Frieder Wallis 23.4.2001
Analysis of "Pi" 1997, written and directed by Darren Aronofsky
I chose the film "Pi" for this semiotic analysis for one simple reason: it is one of my all-time favorite films. I tend to like films that involve several layers of meaning or genres. "Pi" is a work of science fiction based on a more than 2000 year-old Jewish legend. But it is also a psychological thriller. It exhibits many features of gothic film: a dark claustrophobic quest, full of contrast, that leads into insanity. In fact, it is a remake of Paul Wegener's gothic classic, "der Golem und die Taenzerin", from 1917. Thus thematically, Pi provides a wealth of material.
It is also a film that succeeds in creating a complete universe within the narrative. Once you get into it, there is no escape from the story. This aspect of the film fascinated me from the first time I saw it. The totality of the world it creates complicates analysis, however. And because "Pi" is Darren Aronofsky's debut film, a search for hints on the author is similarly tricky. Add to this the fact that "Pi" is an American film employing both Hollywood and Art Film criteria, and the analytic difficulties are taken to yet another level. Nevertheless, the less clear cut things are, and the more mixing there is of polar opposites, the more interesting things get. That also is what Art Cinema should be: a question, rather than an answer.
Despite its big success at the 1998 Sundance Festival (where it received an award for best newcomer's feature), it was not well received by critics. They complained that the use of mathematics was not credible. Some considered the whole film to be too serious. I will return to these points at the end of my analysis.
My comments are structured as follows:
B Style and Form
1 Plot synopsis
2 The narrative and it's characters
3 Mise-en-scene and cinematography
3.3 Costumes and make up
C Specified Art Film Criteria
1 What is science fiction about?
2 Dualism and ambiguity
D hints on the author
E final statement
In this semiotic analysis of "Pi" I will first treat of both the narrative and stylistic aspects of the film. Each chapter discusses aspects of Hollywood and Art Cinema. Thereafter, I will apply David Bordwell's definition of Art Cinema to three selected aspects of "Pi" that I believe are of particular importance. My objective will be to position this film between Hollywood and Art Cinema.
B Style and Form
1 Plot synopsis
Mathematician Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gulette) leads a fairly strange and lonely life. Living 100% for science, he literally shares a small New York Chinatown apartment with Euklid, his homemade supercomputer. He's a mathematical genius, but he also suffers from head-splitting migraine attacks and hallucinations. Over a long period of unsuccessful treatment, he has become addicted to several painkillers and other drugs. His obsession is the quest for a pattern within the number pi. He makes the following assumption: "Mathematics is the language of nature. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature." He intends to find a pattern within the stock market. In the course of the film, Max finds a 216-digit number that turns out to be the code he has sought. But at the same time a criminal Wall Street businesswoman and a group of fundamental Jews who believe he has received the true name of god target him. This leads Max into a terrifying rush of migraines, aggressive behavior and paranoia. He destroys the computer and injures himself by drilling a hole in his head. He survives, albeit at the cost of losing his genius.
2 The narrative and it's characters
Basically the narrative is about a genius trying to find a formula that explains and predicts the stock market. We find the "Golem theme" here of a human, chosen by virtue of his extreme talent, who receives a message of god.
"Pi" features a rather small cast that includes the protagonist Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gulette) and five other main characters. These are likely to be the only humans Max has any contact with. Each of them represents a certain aspect of life in general that stands in striking contrast to Max's beliefs. The protagonist himself is very passionate about attaining a certain goal, so in this respect he does not conform to David Bordwell’s view that in Art Cinema, characters lack a goal.
First there is Max's former professor Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis), who once sought the pattern in p as well. After suffering a stroke, he gave up his 40-year search and retired. He is Max's only scientific contact, and tries to convince him that the quest for a pattern in nature leads nowhere. He stands for age and wisdom, but also for age, retirement and surrender.
Second we have Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a practicing Jewish numerologist who once bumped into Max in a coffee shop. He is instructed by his rabbi to kidnap Max for religious reasons associated with Max’s special knowledge. He is representative of both religious values and fanaticism.
Third there is Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart), a Wall Street businesswoman, who is after Max due to the probable impact of his work. At some point she gives him an important microchip in exchange for results. As the market crashes she threatens him with death to get his information. She is unscrupulous, greedy, cruel and materialistic.
