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Analysis of Darren Aronofsky's "Pi" (1998)

By Edited May 3, 2015 0 0

"Pi" Plot outline

     The film is about an obsessed genius mathematician Maximillian Cohen, whose only aim in life is to find proof of his supposition that mathematics controls everything in the world. According to his belief, there are geometric patterns and numbers everywhere; captured by this idea, he finds spiral figures in seashells on the shore, in a liquid substance under a microscope, in the cream dissolving in his coffee. Max also believes that the famous geometric number π, which value is believed to be immeasurable, contains a certain pattern in its endless decimal fractions. This pattern also includes a number of 216 characters long, in which the name of God is encoded. Trying to find the strange ‘mathematical connection’ between all aspects of life, he searches for the patterns also in the stock market. He lives in total seclusion from the society, and the only person he trusts is his teacher Sol, who has also devoted his life to finding the systematic pattern in π. Max occasionally visits him in search for advice. 

      Such a deep devotion to this research soon starts to attract other people to Max’s personality: Jewish religious sect members and stock company representatives. The former ones want to find the true name of God, while the latter want Max to help them control the stock changes. Since Max does not will to cooperate with either of the strangers, these acquaintances bring him more troubles than his research does. The headaches, which have always been disturbing him, become more frequent, more painful, while his scientific exploration turns into a complete mess.

     Finally, having found that his teacher has had a deadly stroke, and being tired of the scientific-religious-commercial madness around him, Max burns the paper with the 216 digit number, grabs a drill and bores into his head. However, he does not die: in the last sequence we see him alive, sitting in a park, where he observes leaves on the trees without trying to find any patterns in them.

      As we now see from the outline, the conflict is quite comlex, and the script is well developed, which is a good point for the director to start developing his talent and gaining worldwide acknowledgement. 

Narrative structure of the film

      The plot of Pi includes only one storyline, where the main character is Max Cohen. The voice-over, which represents Maximillian’s comments on his mental conditions and reminiscences from his childhood, was a very helpful technique to reveal most important facts from Max's life and expose the true nature of his character.  

I personally think that the combination of Aronofsky's audio-visual techniques is very similar to the one of Lynch’s. As well as the latter, Aronofsky combines some extremely unnatural shots with loud and disturbing sounds/noises, which together create surrealistic atmosphere and produce a striking effect on the audience (like, for example the moments when we see Max suffering from headaches). The sequence in the subway is the best example of Lynch-like style, since it may remind one of a moment from Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey finds a human ear on the ground. In Pi, having had another headache, Max finds himself in a deserted subway station, with a Jewish sect member standing in the distance, whose face is turned away from the camera; the man seems to be talking to somebody, but Max does not hear a word – he only sees blood dripping from under the man’s sleeve, and hears the drops falling on the ground. As he approaches, the Jewish guy disappears. Tracing the drops of blood, Max comes across his own brain pulsating on the floor. Driven by curiosity, Max touches the brain with a pen, and the brain produces the loud and disturbing sound of a speeding train; he tries to stick the pen into the brain, and the train appeares just before Max. Then white screen is used as a transition to another sequence. 

      Inexplicable, symbolic sequences like these are  also typical for Bunuele’s movies, and what connects Aronofsky to the French master is the extensive use of insects to increase the bizzare surrealistic feeling in Pi.White screen transition between sequences is also what defines his style, since it does not let the audience lose the dream-like feeling while watching his film.


     Since Sean Gullette is the central figure in most of the shots, his acting is also in the centre of the viewers’ attention, which definitely makes it hard for him to express the character with constant naturaleness, especially considering the fact that Maximillian is a genius matemathician, who lives a lonely life, whose head is full of  complex abstract ideas, that only few people could understand. Exposing this type of character, an actor must clearly understand its motivations and its typical everyday behaviour, otherwise there is probability that the character will be expressed only on the surface of its nature. Guilette, however, managed to overcome the difficulties with impressive skill: as the result, we see an obsessed matematichian, whose eyes express nothing but a total estrangement from the real world; his hair is in complete disorder, and his apartment is occupied by legions of ants and his only silent partner: home-made super computer Euclid.

