Sep 16 2009


Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week we review Darren Aronofsky’s first film: Pi. It’s a complex and intellectual film done on a shoe-string budget and it gave way to an already prolific career for its director. Once again though, we may have some disagreement among the two film geeks.

Year: 1998
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Darren Aronofsky and Sean Gullette
Starring: Sean Gullette
Genre: Drama

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

One of the most enlightening things a film can do is put its audience in the shoes of another person, making them feel as they do, as if by some empathic power. Unfortunately if the character for which the audience is empathizing is living a life of pain and misery, it is not always enjoyable to walk a mile in their shoes. And so it is with Pi, a film by Darren Aronofsky that gives you merely a glimpse of the mind of a mathematical genius. Pi is a film that makes a promise to its audience that it simply doesn’t keep, and while what it offers may be perfectly worthwhile, many may find that the movie just isn’t what they want.

At the beginning of the film, Max, the narrator and protagonist, tells us that numbers are the language of nature, that there are patterns everywhere, and that through the form of mathematics, he is trying to open up the secrets of the universe (beginning with the stock market). And that’s pretty much what one hopes for: a procedural about unlocking the secrets of the universe and the consequences and wish fulfillment that would come with that. And there’s some of that here, particularly the outside forces pushing Max to accomplish his goal: a corporation that wants the number for financial gain and a group of orthodox Jews who think his number will lead them to God. There are also a few very interesting mathematical conversations, the best of which is an explanation of the mathematics behind the Hebrew language. But even these type of scenes tend to disappoint, as they tend to digress into math lectures and lose track of the narrative for swaths of time so that the audience can be marveled by the screenwriter’s research abilities. Even so, the math procedural still fades into the background by the end of the film, revealing that the movie is in fact a character piece when expectations are stripped away. When it comes down to it, Pi is a movie about the mind of a genius, what it’s like to be one, and how unhappy and painful it is.

Unhappy, painful, and disorienting are all good descriptors of this movie. It keeps you off balance with quick cuts and lots of inserts on pills and locks and the various objects that Max focuses his life on. Shaky cameras and handheld camera movement are not common in the movie, but the editing gives it a momentum that feels like it’s hard to keep up with. The cinematography is intentionally abrasive, with a contrast so high that there are really no grays in the film, only stark black and bright white. This makes the images feel binary in nature, which is akin to the way Max himself sees the world: explainable through numbers. All this contrast leaves the film looking extremely grainy. None of this is easy to look at, despite its symbolical (and budgetary) reasoning behind it. Max also has various episodes with severe headaches and hallucinations or dreams. During these episodes the score is made as grating as possible, with ear piercing sounds complimenting visceral images. It seems Aronofsky takes this opportunity to torture the audience, just as his character is tortured. Artsy? Yes. Successful in delivering his message? Yes. Good? Perhaps. Enjoyable? Certainly not.

The lack of a high budget shows in the acting. It’s definitely serviceable, and Max’s mentor Sol is well played, but most of the actors feel slightly unnatural. But it’s hard to criticize films of such low budgets for things that easily could’ve been fixed with a studio presence. What you can look at is the screenplay, which is smartly written and makes you think. Groups will certainly have a few things to talk about after watching the movie, both about life and some ambiguity even within the movie. The question is, are these intellectual questions worth the time and the discomfort of watching the film? It really depends on the type of person you are, and what you demand from your movies. As a narrative, it’s not particularly interesting. The characters aside from the protagonist aren’t well developed either. The hope of a ton of cool ideas about how the universe works through math is ultimately disappointed. If you are satisfied with a movie solely on the fact that it makes you think a little, than you might find Pi worthwhile, otherwise, don’t waste your time.

Benn says:

Most black and white independent films are the same; character driven, mildly slow paced and the obligatory gritty cinematography. Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, while adhering to some of these rules, adds something different this style of filmmaking. Hectic and fast-paced while being thoughtful and intelligent, Aronofsky has managed to find a way to make a legit indie film for the MTV Generation.

Pi introduces us to Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a mathematician who is as brilliant as he troubled. Cohen is convinced that mathematics is that language of the universe, and that mathematical patterns can predict anything from natural disasters to the rise and fall of the stock market.

