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Movie Review: Pi -- Searching for patterns in all the wrong places

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Written by Darren Aronofsky, based on the story by Aronofsky, Sean Gullette, and Eric Watson

With Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman

There's a certain story which keeps getting made into a movie every now and then, and I frankly wish the film makers would stop bothering with it. So many have failed to do it justice that the idea seems less and less filmable to me.

The story I'm talking about is pursuit of unknowable, as distinctly opposed to the pursuit of something that is simply unknown. Usually, it's the story of a lone conflicted visionary who is looking for the Theory of Everything, the Underlying Pattern of the Universe, the True Name of God, or something equally esoteric. The last film to tackle this was last summer's Contact, which ended up as a mixture of numbingly obvious platitudes and insulting audience manipulation. Now we have &pi, a small independent movie which won Best Director award at Sundance for Darren Aronofsky (who also wrote the screenplay). In almost every single aspect, this movie is superior to Contact-but it still ends up being a disappointment.

The story involves Max Cohen, a paranoid and reclusive New York math genius, who is holed in his cheap apartment behind a door with three locks, and who talks to his homemade supercomputer, Euclid, trying to detect a pattern in the chaos of the universe-in the digits &pi, in the rise and fall of the stock market, and (after a coffee-shop meeting with a talkative Hasidic scholar) in the letters of Torah. Cohen is also affected by a rare brain malaise, which causes him to have wild uncontrollable fits and hallucinations.

The movie is filmed in black and white-and I don't mean your usual garden-variety black and white, which also utilizes shades of gray in between. No, &pi is filmed in high contrast black and white, with almost no gradations between pitch darkness and blinding light. This results in some remarkable visuals, including a thrilling opening title sequence, where the viewer is whisked along the veritable torrent of diverse visual information.

The look of the film also functions as an apt metaphor of its central theme-pursuit of ultimate truth can be as bright as to prove blinding. In case the audience doesn't get it, the opening narration helpfully provides the convenient metaphor of "staring into the sun," which is repeated twice more during the movie. When it was repeated for the third time, my patience started to run dry, being exhausted by ostentatious metaphors without much meaning in any context but the metaphorical.

The same doubly applies to the the movie's most disturbing subplot-the sequences of a man physically mutilating his own brain. Although highly effective in making the viewers squirm in their seats, they don't really have any meaning beyond being metaphors-and also quite painful to watch (although clearly intentionally so).

Still, when &pi doesn't waste time trying - quite miserably - to be profound, and simply dives head first into the whirlpool of unsolved scientific mysteries, it soars. Totally different from Contact, which equated science with either pseudo-philosophical babbling or hardware gizmos, &pi simply presents a truly fascinating array of facts, and hints at the connections between them. Strangely enough, the main focus is not on the titular number. Instead, the most interesting material is proved by f, the golden mean, 1.618 This number is tied to the Fibonacci series, the Leonardo da Vinci thesis about the perfectly proportioned human body, the shape of a plant leaf - and a galaxy - and they are all linked together in one montage sequence, during which the movie is absolutely thrilling, making the audience feel as if they, along with the protagonist, are on the brink of some great discovery.

This discovery, of course, is impossible, because &pi concerns itself with the unknowable, and its ending strongly confirms my suspicions that this story is inherently unfilmable. While in a book the simple presentation of the interconnected ideas might be sufficient, the film, because of the peculiarities of the medium, has to provide a closure to the story, and here it stumbles, almost fatally. In the last fifteen minutes, &pi degenerates into some not very involving chases, violence, and more self-mutilation, only to mask the fact that there can't really be a (dramatically) satisfying ending.

Even more lamentably, Aronofsky's usually rigorous writing also suffers in the end, by making some half-hearted stabs at science fiction via the ludicrous hypothesis about what happens to computers when they crash, and, even worse, making factual mistakes; the important sequence in the end-the conversation with a mysterious Rabbi-totally falls flat because the screenplay cannot tell a number and a digit apart.

I can't really blame Aronofsky for trying; he succeeds more than one would expect. It's just that he's trying to tell in a narrative-based medium something that doesn't really work as a story.