Annoying Intellectualism

Bjorn Thomson


Director Darren Aronofsky*s Pi has everything you would expect in a low-budget independent film. It is grainy, black-and-white, claustrophobic, heavy on flashy camera work, oftentimes too smart for its own good, given to brief indulgences, shimmering 每 it*s very good, better than most of what you*ll find in a multiplex. Sundance loved it and you will too, maybe.

And, given the amount of attention the film has received, maybe the multiplex community will love it too.

The story centers on a youngish mathematical prodigy 每 so does the camera. About 70 percent of the movie is various takes of said prodigy looking tortured, befuddled, or blank. He is trying to find a reliable way of predicting the stock market. He keeps getting calls from a woman who wants to hire him for (we assume) mathematical type-things. He plays Go with his old math mentor. A concerned neighbor drops in. A neighbor*s girl has him multiply four-figure digits in his head. Sounds hazy? It is, sort of 每 plot isn*t much of an issue here. Like a Thomas Pynchon novel, most of what happens is atmospheric, where events are used mostly as preparation for an extended chase scene.

Paranoia hasn*t been this fun since Polanski. This is Darren Aronofsky*s first film and it suffers a bit from rough acting and intellectual preciousness, but its weaknesses are refreshing, if not as deliberately campy as fellow low-budget meister Robert Rodriguez, whose debut film, El Mariachi, was just as visceral.

Pi takes itself too seriously. Its structural backdrop rehashes the pop mysticism of Philip K. Dick (golden spirals, the Cabala, Zoroastrian hijinks), and mixes it in with a bit of Borges 每 all this stuff is mostly the McGuffin, the excuse for the paranoia and the hallucinatory camera-work, but fails to hold up when given center-stage. But it is also great fun. Herein lies the problem with any movie that achieves true hipness: pretentiousness sneaks in (and so does an electronica soundtrack). Pi resorts to cerebral-lite throughout. There is a particular kind of exclusion at work 每 it attracts a specific ※intellectual§ crowd (mostly composed of art-school casualties). Or, as my friend put it after we watched the movie, ※You can*t handle the Pi

Meaning: You have to be this smart to watch the movie.

Not true. Pi*s merits have little to do with mathematics, or with Jewish mysticism. Pi is good and scary and gross 每 it has the creeping horror of Polanski*s The Tenant, the oddball imagery of an early David Lynch, and the nimble camera-work of a good music video.

Also very cool is the retro look of the computers featured in the film, which falls somewhere between a self-referential goof on low-budget science fiction films and genuine techie hipness. Not to mention a startling scene involving an ant and a stock exchange counter. Or a specific set of subtly recurring imagery (leaves, insects, a man in the subway, an exposed brain). Or the unnerving verve of translating a full-blown hallucinatory migraine onto film. Or the uneasy surrealism of the whole thing 每 how much of what we see is actual? How much of it is in our prodigy*s head?

Pi is worth watching. For all my carping on its sometimes annoying intellectuality, this is one movie that makes mathematics look hip 每 an odd and superb achievement, even for those of us who still have problems figuring out tips.

Copyright © 2001 by Bjorn Thomson and Savoy.

All rights reserved.