Aronofsky: Pi (1998)

Darren Aronofsky’s Pi was one of a number of films that anticipated the millennium as a singularity and sublimity that defied the very language of cinema itself. It follows a mathematician, Max Cohen, played by Sean Gullette, who attempts to discern a hidden order within the world around him, and forms the next step along from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi trilogy. In those three films, Reggio abstracted the natural and human worlds into a new vision of complexity that, for Aronofsky, finds its logical subject in the stock market. In fact, Reggio’s trilogy feels like it was always about the stock market from the perspective of Aronofsky’s film, which is driven largely by axioms, formulate and lists of information, all of which coalesce around the present as singularity: “right now is a critical moment in time.”

Yet whereas Reggio opted for lush montage sequences and a panoptic global gaze, Aronofsky retreats back into harsh black-and-white footage, evoking a world that can no longer be captured in its totality. This stark appearance, which derives from high-contrast reversal stock, is connected to complexity in the opening scenes, when we learn it corresponds to Max’s own vision. When he was young, Max deliberately stared at the sun, in an attempt to intuit the hidden laws of the universe, and while this reduced his sight to the film’s own visual scheme, it also endowed him with mathematical genius. This genius lies partly in his actual mathematical skill, but it also lies in his ability to feel the broader complexity of mathematics, and the difficulty of conceptualising the field in its totally. Likewise, the visual scheme of the film emphasises grainy textures, and blurs whenever Aronofsky pulls back to establishing shots, making it remarkably difficult to get a handle on New York, where it is nominally set.

At times, it feels as if Aronofsky is longing for the grunge and grime of No Wave, but from the vantage point of a gentrified 90s city in which there is no longer any decay or desuetude to retreat to. As a result, the action is highly insular and interior, while public space starts to dissolve, evoking a city where it is no longer possible to conceive of resistance, or omniscience, in traditional spatial terms. When the camera does venture outside, it moves too manically to stabilise space, while the harsh textures bleach any large patches of sky, dissolving any clear sense of an exterior in the process. This dissolution of space works directly on the film stock, corroding it from within, in the face of an oncoming singularity, a missive from the future that has already started to destroy analog cinema as we once experienced it.

This corrosion and overexposure culminates with the abrasive fades to white that usher in each new moment of data convergence. As in The Matrix (and Bound before it), Aronofsky’s singularity is a brilliant white field that recurs periodically throughout the narrative, with each new ingredient that Max adds to his mathematical scheme. This white field also eclipses and disempowers the film’s white characters, as Aronofsky situates his splintered New York amidst a sea of non-white, predominantly Asian characters. Traditional space, in his vision, is a white construction, meaning the dissolution of space reveals a multiracial cityscape – sometimes threatening, sometimes curious, sometimes harmless, but always deeply other. 

Within that splintering city the only public sphere we see with any stability is the subway, the last vestige of a grungier New York. Yet even this one concrete place simply condenses the way that the new information economy ruptures space. No sooner do we settle into the calm of the station, the one quiet place so far, than it’s blasted by train-data, which screeches into the mise-en-scene more violently than any incursion so far as well. It’s as if the information superhighway has shifted underground, and can be briefly glimpsed in that second just before a train arrives, not unlike the moment in Black Swan when Nina first sees Odile on the subway.

For that reason, the subway generates its own particular cinematic style, which in turn becomes the main style of the film. We see the first of many signature tracking-shots on the subway, as Max walks towards the camera, the world cascading vortically around him. This leads to arguably the most iconic shot of the film, which repeats the same pattern, but more claustrophobically and agoraphobically, framed by the pillars of 47th-50th Streets-Rockefeller Station. In this scene, the subway starts to break down the distinctions between real and digital space. After seeing a classified computer chip, Max has a vision of his own brain in a subway bin, where he pokes it with a pen, as if rewiring his own neurons to converge with the mathematical immanence he senses around him. This externalised version of his own brain makes his nose bleed, and then robs him of consciousness, until he wakes up at Coney Island, the end of the line, which ushers in the film’s first encounter with nature, as he walks onto the shore, and examines the golden spiral in a shell. The subway thus links cutting-edge technology with nature, while the whole sequence ends with a shot of waves sparkling, and appearing to generate the synth ripple that now starts to emerge from Clint Mansell’s score.

By providing a link between the waves of the ocean and the latest computer technology, the subway confirms Max’s suspicion that technology has come full circle, and revealed the spiritualism that it initially seemed to debunk. To reach the truth of mathematics, he has to embrace the mysticism inherent within mathematics, which he first encounters by way of Lenny Meyer, a rabbi played by Ben Shenkman. Squaring the circle between number theory, numerology and Jewish mysticism, Lenny explains that “Torah’s just a long string of numbers – some say it’s a code” and suggests a mysterious affinity between the cutting-edge silicon chip and a black box that sits at the heart of his Kabbalistic teachings. From there, Max immerses himself in ancient Greek philosophers, who saw mathematics and mysticism as inextricable, and ancient Japanese mathematicans, who saw number as a form of divine play.

These mystical sources gradually lead Max to believe that numbers don’t merely exceed any other code for understanding the universe – they are the universe. Much of the film plays as aphorisms about number, as Max starts to retreat to the koan-like hermeticisms of the pre-Socratics and the earliest Shinto thinkers. We learn that “everything can be understood by numbers,” and that “if you graph the number of any system, patterns emerge.” For Max, this all coalesces around “the universe of numbers that represent the global economy,” which he understands both as an “organism” and as an geometrical abstraction that uses the “simplicity of the circle” (and of circulation) to evoke the “complexity of the endless string of numbers.” Since maths and nature are the same thing, and since the stock market is the most mathematically complex entity ever created by humans, it must contain the key to nature, the key to the universe, and the key to ourselves – our place in both nature and the universe.

To that end, Max sets out to conquer the stock market, since this must mean unlocking the deepest mathematical principles of the universe. As a portal to the universe, the stock market becomes a muse, or oracle, growing more sentient as Max leans into its complexity. Reasoning that computers are most volatile just before they crash, Max comes to believe that the stock market is also closest to sentience on the verge of crashing, meaning the texture of the universe is available in a totally new way at precisely this historic moment, on the cusp of the dotcom bubble breaking. As Max identifies himself with the bubble, his mathematical visions reach a religious peak, and the precarious sentience of the stock market takes him to the threshold of God, a new messianic era, a digital millenarianism in which the global economy starts to converge with the universe. Mathematician and rabbi become prophets competing for a new dispensation, with the stock market as its catalyst, as Lenny reveals that the true name of God, uttered on the threshold of the Holy of Holies, was 216 letters long, just as all Max’s investigations into the economy gradually converge on a 216-digit number.

By the third act, the stock market starts to recede as a specific point of reference, giving way to the more emergent properties of the universe: “if we’re built from spirals, while living in a giant spiral, then everything we put our hands to is infused with the spiral.” In his angular compositions, his offbeat montage and his parched mise-en-scene, Aronofsky evokes, embodies and enacts this golden spiral, just as Max repeatedly walks round and round his computer room, exhausting physical space, summoning the spiral to take him to a digital beyond. With each new effort to discern the stock market, the global economy becomes more embedded in his own body, until he’s indistinguishable, in a final black-and-white flight through the city, from the blinding torrents of data cascading over Times Square. It’s appropriate, then, that Shenkman, who plays the rabbi, would go on to play a critical role in Billions, a heightened stock market drama, twenty years later – like so much of this film, he’s an envoy from a future that’s even uncannier to contemplate two decades into its textures.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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