Faith in chaos.
Darren Aronofsky is one hot director right now. His latest film, Requiem for a Dream, is due out in a few weeks. The Hollywood trades have just announced that he has been tapped in that great studio duck-duck-goose game to direct the next Batman movie. But is he really one of those few, genuinely talented independent filmmakers who has made good? Or is he one of the many pretentious hacks trying to wow the Starbucks-addicted Sundance set?
One of my fellow judges here at the Verdict asked around the other day about Aronofsky's first feature, the hallucinatory cyberpunk thriller π. Having taught and written quite a bit about the conjunctions between science, science fiction, and philosophy, I thought it might be worth taking a crack at Artisan's marvelous release of the film. And then the announcement about Aronofsky directing Batman appeared. Coincidence? Or is it all part of some larger plan?
Facts of the Case
Max Cohen (whose last name means "priest" in Hebrew) is obsessed with order. He sees mathematics as the key to the universe. Max gets migraines, disorienting spirals of pain that push him away from reality and into hallucination. Max has a computer named Euclid, which he is using to crack the mathematical order of the stock market, like his Go-playing friend Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis) used to try and crack the mathematical order behind π. Max has another friend, a Hassidic Jew named Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), who is trying to steer Max toward the Kabbalah, the mystical study of secret codes hidden in the Torah. Max had a string of numbers that Euclid spit out one day on the verge of shorting out, its wiring frayed by stray ants. But Max threw the numbers away. And those numbers may be the key to unlocking everything. Everything.
Now if only he could find those numbers again, before those people chasing him get them. Maybe they are still inside his head…
What is π, that mysterious symbol we learn about in school but no teacher can really explain? Is it an endless chain of numbers, an element of chaos inherent in the very fabric of the universe? Is there an underlying order somewhere within it, if only we could look deep enough?
Aronofsky skillfully allows form to follow function in π, mimicking the effect of Max's breakdown (or is it a divine revelation?) with every trick at his disposal: jarring camerawork, weird lighting exposures, alien sounds. The total effect is likely to produce headaches in some viewers (just hit pause and come back), but it is well suited to the headache-producing potential of the philosophical ideas. It cannot be said that π lacks ambition: few films in recent memory have tried to tackle such cosmic issues. And it says much for Aronofsky's potential as a writer and director that he not only pushes the ideas as far as he can, but he also trusts enough in chaos itself that he allows chance occurrences and improvisation into the making of his film: the true test of a guerilla filmmaker. The overall result fits the classic model of a "cyberpunk" narrative: an exploration of the intersection between human (chaotic) subjectivity and scientific order, where the narrative itself also balances traditional (ordered) genre rules and fierce experimentation, all with a low budget, punk sensibility.
All visual and sonic experimentation aside, Darren Aronofsky has found the ideal metaphor with which to explore the startling tension between order and chaos. Ant colonies, snowflakes, games of Go, the secrets of the Torah, stock market predictions: all models of chaos theory. And Aronofsky uses them all to form surprising and meaningful conjunctions. But does the appearance of an underlying order hide something more troubling? What chaos, what free will, might be at the center of the spiral?
The transfer looks beautiful. This is a tricky proposition with a film like π. Aronofsky's use of different film stocks, 16mm, handheld and body mounted cameras, and so forth, creates a wide variety of visual textures in order to heighten the shifting emotional states of Max Cohen. Some scenes are soft and grainy, some overexposed—it is quite easy to screw up a transfer like this or be tempted to tinker and "improve" it. But Artisan is to be commended for a wonderful digital mastering job. Blacks are deep and rich; whites are blindingly clear (perfect for the blinding clarity of Max's migraines). And many shots have the stunning silvery quality of museum photography. The score by Clint Mansell (frontman for the band Pop Will Eat Itself) is studio-precise, well balanced with the overall sound mix, giving the film that necessary tension between mathematical precision (computerized techno music) and the chaos of natural noise.
Supplemental materials are top of the line, making this one of the best-packaged single discs available. Two—yes, two—commentary tracks, one by Aronofsky and the other by Sean Gullette. Aronofsky's track picks apart the technical aspects of the film and offers detailed praise, personal anecdotes related to the film, and passing philosophical observations. It provides a good lesson on low-budget guerrilla filmmaking as well (noting how friends and family members pitched in and how certain location shots were stolen right out from under the nose of NYC transit cops). Gullette's track is also quite thorough, although more personal (and with more insight into Max's psyche) than the more technically-inclined Aronofsky. Both men have plenty to say (you are going to learn more medical facts about migraine headaches than you ever thought there were), and Artisan made a good choice giving them each a track and not trying to edit out the consistently interesting comments. Four deleted scenes are included (well, technically three deleted scenes and one piece of test footage) with and without commentary tracks. Some cute behind-the-scenes home movies (odd to watch, since it is the only part of the disc in color) with commentary by Aronofsky and Gullette together. Two trailers: one studio version (this has to be one of the best edited, most energetic trailers I've seen in a long time) and one test trailer from Aronofsky and producer Eric Watson. A music video (called "π r squared") from Clint Mansell with the main theme. Three sample pages from "The Book of Ants," a comic book version of the movie available from Artisan. And an essay on the history and significance of π itself (which is fascinating in its own right and has been the subject of several books).
Whew. Okay. There's also a cast and crew list with thorough filmographies, and a scene selection menu with animated film clips (it feels like watching six little TV's at once). All this, plus a puzzle of a film itself, is enough to keep you busy for quite a while.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only charge one might make against this film is that it is tough to handle. Difficult at times to watch, because of the headache-inducing camera work (but then, The Blair Witch Project gave me motion sickness too, and I'm still undecided on whether it was worth it). Difficult to understand, because of Aronofsky's fusion of cyberpunk themes and Kabbalistic tradition. Difficult at first to enjoy, because of the harsh world portrayed and a protagonist we never really learn to like. π is a film that pays off however over the long term, with a little careful study and thought given to its philosophical complexity. But that is the magic of DVD: you can puzzle over the details of this film, like a Torah passage, looking for the key that will unlock its secrets.
The narrative is the real weak link: scenes feel disconnected and do not follow a traditional dramatic arc. Suspense (and even paranoia) is induced directly through the use of visual techniques and sound mixing, more akin to an experimental film of the 1930s than a traditional thriller. As science fiction narratives go, this is more Philip K. Dick than Isaac Asimov: plot and characters exist in π only insofar as they allow Aronofsky to embody and explore philosophical ideas. We do not have a great deal of empathy for Max, and it is difficult to picture ourselves in his harsh environment. That is not to fault Sean Gullette's performance however: he is convincingly paranoid and self-destructive as Max's psyche disintegrates before our eyes.
π is not a film you would likely watch casually with family and friends. It is a film of ideas rather than action, complex and rewarding. But your best bet is to give it a rental first, see if you connect with it, and then go buy a copy. If any film could be said to be an "acquired taste," this one would be it (not that you are any less "tasteful" if you don't like it—this is a film that tends to polarize viewers quite strongly). But if you do warm up to it, you may start finding chaos theory connecting everything. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Not to step on the toes of any "higher judges," the court acquits both director Aronofsky and Artisan of all…well, earthly charges.
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Scales of Justice
• Two Commentary Tracks (Darren Aronofsky and Sean Gullette)
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