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The Boston Phoenix Pi-eyed

Playing the circle game

By Peter Keough

JULY 27, 1998:  What Stephen Spielberg does for physical trauma in Saving Private Ryan, promising newcomer Darren Aronofsky does for mental anguish in Pi, perhaps the only commercially made film with a Greek letter for a title. At the heart of both is the search for meaning in seeming chaos -- in Aronofsky's case, the discovery of a transcendent pattern in the endlessly random value of the title mathematical function.

Even at 85 minutes the film is a little long -- it seems at times like an overbaked and repetitious Jorge Luis Borges story, when it would have made a brilliant short along the lines of Chris Marker's La jetée. Yet it remains a tour de force of metaphysical cinema. Downright assaultive in its depiction of madness, cosmic consciousness, and urban annoyances, with a visual style of nightmarish imagery shot in corrosive, frenetically edited black-and-white and a synthesizer soundtrack that is the auditory equivalent of paper cuts, it might leave some audience members with migraines and nosebleeds.

Those are the symptoms experienced by Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette, very effective at looking intense and miserable). In a voiceover introduction, he describes how, Icarus-like, he acquired these maladies by disobeying his mother and staring too long at the sun. In seeming compensation, he was accorded prodigious mathematical gifts and the compulsion to comprehend the Pythagorean numerical framework of all phenomena.

He's a kind of Travis Bickle of the abstract, cruising the mean streets of the mental labyrinth in his crammed Brooklyn apartment, which resembles in its motley, electronic gimcrackry an especially low-rent set in Brazil. Prominent among the decor is Euclid, a homemade supercomputer that Max stuffs with data in his quest for a solution to his problem. Like the cyber-villains Captain Kirk vanquishes on the original Star Trek ("The Changeling," "The Ultimate Computer"), Euclid blows a gasket, but not before spitting out a page-long, seemingly arbitrary series of numbers. Disgusted, Max tosses the printout in a rubbish basket, an act that proves rash, and one of Pi's less inspired plot devices.

Solipsistic though he may be, Max is not alone in his world or obsessions. There's his mentor, Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis), whose own effort at solving Pi ended with a stroke, and who now counsels Max with moderation. "You're no longer a mathematician," he warns, "you're a numerologist." His words, however, seem less alarming than the swirling pattern of black and white stones on the go board prominent in his apartment.

Neither do strangers grant Max anonymity. In the local coffee shop -- where he ponders the swirls of cream in his coffee, which remind him of the Golden Spiral postulated by Leonardo, one of the tantalizing clues to unraveling his mystery -- Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a genial Chassid, introduces himself by saying, "Are you Jewish? I'm a Jew too!" Max's "accidental" encounters with Lenny grow more frequent; Lenny, it turns out, is an agent from a Kabala who believe that Max's research will help them find the lost name of God.

More aggressive is Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart), a smarmy, sinister Wall Street functionary stalking Max and tempting him with state-of-the-art computer equipment. Max's motives, it seems, are not entirely scientific -- should he succeed, he would not only decipher the identity of God but would crack the code of the fluctuations of Wall Street, which as marginal glimpses of newspaper headlines indicate is undergoing a crash that makes 1929 look like a mild corrective dip.

The underground battle between ringleted Chassidim and power-suited brokers, with the threat of Japanese interlopers lurking in the background, has a certain surreal appeal, and it puts the imploding ordeal of Max's Promethean hubris in a cartoonishly apocalyptic perspective. Although it provides black comic relief, it seems ultimately irrelevant. What is inescapable is Max's solitary drive toward forbidden knowledge, a drive made almost unbearable by the film's relentless subjectivity. The patterns of cigarette smoke, the sweaty claustrophobia of subway cars, the occasional ant exploring an electrical fixture -- these only reflect his obsession, leading him to madness or enlightenment, or both.

The ending of Pi is mind-boggling but unsatisfactory. Which is to be expected -- the number, after all, is infinite and devoid of point or pattern. Aronofsky gets into the trap of posing an ingenious conundrum and then trying to solve it. And it's hard not to dwell on that conundrum long after the film is over. Haunting in its bold style and speculations, Pi may be hard to swallow but is well worth a taste.

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