Monday, May 15, 2017

Deus Est Machina

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 19
Darren Aronofsky (writer/director), π (pi)

Reclusive genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) has built a supercomputer in his Manhattan apartment. He hopes to compute market movements, pick stocks with machine-like accuracy, and become rich without leaving home. But his computer, nicknamed Euclid, vomits a 216-digit number and dies. Thinking he’s failed, Max discards the printout; nefarious forces find it, and he finds himself caught in a battle over the forces guiding modern life.

Darren Aronofsky’s (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) first feature film, shot on a shoestring budget, works around its physical limitations with risky camera techniques, grim understated performances, and subtle writing. Shot on black-and-white reversal film, often from unusual angles, and cut with frenetic haste, it looks like we’re watching Max’s struggle unfold through surveillance cameras. Before long, we realize this isn’t an accidental technique.

A mathematical genius, Max impresses local children by performing complex equations faster than their pocket calculators. But he has few adult relationships. He wants reality to share math’s simple Platonic elegance, and often preplans his conversations using theory-and-experiment methods. Only his invalid mentor, Sol (Mark Margolis), shares Max’s passion for precision; they communicate mainly by playing Go, a Chinese strategy game based on strict mathematical principles.

While drinking his morning coffee, Max gets accosted by Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a gregarious Hasid who introduces Max to Gematria, a form of orthodox Jewish numerology. Curiosity overcomes Max’s usual reticence, and he lets Lenny explain the intricacies of his Biblical code-breaking. He isn’t entranced enough, though, to accept Lenny’s invitation to participate in ongoing research sessions. Especially when Lenny says they’re seeking a 216-digit equation.

Almost immediately, Max meets Marcy, an agent of Wall Street speculators, who somehow know about Max’s experiments with Euclid. They think his equations could help predict market movements, benefitting whoever controls the supercomputer. They offer Max a powerful circuit chip in exchange for access to Euclid; realizing this chip could complete his experiment (and possibly unaware of how finance works), Max accepts, permitting the agents full access to his creation.

Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) seated at his supercomputer, Euclid, in Darren Aronofsky's π

Here we see Aronofsky’s themes expressed: mathematical constancy proves reality exists, but little more. Lenny’s Jewish colleagues believe reality demonstrates God’s beneficent existence, while Marcy places her faith in market forces. Two conflicting interpretations of an imperfectly glimpsed truth each demand validation, which spirals into powerful potential violence. Meanwhile Max grasps vainly for truth unvarnished by human interpretation, but cannot have basic relationships with adults as equals.

Sean Gullette plays Max with dark, soft-spoken urgency. He narrates his own situation aloud, as though he can only understand reality when filtered through the dispassionate lens of language. This doesn’t work out well. Gullette himself apparently wrote many of Max’s narrations, playing up Max’s difficulty understanding sensory reality. Though Max believes objective reality exists, he also has delusions about surveillance and entrapment. At least one character exists only in his head.

Sol quietly encourages Max’s quixotic pursuit of undifferentiated reality. The movie implies, without stating, that Sol is a Holocaust survivor, jaded on all ideologies, but also unable to reconcile his belief in objectivity with his imminent death. When Euclid begins repeatedly producing the same elaborate code, Sol cross-examines Max. It appears Sol produced the same 216-digit sequence previously, and his health has been on a rapid decline ever since.

Throughout, images of mathematical precepts appear, sometimes more directly than others. Besides his stock-picking supercomputer, Max is fascinated by the Golden Spiral, a geometric paradigm that often serves to pique students’ interest in higher math. Number theory looms large in his calculations, but as those calculations become more elaborate, chaos theory overcomes his thinking. Confronted with the duelling theisms of the Jews and Capitalists, Max becomes more doggedly agnostic.

This movie also marks writer-director Aronofsky’s first collaboration with composer Clint Mansell. The atmospheric soundscape creates a psychological resonance with Max’s increasingly strident paranoia. Driven primarily by synthesizers and small-ensemble sound, Mansell’s score can career from bucolic afternoons in the park, to a texture like an electric drill on your teeth, with amazing speed, while never sounding out of place. It meshes so smoothly, audiences often won’t notice the score whatsoever.

Aronofsky’s works have frequently toyed with the incompatible forces driving modern life. The push between art and commerce, in The Wrestler; between beauty and mental illness, in Black Swan. Here, he insists humans need faith in something, anything, but also must realistically confront reality’s chaotic, seemingly meaningless veneer. He offers no solutions, and his resolution admits multiple interpretations. But his approach shakes viewers from their preconceived notions.

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