π

pi-2Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut π, which observes its 20th anniversary on July 10, follows in the tradition of other artsy first films like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo the Iron Man, and E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten. It’s short — mercifully short, we might say, while acknowledging its ornery brilliance — visually harsh, shot in grainy, high-contrast black and white that eventually rubs sandpaper-like against the eye. And it is entirely devoted to its own vision, its own interiorized world. It’s probably not coincidental that anguish and mutilation are on the menu in all four of these movies; you have to be a certain kind of viewer to want to watch them very frequently. Of the four, though, π seems the most interested in the world outside itself, even if only fleetingly and fearfully.

An exacting artist, Aronofsky has made only six films since this one — Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010), Noah (2014), and mother! (2017). Many have been polarizing, and I was probably in the minority when I declared the frantic fable mother! the great American film of its year. Aronofsky’s art does not always work for me — I found Requiem and Black Swan pompous and conceived in bad faith — but he consistently takes such chances, swings so hard for the fence, that I can absorb and even respect the two out of seven films that didn’t land for me. π is a workout, no question, and not for everyone, but it has intellectual and spiritual fervor, and even when it stops dead for some mystical exposition, at least it assumes our intelligence (though also our patience).

The movie follows Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a mathematical savant who thinks numbers are everything — are in everything, explain everything. He lives in a crappy, ant-infested apartment with a rickety computer he calls Euclid, which he uses to try to game the stock market. Instead, it spits out a 216-digit number, which Max disregards; then various folks ranging from Hasidic Jews to Wall Street agents descend on him. They all want what he knows; he doesn’t even know what he knows. This aspect of π is sort of a wry indie rewrite of the standard detective story, where the scruffy gumshoe is menaced by people wanting the MacGuffin or the dingus or whatever. Max is a gumshoe of number theory, and the MacGuffin is in his head. Then again, so are paranoia and migraines and, in the notorious but abbreviated climax, a drill bit.

The soul of π, though, isn’t in its thriller tropes (there’s a hectically-staged chase scene that’s as boring as any other chase scene) but in the scenes with Max and his old friend Sol (Mark Margolis), a math warhorse who got a little too close to the flame of numerical truth and had a debilitating stroke. Margolis is 78 now and has always looked 78, even 20 years ago in this film, and we believe him as an exhausted old man who has forsaken math obsession; we also appreciate seeing him as something other than a cold-blooded mobster. The two men sit and talk quietly in Sol’s equally rumpled apartment while they play Go or Sol feeds his fish. It’s top-drawer stuff, and proved that Aronofsky wasn’t just some hip hotshot but an artist engaged with his characters’ emotional readings. (Margolis has gone on to appear in almost every Aronofsky film since, like a lucky charm, except for mother!)

Max is surrounded by people, benevolent or very much otherwise, who want something from him; aside from Sol, the only person he has time for is a little Chinese girl who loves to throw calculations at him. She reminds him, I guess, of a time when his particular strange acumen might have been fun. Enjoyment, relaxation, a rare computer chip — people keep offering Max things to pull him away from his own obsessions, his own head. But he can’t, and won’t, be distracted. He is the damaged loner as outlaw artist, a theme Aronofsky has returned to again and again, or has at any rate lived in his own life. Coming back to π after his subsequent pieces puts them all into perspective — even the hornéd beast mother!, which I would gladly recommend on a double bill with π if it wouldn’t make you come after me with a drill.

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