Number four is Max’s attractive neighbor Devi (Samia Shoaib) who cares for him but never succeeds in drawing closer. Her interest is not reciprocated, as Max is too occupied with himself and his passionate work. Her attraction to Max has a bemused quality, but after having been kicked out of Max’s apartment, she gives up. Devi represents femininity, emotion, care and concern.
And last there is Jenna (Kristin Mea-Anne Lao), a Chinese girl from the block who challenges his mathematics skills by quizzing him whenever she sees him. She represents the fascination for Max’s incredible skills and for his own childish passion ultimately to succeed.
3 Mise en scene and cinematography
The scenes of "Pi" are located predominately in fairly small indoor places. Working on a low budget, the filmmaker chose to make use of existing places rather than rebuild sets in a studio environment. There are the apartments of Max and Sol, the coffee shop, NY subway trains and stations. If all these locations have something in common, it is an unspectacular, realistic and credible atmosphere. Another point is the quite claustrophobic aura of almost all the settings. Apart from the few outdoor scenes in the park around Max’s house, not only the locations themselves, but also the imagery tends to be very close and narrow. Whenever we see the protagonist in a long shot, paranoia or migraine are present or imminent as well.
The exception is his trip to Coney Island. Max wakes up at the last subway station and has a walk on the beach, where he finds a spiral-shaped shell in the water. This is the turning point in the story, the introduction of his breakthrough. The quietness and space of the beach form a backdrop against which the noise and terror of the resolution stand out in heightened relief.
"Pi" is a very dark and stylized film. The decision to film p in black and white was not based on financial considerations: as Darren Aronofsky has said, color would have been less expensive. Therefore lighting is the most recognizable and eye catching style feature of this film, moving as far as possible from Hollywood convention. The use of contrast and brightness is so striking that one could almost say that the film is black or white, rather than black and white. Almost every frame is slightly over-exposed. Therefore you have bright and shining detail most of the time while other parts of the picture show dark, bold black. That is a sort of computer-related cinematography, what one could also call "digital" photography: what you see it is either black or white, 1 or 0.
3.3 Costumes and make-up
In terms of costumes and make-up things are worked out far differently. The way the cast looks is not of major importance for the narrative. Costumes suggest a low profile, close to how real people would look in today's New York City. Just as the protagonist's paranoia develops, he discovers a wound on his head and shaves it. Then Max’s make-up becomes a bit more evident. But on the whole, this is worked out very well.
I do not want to overuse this term, but within the framework of the sophisticated interpretation of science fiction I will discuss below, performances of the cast are dramatic but realistic. Keeping the audience within the narrative demands a certain amount of credibility. Having seen Sean Gulette in films other than "Pi" , I am astonished at how deeply related to Max Cohen he seems, and hence at how deeply he immersed himself in the role.
Framing, perspective, camera movements and editing all go hand in hand to make the viewer feel like Max Cohen does. The images' message is one of claustrophobia and paranoia. Good examples of this increase of density using cinematographic devices are the subway scenes: after a visiting Sol, Max returns home. Alone and lonely, he sits in a train. The only other passenger around starts singing. Max feels disturbed. We get a close-up of his face, but as we look back at the man from Max’s point of view, he has suddenly disappeared. We hear a little bit if the score, and the stifling atmosphere leads into another migraine attack.
Then, as in other instances, we first experience a dramatic increase in tempo, followed by a long and painful headache. Super close-ups of Max taking his medicine are rapidly cut in succession, accompanied by amplified sounds of slicking. Then we see a medium close shot of the protagonist awaiting the inevitable onslaught of pain. Next is a cut back to a super close-up of his face, simultaneous with a horrible electronic noise, indicative of the pain Max is experiencing. The medium close comes back and we see Max cry and stagger in pain. The image dissolves into bright white, accompanied by sudden silence. After a second the screen fades to black. We hear a ringing phone getting louder and louder and next the image is faded to Max waking up half sitting beneath the sink of his bathroom.
The graphic elements used in "Pi" are another important aspect of the cinematography. There are diagrams, numbers, symbols and drawings from mathematics textbooks. They appear in the opening credits, but later symbolize his work. As with sound (next chapter), there is a use of added non-diegetic material that takes on a diegetic function. Professional mathematicians refuse to see this link because for them they are just empty symbols. Their comment is that a genius like Max went beyond high school level mathematics years ago. Only non-scientific audiences would make the connection between Max’s work and these graphics. I will speak to the issue of the conflict between symbolism and science in my final statement.
