Many directors are maligned for going over-the-top. In the case of Darren Aronofsky, it’s what put him on the map. Aronofsky, best known for Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, is the purest example of an uncompromising filmmaker. If he is going for something, he approaches it with everything he has to offer. Even at his most restrained, he refuses to shy towards convention and confronts his subject matter with everything in his skill-set; all in the name of bringing his profoundly damaged characters to eerie, discomforting life.
With his next film–the hugely ambitious, mega-budgeted Noah–slated to come out some time this year, and with such a strong, distinctive filmography, Aronofsky’s hyper-intense brand of filmmaking felt like a great introduction to the Movie Mezzanine Director Retrospective. Starting now, we will begin a retrospective of Darren Aronofsky that will analyze his methods, themes, and obsessions, one film at a time. Without further ado, Aronofsky’s astonishing debut feature: Pi.
“When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So once when I was six, I did. At first the brightness was overwhelming, but I had seen that before. I kept looking, forcing myself not to blink, and then the brightness began to dissolve. My pupils shrunk to pinholes, and everything came into focus, and for a moment… I understood.”
The above quote perfectly sums up Darren Aronofsky’s thematic obsession: Obsession. No matter what genre he’s working under, or what goal his characters are striving towards, his camera always focuses on the journeys of their desires, compulsions, and passions, and then shows us how they end up consuming these people whole.
But Aronofsky is far from a one-trick pony. Each of his five films deal with their own type of fixation. Pi, his debut feature, deals with a concrete, more direct kind of obsession than the rest of his resume: The nature of patterns, numbers, order, and chaos.
The film follows Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette), a mathematician who believes that the universe is made up of patterns, with numbers being the codex that deciphers them. His latest theory suggests that even the stock market holds its own secret pattern, and that he can decipher it. Why decipher it? Well, if something such as the stock market can be predicted, surely that is proof that anything can. But such a task is, of course, easier said than done. Along the way, he meets a member of a Hasidic sect who believes that there’s a numerical pattern in the Torah, and a group of shady Wall Street types eager to see what lies in Max’s head. All the while, Max is slowly losing his mind due to his obsessive pursuit of finding patterns in the random, plus the added effects of increasingly high amounts of drugs to keep him focused.
The first thing everyone first notices when viewing Pi is the cinematography from frequent collaborator Matthew Libatique. Shot in ludicrously grainy, high-contrast black & white, the film submerges us into our tortured protagonist’s mindset right from the word go. Aronofsky stated in an interview that he wanted to invent “hip-hop filmmaking”, and Pi is perhaps the most evident example of that technique. Max exists in a world of shapes with no color, where the concrete details are all that he sees, and even Clint Mansell’s score (Another frequent player in Aronofsky’s films) is all rhythm with no melody.
Max can only gain a glimpse of the abstract by analyzing these details until they too are patterns in his mind. Unlike most black & white films, the contrast in Pi is so high that some frames have almost no shades of gray. The characters and objects present can practically be silhouettes in a white canvas, and the grain can be so intense that even their forms can be reduced to abstract blobs writhing around like a gelatinous mass.
With black & white, these details and shapes are the only things that we can focus on, and just like that, the viewer’s eye is just as fixated on discovering these patterns in the everyday as Max is. Everything is filmed in a chaotic fashion, complete with queasy handheld camerawork, high-pitched audio distortions, breakneck montages, and even Lynchian hallucinations. And despite all this chaos, the film has such a meticulous attention to detail, or at least the illusion of such detail, that makes it seem like it really can be broken down into something meaningful.
This constant struggle between the physical and the ethereal is at the center of the film, from the dichotomy of the two different parties attempting to take what’s in Max’s head (The Wall Street brokers’ need to understand the stock market, and the Hasidic sect’s need to understand God), to the constant flickering from reality to hallucinations, and even the very aesthetic of the film. But it’s infused into not just Pi‘s thematic tissue, but the rest of Aronofsky’s films in general. Aronofsky’s own obsession seems to be that of characters torn between the happiness of every day life and the pursuit of something unattainable. In Pi, however, that line is a little more blurry.
The science of mathematics, patterns, and nature that Max continuously discusses throughout the movie feels eerily plausible and well-researched. To the point that you wonder if Aronofsky really knew what he was talking about when he wrote this script. After all, it seems credible enough. Common mathematical patterns such as the Fibonacci Sequence (a.k.a. the Golden Ratio) are referenced and are of much importance to the plot. Hell, the film’s title is the most well-known series of numbers in history, random or otherwise.
But is it all really that plausible? Or does Aronofsky entrench us so deeply into Max’s mind that we find it just as credible as he does? It is a known fact that the world is made up of golden spirals, we’re all made up of spirals, and we are, in fact, living within one gigantic spiral, but does that really amount to anything that even hints at a spiritual or natural revelation like Max suggests? The film seems to think so, and as a result, so do we, at least for a while.
It is this uncompromising, unflinching pursuit to bring us into the shoes of this hopelessly deranged character that not only makes Pi–and by extension, Aronofsky’s filmmaking sensibilities–borderline on “conspiracy thriller parody”, but also allows it to transcend the cliches of the genre. It says a lot when even a detail that should feel trite and tired like a mysterious man taking photos of our protagonist that turns out to have nothing to do with him ends up feeling genuine and unnerving, and that’s strictly because we’re as obsessed with searching for these patterns as Max is.
In fact, the film bears the distinction of being a paranoid conspiracy thriller where the conspiracy may not even exist, at least in this plane of existence. As a result of that and Aronofsky’s relentless filmmaking, Pi not only features more fascinating ideas about the relationship between science and religion than most films, it accomplishes so much more with those ideas with its micro-budget than a Hollywood production could (If you want to see the bad version of this movie, check out Joel Schumacher’s The Number 23).
While Pi is about many, many things, it is first and foremost about the effects of obsession. It ultimately doesn’t matter if Max’s brain holds the key to understanding nature, or if there is a 216-digit code that provides a doorway to God. What matters is what Max gives up to reach those answers and his final action (which won’t be spoiled) to trade those answers back. And while we may not have the computing power to make it to the final digits of pi, we can relate to a moment where an obsession threatened to consume the very vestiges of our humanity, even if it was something as simple as studying too much for a test or playing a video game for too long.
The final images of Pi reflect, in many ways, the same basic truth of human nature that the end of Christopher Nolan’s Memento did: When you give up all that’s left of yourself to find the answers, you have to be prepared to never be able to go back. Except unlike Leonard Shelby continuing his cycle of vengeance for the rest of his time, poor Max manages a way to give up those answers in return for happiness. In a manner of speaking.
Pi was a major success for Aronofsky after it debuted at Sundance in 1998. Even if all it made was was 3 million at the box office, it was so low-budget that he received enough money and clout for him to expand on his techniques and ideas for his sophomore effort. For as rich and exciting a debut as Pi was, it was only a small taste of what was to come. Next up, Requiem for a Dream…