36. PI (1998)

AKA π; π: Faith in Chaos

“Very much like the universe itself, the more technologically advanced we become and as out picture of π grows larger, the more its mysteries grow.”—From “Notes on π” on the Lions Gate Pi DVD

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Darren Aronofsky

FEATURING: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis

PLOT: Max, a reclusive mathematics genius, searches for a pattern that will help him predict the stock market with the assistance of a supercomputer he has built in his apartment.  He also suffers from terrible migraines which cause him to hallucinate, and believes (sometimes correctly) that people are stalking him.  As he gets closer to locating a certain 216 digit number that may have mystical predictive qualities, he finds himself caught between the machinations of a large corporation and a mystical sect, both of whom want the knowledge inside his head and will stop at nothing to get it.

Still from Pi (1998)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pi was made for a mere $60,000, financed largely by $100 contributions from friends and family.  Each of the cast and crew worked for an identical salary and a share of the film.  Pi eventually grossed over $3 million domestically.
  • The movie was shot in high contrast black and white reversal film stock (usually used for still photography).  In his DVD commentary Sean Gullette says that Pi was the first feature length fiction film shot this way.
  • Pi won the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury prize (losing to the now largely forgotten Slam).  It won the main prize at several smaller film festivals.
  • Aronofsky also created a graphic novel called “The Book of Ants” that presents a slightly different take on the story of Pi.
  • This was the first soundtrack scored by former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell, who has now become an in-demand Hollywood composer.
  • Aronofsky went on to further critical success with the bleak addiction parable Requiem for a Dream (2000); the weirdish science fiction/romance The Fountain (2006); the straightforward drama The Wrestler (2008), which earned Oscar nominations for stars Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei; and five more Oscar nominations (with a statuette for Natalie Portman) for Black Swan.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  A brain crawling with ants that shows up in the strangest places, including on a subway staircase and in a sink.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Math wiz Max’s frequent migraine induced hallucinations give Pi


Original trailer for Pi

all the weird cachet it needs, but even without them, the hermetic world created by the mix of grainy high-contrast monochrome photography, rapid-fire montage editing, a pulsing electronic soundtrack, and ideas too grandiose and metaphysical to be completely described would have created a movie seething with weirdness.  It also features a tough, streetwise gang of devout Hasidic Jews, which by itself gives it an extra weird point.

COMMENTS:  “When I was a little kid, my mother told me not to stare into the sun.  So once when I was six I did.”  As mathematics prodigy Max Cohen gives us this bit of backstory, he snaps on the light to his bathroom to reveal his weary, sunken-eyed face and the untamed hair of a genius in the mirror.  Thanks to the high contrast photography that eliminates all shades of gray, the invading light is blinding.  With no color scheme to guide us, the wallpaper is a chaotic swirl of abstract blotches, and weird shadows reflect in the mirror over Max’s shoulder.  The electronic blips and eerie chords of Clint Mansell’s score fade in and out of the background.

This opening scene tells you most of what you need to know about both the theme and the style of Pi.  We realize immediately that Max is the archetype of the young mad genius searching for forbidden knowledge no matter the damage to himself, against the warnings of his wiser elders.  Stylistically, we are introduced to that glorious, binary black and white color scheme that turns the ordinary world strange.  Later, we will see that sometimes the simplification of the image helps us to see the beauty in the lines and curves of objects better: sunlight glinting through the wings of a gracefully gliding toy bird; the spirals formed by cream billowing in coffee and cigarette smoke hanging in the air; the carefully studied swirls of a tidepool.  The effect of the omnipresent music, so cold and mathematical in itself, would be almost impossible to overstate: without Mansell’s score, the film would not have such a visceral effect on the viewer.  It broods in the background in quiet moments, and explodes with pulsating digital fury in conjunction with Max’s paranoia and hallucinatory headaches.

Those visions Max so frequently suffers, which help make the movie weird, are never gratuitous; they always occur when he makes a breakthrough in his search for that mystical number that he believes will unlock the secret of the universe. They are almost always accompanied by a vicious migraine as well (migraine sufferers really can experience visual disturbances, known as auras, although they are not typically the elaborate symbolic dreamscapes Max finds himself walking through).  A particularly severe attack occurs just before his homemade supercomputer, Euclid, spits out a number and dies.  The lights in the apartment flash ominously and Euclid’s monitor displays abstract patterns and flashes Hebrew letters; it’s almost as if the computer, too, is suffering delusions.

