September 1998
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Movie review: Pi

By Jason Morrison

Math is the language of the universe. Everything and anything can be represented by numbers; graph those numbers and patterns emerge. If you're sophisticated enough to understand the pattern, you can understand anything, even the stock market. The Torah, for instance, is just a long string of numbers. Decode the Torah, and you can find the one true name of God.

Sound a bit odd? Amazingly, the only unbelievable thing about the movie Pi which explores all of the above is this is director Darren Aronofsky's first film. He wrote, directed and paid for the incredibly smart thriller and got the Director's Award at the Sundance Film Festival in return. It was well-deserved.

The movie almost literally defies description. Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a brilliant but socially dysfunctional number-theorist working on predicting the stock market. Max isn't out for the money, but is intent on proving that any system, be it leaves, sea shells or the Japanese game of Go, has patterns and meaning hidden in the chaos. He is reaching his goal with the market when his computer fries - spitting out incredibly low picks and a seemingly random string of numbers before everything goes dark.

But then a former professor of Max's, Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis), relates that he found a similar computer bug and a string, 216 numbers long, while looking for patterns in the digits of the number pi. Sol, who's work ended when he suffered a stroke, cautions Max to take a break and get some perspective; there's more to life than math.

But Max is met by Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a religious Jew with the modus operandi of a travelling salesman, who tells Max that the Torah can be decoded down to a 216-letter word that may have special meaning to them both.

Max is constantly pursued and hounded by a financial firm, as well, who want the key to the market for slightly more financial reasons. And throughout the film, he is attacked by sudden, ear-shattering headaches he's had since childhood.

Throughout the first half of the movie, Max's headaches, the stock firm's disappearing henchmen and other signs of Max's psychosis keep everything off balance; as Max learns more about his mysterious computer bug and the 216 digit number, experience becomes more and more surreal. There are so many levels of symbolism it becomes difficult to think of any incident as isolated, any image as straight-forward.

The literary value of this film is astounding. From the definitely Fruedian themes found in Max's inability to relate to his attractive, Indian neighbor who symbolizes both sexual fantasy denied by his (perhaps self-inflicted) lack of social skills and a mother figure. He paces, unable to hit the Enter key to continue his project as he hears her and her lover next door; when he is incapacitated and perhaps near death from two of his headaches, her voice brings him back.

Another striking complexity is the use of repetition and progression. The sound of Max opening the bottle of medication or unlocking all the bolts on his door become familiar rituals to the audience but also serve to tie together different developments in the movie and show Max's evolution through the movie. Several running themes also carry throughout the film; the inorganic versus the organic, the artificial versus the natural and the search for god or higher meaning.

The entire film is in grainy black-and-white film that works surprisingly well with the sometimes high-tech subject matter. Because it, along with the dramatic and unconventional cinematography, allows us to feel like observers watching from inside Max's head, the low budget of the movie is unnoticeable. Aronofsky's use of the camera, bobbing along in front of Max as he walks and almost painfully close to the ant crawling across his motherboard is the best I've seen in a long time, and should not be ignored in a movie so otherwise gripping. The music and sound contributed a great deal as well, with complex techno and drum beats echoing the visible, but subtle patterns Max searches for in his printouts and powerful noise designed to let you know exactly what his headaches are like. As one of my movie-going companions put it, "My God, you could feel that movie!"

Gullette is admirable as a psychologically-unbalanced genius who is not campy or unfathomable. I won't be able to get away without mentioning the film follows him much as Taxi Driver followed Travis Bickle and how much of the downright difficult to watch symbolism of Max's mental state follows the pattern set by David Lynch's Eraserhead. But this movie is far from a mish-mash of techniques. It is a logical and complete whole.

With very limited distribution to mostly art-house theaters, Pi will not get the attention it deserves. While it may not rake in the cash of Armageddon, I wholeheartedly recommend Pi, the most challenging movie in years.

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