Despite his genius, Cohen proves to be something of a savant; he fears human interaction, seldom ventures outside his own apartment, and suffers from such extreme anxiety attacks that he self medicates with steroids, beta blockers and adrenaline shots. As a result, Cohen obsesses over deciphering mathematical patterns and equations, specifically a 216-digit code that could not only predict the rise and fall of the stock market, but contain the true name of God, thus command the raw power of the universe.

The film’s greatest strength comes from Arronofsky’s direction over the cinematography, which perfectly imitates the manic state-of-mind of the film’s protagonist. The film uses unusual camera angles, tracking shots and lightening fast edit cuts that bring the audience into the neurotic, hectic mind of Max Cohen; we feel his struggle, his frustration, his pain as he gets closer and closer to solving the unsolvable puzzle of the universe.

Pi also addresses the nature and price of immense genius and weighs the satisfaction of discovery with the consequences of willful insanity. Cohen is warned by his old college professor and only friend Saul (____) about the dangers of analyzing every little detail around him and tries to instill in him a philosophy of simplicity. Although Saul is trying to sooth the obsessive soul of his old pupil, the clash of philosophies asks a very familiar question: Is madness worth the discovery of enlightenment? Though this question has been addressed in other films about tortured artists unable to express themselves to the best of their ability, Arronofsky succeeds where so many so many other filmmakers have failed because of his intimate portrayal of Cohen. Sure, we’ve seen the struggle of a tormented genius before, but we’ve never really been able to experience it so intimately before.

Of course, another major theme of the film is paranoia, which is another symptom of Cohen’s genius and flaw in his character. Afraid of the very world he is trying to break down and solve mathematically, Cohen is a recluse and spends much of his time locked in a cloistered, cluttered apartment filled to the brim with scattered papers, stacked books and a massive supercomputer. Although his paranoia starts out as an irrational fear, his breakthroughs in discovering this code of all codes gets the attention of a nefarious corporation pursuing financial gain, and a small, extremist sect of Hassidic Jews who use numerology and the Torah in an attempt to get closer to God, or, to get closer to being God. When both groups begin to aggressively close in on him, Cohen is finally faced with the real world consequences of his studies, and is forced to take a look at himself and his work in relation to society.

Due to it’s black and white, grainy cinematography, subject matter and style, it is difficult to look at Pi without comparing to other low budget art films, notably David Lynch’s cult classic Eraserhead. However, where Lynch’s esoteric midnight masterpiece favored surrealist imagery and space between dialogue and action, Arronofsky appeals to the MTV Generation with doing the exact opposite by using fast dialogue, action and hectic camera work that convey a rushed, neurotic sensation that will capture the attention spans of those with very little. However, Arronofsky manages to sneak a very thoughtful story in the midst of all that panic, which is something most new, stylish filmmakers would miss, and that is the quality that sets him apart from other new filmmakers. Style is very important to a film, but everything from videogame sequences to music videos to commercials can have groundbreaking effects and cinematography; but a film, or one worth seeing anyway, requires a story, and Pi delivers one that is as thoughtful as it is brief.

Benn’s rebuttal:

I am, by no means, a mathematician, yet I found Pi to be very enjoyable.  Whereas James’ found the mathematical conversations to intrude on the film’s narrative, I found them to be an essential part of the narrative.  I also enjoyed the abrupt editing, as I felt it added that feeling of frantic energy that was so essential to the film.

This isn’t a feel-good film by any means, but I found the ideas of math, science and God all being interconnected to be a fascinating concept.  Also, I thought that Aronofsky’s method of both studying Max while giving us a taste of his madness was brilliant.

James’ rebuttal:

It seems odd to bring up comparisons to the MTV generation, as this seems like exactly the type of film that would not work for them.  It’s sophisticated and complex, and though it uses fast cuts in places, the plot itself doesn’t really move along very quickly.

In response to your rebuttal though, I also found the mathematical parts to be the most interesting and successful parts of the film, and wanted more of them.  It is only because of the complete narrative arc that I felt they disrupted the narrative flow.  If the film had really been about discovering the secrets of the universe through math, they would’ve felt more essential, as opposed to a tantalizing taste of what I really wanted the narrative to be.

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