I'll discuss the use of sound in terms of subjectivity later on, but I must first address the issue of the narrative’s sound design and musical support. First, the score composed by Clint Mansell creates the atmosphere and the perfectly captures the protagonist's personality. Amplification is used for impact not only here, but also throughout the entire film. On the one hand, the tracks reflect Max’s paranoia; on the other, the music accompanies and determines the pace of images and narration. Because there is a connection created between Max’s quest and the musical score at times serves a diegetic function, even though it is a basically non-diegetic element. The high degree of subjectivity also seems to lend a diegetic element to the music. I will point to one prominent example: Whenever a migraine attack looms on the horizon, the little melody of the score is heard, followed but the song itself as soon as the actual migraine starts. This creates the specific atmosphere of persecution and therefore reflects Max’s inner state of mind at that time. Thus the music turned out to be part of his inner, psychological subjectivity.
Another point to have a look at is the voice-over that guides us through the movie. It is Max’s voice telling single events or giving temporal hints. There's no clue whether this is an internal monologue inside Max’s head, or an external report he is relating to someone else. When he says things such as, "twelve fifteen, press return" while we see his finger reach out for the return key: the voiceover is simultaneous. But it is not a constant guide or flowing, “real time” source of information. There are just loose fragments given about the story background. The most important one is a hint on Max’s childhood and the beginning of his disease. "When I was a little kid my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So one day when I was six I did... Doctors said my eyes would never recreate but light started creeping through the bandages. That day I had my first headache." The importance of this sonic information is heightened because it stands for itself. We are told barely anything about Max’s person, past or parents. Max’s sensitivity to light (his windows are covered by black sheets for example) also ties in to the movie's exposure. This is especially obvious during migraine attack scenes, where the picture fades into bright white.
p is a good example of entirely restricted narration. The film consequently follows it's protagonist through his life. There is no effort to create suspense by giving any further information from sources other than Max Cohen. But this is not necessary at all. In this respect, p does not take a clearly Hollywood or clearly Art Cinema approach to telling the narrative You neither know things are going to develop from beforehand nor is the way the story is presented of minor importance. This film pays attention to both the narrative development (suspense) and the way this development is conveyed. Therefore a kind of status quo is achieved between the Art Cinema and the Hollywood model.
The screen duration of p is almost 84 minutes; plot and story duration are not defined that precisely. Temporal hints suggest that the events happened within a certain period of time and in a certain order. The entire narrative proceeds without any flashbacks or –forwards, but we nevertheless cannot say how long the plot actually takes. I believe it is intended to suggest a couple of days, but it could also be two weeks. As the narrative is not presented in any temporal relation to other events (only the loose diary notations of Max), temporality appears to be of minor interest. This way of handling the 'told time' suggests an idea of narration that is very close to the conditions of Art Cinema. The story duration is no less difficult to estimate. The events of p mark the summit of the protagonist's mathematical career as well as it's harsh end. Sol once talks about the time he started teaching Max, who was his master’s and Ph.D. student. We also know his migraine attacks started at the age of six. But Max’s age is just a matter of estimation. My best guess is that he is in his mid 20s, therefore the story duration is about 20 years.
C Specified art film criteria
The central condition of Art Cinema is that it is distinguishable from Hollywood film. There are several aspects within p which help classify it as an Art Film. Apart from those I have already discussed above, I would point to three additional criteria:
1 What is science fiction about?
2 Dualism and ambiguity
3 Range of story information and subjectivity
1 What is science fiction about?
The first point to comment upon is a bit of a hidden one, but once one grasps it, it turns out to be highly plausible. It has to do with the fundamental idea of science fiction: challenging reality by creating a fantasy world in any possible time. p has mastered this condition. It is a science fiction film refusing to use any distinguishing features that classical Hollywood science fiction films consist of. Audiences have been conditioned to associate Science Fiction with lots of decoration, space chases and cutting edge FX. But true fans know that essentially science fiction is something that happens between your ears. As a matter of fact, the term science fiction" does not mean anything but imagination. And this is what p consequently relates to. Unlike classical Hollywood productions, it is not based on it's decoration, matte paintings and pyrotechnics, but only on the viewer’s own fantasy. There are no props, decoration items, sounds or environments that foreshadow the future look of things. Everything takes place in existing locations of our own present time. To understand this point, just think of a film like Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element" and it's artwork. If you look at the excellent fashion design done by France's Jean Paul Gaultier you see the fundamental difference of the two films ideas, even if both play in NYC.
