In 1998, two films were released which dealt with numbers in various ways and they seemed to get linked together, as if maths was going to be the movie trend of the future. In reality, there’s not a great deal which links Vincenzo Natali’s Cube and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. The former is a science-fiction thriller which involves a bit of mental arithmetic while the latter is an intense psychological portrait in which the maths is pivotal to understanding the central character.
Max Cohen (Gullette) is a mathematical genius who sees patterns everywhere in nature, can perform calculations instantly in his head, much to the delight of the little girl who lives upstairs, and predicts the stock market with razor precision. But he’s also screwed-up, a social misfit who can barely communicate with most other people and whose earliest memory is looking directly into the sun as a child. One day, he encounters a garrulous Orthodox Jew who tells him about Kabbalah and the way that Hebrew is based on numbers. Later on, his computer throws out a 216 digit number which might just be the name of god. Meanwhile, his gorgeous neighbour is loudly fucking her boyfriend and a headhunting firm has put him under surveillance
There’s a lot of maths in Pi and it deals with matters such as the eponymous number, the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ration. But although this is clever and engrossing, Pi is perhaps best considered as a film about aching loneliness and, as such, it’s insightful and affecting. Sean Gullette’s performance is powerful in the way it evokes an absence, a deadness behind the eyes which afflicts Max far more violently than the outside influences which so overwhelm him in the film. The isolation of social disaffection is a great movie subject – think of Taxi Driver - and Aronofsky realises this. The film is shot entirely from Max’s perspective; innocent encounters become sinister while irritating nuisances become actively malevolent. None of this material is new but it is done very stylishly with Matthew Libatique’s high contrast cinematography evoking a bleak and hopeless world where even the sun represents a threat.
Pi sometimes threatens to dissolve into pretentious nonsense but it’s saved by some excellent performances and, most importantly, by a sense of humour – something which is fatally missing from Aronofsky’s next film, the very solemn Requiem For a Dream. Max is given an aged mentor, Sol, played by Actor’s Studio veteran Mark Margolis, and he leavens Max’s obsession with an infusion of warmth and humour. The group of Kabbalah obsessed Jews, led by Ben Shenkman’s genial but strangely unsettling Lenny Meyer, are a ludicrous shadowy organisation straight out of Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest. Indeed, the overarching atmosphere of conspiracy seems to have a jokey edge and is played by irresistible deadpan by Gullette. Aronofsky even finds room for irrational bits of comic business, none better than a businessman launching into a touch of Sinatra on a subway train.
It’s very obviously a first film in many ways. That’s not to say it isn’t well made because it is highly proficient- Aronofsky had directed four short films before this. But it’s a movie buff film, full of reminders of other similar movies, notably Tetsuo: The Iron Manand Eraserhead, and you can feel that Aronofsky is taking advantage of the chance to try things out and indulge himself. It’s certainly not remotely commercial in any respect - although it did, perhaps surprisingly, find a reasonable audience. One gets the impression that it’s not compromised or invaded by calculations about mass audience appeal and in this, it reminds me of Christopher Nolan’s first film Following which is also shot in black and white and deliberately obscure in its concerns. Perhaps Aronofsky is a little bit too much in love with his visual ideas and I could have done without some of the more familiar moments – the sun shining on the sea to indicate longing, for example.
But on the whole, Pi works very well indeed. It sets out to get inside a damaged psyche and for the most part succeeds admirably. It’s possible to really get involved in all the mathematical stuff – explained very well for beginners incidentally – or you can just sit back and enjoy the atmospherics. Most of all, although it does remind you of other movies, I can’t think of anything else which is quite the same and I don’t think Aronofsky has yet made anything better.
Pi was shot on 16mm and must have been a difficult title to transfer to Blu-Ray. It is very grainy indeed, sometimes deliberately over-exposed and shot on a variety of different filmstocks. On the whole, the Blu-Ray seems to me to be an improvement over the DVD in two principal areas – the level of detail is fantastic throughout and the quality and depth of the blacks is superlative. Pi is not a shimmering monochrome jewel like, say, Manhattan, but this Blu-Ray transfers it very nicely indeed.
The 2 channel DTS-HD MA audio is also excellent. This is a sonically experimental film with Max’s breakdown being mirrored in the distorted, dissonant soundtrack The Blu-Ray represents this faithfully with dialogue usually clear, Max’s occasional mumbling apart, and the music pounding effectively in the background. The contrasts between ear-splitting noise and silence are nicely captured.
The principal extra features are a pair of audio commentaries, one by Darren Aronofsky and the other by Sean Gullette. I quite enjoyed both of these. Aronofsky is chatty and genial, discussing the technical aspects of the film and some of the ideas which it explores. Often it’s the little details which fascinate, such as the revelation that the realistic looking vaccination gun was a fake built out of spare parts by a friend of the directors. Gullette concentrates on performance and has less of interest to say. I think it might have been a good idea to put the two men together and have one really good commentary track. There are four deleted scenes, narrated by Aronofsky – rather frustratingly, you can’t opt to watch them without commentary. Consequently, it’s hard to judge how effective they are but I did like the second one which has a wonderful image of Max searching through a mountain of computer components. A behind-the-scenes montage gives you the chance to see some footage in colour which is interesting in itself, not least because Sean Gullette looks a lot healthier than he does in monochrome. Otherwise, it’s an excuse for a lot of in-jokes from director and star who talk over the footage. Finally there are two trailers and a music video which I found quite unbearable but which is, at the very least, quite evocative of 1998.
Optional English subtitles are available for the main feature and the disc is locked to Region B.