Whether you’re in the mood for wrestlers and ballerinas or just looking to indulge in gratuitous obsession, Aronofsky has a certain appeal that just won’t let go of audiences. Even his lowest effort is worth the watch (I unabashedly enjoy Noah) and he is one of few directors working today that is mostly allowed an uncompromised, fully developed vision. My love for him started with a random purchase – the Pi and Requiem for a Dream two-pack, and from there I have devoured each and every one of his offerings with eager anticipation. But what exactly is it that draws me to him? With mother! Hitting theatres next month I thought I’d delve back into the director that drew me to film, but what started as a fun set of rewatches led to my own obsession being fully reignited.
Sitting down to watch Pi in a dorm room, with no idea what to expect, is one of the most harrowing experiences you could ask for. I knew absolutely nothing of the film but was drawn in by the description of a man who was going to break trying to discover a pattern. I tap my fingers a lot, and the seemingly undeniable need to have my nervousness displayed in a pattern is inherent in this. I love patterns of threes, I can’t stand to step on a crack in the sidewalk, and it drives me nuts when there’s a tile sized differently on the bathroom floor. This may seem odd but it’s how I’ve lived for all of my living memory, and when I stumbled across this little black and white film about scrutinizing patterns I had to pick it up.
Buying the film meant I was stuck with cafeteria food instead of anything else that Friday night, so after picking up pizza and OJ (my movie food of choice at the time) I sloughed upstairs and popped it on. Around halfway through the film my roommate could no longer concentrate on what he was doing and quizzically asked “What on earth are you watching?”
I couldn’t explain it to him, but we finished the film together before diving into Requiem for a Dream the next night. We both got a taste of something new and disturbing that weekend and it though he was put off by the wanton display of the grotesque, the drill-bit to the temple and the famous “ass-to-ass” scene never sitting well with him, we couldn’t explain what had happened that night. Something had changed in me, and it was from thereon out that I devoured film in any form that I could find.
Looking back at Pi is a rough experience for me. My budding atheism was starving for something to ground in, an explanation for our world in an environment that was supremely Judeo-Christian. I had begun to suspect that math and science, and not singing and sermons, were what I believed in and Aronofsky gave me a wonderful gateway drug to my search. Pieces of what I would come to believe were imparted to me that night, alone in the dark with my pineapple-jalapeno pizza, and a form of insanity began to take hold of me. The dark and mysterious mathematical magic of the Gematria was enticing to me, as Lenny Meyer explains to Max that “the Torah is just a long string of numbers, some say it’s a code sent to us from God” I stepped back and thought to myself Why wouldn’t God give us something like that?
But that merely wet my appetite. At the time I was also privately indulging in noir film. Things like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon gave me things like money, sex, or priceless artifacts to focus on. I had begun to develop what my father calls “a liberal agenda” and it was revolving around material goods. Maxamilliian Cohen, however, was obsessed with the metaphysical – the idea that something beyond physical realms can be of supreme importance. It starts with the pursuit of money, the idea that the potential patterns in π are something that can be used to explain the stock market and get into a state of financial gain. I never believed Max was in it for anything wholly scientific, as he claims throughout the film. He talks about trying to explain and understand our world
but Aronofsky goes to great lengths to show us his apartment and lifestyle. Max lives in a tiny room, almost completely dominated by a computer that he uses to search for his answers. This seems like a man who is only dedicated to his research, to his understanding. He’s a mathematician, a man bent on using numbers to explain the world, but he is researching the stock market and looking for patterns and predictions. Why? The only answer I could come up with is that he is unsatisfied with his life and lifestyle. The answer would open doors for new research, as well as allowing him more room to live. His life is cluttered, books hiding in closets and research stacked everywhere. He only takes care to clean the computer, and we can see that any problems with it are of supreme interest and importance. Despite the film’s discussion of reality in the metaphysical world, it focuses heavily on physical possessions. The only difference between Max and the rest of the world is what physical possessions he finds important.