Max’s visions, which include brains crawling with ants and a man bleeding out of his sleeve, are dire warnings from the irrational that Max is pushing too far in his obsession to find a mathematical pattern underlying nature.  Self-destructively, Max summons the willpower to forge ahead, just as he did as a child when he ignored the pain frying his optic nerve and continued to stare directly at the sun.  As the notion of Max’s philosophical search for an absolute order in the universe that can be expressed in numbers gets folded into the mystical quest for ultimate meaning and God (a God himself capable of being expressed as a 216 digit number), the nightmares take on a threatening theological subtext.

Pi is an extraordinarily smart movie.  Aronofsky crisply references Jewish numerology, Pyhtagoras, Leonardo da Vinci’s theories of proportion, and Archimedes.  There is a scene where a proponent of the mystical Kabbalah gives Max an elementary lesson in Jewish numerology, and Max in turn shows him the Fibonacci sequence; the scene is dramatic rather than academic, and is powerful because it quickly and correctly explains these ideas to the viewer while implying a connection between them, linking the mystical and the numerical in our minds.  The movie constantly makes such seemingly obtuse philosophical linkages in a way that seems surprisingly natural and entertaining.  At one point, Max and his former teacher and wiser half Sol argue over whether the universe is incomprehensibly chaotic or reductively rational over a go board, each using the principles of this ancient Chinese game to illustrate their point.  You won’t find characters capable of even caring about such abstruse issues in very many movies; you will find them debating the point in even fewer movies; and in no other movie but this one will such an abstract argument fill you with a deep sense of suspense and empathy.

The movie is not about pi, that irrational number whose digits repeat endlessly in a seemingly random pattern whenever you try to divide a circle’s circumference by its diameter.  Pi is barely mentioned; it was once part of Sol’s research, not Max’s.  The digits of pi are seemingly random and unpredictable; yet pi itself appears everywhere in nature, and engineering and mathematics could not exist without faith in it.  We cannot represent it with our digital numerical system; the number represents a mystery, the inescapable truth that there are things at the very base of reality that we cannot completely grasp and control.  It is therefore the perfect symbol of Max’s vain quest for perfect understanding; he can no more find a single code that unlocks the secrets of the universe than one can find the pattern in the digits of pi.

The movie Pi is a criticism of rationalism; more precisely, a criticism of certainty.  Sol, the older mathematician, believes there is an order in the universe, but is humble enough to know he can’t grasp it, and wise enough to know when to turn off his search for it, to be content in knowing there are things he cannot know.  The Kabbalahists have a different, twisted philosophy that’s in tune with Max’s derangement.  They are concerned with higher things, with ultimate reality, not the stock market; yet they too believe that they can reduce meaning to a simple formula, that they can write the true name of God with a finite number of characters.  They, like Max, refuse to admit that there are irreducible mysteries.

The most important reference the movie is not to any mathematical or philosophical concept, but to the story of Icarus.  Icarus made wings for himself and flew; intoxicated with his achievement, he ignored the warnings of his father and soared too close to the sun.  The heat melted the wax that held the feathers onto his arms and plummeted into the sea.  Pi is a retelling of the Icarus myth, with Max sailing too high into the intellectual stratosphere where mere men were not meant to pass, and destroying himself in the process.

Like Max, Aronofsky’s movie suffers the same fate as Icarus.  For a while, it flies high on wings of style.  It manages to mimic the thrill of intellectual discovery, and makes us believe that all the disparate pieces of the puzzle are falling into place—that numerology and mathematics and nature and myth are all merging together into a satisfying whole, that the riddle of existence is about to be solved.  But, once Max actually finds the key, the code, the number, the name, the story falls apart.  Having inserted God into his protagonist’s head, Aronofsky has nowhere left to go.  As much as he would like to, he can’t actually drill open Max’s skull and reveal the solution to us.  He’s written himself into a corner; with no possible resolution, the wax melts and the movie comes crashing down around us.  But for an hour or so, it sure was glorious watching him soar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…as smart as it is, ‘Pi’ is awfully hard to watch. Filmed with hand-held cameras in splotchy black-and-white and crudely edited, it has the style and attitude of a no-budget midnight movie. Those very qualities are likely to give it a certain hip cachet among those who like their cinema technically raw and spontaneous. But with its ink-stained cinematography and jarring electronic score by Clint Mansell, ‘Pi’ can be extremely grating.”–Steven Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…Pi achieves some of the organic weirdness of Eraserhead, although Aronofsky isn’t nearly as bold as David Lynch (Lynch never felt the need to explain anything)… It’s like a music video for eggheads, and it’s a pleasant surprise—too often, studios seem to assume that smart people don’t like fun movies, and people who like fun movies aren’t smart. It’s nice to see someone thinks there’s a market for a film that is both.”–Jesse Fox Mayshark, Knoxville Metro Post (contemporaneous)

