Thursday, December 7, 2017

Darren Aronofsky, part I: Irrational constant


Darren Aronfsky smashes his way onto the scene with one thunderously energetic debut, pondering the "nature of genius" in an almost-offensively schematic way, but really only using that as a blind to get to the heart of the human endeavorand the way that the thing that makes us the masters of our world can become, without us even realizing it, the thing that drives us mad.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Sean Gullette, Eric Watson, and Darren Aronofsky
With Sean Gullette (Maximillian Cohen), Mark Margolis (Sol Robeson), Samia Shoaib (Devi), Pamela Hart (Marcy Dawson), Ben Shenkman (Lenny Meyer), and Stephen Pearlman (Rebbe Cohen)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The turn of the 21st century was a different cinematic landscape, they say, though I don't know exactly how true this is—it's not like rogue indie directors have stopped making tiny weird movies.  Maybe the difference is that, in the fertile years of the nineties and the early, early aughts, the little guys making movies on their mom's credit cards were just better.  But then, that could be nostalgia talking.  Only time tells, don't it?

Time's told, at least, for Darren Aronofsky, who, amongst his cohort of shit-poor 90s indie directors who made good, has remained perhaps the least domesticated of the lot.  Often this has been for the better; sometimes it's been for the worse; but he's rarely if ever compromised, in spite of his curious success, and even with all the big studio budgets and all the movie stars (to fuck) that this success has afforded him, he's still making the movies he wants to make.  Well, Harvard has better reason to be proud of Aronofsky than some of its graduates.

So, in 1997—and already an accomplished student filmmaker, thanks to his stint at the AFI conservatory, because I suppose there's no such thing as too much educationAronofsky raised a pittance of $60,000 from friends and family, and made his first feature film, π.

And, yes, it is a treat of a title to look at (and, while I presume it wasn't calculated to put the DVD at the front of your collection, that is how it's shaken out), but for convenience's sake, let's call the movie Artisan Entertainment released in 1998 Pi.  In it, Aronofsky established in 84 minutes what he intended to do for most of the rest of his career: study, in the finest detail and in the broadest strokes, the human drive toward obsession.

The irony, I assume, is intentional.  Or at least metafictional.

It is no secret, anyway, that Aronofsky's essentially remade Pi, in different registers, over and over again, going on at least five times out of seven films.  (And the other big element of Pi, Aronofsky's interest in the mystical—and the intersection where insanity meets divinity, apotheosis—would abide throughout his filmography, too, sometimes comparatively subtly, like in Black Swan, and sometimes really, really obviously, like in his most recent film, mother!, which turns out to be, amongst other things, a single-location retelling of the Bible.)

But Pi may remain the most direct and naked of Aronofsky's stabs at the one-track mind, a tale of singularly-tortured genius gone awry.  That genius is Max Cohen, Aronofsky's weaponized stereotype of The Mathematician: the very first words of Pi are Max's clipped, pissy voiceover narration (a constant throughout), relating to us the story of the time that Max's mother told him, as a child, not to look at the sun, which he of course did anyway, till he stared himself blind.  Other than regaining his sight—and gaining an endemic case of untreatable, debilitating headaches—Max has not changed all that much in the meantime, still stubborn and trapped entirely within his own desire for knowledge.  But he's set his intellect upon another, deeper target now, the great mathematical pattern he dimly perceives, that must, after all, govern our world of physical laws.  Debating such matters with his sickly mentor Sol over games of go, and locking himself in his cramped room with his enormous computer Euclid, he has recently begun to look for this pattern in the movements of capitalism, which Max describes as a billion minds linked together, in the form of the stock market.

He catches a glimpse before his system fries itself: a 216 digit number that may be the same one Sol once found, in his researches into the depths of pi, and which almost killed him when he tried to comprehend its significance.  It may predict the market.  According to Lenny Meyer, the kabbalistic numerologist who thrusts his way into Max's life, it may even be the secret name of God, once known to the Temple priests of Jerusalem—the kohanim, no less—now lost for 2000 years.  Max knows it's something beyond even that; and Pi, in sum, is the story of the lengths he'll go to find it again, and understand it, even if understanding it destroys his sanity in the process.

Or, what's left of it: Max is certainly not well even before he begins his quest, and Aronofsky's well ahead of Max's descent.  Pi is essentially what Eraserhead would look like at triple-speed—and it's more than a little surprising that of Aronofsky's long list of stated influences on Pi, Lynch wasn't one of them.  This is fair enough, though: Pi wouldn't be that easily mistaken for the meditative surrealism of Eraserhead, anyway, in that Pi never lets up (and, at the risk of uttering a tangential blasphemy against a filmmaker I don't especially care about, Pi never gets boring).  Pi's signal quality is its momentum, fast, disorienting scene-to-scene editing and fusillade montage, lines finishing long after the image has passed, shots barely-connected by causation, if somewhat more intertwined with meaning.  There is a focus upon details (go boards, mathematical formulae, silicon circuits, keyboards), revealing their significance in ticcy, nervous patterns of their own.  "18:30: hit return."  (As for the filmmaker Aronofsky does give the most credit to, Shinya Tsukamato, the mind behind the assaultive surrealism of Tetsuo, one presumes the director really couldn't have gotten away without nodding in his direction.)  Aronofsky called it "hip-hop editing" at the time, even if we'd probably prefer he hadn't.

