For this first edition of our Film Club, a handful of films came to mind, but many we’ve watched relatively recently in a casual context–The Great Beauty, Inherent Vice, a few Tarantino and Miyazaki films, for example. So I went through my short list of directors I love, and Darren Aronofsky was at the top.
I first saw Pi in college, on the recommendation of a friend, and it was one of my earliest memories of someone making a recommendation based on a director’s style (vs just recommending a great story). The high contrast black and white aesthetic and extreme close ups are striking, but it is far from just an art film–the story is gripping, as well.
To prep for this viewing, I looked up some interviews with Aronofsky explaining his stylistic influences for the film. In this interview from Combustible Celluloid he cites comic books, cyber punk, and hip hop as key aesthetic elements:
“There’s hip-hop art–graffiti, there’s hip hop dance–breakdancing, there’s hip-hop music–rap, but there really isn’t hip-hop film. So for a long time, I was trying to do that–to introduce some ideas. I think it’s partly an attitude. I think this film is sort of hip-hop in the fact that we were shooting in subways late at night for 10 of our 28 days. Also, I think it’s a way of cutting, musically and stuff. I’m sure it’s thematic also. I needs to be anti-establishment. It’s a hip-hop cyberpunk film.”
He told me that he set out to make the first cyberpunk movie. “What that meant is to have the guerilla attitude. The street attitude. We shot in the subway. All the subway sequences were stolen, because to shoot in [the] New York City subway, to get a permit [for] one day is probably the budget of our movie.”
“The concept was to make a black or white movie, not a black and white movie. We didn’t want any gray tones. We just wanted to make it as much of a comic book as possible.”
The final note I’ll mention before we watch is this “guerilla attitude” of making the film–this was Aronofsky’s first feature film, a Sundance submission, and shot on a pretty shoestring budget. I always love learning when incredible movies were made for next to nothing (Primer comes to mind as another example, which feels pretty aesthetically similar to Pi actually).
I came across some notes from the journal Aronofsky kept while making the film that were just inspiring:
The day was a long one and was almost 20 hours. Hard. Matty had a vicious headache attack. But, he stuck in there.
After wrap I had my ceremonial cigarette and then I got a beer at Capt. Walters a couzine bar in Sheepshead Bay. My mind was racing with the compromises I had to make. Film is about compromises. It’s so hard to get everything. It’s a thin line between weighing what is positive and what is negative in this world.
I’ll talk a bit more about why I love this movie after we watch it.
What I love most about Pi is how well it captures the pervasive feeling of self-inflicted mental torment running throughout the entire film. Our brains are designed to recognize patterns, seek explanations, and the rational mind pursues this objective as a path to progress, excellence, and understanding.
Eventually, however, you hit the limits of reason, encounter logical inconsistencies or phenomena you cannot find a rational explanation for. You might concede to absurdity like Camus or some sort of dualism like you find in Eastern philosophies, but if you try to reason your way out of the limits of rationality, you’re going to suffer, get stuck in circularities, tormented by the limits of this thought process that is so effective at solving so many problems, but unable to escape its own inadequacies.
Mathematics is the cathedral of pure reason, attractive, I think to the minds that cling tightest to reason. All of the coincidences and patterns in Pi (none of which, btw, are made up) are the types of explanations you start grasping for as you start to explain everything. I’ve often felt I got stuck in mental ‘loops,’ revisiting the same hypothesis and conclusions and dead ends and circular logic when encountering the inexplicable, but I think the better visualization that runs through Pi for this is the spiral. Each loop in thinking leads you further and further down into the abyss, deeper into a self inflicted insanity.
Ultimately, I think Pi amounts to a warning about the limits of using pure reason to search for the meaning of life.