Happy π Day | Darren Aronofsky’s ‘π’

Happy π Day!

Today is March 14th, which can be written out – in America – as 3/14. This is excuse enough, of course, to celebrate the mysterious, romanticized, and often misconceived number of π. π is, if properly remembered from your ninth-grade geometry classes, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, which comes out to 3.14159265…, or if you prefer fractions (because who doesn’t prefer fractions?) can be written as 22/7, or 333/106, or 355/113, or 52,163/16,604, or 103,993/33,102, or even 245,850,922/78,256,779. It is everyone’s favorite irrational number, leaps and bounds ahead of e, NA, φ, and √2. It was discovered thousands of years ago (it’s referred to by the ancient Egyptians, Archimedes, and in the Book of Kings), and remains one of the eternal mathematical truths. 

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And what better way to celebrate π Day than to watch Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 debut feature π?

Darren Aronofsky is one of the more striking auteurs of the new millennium, having made notable films like Noah, The Wrestler, Black Swan, and the harrowing Requiem for a Dream. Like all of the great filmmakers, he follows his passions; he tells the sorts of stories he wants to tell. So if he wants to make a Biblical epic with lumbering rock monsters, audiences can only sit in quietly baffled yet oddly exhilarated awe.

When Aronofsky made π back in 1998, it rattled the indie film world for its complex ideas, striking imagery, raw black-and-white shaky-cam photography, and clanging electronic soundtrack (which featured musicians like Aphex Twin and O.R.B.I.T.A.L.). It was a giant amongst art films at the time, and the small art houses in L.A. and New York were overrun with audiences eager to be part of this hot, neo-psychedelic phenomenon. 

Artisan Entertainment

Artisan Entertainment

The film is about a young, half-mad mathematician named Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) who is on the verge of discovering a universal field theory calculation that would potentially reveal predictable patterns in, well, everything. He does so by examining numbers in the stock market, looking for patterns. His life is devoted to numbers, to unlocking secrets, to seeing recurring themes where most people would only see chaos. His devotion to chaos is what seems to be slowly deteriorating him mind, while at the same time making it blossom into a higher plateau of thinking. 

His search attracts the attention of a local cabal of Hasidic Jews. Jewish scholars are familiar with the notion that the Torah, when using its Hebrew characters, be interpreted as a mathematical expression. Math, it seems, is a hidden language of God, and interpreting patterns in the Torah may reveal secrets about the Divine. The true name of God, for instance. These mathematic Hasidic begin stalking Max, hoping that he will reveal his secrets to them. Yes, gunplay will eventually be involved. 

Artisan Entertainment

Artisan Entertainment

The film is odd, intense, and deliberately abrasive. Aronofsky is going to unsettle you. He wants to reduce the world to chaos, allowing us to grasp for any sort of order, no matter how far-fetched or insane. π is ultimately a film about how our obsessions simultaneously define, nurture, and destroy us. We need out obsessions in order to get out of bed, but they are also to key to our mental entropy. Creation and destruction are one and the same. Living in our personal chaos is both comforting and awful. It won’t be until we step out of our obsessions, leave our quest for catharis behind, and take a deep breath, take a break, take a walk, and appreciate the simple beauty of the world, than we may free ourselves. 

The multi-screen Hollywood multiplex is a fine place to go when looking for light entertainment; Action spectaculars featuring brave and violent white men punching one another have their place. But to witness something truly daring and aesthetically bold, one must wander from the beaten path. In 1998, we were treated to something unique in the cinematic world: A precocious black-and-white student film of striking magnitude that wrung thrills from numbers. 

Ask any mathematician, and they will reveal that they have seen a great, deep, profound beauty in the way numbers operate. Studying π, and the movie π, reveals that beauty. Math is something to celebrate. Just don’t get too obsessed. The pit is bottomless. 

Top Image: Artisan Entertainment

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at@WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.