Pi (1998)

Nathan Shumate


Preamble #1:

When I was in my early teens and first decided I wanted to be a writer, I conceived a tale of a man who started to understand.  He understood completely, perfectly, wholly, one little infinitestmal part of the world.  And then he found that, because he understood that, be started understanding everything around it.  And then he discovered he could extrapolate perfectly from that perfectly understood present into the past or the future.  In the end he was consumed by spontaneous human combustion.

The more I thought about the story, the more I realized I didn't have the wherewithal to write it, not at that age, maybe not ever.  Whatever version I churned out would have been suitable for nothing better than a Weird Tales-homage fanzine, if that.

Preamble #2:

Orson Scott Card wrote a story called "Unaccompanied Sonata" probably fifteen years ago.  In it, an infant named Christian is discovered by the fascist government to have musical talent; therefore, he is placed in a secluded house in the forest to grow up and is exposed to no music whatsoever, so that the compositions he would come up with on his government-provided instruments would be completely original, free from the taint of influence or imitation.  Those that the government judged to be capable hearers of music would come and stand in the woods and listen to his compositions and then go home.

It's one of my favorite stories; as far as I'm concerned, it's probably one of the ten best short stories ever written.

End of Preambles

I wrote both of the above because I'm so completely stunned with Darren Aronofsky's Pi that I don't even know how to review it.  He takes the glimmer of cosmic theme that dawdled into my adolescent head and takes it to the extremes to which it had to be taken.

He also made this movie as if he were Christian, completely free of the cinematic tropes and cliches that have placed distance between the filmmaker's passion and the audience.  This is a movie unmediated by tradition; it is made as if there never were a film made previous to it.

Because of that, I'm reluctant to give a plot synopsis, as any reader will automatically imagine the story as presented by normal, safe, conventional cinema.  But I'm as trapped by the conventions of reviewing as most filmmakers are by the conventions of filmmaking, so here is my attempt:

Maximillian Cohen is a driven young mathematician with terrible headaches, working in his computer-crowded NY apartment to find a pattern in the stock market.  His basic theory:  Everything has a pattern to be discovered.  He discusses his obsession with his mentor, Saul Robeson, a retired teacher who had devoted his life to finding the pattern in Pi before having a stroke; now his life is devoted to his fish and playing Go with Max.

Max is also being heavily pursued by a stock market speculation company, as well as having struck up a relationship with a Cabalist in a perhaps-not-so-random encounter in a coffee shop.  Max initially pushed him away, being a lapsed Jew himself; however, the cabalist's explanation of the mathematical basis of the Hebrew alphabet and his explanation of gematria (the search for hidden meanings in the Torah in which every letter stands for a number) meshes with his own work, and a curious 216-digit "bug" he's been getting in his programs of late.

The film is photographed in claustrophobic black and white, overexposed to the point of chiaroscuro; motion is a bewildering edit of handheld and static shots, all terribly subjective without being POV shots.  Sound design is incredible, with the Trent Reznoresque soundtrack blending beautifully with the focused sounds picked up by Max's focused brain.

None of this description actually describes the film.  From what I've written above, you could conclude that this is nothing more than another pretentious art film, consciously rebelling against convention with techniques that are themselves a second convention (like that hideous bag of self-absorbed gas, Nadja).  But Pi is what Nadja would have wanted to be if the latter filmmaker had even been able to conceive of film on this level.

What I'm trying to tell you is that I found myself sitting forward on the couch without realizing it.  I never sit forward watching a movie.  Ever.

I cannot recommend this film enough.  Genius should be rewarded.

Even though the totals are completely meaningless, it's part of the trapping convention I've invented, so here are the Notable Totables:

  • body count: 0

  • breasts: 0

  • explosions: 0

  • dream sequences: I honestly can't be sure - maybe none, maybe lots

  • ominous thunderstorms: 0

  • actors who've appeared on Star Trek: 1 - Mark Margolis ("Saul Robeson") played Dr. Nel Apgar on the TNG 3rd season episode "A Matter of Perspective"

From www.rottentomatoes.com