Pi – Darren Aronofsky begins his journey through genius. (Film review)
Pi or π, Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film that was good enough to launch him as a bit of an indie darling back in his early days, is one of those films one loves or one hates, primarily because they are made to show off intelligence that may or may not be present, but wants to be known none the less. Like Carruth’s Primer, it makes you feel smart while you watch, and has therefore gained a cult following with undergrad superior males but is despised for the same reasons by those who don’t fall for its bullshit. No matter what you think of its blatant (and rather sorry) attempts to appear clever, however, π has enough going for it that it deserves its accolades. Whether it deserves its cult status is another question.
Unlike Primer, π mathematics are easily recognised and understood, which we will discover is typical of Aronofsky, but does give rise to the aforementioned problem of appealing to those who think they are smarter than they are. It isn’t a study in fine mathematics (as Mathematics is elegantly explained in a film like A beautiful Mind for example) rather a Polanski-esque apartment film of alienation, hallucination and the dangers of prescription drugs – something Aronofsky will visit in more depth in his next film. Max is a stereotype style of genius, a recluse who has “no time for the petty concerns of consumerist culture”, but who rather rejects society in favour of a search for an elusive string of numbers that he eventually believes have the power to crash his computer and might be the name of God. If Aronofsky comes off as a crashing bore when it comes to the clumsy show-off-ish-ness of π, he recovers from this properly with a rather subversive position on the romance, spiritual potency and yes, even mysticism of numbers. Given this buoyant disdain for the pop-culture-passions of mathematics as seen as some sort of elusive holy grail only the most brilliant in society can access, π cleverly turns on itself eventually taking a bit of a shot at the very type of viewer who has fallen for its earlier seductions. If you love π, it’s very likely Aronosfky is having a go at you.
This is where arguably π is his best film. Not famous for his subtlety, this is the only time Aronofsky will openly turn the cultural tables on his initial premise and it if it makes for confused viewing, it definitely remains with you. π is a subtle film, very much tied to its audience and equally disdainful of them. Seen in this context, all the trappings of genius are the trappings of a viewer, that person watching who secretly believes they relate to Max and can understand him when no one else can will be forced to confront that conviction when Max goes into wild territory that embraces not just mysticism, but orthodox religion, eventually punctuating his skull in a last minute ode to Taxi Driver. With this relationship between viewer and protagonist, π becomes a kind of essay on Scorsese characterisation and his ability to make us loath and want to emulate them together, but it goes a little further, in that with the embracing of mathematics pop-cultural opposite, the viewer who sees themselves will get more than they bargained for. Scorsese doesn’t preach like this, but as we will see in future films, Aronofsky has no problem preaching. π speaks to that white middle class male fantasy of exclusive genius, so easily disproved these days, but hard to let go of none the less. Crucial to this dialogue is the key: In the end Max produces nothing.
Because of the nature of π, it may seem a stretch to be attributing Aronofsky with the talent to disavow the exclusivity of “male genius” the way I am suggesting, but my defense in this case is the body of work Aronofsky produces. If π is nothing more than a bright young film student desperately truing to convince the world he is a genius by gathering the slim witted into his fan-fold, there would be no obsession with greatness being played out in his future films. But genius will become the most important thread in Aronofsky’s work, the only exception at surface level is requiem for a dream, but that visits another of Aronofskys favourite subjects, drug addiction. Certainly in the future Aronofsky will extend his study to incorporate female genius, but he never leans on questions of gender, except in π, which is arguably a case for his criticism. In a body of work that will focus on human accomplishment and the elusive quest for the intellectual holy grail, Aronofsky starts the exploration with what genius is not by providing a film that indulges the tropes and then turns it back on its head.