The only real social interaction Max gets is with Sol Robeson, his mentor and friend. He spends his little spare time playing Go with the old man, discussing research as they fight to control the board. Everyone has a mentor figure, whether they are aware of it or not, but it’s fighting to break free of this that makes someone a whole and complete person. The answers don’t lie in the cautious advice of those you rely on, even if it happens to be the right thing to do. The answers lie in fighting through, in suffering for who you are, and in breaking free despite the growing pains. Almost everyone alive can attest to this, to suffering through poor or good advice and from caution and failure, and Max is no different. My own decision on what I wanted to do with my life came from breaking free of certain mentors and seeking others before deciding on my own what I want to do and suffering for it (well…suffering financially anyway).
And this is, to me, what the film is about. Max Cohen makes a deal with the devil, Marcy Dawson, for a chip that will be able to handle what he is pumping through the computer. He receives an answer, but in an interesting turn of events he finds the capricious woman’s true nature and winds up looking down the barrel of a gun. He is saved by a Hasidic cult that also means to use him, the religion looking for God also adding a selfish angle to faith. They want what they want, and are also willing to use means of intimidation to get it. The angel and the demon wear the same face for Max, and he rants against heaven and hell that all he wants to do is answer the question and understand the universe. They’re all looking for the same thing, whether it is control of the universe or the name of the deity they think created it, and all are willing to viciously fight for it.
Max, however, is stuck. He cannot find the answer and it comes from the ultimate truth of our world – there are some things we aren’t meant to know. Anyone who has dated gets to find out, at some point, that there are things they just didn’t want to know about their significant others. Whether it’s a sexual history or a dark secret, there are things we might feel a need to explore but also that we have no desire to truly know or understand. Bits and pieces of our reality are often better left to the imagination. Some things, though, we simply can’t know and that is the problem that Max faces. Most of us don’t resort to drilling a hole in our skull to remove the need, but you have to do what you have to do.
And why does this help Max? Why the pain, the blood, and the suffering? His temple
bulges throughout the film, and he is full of paranoid hallucinations to compliment the real things he should be afraid of. Max stared into the sun as a child (in part because he was told not to) and it warped his mind. This seems to be what made him a genius, but it also causes him physical and mental pain. The world is a mess to him, something that needs to be explained, and this force is driven into him by the pain in his head. It’s only after a home-spun trepan that he is able to relax, to smile, and to let go of the need that drives him.
His pain is displayed in the sequence of images that would make Aronofsky famous. The so-called “hip-hop montages” that dominated Requiem for a Dream began here. They’re little, quick, and mean edits that give you the full scope of desperation behind something so simple as taking a pill. Medicating yourself is no simple act though, and Max takes a lot of pills in this film. The rapid, frenetic sequences send the viewer’s brain for a loop as well, breaking the comfort of the intense dialogue scenes. Aronofsky weaves these together and gives us little, intense bursts that can almost cause our own headaches, forcing us to identify with this unpleasant and self-indulgent protagonist.
Mansell’s score compliments this series of visuals nicely, with a sparse amount of compositions and instrumental song choices that instill a pained and panicked sense of fear and desperation in me. The soundtrack was an underground hit and made Mansell someone to watch, culminating in his score for The Fountain (regarded as one of the best-designed scores in film history and a personal favorite of mine). The use of Aphex Twin, the strange energy in Orbital’s “Petrol”, even the odd sweetness in Massive Attack’s “Angel” all work to latch you onto Max’s struggle. And it’s a character study, after all, so why shouldn’t that be the singular goal of the composer? Mansell is able to work with Aronofsky’s themes and mesh us deeply with the idea of pained obsession.
I absolutely adore this movie, there’s no denying that. I struggle to pick a favorite when it comes to Aronofsky, but this one frequently takes the top spot. I feel like a James Bond fan, with my favorite film in a series changing from day to day depending on my mood. Nonetheless, I think this might be his most important because it introduced the world to an uncompromising oddball who just wants to talk about obsession and transcendence. From day one in the public eye, Aronofsky has been able to work with brilliant visuals and sound design to create character driven story and that starts here with Pi. As his latest film approaches, star-laden and soaked in creep-factor and blood, it’s worth looking back on his debut effort and realizing that even then he was able to create raw, frightening sensibilities out of something so simply complicated as mathematics.