Friday, May 31, 2024

Cult Corner: PI

 by Anthony King

Personal note.

July 10, 1998
Studios: Protozoa Pictures, Artisan Entertainment
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writer: Darren Aronofsky
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Composer: Clint Mansell
Editors: Oren Sarch
Running Time: 84 minutes

Cast: Sean Gullette (Maximillian Cohen), Mark Margolis (Sol Robeson), Ben Shenkman (Lenny Meyer), Pamela Hart (Marcy Dawson), Stephen Pearlman (Rabbi Cohen), Samia Shoaib (Devi), Ajay Naidu (Farrouhk), Kristyn Mae-Anne Lao (Jenna)

Mind-Bending Cult Movies: Eraserhead (1977), Holy Motors (2012), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Timecrimes (2007), Toad Road (2012)

Pairing recommendation: The Matrix (1999)

The year is 1999. I'm sitting in my friend Ben Johnson's basement. I'd worked at a local grocery store with Ben and our other friend Mike. The three of us would talk about movies and life constantly. One day I was at Ben's house after school talking about weird movies and life's existentialism (insofar as we knew as teenagers). Ben is a very smart guy, and definitely the smartest kid I knew in high school. Enmeshed in some bullshit heady conversation, Ben asks me, “You ever heard of the golden spiral?” I tell him I hadn't. He goes on to explain to me theories surrounding the golden spiral. I don't understand any of it. Then he asks, “You wanna watch a weird movie?” Of course I do! As if digging for a porno hidden in the back of his closet, Ben produces the first DVD I ever watched. It was a movie called Pi by a filmmaker Ben seemed to be obsessed with. That afternoon I sat in Ben Johnson's basement and watched something on his 20” tube tv that would change me forever. When the film ended I didn't feel any smarter. I was confused. I still didn't understand the golden spiral. But I knew I had just watched something special. As if proud of himself (but not really because that's not who he was) Ben sat next to me, knowing that he had just blown my mind. But Ben didn't blow my mind in the way he thought he did: I didn't really care about the subject matter of Pi; I wanted to have more life-changing cinematic experiences. I didn't know movies could affect me like that.
Few movies since have done what Pi did to me that day at Ben's. The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1971), Natural Enemies (1979), Elephant (1989), Irreversible (2002), and Toad Road are the only films that come to mind that left me a changed person. As an adult with a little more life experience under my belt I was deeply affected by these films not only because of the style in which they were made, but now, compared to when I was 17, because of the subject matter. In Pi, Max Cohen is a man plagued by his own genius. While I'm no genius and don't relate to Max in that way, rewatching Pi, after not having seen it for at least two decades, I understand Max's paranoid perception of the world. Whether his paranoia is actual reality is almost besides the point. What he's feeling and experiencing is valid. It may look like a lunatic rapidly losing his mind to us, but it's really happening to Max.

Cautiously I say this: Pi is eye-opening. We all have crazy ideas. Admittedly I have out there and stupid conspiracies hiding in the deep recesses of my brain. (If you ask nicely maybe I'll share them with you someday.) One of the ideas in Pi is that of patterns. The world, the universe, life is made of patterns. Max is a mathematician and numerologist and insists the universe is broken down into numerical patterns. When Lenny just “happens” to sit down next to Max at the coffee shop, he starts explaining, unsolicited mind you, that the Torah is just a series of numbers. This seems to be the straw that breaks Max's back. Almost immediately after Marcy tells Max she has a computer program that would help his research of the stock market. The paranoia firmly grabs Max by the balls and for the rest of the movie we don't know what's real and what's not. Max's mentor, Sol, gave up his quest to understand pi, which ultimately ended in him having a stroke. He insists upon Max to give it up because there is no end. There are no answers. Simply put, it's all bullshit. Max won't quit, though.
Pi is a movie about the universe, life, New York City, Judaism, and numbers. Really, though, Pi is just a movie about obsession. Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker obsessed with obsession. Whether it's people chasing a high they'll never get (Requiem for a Dream); never letting go of a dream (The Wrestler); going to any length to achieve stardom (Black Swan); being the one thing you think you should be (Mother!). Brian De Palma is another filmmaker obsessed with obsession. Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party, and Hi, Mom! (1970) are three films about men's obsessive fascination with being “men.” Margot Kidder in Sisters (1972), Paul Williams in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Cliff Robertson in Obsession (1976), Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill (1980), John Travolta in Blow Out (1981), Al Pacino in Scarface (1983), Craig Wasson in Body Double (1984), Kevin Costner in The Untouchables (1987). These are characters that have laser focus, criminally insane or not.
In Pi, Max's obsession leads him (and us) down a dark and winding path that blurs reality with fantasy. Are Lenny and Marcy real? Is Euclid, his super computer that takes up most of his apartment, real? Does he really lobotomize himself at the end? While we'll never know, this may be one of the best examples of being in the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic. That the film is shot on 16mm reversal film stock with high-contrast only adds to getting lost in Max's mind. Pi is one of the greatest first features. Whatever you may think about Aronofsky's work, you can't argue that Pi sets the trajectory for what was expected from a brilliant mind.

1 comment:

  1. Did you get the blu-ray from the A24 store? It look fantastic