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starring: Sean Gullette

by David
Summer, 1999

What is the first thing you do when you encounter a bleeding quivering human brain on the steps of a subway station? You poke it with a ballpoint pen, of course.

Or, that is what you do if you live your life like the characters in the independent film, Pi. Personally, I suggest that you do not use these characters as a life model -- your life will be completely fucked-up.

pi is the story of Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a brilliant young mathemetician and computer scientist who unfortunately suffers from debilitating migraines (ostensibly caused by staring into the sun for an extended period as a child). Max's mathematical specialty is the discovery of mathematical patterns in nature (a form of chaos theory study) , thus allowing a rudimentary to precise prediction of natural phenomena. Using his phenomenal natural propensity for Math (at various points in the film, he plays a game with his young neighbor wherein he computes difficult multiplication problems in his head) and his computing skills, he is trying to apply a mathematical pattern to the stock market, which he sees as a living, natural phenomenon. Of course, such research draws attention from some unsavory investment types, eager to get their hands on a stock-market prediction tool. He also draws the attention of a group of Hasidic Rabbis looking for mystical answers in the mathematics of the Torah. As Max's quest reaches the level of obsession, so these other groups begin to close in upon him. Coupled with this outside harassment, his headaches begin to worsen, and he often lapses into seizures and wild hallucinations. As his obsession with the final answer and his fear of his discovery grow, so does his paranoia.

The movie is completely exhausting. I haven't any other way to describe its effect on me. It wasn't the mathematics that did me in (I was a physics major for my first couple of years of college, so I knew something about chaos theory), it was simply the film as a whole. It is shot entirely in high-contrast black and white, which lends the whole film a beutiful, mysterious air, but which somehow seems to make the viewing process more intense and taxing. A good part of the film is spent in Cohen's paranoid, migraine-induced hallucinations -- much of the rest is spent watching Cohen as he struggles with his outer demons -- his Wall Street pursuers, a Jewish Mystic sect, and his former teacher (who claims that similar research and his inability to deal with the startling outcome is what caused his stroke). Fascinating and completely engrossing as all of this is, it is, as I said, exhausting to watch -- when it is all over you feel physically drained.

Gulette turns in a wonderful performance as Cohen. He is superbly subtle, raw and natural and, on top of his excellent acting performance, delivers line after line of voice-overs and watered-down mathematical theory without even a hint of the smug superiority normally found in cinematic voice-over work. To my delight, I found all of the supporting roles to be extremely well-played as well, something seldom found in a independent feature. Mark Margolis' turn as Sol, Cohen's former teacher is especially good, as is Ben Shenkman's portrayal of Lenny, a Hasidic scholar/mathematician.

All in all, I found this to be a tremendously enjoyable film. Darren Aronofsky's script and vision are excellent, and his twitchy direction and editing push the film through your eyeballs directly into your brain. The story itself is riveting and intelligent: the viewer is drawn moment to moment through the story, never certain what will happen next. Some viewers will be quickly lost, however -- the film does not make any apologies for its somewhat difficult subject matter and, though everything is explained somewhat, it is often only explained once and if you miss it that's it. That isn't to say you need a keen interest in computers or math to enjoy the film -- that certainly is not the case. But you do need to have you brain turned on and your eyes glued to the screen. For some viewers, that is too much to ask -- the rest will find Pi fascinating.

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