'Pi' - the Film Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Pi' - the Film

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11.15, restate my assumptions:
1. Mathematics is the language of nature.
2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.
3. If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge.
Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.

- Max Cohen

The film Pi exists in what must be a category of its own: 'mathematical thriller'. While most thrillers involve such plot devices as serial killers, bank heists and explosions, the excitement in Pi is derived from a man confronting the perils of his own genius, the decoding of holy texts, and - of course - mathematics. Fortunately, a deep understanding of number theory isn't necessary to enjoy the film, just an acceptance that Hollywood action blockbusters don't hold a monopoly on edge-of-the-seat tension.


Max Cohen is, by society's everyday standards, a bit odd. Holed up in his apartment with only his computer for company, he works on solving the pattern that guides the stock market and, therefore, the world. As the ability to predict the movements of the stock market is pretty valuable, it's not long before Max is being harassed by finance companies, out to use his knowledge to accumulate money rather than understanding.

In addition, a group of fundamentalist Jews want help from Max to decode the 'true name of God' contained in the Torah. Max's problems are multiplied by his debilitating headaches and hallucinations, intrusive neighbours, the possibility of his computer becoming 'conscious', and what may or may not be paranoid delusions.

Although Pi can fairly be described as a thriller, it is a thriller in the best sense of the word. Watching the film, you find yourself drawn into Max Cohen's world, and experiencing his fears and pain with him. The film is as obsessed with Max as Max is obsessed with number theory - he features in every scene in the film, with everything seen from his perspective. The agony of Max's afflictions, and the stress he is under, are amplified by an innovative score from Clint Mansell1, which also features tracks from Massive Attack, David Holmes and Aphex Twin.

Due to the budgetary restrictions of the film, Pi is filmed entirely in black and white. Far from hampering the film, the lack of colour is used to great effect, giving the film a grainy look that fits well with the protagonist's state of mind. The director also used several unusual techniques to, as he says, 'light up the fireworks... whenever there's not emotional intensity'. These include the 'vibra-cam', which is simply the camera shaking using a long lens, and the 'snorry-cam', where the camera is fixed to the actor's body2.

Because of the way the budget was pushed to its limit, the film has, on occasion, been compared to David Lynch's Eraserhead, with its striking visuals, dream sequences, and some very surreal moments. However, Pi has a much more straightforward narrative than Eraserhead, and suffers less from accusations of pretentiousness.

The making of Pi

When I was a kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun, so when I was six, I did.
- Max Cohen

Pi only cost $60,000 to make, putting it alongside the likes of The Blair Witch Project as one of the cheapest modern films to achieve mainstream success. For comparison, the relatively low-budget Reservoir Dogs cost twice as much, and summer blockbuster Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones had a production budget 2,000 times the size.

Pi was director Darren Aronofsky's first feature film, but his second project to feature Sean Gullette - their earlier short film Supermarket Sweep was a finalist in the National Student Academy Awards. Despite the film's relatively low budget, the director realised that there just wasn't enough money for the film, until he came up with the idea of asking everyone he knew for a hundred dollars to make up the deficit3. For this, they were to receive their contribution plus $50 back, as well as tickets to the premiere. This still wasn't enough, and the rest of the cash was raised using credit cards, and asking the crew to defer their wages. Some corners were cut when it came to casting small roles: Clint Mansell has a small part as a photographer, and the director's father plays a menacing corporate thug.

It was quite a risk, but it paid off once the film was finished. It was a huge success when showcased at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998, winning the Director's Award. At the same festival, it picked up a distribution deal, and, once released, was feted by critics and successful at the box office, at least by independent film standards. In the UK, it recouped its budget in the opening weekend alone.

Since making such a distinctive and acclaimed debut, Darren Aronofsky has gone on to adapt Hubert Selby Jr's Requiem for a Dream, employing similar expressive visual styles to show the pain and misery of addiction. At the time of writing, he is currently working with Frank Miller on Batman: Year One, exploring the origins and early exploits of the Batman. This collaboration is fitting, as Aranofsky has said in the past that Pi was strongly influenced by Miller's Sin City series of comics.

Pi is recommended to both math-fanatics and math-phobics alike. You don't even have to know what pi means to enjoy it. It can make for uncomfortable viewing - especially during one of Max's migraines - but it is a stunning example of what can be done with a limited budget and a not-so-limited imagination.

'Pi' - the Official Website
1Mansell was once keyboard player, guitarist and vocalist for British band Pop Will Eat Itself.2This technique can also be seen in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and Aronofsky's second feature film, Requiem for a Dream.3Some contributors coughed up more later on, so impressed were they with the script.

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