Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pi (1998)

Academy Award-nominated Director Darren Aronofsky has made quite a name for himself in the business, with hits like Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler and most recently the Academy Award-nominated Black Swan (all of which he wrote as well).  He's exibited plenty of tendencies in this stretch that have no doubt conrtibuted to his success: a strong, often obsessive protagonist, elements of ambiguous psychological agita and Composer Clint Mansell's prevalent scores, to just name a few.  But every successful auteur has to make that initial splash; for Aronofsky that was his 1998 directorial debut, Pi.

Pi is the story of Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a number theorist who resides in New York and lives a private life couped up in his apartment turned computer lab, searching for mathematical patterns in seemingly chaotic data sets.  When we first meet Cohen, he's analyzing the stock market, looking for that elusive string of connections in daily price quotes that can lead to a mathematical predictability in Wall Street.  There's no financial motivation here, it's strictly a compulsory obsession, and an unhealthy one at that.

Fairly early on we are exposed to the "attacks" that Max is prone to, some kind of neurological seizure-like deal, possibly brought on by stress (of which he experiences no dearth) that begin with a tremor in his thumb.  From the onset of each attack that occurs in the film, Aronofsky takes us through a series of staccato shots, ranging from Max throwing back pills, a usually graphic hallucination (a pulsing brain in a bathroom sink; an ant infestation) and his coming to in an undesirable location (a bathroom floor or the F-train at its final stop in Coney Island) with the remnants of a nose bleed.

Aside from a couple neighbors making daily cameos in his life, Max's only acquaintance is Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis), an elderly ex-numerologist who claims his obsessive research on the irrational number π is what gave him a stroke forcing him to quit.  The two play the ancient Chinese board game Go - heavily math-based - and discuss Max's progress in his attempts to patternize the world around him.  Robeson often voices the futility of it all and advises Max to take a "break", but this usually brings out his angry and defensive side in response.
Max Cohen, played by Sean Gullette, busy in his lab.

There are two additional and competing forces as well in Max's life.  One is a partner of a reputable Wall Street firm, Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart), who has seemingly placed Max under surveillance and is constantly soliciting and harassing him in hopes of enlisting his services.  The other is Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a Hasidic Jew who bumps into Max randomly at a coffee shop and overzealously engages in conversation about numerology.  We later learn that Lenny is part of a cult of Hasidim who are after Max's ability to ascertain the 216-digit number which pertains to the name of God.  It's this same number that Marcy feels will help her conquer the stock market.  This very same 216-digit number is what Sol had told Max he'd come across in his research, unrelentingly resulting in a computer crash, but not before the computer achieves some kind of self-conscience.

The film is shot in black and white and on a rough and grainy Super 16mm.  Aside from obvious financial reasons (the film was shot on a $60,000 budget), the generally smaller camera used for 16mm enabled Aronofsky to get the close up shots he'd need in Max's cramped apartment space.  The grainy texture mixed with greyscale contributes nicely to the uncomfortable non-linear sequences that add to the psychological tension during Max's many breakdowns and fits of paranoia.  Many scenes were filmed on location in the MTA Subway System, where the rough definition of greyscale aided wondrously in pervading a kind of gloomy madness during the most ambiguous psychological episodes.

Given its humble production, its loose transitions and its story's thematic eccentricities, Pi had every right to fail.  Thanks to Aronofsky, the cast and the crew, the film makes for a great psychological flick.  Many will call to mind David Lynch's revered Eraserhead which surely bares similarities in its alternative flair.  Pi, however, sticks to a more discernable plotline while intermittently spooking audiences with the fruits of Max's madness.  Gullette does a spectacular job in comitting to this troubled, one dimensional character, while Mansell's electronic score and many computerized sound effects thread together and add drive to scenes all while inviting viewers to experience bits of mania for themselves.
Darren Aronofksy, second from right, on the set of Pi.

In the film's culmination and final scene, Aronofsky leaves plenty of room for interpretation.  The film clearly wants for us to decide some things on our own, not the least of which pertains to how far one should go in the pursuit of a goal.  Throughout Pi we hear Max voice over why he began to search for meaning via numbers, and repeat his three formalized objectives, like a mantra.  It's in this way that we know when the camera points at some leaves trembling in the wind, or the spiraling tentacles of a packet of cream poured into coffee, that Max is looking for mathematical order in these shapes and that without his answer, they only provide a teeming anxiety that's becoming more and more unmanageable for him.  When is enough enough?  At what level of sacrifice in the quality of one's life must an individual put aside an obsession that defines him?  For Max, the answer to these questions pose just as unattainable as the problem's solution itself.

--Review by TheManDorf

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