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Pi (1988)

    Some information is simply not safe for us--not because there is something wrong with its
    possession in the abstract, but because it is the sort of thing we humans are not well suited to cope
    with. There are various things we simply ought not not to know. If we did not have to live our
    lives amidst a fog of uncertainty about a whole range of matters that are actually of fundamental
    interest and importance to us, it would no longer be a human mode of existence that we would live.
    Instead we would become a being of another sort, perhaps angelic, perhaps machine-like, but
    certainly not human.
        -Nicholas Rescher, an essay entitled Forbidden Knowledge

In his excellent book, Forbidden Knowledge (see Orrin's review), Roger Shattuck discussed the persistence and continued relevance of one of the central themes of Western Civilization : the idea that certain kinds of knowledge have been placed, quite specifically and intentionally, beyond our reach because we do not have the capacity, at this time, to handle them, or to wield them responsibly.  I've no idea if Darren Aronofsky had read Shattuck's book before making this movie, nor whether Professor Shattuck has ever commented upon the film, but it perfectly illustrates the point.

In Aronofsky's film, a brilliant young mathematician, Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), believes in several precepts :

    (1) that mathematics is the language of the universe
    (2) nature can be expressed in numbers, and
    (3) there are patterns everywhere in nature.

Most importantly, he believes that we should be able to perceive and interpret the patterns, to comprehend the language, and that he is on the verge of doing so.  Yet, while patterns seem to emerge at every turn, from a swirl of cream in a coffee cup to a seashell at Coney Island, the meanings of these patterns remain maddeningly elusive.

Meanwhile, both a vicious Wall Street henchwoman and a Hassidic Jew approach Max about his work, the first thinking he's about to figure out the hidden patterns in the Market, the latter thinking he can decipher the numerical code hidden in the Torah.  Max however has hit an impasse, including crashing his computer, and turns to his mentor for help.  Like Max, he too was once a brilliant, cocky young mathematician, but he's had a stroke and now just sits in his apartment playing the game of Go.

And just in case all that isn't enough, Max has paralyzing headaches brought on by an incident from his youth, an incident which evokes Daedalus :

    9:22. Personal note: When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So one
    day when I was six, I did ... the next day I had my first headache.

Whether physical or mental in nature, Max's headaches are soon accompanied by nosebleeds, hallucinations, and a mounting sense of paranoia, as his grip on reality begins to slip away.

Aronofsky achieves some sense of the disjointed and terrifying world that Max is living in by setting the film in a decaying tenement in Brooklyn, shooting in Black and White, manipulating the film to make it incredibly grainy, actually mounting a camera on Sean Gullette (the actor playing Max) so that on tracking shots we're moving with him but looking right in his face, etc.  Some of these techniques work better than others, but all serve to give the film such an unusual look that it is very much its own distinctive world.

But most of all there are the ideas.  Max's hubris--his belief that the universe's secrets are lurking just beyond his line of sight or his chain of thought, and even more important, that he in particular has been given the capacity to finally perceive them and that when they are revealed he will be able to handle them--is shared by so many of the great heroes of our culture, from Adam and Eve to Dr. Frankenstein, to Faust, and so on.  (Like Faust he even makes a deal with the Wall Streeters in order to get a new, extraordinarily powerful processor for his computer.)  The message of the film, as in all of its predecessors, that no matter the quality of the individual--no matter the genius, or the purity, or the ambition--Man is simply not ready to share in these secrets, is so profoundly antithetical to our Age of Reason that it is a pleasant shock to find an artist who's still resorting to it.  And, amazingly enough, this mythical lesson is still just as powerful today as it has been throughout human history.

