nature of genius, and how it’s exploited by nefarious forces. To me, that’s a less interesting and more banal theme than the ones Aronofsky promised at the start.
“The number is nothing,” says Max, concluding that it’s the syntax between the numbers that matters. But between the numbers, Pi looks conspicuously ordinary.