Directing, editing techniques and camerawork in "Pi"

      Directing, camerawork and editing are specific issues in this movie, since they define Aronofsky’s style more than anything else. The techiques Aronofsky often uses are the Snorricam shots, the so-called hip-hop montage with macro lenses, the use of exaggerated noise-like sound effects.

      A SnorriCam is a special camera in filmmaking that is attached to actor's body in the way that the background seems to be moving when he/she walks. This usually creates an unpleasant vertigo effect when watching SnorriCam shots on cinema screen.

      The ‘audience vertigo’ is the most important problem which restricts the use of SnorriCams in films, but not for Aronofsky. Whenether there is need to fully depict facial expressions of the characters, their emotions, he blatantly uses the SnorriCam technique. This technique is very disturbing and is sometimes hard to watch, but this is a perfect way to help the audience get involved in the conflict, to help them perceive the emotions of the characters, by either excluding elements of the background or synchronizing them with the chaotic thoughts of the characters. This is the technique that created a lot of tension and produced a striking visual effect in Pi, as well as in his second masterpiece, Requiem for a Dream.

       Hip hop montage editing technique helps Aronofsky to depict mechanical everyday actions in unusual way, thus keeping the audience interested in the picture. Visually hip hop editing in Aronofsky’s films represents sequences of short takes (1-2 seconds long) that depict simple actions, usually taking pills or drugs, and may remind us of a slideshow. Fast motion, which is essential for hip hop sequences, is used as means of increasing tension and building expectation; the shots of these actions are also supported by strong and sharp sounds, which do not create a smooth soundscape, but rather work like a cutting knife, producing a disturbing and striking effect together with the image.

      It is almost impossible to comment on lighting in Pi, since the film is not only shot in black-and-white, but the image is also over-exposed and distorted by grainy artifacts; basically, the style of the picture is similar to  movies of the 1930-s – 1940-s. Now it is of course old-fashioned, but it works just perfectly in case with Aronofski’s Pi. It adds the perfect feeling of surrealistic science fiction, it helps us understand how weird and distorted the mind of an obsessed mathemathician is. The lighting on the set is very basic and natural, which is obviously due to the low budget production.

      What adds another portion of surrealism to Pi is also the grotesque correlation between scientific and religious understanding of this number. The characters are  people from different social groups, but they meet each other while searching for that power which π can give them. For Max π is a key the mystery of life, to the secret of how the world is built. For the members of Jewish sect π contains the true name of God, with 216 letters in it; they believe that the 216 digit number which Max knows, is precisely the name of God. Also there are the stock market members, for whom the number is a key to commercial success. In such a complex correlation between these different beliefs, the original scientific function of π (approximately equal to 3.14159) in Euclidean geometry  is totally forgotten, it is not mentioned at all in the whole movie. The only actual reminder is the name of the computer – Euclide (named after an ancient matemathician who invented the formula of π).

      Finally, as it was mentioned before, aural elements play an important role in Aronofsky’s films, and they are basically used to exaggerate some specific elements of the visual narrative.  In ‘Pi’ we can hear numerous electronic sounds that follow the main character everywhere; thus, their presence always reminds us of how deep Maximillian’s devotion to the research is. In a number of moments, when Max is sitting before Euclide in his apartment, the electronic sounds intermingle with foley sounds (erotic sounds, sounds of his door locks rattling), which are perceived by Max as sounds from another reality – hostile and disturbing. This contrast shown through sounds makes the viewer believe that human beings are more annoying than the large computer and the ants inhabiting Maximillian’s apartment.

      This technique of exaggerating reality with disturbing sounds and music was even better executed later in Aranofsky’ Requiem for a Dream, but his first feature is nevertheless a masterpiece, which already reveales the director’s talent for unique visual representation of human emotions, dreams and obsessions.



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  1. "Darren Aronofsky." Philadelphia City Paper. 1/April/2009 <Web >

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