11:15, restate my assumptions: One, mathematics is the language of nature. Two, everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. Three, if you graph these numbers, patterns emerge. Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.

Max Cohen in the protagonist of Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 cult hit Pi. A brilliant mathematician, he can solve complex equations in his head with pinpoint accuracy. Max tells us that that after staring into the sun as a child, he damaged his eyes but somehow unlocked this innate mathematic ability.

Max now lives for his work: finding a pattern in the stock market. He believes that as the stock market functions as a sort of graph of the world economy, and that the world economy is a function of millions of lives, and all lives are imbued with natural mathematical patterns, the stock market should display some trace of this natural pattern. A wild theory to be sure, but Max is no ivory-tower academic; he lives in a tiny New York apartment with his gigantic, custom-made computer, Euclid. Despite his complex quest to unlock the mathematics of life, Max has little interest in interacting with other living things. With the exception of his mentor Sol, with whom he meets regularly to discuss his theories and play Go, Max avoids human contact. He is deeply paranoid; it’s with relief that he slams the multiple deadbolts he has installed on his apartment door whenever he returns home.

Of course, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get you. Considering the potentially world-altering implications of Max’s research, people in high places are interested in his results. There is the stockbroker, whose reasons for wanting the pattern are fairly obvious, as well as the sect of Kabbalist Jews, whose reasons are not (at first). His paranoia is heightened by his worsening mental illness, brought on by the aforementioned incident with the sun, that causes debilitating migraines and anxiety attacks, which result in blacking out or vivid hallucinations, or both. As painful as these attacks are, Max subconsciously feels they are somehow related to his innate mathematical abilities. As Max gets closer to a breakthrough, the attacks become more and more intense, but which is the cause and which is the effect?


Sol: This is insanity, Max.
Max: Or maybe it’s genius!

While other characters attempt to sweep Max into larger-scale economic and theological conflicts, our focus remains on Max’s personal one. He is looking for order in chaos. As he draws closer to the pattern that gives rise to life, his world becomes chaotic to the point of death. Is he having an earth-shattering revelation, or is he going crazy? While the bare-bones of this plot are fairly common place (man tries to find something only to lose himself), the manner in which Aronofsky connects the viewer to Max is what makes Pi a great movie.

Like Adaptation, Pi is an extremely self-referential movie about the universe being self-referential. But Charlie Kaufman’s film uses this technique to get inside the main character’s head, who happens to be the film’s creator as he is creating he film. Compare this to Pi, where the main character, Max, is you as you are watching the film.

Pi is a movie that demands its own analysis; in a sense, it is ultimate anti-popcorn flick. If you were to passively watch it, you might derive some enjoyment from the cinematography or the soundtrack, and I guess it might function as a slightly campy psychological horror/ film-noir. But the dialog reads (not surprisingly) like a treatise on the philosophy of math, and the plot is wired in pretty ambiguous way, to a degree that I wasn’t really clear which parts of the move actually happened the first few times I saw it. This is the genius part. If you have no interest in solving this riddle, then Pi isn’t for you (may I suggest a fine Bruckheimer, the ’96 being a particularly good vintage. But if you have even the slightest inclination to understand what is going on, you’re done. You will watch this movie a hundred times and find something new each time. It is Aronofsky’s ability to induce this kind of behavior in the viewer that makes Pi such an achievement, as it is exactly that kind of behavior and thinking that is driving force behind the protagonist, and only really developed character, Max Cohen.

Though Max reaches what may be the answer to the question that drives the plot, a 216-digit number that may be the seed to the pattern of life, he may just be living a brain-tumor induced hallucination. Or he might be speaking directly to God. To what degree are those three things the same thing? To what degree are these things happening solely in your head?

If you attempt to find out, you end up putting yourself in Max’s shoes. You can dig as deep as you like into the film’s symbolism (which include fractals, naturally), and not hit the bottom. You are presented with chaos (the film) and are demanded to find patterns and order (the film’s meaning).


10:15, personal note: It's fair to say I'm stepping out on a limb, but I am on the edge and that's where it happens.

If that didn’t bake your noodle enough, get this: the meaning is about the existence of emergent behavior. The movie is structured so that to understand this, one must participate in a kind of emergent behavior (the ordering of the chaotic data the movie exists as). Furthermore, the biological process of “understanding” in-and-of-itself can best be described as an emergent behavior.

Incidentally, one of the best visual representations of emergent behavior is Langton’s Ant. Max discovers an ant inside Euclid's mainframe, which he postulates is the reason it crashed and gave him the 216 digit number. After realizing what the number might mean, he begins studying the ant's remains under a microscope. Trying to understand what Max sees through that lens, one is inclined to study ants as well, possibly arriving at this demonstrative model Aronofsky may be making an allusion to.

But it also may be that Langton’s Ant is an ant (and not a squid or a giraffe) because ants themselves are exemplary of emergent behavior. The more you deconstruct the minutia Max is presented with, the more minutia you are left to deconstruct. It’s a kind of mental Mobius Strip. When you cut one in half (lengthwise), you just get a bigger one.

And the whole point is that explaining all of this is meaningless. I could go one for days (and it seems as if I already have) explaining how deep inside Max’s mind you can travel. But you need to experience that feeling to understand how powerful it is.

Because the movie is so fractal, there is no logical point at which one can stop analyzing it. This is the prime example of how Aronofsky places the viewer into Max’s role, where the complexity and recursion of his math problem traps him a spiral where he can’t stop analyzing the data presented to him. And spirals (Mobius Strips, Mandelbrot fractals, Fibonacci patterns) are, of course, highly symbolic...

Somebody get me a power drill.

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