Square One: Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998)

Movies Features Darren Aronofsky
Square One: Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998)

Whenever a filmmaker of note premieres a new film, it’s a good time to revisit that director’s debut to gauge how far they’ve come as an artist. With mother! currently in theaters, we take a look back at Darren Aronofsky’s debut, a surrealist paranoid thriller called Pi.

Pi feels like an 85-minute migraine. That’s a good thing.

Darren Aronofsky, American master of the cinematic freakout, fittingly got his start with a film that brings us into the head of a man on the verge of a mental breakdown. For this guy, a math whiz named Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) who got his PhD at 20 and spends his days crunching numbers in a dingy New York apartment, the world is one big equation to be solved. Applying a mind quick enough to multiply 322 by 491 in a fraction of a second, Max intends on unlocking the patterns of the universe—the symmetries, recursions and ratios that will enable him to, among other things, predict the trajectory of the stock market, which he sees as an organism abiding by natural laws. For him, this quest is intellectual and, possibly, hubristic in nature, but other parties intend to exploit his brain for different reasons. A posse of Wall Street big shots want to buy his stock market data to turn a profit, while a group of Hasidic Jews seek his help in deciphering the Torah, which they believe involves decoding the numerical basis of the Hebrew language.

As outside interference and, above all, internal drive push Max to and beyond the brink of collapse, the Pi seems on the verge of disintegrating with him, so closely does it hew to the man’s subjective experience. To do this, the film shows us the things that a mentally-spent Max hallucinates: a singing subway passenger, a man with a bloodied hand and, most strikingly, a disembodied brain that literalizes the film’s own status as an externalization of its protagonist’s mind. These oneiric visions imbue the movie with a nightmarish aura evoking the surrealism of David Lynch. Appropriately, Pi’s most obvious Lynchian forebear is Eraserhead, given the Aronofsky film’s black-and-white aesthetic, slimy imagery, character of the alluring woman-next-door and grating soundtrack courtesy of Clint Mansell, whose hellish soundscape brilliantly evokes how tinnitus might sound if cranked to 11.

More than anything, however, it is Pi’s editing and cinematography that truly align our perspective with Max’s. Aronofsky employs a camera rig that he will use again in 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, one in which the camera, mounted to the actor, locks onto a character’s face and moves with him. The optical result is that the character becomes the only stable object in the frame while the surrounding environment devolves into a frenzy of motion. These vertiginous moments both ground us experientially in Max’s psyche and declares the film’s own position vis-à-vis Max in a more conceptual sense: We will be seeing the world as he does. Aronofsky also tends to puncture traditional, long/medium shot framings with extreme close-ups—often several in a row—of various objects, replicating the movement of Max’s nervous, flitting gaze. Sometimes, particular sequences are repeated several times—locks being opened in quick succession, pain relief pills being poured out and popped—foregrounding and embodying Max’s obsessive-compulsion. This is again used to iconic effect in Requiem for a Dream.

The tinnitus-evoking soundtrack and pill-popping signal another striking feature of Pi: the collision and interpenetration of the organic and the artificial. As Max labors in the realm of high theory, his strenuous efforts beget convulsive physical consequences—hacking coughs, nosebleeds, fainting spells. The repercussions of his journey are real, but what of the destination? Is there truth in his pursuit, or is everything the construct of a deluded mind? The film teases the latter by surrounding Max with bastions of artifice (wires, computers and prescription medication used to hold his ailing immune system together like scotch tape) and by frequently interrupting his ventures into this synthetic environment with signs of biological life, which seem to counterpoint the lifelessness and constructedness of his work. At one point, a literal bug in his system causes his computer to crash, and at another, a new bout of data crunching is given pause by the sounds of his earthy neighbor in the throes of sex. Mansell’s score, though evoking visceral malady, is also composed more or less entirely of synthesized sounds, encapsulating once more the uneasy confluence of the genuine and the ersatz.

This intrusion of the biological into the artificial, coupled with the figure of an older, mentorly mathematician (Mark Margolis) who reprimands Max about his obsession and the long history of twentieth-century film and literature featuring unreliable narrator-protagonists, would seem to unequivocally suggest that Max is crazy, but Pi refuses to confirm our suspicions. It has us acknowledge the likelihood that our hero is off his rocker but nonetheless posits the possibility that maybe, just maybe, this guy is onto something big.

Keeping our faith in Max’s numbers alive is the fact that much of what Max says sounds pretty darned convincing. I personally haven’t gone out and verified all the patterns that Max claims to have observed in nature (e.g. the presence of the “golden ratio” in everything from a seashell’s spiral to the internal arrangement of an insect’s cell), but the facts he presents are so boldly concrete and therefore so easily falsifiable that they possess an “it must be true” kind of ethos. More fundamentally, we are transfixed by Max’s journey, apt to follow our desire to seek order amidst chaos. Max wants to know how the cosmos works, and, though we question the legitimacy of his journey, so do we.

Three times throughout the film, Max recounts a childhood incident where his mom told him not to stare into the sun. He did anyway and impaired his vision as a result. The most obvious point of reference here is the myth of Icarus, the classic admonishment against unchecked ambition explicitly referenced elsewhere in the film, but also evoked is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” which tells of an underground prisoner who, raised to believe that projected shadows on a wall were the original Things themselves, is freed from ignorance and allowed to step above ground into the light. In that story, the liberated man is blinded by sunlight after having spent his life in the dark, but with Max, what’s unclear is whether the sun is a transcendent truth or the fires of his own obsession obstruct the clarity that he’s been trying so hard to grasp.

Jonah Jeng is a writer and film studies graduate student whose work has been featured in Reverse Shot, The Film Stage, Taste of Cinema and Film Matters. For him, joy is found in the company of loved ones, the enchantment of cinema and the wholesale consumption of avocado egg rolls.

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