You can't really discuss the end of the film without ruining it for first time viewers.  Suffice it to say that the denouement is both shocking and inevitable.  This is a movie that not everyone will like--mostly due to the unusual look of the film, Max's sometimes off-putting behavior, and some genuinely disturbing images--but if you stick with it and at least accept the visual style, you'll be treated to a compelling version of one of our oldest, but still most relevant, stories.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

    -BUY IT : Pi (1998) DVD (Amazon)
    -INFO : Pi (1988) (
    -Pi the Movie (Website)
    -Darren Aronofsky Online
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Darren Aronofsky (
    -Requiem for a Dream (Website)
    -Dialouge: Oliver Stone & Darren Aronofsky (Premiere)
    -INTERVIEW : with Darren Aronofsky (Joshua Klein, The Onion)
    -INTERVIEW : with Darren Aronofsky (Elif Cercel , Director's World)
    -INTERVIEW : 'Dream' Scape :  Darren Aronofsky offers the latest about 'Batman' -- Plus, the 'Requiem for a Dream' director tells EW about his unnerving new website (Noah Robischon, Entertainment Weekly)
    -INTERVIEW : Darren Aronofsky: Collaborating With the Best (
    -INTERVIEW : "It's a punk movie" : Director Darren Aronofsky talks about why his junkie movie, "Requiem for a Dream," really isn't a junkie movie and about writing the script for the next "Batman." (Jeff Stark, Salon)
    -INTERVIEW :  An Interview with Darren Aronofsky and Sean Gullette of "Pi" (Anthony Kaufman, Indie Wire)
    -INTERVIEW : Darren Aronofsky: Easy as 3.14... (Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid)
    -INTERVIEW : with Darren Aronofsky (IGN for Men)
    -INTERVIEW : Darren Aronofsky's Piece of the pi (James Berardinelli,  July 7, 1998)
    -INTERVIEW : List of Numbers (J. P. Partland)
    -INTERVIEW : ARONOFSKY DARREN: Pi  (Andrew L. Urban, CineFile)
    -INTERVIEW : with Darren Aronofsky (Yuji Ueda, Tokyo Classified)
    -INTERVIEW : Interview With Darren Aronofsky : On Batman (Daily Radar)
    -INTERVIEW : Aronofsky's Nightmarish Requiem : Exclusive Darren Aronofsky/Requiem for a Dream Interview by Paul Fischer in Los Angeles
    -INTERVIEW : Darren Aronofsky :  Requiem for a Dream (James Mottram, BBC Online)
    -INTERVIEW : with Darren Aronofsky (In View, KQED)
    -INTERVIEW : with Darren Aronofsky (Andrea Chase, Chit Chat Magazine)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Movie That Changed How People Understand Pi: Darren Aronofsky’s film, which turns 25 this year, injected the mathematical constant into pop culture’s consciousness in a whole new way. (AMOS BARSHAD, MAR 14, 2023, Wired)
-ARCHIVES : "darren aronofsky" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "darren aronofsky" (Mag Portal)
    -ARCHIVES : aronofsky (Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Pi (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times)
    -REVIEW : of Pi (Terry Teachout, The Crisis)
    -REVIEW : of Pi (Stephen Holden, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Pi (Doug Cummings, Chiaroscuro)
    -REVIEW : of Pi (Mark Sinker, Sight and Sound)
    -REVIEW : of Pi (Mother Jones)
    -REVIEW :  of Pi (Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid)
    -REVIEW : of Pi (James Bowman, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of Pi (Lauren Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Pi  (Martyn Glanville, BBC Online)
    -REVIEW : of Pi  (LIZ BRAUN, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of Pi  (Bob Graham, San Francisco Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Pi  (James Berardinelli)
    -REVIEW : of Pi  (Peter T. Chattaway, ChristianWeek)
    -REVIEW : of Pi  (Jason Murphy, Christian Spotlight on the Movies)
    -REVIEW : of Pi  (Jonathan Cohen, Slashdot)
    -REVIEW : of Pi  (Vladimir Zelevinsky, The MIT Tech)
    -REVIEW : of Pi  (Nicholas Kleszczewski, Hollywood Jesus)
    -REVIEW : of Pi (Darren Jones, 6 Degrees)
    -REVIEW : of Pi (Clark Humphrey)
    -REVIEW : of Requiem for a Dream (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Requiem for a Dream (Sarah Hepola, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Requiem (Sean Geoghegan, 6 Degrees)
    -AWARDS : IFC Gotham : Open Palm Award

    -ESSAY : Ancient Pi: Knowers of the Universe (Charles William Johnson)