It is absurdly dynamic, anyway, reflecting, deep within the structure of the film itself, Max's own subjectivity—notably, Pi never leaves Max's point-of-view even once—and Max's subjective experience is, of course, of a mind racing completely out of control, spurred on by some obscure instinct inside.  If Max begins at maximum speed, the urgency of his pursuit, and the physical pain of his illness, drive him even faster, and straight into hallucination.  What isn't certain is whether these waking nightmares are walls between him and the thing he seeks, or the cracks within the wall, that he needs but pry open.  But they do get wider, either way: a bloody brain on the floor; a quaking doorway that leads into a white-hot heaven or hell; the shrieking metallic sound of a mind coming unmoored.  Pi was Aronofsky's first of six collaborations with Clint Mansell (indeed, Pi was also his first film), and three of those (at least) have been extravagantly productive collaborations, including this one.  But Pi's is still by far the least friendly—between Mansell's score and well-chosen noise-music, both bleeding into the soundscape of Max's head so completely that it's kind of hard to tell where one starts and the other ends, it all stops just short of painful.

And Pi is one terrifically abrasive experience altogether, of course, from its editing to its sound design to, well, its everything; it probably couldn't be anything else, and still be so successful at communicating what it does.  If Aronofsky acknowledged Lynch by omission, the proof of that's in every individual frame—as is Aronofsky's named inspirations, including Frank Miller, especially Sin City.  (Here it pays to recall that Aronofsky is something of a wannabe comic book writer.  But whether the small-time status of his graphic novel adaptations of many of his filmsThe Fountain, Noah, and Pi itself—have more to do with their inherent quality as sequential art, or the suffocating nature of the comic marketplace, or even just the fact that the movies are already right there, I'm afraid I can't say.)  Aronofsky might've done well to namedrop John Frankenheimer and James Wong Howe, too, however—considering that the uncanny moving close-up SnorriCam techniques that Aronofsky's made virtually synonymous with his own style first made their way into American movies with Seconds.

But you surely notice that every precursor I've named is in black-and-white, and this is Pi's most blatant coup: grotesque, high-grain, high-contrast, often literal black-and-white cinematography, courtesy Matthew Libatique, for whom Pi represented his own first breakthrough, too.  Alternately revealing and obliterating texture, rarely has a movie's filmstock ever quite so perfectly reflected its subject, on top of being simply damned interesting to look at, regardless of what it actually has to say about Max's own monochromed perspective.

And Max and Max's grasp for meaning makes for a fascinating subject indeed, albeit a sometimes-frustrating one, and Aronofsky's screenplay (arising from a story by Eric Watson and star Sean Gullette, along with Aronofsky himself) is easily the least-perfect thing about Pi.  There is the double-edged sword of Max's character, obviously enough: we do need him to get to where Pi is going, but we can't get there without the film reducing "genius" first to "social retardation," and then to "inspired insanity," as overused a trope as there ever was.  But, above all (and sorry to say), Pi's just kind of fucking stupid.

While the rush and flow of the thing keeps you from thinking too deeply (or especially caring) about many of Max's circle-squaring pronouncements, it really doesn't always conceal this stupidity well: there's plenty of notable mistakes.  But all of them pale in comparison to the astronomical damnfoolishness of that moment when an angry Max spits at an even angrier gang of Hasidim that he alone can comprehend "the syntax between the numbers" in this ostensible name of God, remarking that he's sure that they've listed every 216 digit number, translated their values into Hebrew, intoned them all, and gotten nothing—this mathematician apparently forgetting that 10216 is, let's say, something of a rather large number, so if I were him I wouldn't be sure about any of that at all.

These are lousy nitpicks, I realize that.  But nitpicks, I always say, add up.  They're just such unforced errors, all of which could've been easily elided by the screenplay if Aronofsky had put in even a slight effort at doing so; I mean, Aronofsky, Jewish himself and at least interested in Jewish numerology, must know that Arabic numerals and the numeric values of Hebrew letters don't actually use anything like the same base-ten system.  (Yeah, that number above would seem to actually be 22216.)  In fact, I know he knows this.  It's in the movie.  But I guess he forgot, or, more likely, thought we wouldn't care.  I do not care much, true; but I'd prefer my movies about math not to be belligerently innumerate.

Also?  This movie doesn't really have a lot to do with π.  That's strange, right?

What Pi's screenplay ought to be praised for, though, is the way it studiously avoids ever falling into the trap of becoming just a thriller: there are plots against Max, sort ofwrought by Wall Street, the Hasidim, antsbut they only ever add up to another stressor, the paranoia they engender possibly not reflective of anything but the paranoid streak already present in his Max's mind.  We are anchored to Maxand to Gullette's intensity-incarnate performance.  The way he looks like he's going to explode, or cry, or just vanish into thin air upon the completion of his holy task carries us along with him through diamond moments of brilliance and epiphany, and through hells of torment and incomprehensibility.  But it avoids becoming just a psychological thriller, too, at least any old psychological thriller.  (It is a common observation, but no less true for being vulgar, that if you want to see the bad version of Pi, simply watch The Number 23.)

Pi, more than anything else, is a horror film, a cosmic horror film.  It is dressed up with mathematical ornamentation, and, like its spiritual forerunner Altered States, hammered into the basic shape of a story about "genius."  But it is concerned with universal matters, and humanity's most fundamental needto find a meaning and order in the world we've crawled screaming into.  And the more meaningless and chaotic we realize things actually are, of course the more keenly we feel the pain of that need.  Thus does Pi, in its punishing extremity, wonder if consciousness itself, the root of that unquenchable desire, may be a kind of cancer.  It wonders if it may be best to cut it out.

Score:  10/10

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