Tuesday, 28 February 2012


1998, US, Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Black & White, Running Time: 80 minutes
Review Source: DVD, R2, Pathe; Video: Letterbox 1.66:1, Audio: DD Stereo

Living perpetually isolated from society as far as is possible, IT geek Max Cohen has become obsessed with the theoretical relationships between mathematics and physical existence, hypothesising that the former is a language designed to understand the latter and in such there are recognisable, calculable patterns that would permit one to effectively predict complex outcomes or uncover previously incomprehensible details. The implications are as follows: Max’s obsession turns him personally to the stock market in his attempts to analyse his theoretical patterns for the purposes of pre-empting numerical outcomes, though his motivations are strangely lacking in a desire for materialistic acquisition - it seems that his interests lie more so in scientific comprehension than the benefits that could follow the success of his experiments. Simultaneously, and because of Max’s renowned work with numbers, a couple of other organisations have become attracted to Max’s genius as a tool that can help them achieve their own goals - a group of Jewish God-worshippers believe that Max may hold the key to deciphering religious texts that could reveal the true name of God, while other people are aggressively interested in the possibility that Max should be instrumental in enhancing their own obscure business sensibilities. Max is also ill, suffering from extreme migraines periodically that momentarily shut down his consciousness, something that’s only partially controlled by drugs. His grip on what a normal person would have considered to be reality is only briefly prevented from slipping completely by an old professor friend of his, a man who wants to bring perspective to Max’s increasingly self-destructive urge to understand the mechanics of the universe.
This is an incredibly absorbing piece of film from the man that would develop a cult following with the likes of Requiem For A Dream and - possibly less so - The Fountain, projects that have occasionally split opinions thanks to deliberately ambiguous philosophical pretensions. Pi is really where it all began for Aronofsky, a clearly low-budget outing that refused to be restricted in scope by availability of resources. Sean Gullette is just amazing as Max Cohen, here given his break into the world of feature acting by Aronofsky after a couple of other very minor entries on his C.V. His recreation of obsession and pain is gripping, and almost painful to watch as Max dreadfully descends into one of the fits that hit him more and more throughout the story. Max’s virtually unbreakable focus is not helped by the drug-induced pain reduction that might be assisting a hallucinogenic perception of what’s happening around him - several times there are unexplained events that appear to hold some meaning in Max’s search for truth in numbers. The reasons for Max’s genesis as a philosophical mathematician may be hinted at in comments made about his childhood - his mother told him not to do something (stare into the sun) so he did anyway, the damage done to his eyes gradually being superseded by a sense of almost spiritual clarity. His curiosity concerning that which he should not attempt to dissect was piqued and allegedly rewarded. His apartment also drops a hint, I think, about what Max is overlooking in his obsessive search: crawling over the endless heaps of computer equipment and wiring are ants, some of which he occasionally kills. In this I believe there lies a contrast which has come to be ignored or explained away by amateur science: nature supposedly functions in a machine-like fashion, much of which we ape in our creations of machines that do some of our work for us (the computers proliferating throughout Max‘s apartment, for example), however, in our attempts to understand nature we (and Max) forget to acknowledge an element of the unknown that drives things through existence. Chaos? There’s something unpredictable in nature that will forever keep Max on a search with no end due to the inability of the human mind to conceive things outside of its meagre comprehension, and maybe by the film’s cryptic conclusion Max comes to realise this. While not quite as intensely realised as the director‘s later projects, the progressive impact on the viewer spirals almost out of control as the film matures, something that’s become a staple of Aronofsky’s work. Pi is a relentlessly amazing film with smart dialogue, alluring inhabitants, and a story of mind-bending significance that dares you to fully decipher it.

Shot largely using black & white reversal materials with a low budget, Pi understandably looks very rough. Contrasts are quite often extreme, grain is omnipresent, and detail is sometimes hard to make out - this is all part of the source though the old DVD transfer permitted macro blocking in places and did not take advantage of an increase in resolution that would have resulted from mastering anamorphically. The pretty cool industrial soundtrack is moderately well served with a stereo track and accompanying this are a couple of commentaries from the director and Gullette. The film is essential viewing and while the DVD could be improved nowadays it’s still the only way to watch it.


  1. Love this movie. Great piece on it, thanks.

  2. Thanks - I've yet to see an Aronofsky movie that's not profound so far, but this early one shows what an amazing piece of film can produced with little in way of resource.


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