There's a certain story which keeps getting made into a movie every now and
then, and I frankly wish the film makers would stop bothering with it. So many
have failed to do it justice that the idea seems less and less filmable to
The story I'm talking about is pursuit of unknowable, as distinctly opposed
to the pursuit of something that is simply unknown. Usually, it's the story of a
lone conflicted visionary who is looking for the Theory of Everything, the
Underlying Pattern of the Universe, the True Name of God, or something equally
esoteric. The last film to tackle this was last summer's Contact, which
ended up as a mixture of numbingly obvious platitudes and insulting audience
manipulation. Now we have &pi, a small independent movie which won Best
Director award at Sundance for Darren Aronofsky (who also wrote the screenplay).
In almost every single aspect, this movie is superior to Contact-but it
still ends up being a disappointment.
The story involves Max Cohen, a paranoid and reclusive New York math genius,
who is holed in his cheap apartment behind a door with three locks, and who
talks to his homemade supercomputer, Euclid, trying to detect a pattern in the
chaos of the universe-in the digits &pi, in the rise and fall of the stock
market, and (after a coffee-shop meeting with a talkative Hasidic scholar) in
the letters of Torah. Cohen is also affected by a rare brain malaise, which
causes him to have wild uncontrollable fits and hallucinations.
The movie is filmed in black and white-and I don't mean your usual
garden-variety black and white, which also utilizes shades of gray in between.
No, &pi is filmed in high contrast black and white, with almost no
gradations between pitch darkness and blinding light. This results in some
remarkable visuals, including a thrilling opening title sequence, where the
viewer is whisked along the veritable torrent of diverse visual information.
The look of the film also functions as an apt metaphor of its central
theme-pursuit of ultimate truth can be as bright as to prove blinding. In case
the audience doesn't get it, the opening narration helpfully provides the
convenient metaphor of "staring into the sun," which is repeated twice more
during the movie. When it was repeated for the third time, my patience started
to run dry, being exhausted by ostentatious metaphors without much meaning in
any context but the metaphorical.
The same doubly applies to the the movie's most disturbing subplot-the
sequences of a man physically mutilating his own brain. Although highly
effective in making the viewers squirm in their seats, they don't really have
any meaning beyond being metaphors-and also quite painful to watch (although
clearly intentionally so).
Still, when &pi doesn't waste time trying - quite miserably - to be
profound, and simply dives head first into the whirlpool of unsolved scientific
mysteries, it soars. Totally different from Contact, which equated
science with either pseudo-philosophical babbling or hardware gizmos, &pi
simply presents a truly fascinating array of facts, and hints at the connections
between them. Strangely enough, the main focus is not on the titular number.
Instead, the most interesting material is proved by f, the golden mean,
1.618?This number is tied to the Fibonacci series, the Leonardo da Vinci thesis
about the perfectly proportioned human body, the shape of a plant leaf - and a
galaxy - and they are all linked together in one montage sequence, during which
the movie is absolutely thrilling, making the audience feel as if they, along
with the protagonist, are on the brink of some great discovery.
This discovery, of course, is impossible, because &pi concerns itself
with the unknowable, and its ending strongly confirms my suspicions that this
story is inherently unfilmable. While in a book the simple presentation of the
interconnected ideas might be sufficient, the film, because of the peculiarities
of the medium, has to provide a closure to the story, and here it stumbles,
almost fatally. In the last fifteen minutes, &pi degenerates into some not
very involving chases, violence, and more self-mutilation, only to mask the fact
that there can't really be a (dramatically) satisfying ending.
Even more lamentably, Aronofsky's usually rigorous writing also suffers in
the end, by making some half-hearted stabs at science fiction via the ludicrous
hypothesis about what happens to computers when they crash, and, even worse,
making factual mistakes; the important sequence in the end-the conversation with
a mysterious Rabbi-totally falls flat because the screenplay cannot tell a
number and a digit apart.
I can't really blame Aronofsky for trying; he succeeds more than one would
expect. It's just that he's trying to tell in a narrative-based medium something
that doesn't really work as a story.