Darren Aronofsky Retrospective Part 1– π (Pi)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Sean Gullete, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman
At the London press conference for his new film Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky was asked what advice he would give to budding film-makers, ‘Make something different’ he opined, ‘do anything to stand out from the crowd and get yourself noticed’. It’s a credo culled from his own experience, as his debut feature Pi stormed the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, capturing the award for best direction and heralding the arrival of an anxious new talent in American cinema. Shot on high contrast black and white stock, the film is the story of Max Cohen (Sean Gullete), a genius mathematician loner whose human contact is limited to a sultry female neighbour and his elderly mentor in the field of algebraic abstraction, Sol Robson ,who is portrayed by a brusque Mark Margolis. Suffering from a plethora of anxieties and ailments – headaches, paranoia, social anxiety, nosebleeds – Max suffers under the misapprehension that everything in the universe can be processed through numbers, that tangible frameworks such as the stock market and the fractal geometries inherent in nature can be predicted, manipulated and controlled. Max meets a hasidic Jew, Lenny, who explains to him that their are theories that when the Torah is translated through a process of Gematria, of matching the Hebrew alphabet to numbers, that the voice of god becomes apparent in logometric form. A mysterious woman, Marcy Dawson, introduces herself to Max and compels him to work for her in predicting stock market fluctuations in return for a supercomputer chip, the Ming Mecha, a device that will accelerate his electronic research on his bespoke computer system named Eucilid. The extent to which these figures are phantoms in Max’s distressed mind is kept ambiguous but as the threats colaesce his sanity deteriorates, prompting a dangerous solution to his manic condition.
Pi is a delirious film that signals the major theme that dominates Aronofsky’s cinema: an obsession with obsession, and the consequences of those compulsions on the mental and physical lives of his protagonists. Its lucid and frenetic editing denotes a break from hysteria to calm, and encapsulate Max’s obsessive compulsive disorder, while the bleached whites and glassy blacks complement the electronica purr of Clint Mansell’s score. It’s a film that photographs a pre-millenial anxiety, when chaos theory was a talking point in every stoned student dormitory, when the Kabbalah was a new and attractive religious affectation, and the millennium bug threatened to grind western civilisation to an anarchic halt. Judged from the perspective of a decade into a new century the project might seem a little too Dan Brown for hipsters, but as Aronofsky remarks on the commentary that Pi was a film about seeking answers in the maelstrom, about the search for order amongst the turbulence, rather than providing any concrete answers. Reminiscent of both Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man and David Lynch’s malignant Eraserhead, Pi encapsulates the divination of the peripheral and the thin barricade between genius and insanity, its smouldering neurosis like the recent Coen film A Serious Man, suggesting an ideal double-bill on the fractured search for knowledge and reason behind the anarchy of the universe.