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Entry updated 28 December 2020. Tagged: Film.

Film (1998), also written π. Harvest Filmworks, Truth and Soul and Plantain Films present in association with Protozoa Pictures. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Darren Aronofsky, Sean Gullette and Eric Watson. Cast includes Sean Gullette, Pamela Hart, Kristyn Mae-Anne Lao, Mark Margolis, Stephen Pearlman, Ben Shenkman and Samia Shoaib. 84 minutes. Black and white.

Gifted mathematician Maximillian Cohen (Gullette) builds in his contemporary New York apartment a Computer designed to locate the numerical key to universal patterns found in nature.

Aronofsky's self-produced first feature film – its overall budget a reported $68,000 – clearly foreshadows the concern of later features Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Black Swan (2010) with the Psychological effect of Inner Space on human Perception. Where Isaac Asimov used the abstraction of numerological patterning to describe the movements of Galactic Empires in his influential Foundation series (stories May 1942-January 1950 Astounding; fixups 1951-1953) (see Psychohistory) and Philip K Dick used Kabbalistic techniques to inform the symbology and plot of The VALIS Trilogy (omni 1989), here Mathematics and Religion combine to depict not only the difficulty of humanity's apprehension of what is real but also the systematic alienation of Jews from Cities. Max's disembodied Golem of a supercomputer is needed to understand the inner workings of a world communicable only in fragments of code and visual montage (see Fabulation).

Cohen begins his search with three base assumptions:

  1. Mathematics is the language of nature.
  2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.
  3. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge.

Hence Max Cohen's hypothesis that he can chart the influence of "patterns of nature" on phenomena as diverse as the cycling of Pandemics, the dimensions of the "golden ratio" and, most importantly to the plot of Pi, the fluctuations of the stock market (see the entry on Economics for the genesis of the idea that "natural laws" govern the behaviour of financial markets). The world is "a vast network screaming with life", its human systems of thought and expression an extension of this "natural organism". Max's former tutor and mentor Sol Robeson (Margolis) abandoned his own search for the secret of mathematical regularity – "We see the simplicity of the circle, we see the maddening string of numbers" – and is full of dire prognostications about Icarus and flying too close to the sun. Young girl downstairs Jenna (Lao) and concerned next-door neighbour Devi (Shoaib) are there, it seems, to symbolize both the "Holy Wisdom" or "Shekinah" – the aspect of God later defeminized by mainstream Christian thought as the "Holy Spirit" – and the fellow-feeling Max brushes aside in his obsessive quest for truth. He must leave the world of the human to enter the world of the real and it is clear that there may be a terrible cost to doing so.

Max is getting ill and the beta blockers, marijuana and adrenalin injections are having little effect, the sickness being some sort of repetition of that which affected mentor Sol, and of which Sol dies as soon as Max reawakens Sol's interest in the search for the meaning of π. "Euclid", the computer Max has built in his apartment, keeps crashing, spewing out a seemingly meaningless stream of numbers as it does so, and it is because Max needs a new processor that he responds to the persistent enquiries of corporate manqué Marcy Dawson (Hart), representative of financial firm Lancet-Percy – "86% Accuracy (Only God is Perfect)" – and she duly provides him with a microchip not yet released onto the market. He is also pursued by a sect of priests dedicated to the study of the Torah – "Hasids, you know – the guys with the beards" – fronted by Lenny Meyer (Shenkman), who keeps bumping into Max at his local coffee shop and who seems aware that Max is approaching some kind of epiphany. Sure enough, Max inserts the new chip into Euclid and the computer again spits out the 216-digit number before crashing:


On trying to write down the number, Max begins to visualize the stock market patterns he has being trying to predict throughout the narrative but also begins to hallucinate changes in his environment and a vein-like bulge in his temple. All this is rendered simply and effectively in neo-expressionistic style, due in part to perhaps to Pi's almost non-existent budget and tight shooting schedule, but also to an efficient script that understands what it wants to achieve. Both the corporation and the priesthood want a piece of Max and he is forced to accept the help of the Hasidic Jews when Marcy Dawson and her corporate thugs attempt to hold him at gunpoint in the midst of a stock market crash.

The holy men turn out to be no less violent and insistent than the money, as their leader Rabbi Cohen (Pearlman) makes clear during a long monologue about the "Cohanim" and the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans. They believe the 216-digit number Max has discovered is the Name of God intoned annually by the High Priest at the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement and that as such Max is not "pure" enough to be entrusted with the key to the Messianic Age. Max replies that he has seen God and that the number is more than God, maths and science and nature. He is seen running wildly through the streets of New York, smashing Euclid to pieces, reciting the number before first stepping into a landscape of white space and then fading into unconsciousness.

Then a tree is blowing gently in the wind as the young girl Jenna approaches Max with a calculator to ask him for the result of 255 times 183 – he has never failed to answer one of her enquiries throughout the film. He smiles, unable to answer; at peace. Pi is a film as much about the impossibility of human-led Transcendence as about the precursive likelihood of Technology achieving acuity beyond that of the human, and as such is more closely aligned with older traditions of Fantastika than those of the SF Megatext. The film won Aronofsky the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. π: Screenplay & The Guerilla Diaries (1998) contains Aronofsky's first-hand account of making the film. The Graphic Novel Aronofsky wrote with illustrator Edward Ross Flynn is π: The Book of Ants (graph 1998). [MD]

see also: Israel; Linguistics; Machines; Pseudoscience; Theosophy.


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