“If there are films that one might compare Pi to, the nearest that one might get is the claustrophobic weirdness of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) or the paranoiac dis-ease of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991). Seen cinematically, even on video, Pi is like sitting through the visual equivalent of a migraine headache interspersed with flashes of transcendent meaning.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Review (DVD)

OFFICIAL SITE: Pi the Movie – designed by star Sean Gullette, the site contains informational articles on elements of the film such as spirals, electronica, the ancient game of go, Kabbalah, migraines, the New York Stock exchange, chaos theory, and of course π itself.  It also features excerpts from Darren Aronofsky’s production diary (the advertised video clips are no longer hosted there).

IMDB LINK: Pi (1998)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Darren Aronofsky’s Piece of the π -Brief James Berardinelli essay incorporating quotes from director Aronosfsky

Pi Brain – Another essay-style interview with Aronofsky, this time from film critic Sam Adams

DVD INFO:  The single-disc Lions Gate release (buy) is packed with extras.  Most importantly, it includes two audio commentaries on the film, one by star Gullette and one by director Aronofsky.  The Gullette commentary is more philosophical and oriented towards exploring the character of Max; the director’s commentary focuses on providing technical information about the filmmaking process.  Other special features are production notes; cast bios; three deleted scenes and extra footage demonstrating the use of the “Snorricam” (all with director’s commentary); behind the scenes footage of the filming narrated by Aronofsky and Gullette; the theatrical trailer and with Aronofsky’s original pre-distribution trailer; a music video for Clint Mansell’s theme song “πr2”; “Notes on π,” a few paragraphs describing mathematical research on pi; and an ad for Aronofsky’s graphic novel “The Book of Ants.”

[(This movie was nominated for review by Cameron JorgensenSuggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

6 thoughts on “36. PI (1998)”

  1. awesome, i’m glad to see it made the list. i watched this one a short while after seeing “requiem for a dream”. it seemed that eveyone loved requiem, but weren’t able to accept pi. i guess the majority of my friends don’t really like to be challenged. haha.

  2. “He’s written himself into a corner; with no possible resolution, the wax melts and the movie comes crashing down around us.”

    why did you review this film like a dingus, you dingus?! you were upset aronofsky did not reveal (a fictitious) god (already fiction) to you……. really? reeaaallly ? ? ?

    now, you were onto something in calling ‘Pi’ a retelling of the myth of Icarus. however, it is more a variation than a retelling. max flies too close to the sun, but the conclusion is not that he falls and dies. the conclusion is in max’s realizing his madness and that this is not a way to live. the character of max is not hollywood’s leading man who is able to find the ideal solution by the end of the movie… max’s character is that of a person who is losing their mind, thus he ‘solves’ the problem like someone who is losing their mind.

    maybe i make a weak argument against your most dingus-y of reviews, but in my defense, you’re a dingus. i mean come on . . .
    “The lights in the apartment flash ominously and Euclid’s monitor displays abstract patterns and flashes Hebrew letters; it’s almost as if the computer, too, is suffering delusions. ”
    the computer . . . .
    really?
    reaaalyyy?
    either max is hallucinating or he was close to discovering the true name of god in hebrew.
    did you just not remember the plot to the movie? did you forget your “streetwise gang of devout hasidic jews” who want max to find the true name of god . . . .
    and the film most certainly is about pi, just the idea of pi and not the actual value (perhaps emphasized by not using pi’s actual value, only the first 8 or so decimal places are correct), pi is a value that seemingly has no pattern, no order. however people continue to search for a pattern in pi. the lack of proof of a pattern does not mean that there is not one present. instead some might say that everything is ordered but the order is not necessarily comprehensible to the human mind. max tries to comprehend something that is (potentially) incomprehensible. he seems happy for the first time only after giving up on his impossible quest for ultimate knowledge (and a commendable self-lobotomy).

    in-conclusion: youre a dingus, (yours was actually an ok review. i just happen to disagree with your view that the ending was the result of poor writing. i thought the ending fit the story perfectly) and i hate you.

  3. Isn’t “dingus” the plural of “dinghy”? And if so, why is the reviewer a fleet of inflatable life rafts? Let me write a computer programme to find out…

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