"Pi" does not give an impression of science fiction merely by concentrating on showing probable future scenarios. It tries to show that pure science fiction happens inside your fantasy, not on your retina. One could say this point is a matter of finances, but I would prefer to argue that this is the primary reason for calling this picture an Art Film. It completely ignores those things that Hollywood has traditionally linked with science fiction.
2 Dualism and ambiguity
Another typical Art Film feature is the amount of ambiguity. In this picture in particular there is a hidden dualism coming with the science fiction condition I just described. You can see and understand the whole story in two ways. It is absolutely left to the viewer's own fantasy to decide if he believes in the protagonist's credibility or not. Some viewers have claimed that all you see in the whole film is a rather strange man going crazy. Especially mathematicians say that they just could not buy the story and Max Cohen's basic hypothesis: "mathematics is the language of nature, everything around us can be represented by numbers". Basically it is one of the fundamental questions of philosophy whether the entire universe is chaotic and complex or structured on logic principles. Max and his former professor Sol represent these two opposite opinions about this essential query of the world during their games of Go. One seeks for ratio and logic while the other lays back trying to play the game by feeling it. These two ways of looking at the universe divide the audience as well. Into chaotic supporters and logical supporters, one could say.
This basic division into two groups of viewers creates a lot of ambiguity. From the moment you join one or the other group, all you will see is the proof for your way of understanding. I believe the film is consciously open to both ways of interpretation.
At least this gives rise to major post-viewing discussions, unlike classical Hollywood films, which present a neat ending solving all the problems and crises within the narrative.
As I said above, the range of story information in p is totally restricted to Max Cohen’s perspective. He is the medium through which the viewer sees, feels and experiences his/her environment. No details of other characters or hints on the story are given without his presence. This is also worked out concerning the grade of subjectivity. Not only is the narration strongly restricted, but the combination of image and sound sometimes places the viewer in Max’s head as well. During a migraine attack, there is literally no escape for the protagonist or for the viewer. The sound design of electronic noises creates a sphere of sickness, pain and suffering. You see the protagonist crying, a shaking camera tries to drive the audience a bit mad as well. The degree of subjectivity raises from perceptual to psychological here: you dive into Max’s interior world and suffer with him. His hallucinations prove very misleading to the audience. When the Jews kidnap Max from Marcy Dawson and her armed servants it comes to a fight in their car. He wants to be left alone but someone hits him. The next shot is back in his apartment. Max walks into his bathroom and finds a brain full of ants in his sink. He takes the drill and tries to smash the brain, but a few seconds later the sink is empty. And suddenly we wake up with him in the synagogue. By controlling the viewers’ expectations, the same feeling Max has is created in the audience: major disorientation. It is all about how much you can trust in what you see. The more difficult it is for Max to separate objectivity and subjectivity, the more difficult it is for the viewer.
Throughout the whole film, there is an apparent shift from objective realism towards subjective realism. We are introduced to Max’s life, environment and passion first. Then we get deeper into his character and it's tragedy. And finally, as he drills the hole, there is a return to the objective realism of the park, the world that is still there, as complex as it ever has been.
D Hints on the author
I said before, "Pi" is the first film Darren Aronosky came out with. After it's big and unexpected success, he was offered other projects. So far there has been one other release, "Requiem for a Dream" from 2000. I only saw it once, but it riveted me to my seat just as "Pi" had. And there is a lot of stylistic parallelism as well. Another common point is the cast, which was pretty fun to see again. The most obvious common element in his films is the effort to get beyond the borders of entertainment. At the same time, both films are really entertaining and (especially "Requiem") are also hard to forget. He is an excellent player when it comes to the density of the film. And both "Pi" and "Requiem" are films of shockingly increasing density. They go under your skin and I tend to see this as his signature: what you saw was a Darren Aronofsky film, but what you feel is the limitation of your reality, the conditions of your own life and how sick they are from time to time.
E Final statement
The discussions I heard about "Pi" mostly concerned the films use of mathematics. People into mathematics consider the film not credible. The graphics, Max’s explanations and his whole hypothesis — all this does not fit together well, they say. I say: if it fit together perfectly, then this would be a documentary. But it is not, so use your fantasy. And this brings us back to what I said about my fascination for this film and such narratives in general. They are global, complete, they present a round and entire story involving more than just the protagonists. And that is what I think is the most sophisticated and important feature of this picture: it takes on a life of it’s own in the view’s mind.