CCNMA: I have confidence in numbers — Pi
Posted on
December 11, 2013

Are your weekend entertainment plans certified? CCNMA is a weekly feature that explores the movie industry’s love-hate relationship with computing technology. This week’s movie is  ONE FROM THE VAULT.

How’s your math anxiety? My own self-diagnosis would be, in a word, low. On the other hand, once upon a time in high school I wrote a short story about an obsessive and sleep-deprived mathematician attempting to express the sum of existence in a single equation. Along the way, the poor guy mathematically proves that he doesn’t exist — and then suddenly decorporealizes before his own eyes. The twist, discovered later by the stunned associates who find him dead of a massive stroke, is that his calculations are sound up until a few steps before the big finish, when he made a tiny error that led to his lethally erroneous conclusion.

Which brings us to Pi, a 1998 psychological thriller (written and directed by Darren Aronofsky) that tweaks the same nerve. The movie’s narrator and main character is Max Cohen, a math genius capable of computing large sums entirely in his head — much to the delight of the sprightly girl with the pocket calculator who lives nearby. Max believes that math is “the language of nature,” meaning that everything he perceives can ultimately be expressed numerically. More specifically, his beautiful mind is fixated on the stock market, which he sees as being just another numerical construct. Figure out the underlying mathematical pattern and — boom — Wall Street is your oyster.

It’s a big job, even for a guy who can toss off 73 divided by 22 (3.18181818181818) without blinking, so Max has enlisted the assistance of a digital alter ego named Euclid, a homemade supercomputer that handles the heavy lifting. Max thinks he and Euclid are tantalizingly close to a breakthrough, but he’s also contending with distractions aplenty. He suffers from piercing headaches that have afflicted him since childhood and is further bedeviled by odd hallucinations. His attempts to self-medicate typically leave him passed out, which is his only escape from the shriekingly intense headache pain.

Max’s one true friend is Sol, the gnarled mentor who taught him advanced mathematics, though he tolerates the chirpy enthusiasm of Jenna (the girl with the calculator) and, less frequently, the friendly concern of Devi, a thoughtful neighbor. Everyone else he meets is a distraction, though some are more cordial than others. Lenny Meyer is a Hasidic Jew who has his own special interest in math and is friendly with Max, almost to the point of pushiness, after meeting him in a coffee shop. Marcy Dawson, who represents a shadowy corporate concern that has taken an avid interest in some of Max’s mathematical writings, really is pushy, cheerfully hounding Max in person after he refuses to be plied over the phone.

The annoyance of dealing with Marcy and Lenny starts to fray Max around the edges and his exhaustive pursuit of a Grand Unified Theory of the Stock Market isn’t helping. (Surely it would be simpler to just talk to Chuck, or listen to E.F. Hutton, or read a book about Warren Buffett.) Max soon has problems on top of problems, including challenges that even his prodigious math savvy can’t simplify.

Pi is filmed in stark, clean black-and-white, which feels almost as much like a thematic decision as a stylistic one. We’re accustomed to thinking of mathematics as being a binary, right-or-wrong realm where everything conforms rigidly to rules. The question, or at least one question, seems to be whether math and numbers cause the random fortune and arbitrary cruelty of an unpredictable world, or merely express it. And if math itself is not the force that animates nature, then what is? Watching the movie tie itself in knots addressing such dilemmas provides a jolt of energizing cerebrality.

Max encounters a number of agreeably spooky pitfalls in doggedly pursuing his quest, which eventually becomes almost as much a search for his own sanity as for some magical formula for predicting stock gains and losses. In one series of scenes, he encounters his own living brain, seemingly freed from the cramped confines of his skull. Ants frequently intrude on both his waking and hallucinatory perceptions. People, both strangers and friends, appear and disappear like watery mirages.

Some wily prop master did an excellent job creating Euclid, Max’s trusty silicon sidekick. Euclid is more of an array than something that could sit on a desktop or stand in the corner. Max uses a monitor and keyboard to issue commands and extract data, but Euclid’s mechanical innards are spread around an entire room, stacked on shelves, dangling from the ceiling.

Actor Sean Gullette, who helped devise the film’s story, keeps us involved in Max’s trepidations and terrors, smoothly sliding between confident calm and confused capitulation. (Gullette’s frequently disheveled hair is almost deserving of its own credit, right up until Max shaves his head.) It’s a particularly complicated role, since Max (unreliably) narrates his own tale and veers into and out of dream states, sometimes seeming to bleed out of reality and into the dark recesses of his mind without anything to signal the transition but Gullette’s haunted gaze.

The curmudgeonly Mark Margolis, as crusty mentor Sol, tries to steer Max away from what’s clearly become an obsession, chiding his pupil that, “As soon as you discard scientific rigor you’re no longer a mathematician, you’re a numerologist.” Max remains undeterred. Which, in the end, is largely the seed of his demise: His commitment is just as unwavering when he picks up a power tool near the end of Pi as when he sets out to fathom the mathematical roots of commerce. Pushing past the brink is only admirable — or advisable — when you’ve prepared some means of arresting your fall.


IF YOU PRICK US, DO WE NOT BLEED: Of special note, Pi is the rare thriller in which a human attacks a computer, or at least without the computer, you know, starting it. Alas, poor Euclid. Max also experiences the sight, smell, consistency and taste of what may or may not be Euclid’s vital fluid. He even puts the sticky ooze, discovered on a damaged chipset, on a microscope slide to take a closer look.

RABBINICAL RANT: There’s an out-of-the-frying-pan sequence where Lenny Meyer shows up just in time to snatch Max away from a grim-faced goon squad that’s been dispatched to bring him to heel after he semi-absconds with a sort-of-borrowed superchip. Rescued for the moment, Max ends up in a face-to-face meeting with smooth and smiling Rabbi Cohen, who explains his group’s admittedly intriguing interest in math and numbers. The good rabbi exposes a volatile side, however, after it begins to seem like Max might not be of a mind to give him what he wants.

BEING OF SOUND MIND: One essential element of the film’s success is its quirky, creepy synth-driven soundtrack. Pi was the first film to be scored by Clint Mansell, at the time just a few years removed from a 10-year stint in the British alt-rock band Pop Will Eat Itself. Mansell has since enjoyed a notable career in film, including Lux Aeterna, a piece originally composed for Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream that’s become especially pervasive in the realm of movie trailers, including a notable arrangement devised for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

About the Author

Chip Hartweir is a Certified Cinemaniac who likes movies, computers and especially movies about computers. He has won numerous awards for writing about film and has a keyboard within arm's reach most hours of the day. E-mail him at chiphartweir (at) gmail (dot) com.

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