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Friday, March 22, 2013

First of Fourteen: Pi

This series is dedicated to the viewing of first films by fourteen different directors of my choosing. The purpose being a retrospective look back at each film and where it stands in their overall canon and how it may have shaped each director's style in subsequent years. Each director chosen is currently active, and has helmed at least five films.

Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker that had to grow on me. I'll go ahead and lay my cards out on the table, I can't stand Requiem for a Dream. It's well acted enough, and it has interesting elements, but the film's script is so clunky and preachy, it's like you're watching a hardcore after-school special. Since then, Aronofsky's talents have grown exponentially via beautiful works like The Fountain (highly unappreciated), The Wrestler, and Black Swan. The latter two being his most accomplished works to date. I await Noah with bated breath in anticipation that it will continue forward momentum that he's engendered thus far. I've never been able to finish Pi. It's a movie that I've put into my player at least three times, and I constantly stop somewhere by the 45 minute mark due to a variety of distractions and an inability to "get into it". A few weeks ago, I finally finished it, I'm pretty sure I figured out what I didn't like about it in the first place.

I assume if you've clicked on this article, you're most likely already familiar with the inner workings of the plot, but to give a quick overview for the uninitiated: Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a mathematical genius that has created a home-built supercomputer that he utilizes to analyze and predict the exact performance of every stock in the NYSE. While studying the output of this computer, he recognizes a pattern of 216 digits. These 216 digits brings about the attention of both a Jewish numerologist (Ben Shenkman), who mentions its possible connections to the Torah, and Max's mentor (Mark Margolis) who encountered a computer bug of 216 digit code when he was investigating the number Pi. To tie this messaging together physically, Max has a mark on his head in the shape of the symbol Pi, which causes him debilitating headaches but he also believes is the source of his genius. The conflict caused here prompts Max to see a stalking man who isn't really there, and creates an inner struggle of sacrifice for him, particularly when a software company comes calling to utilize his work and skillset.

Pi is a film of diminishing returns. Aronofsky's work has a strong central concept, and its opening act is pretty intriguing. It sets its mysteries well, and when it explains some of the inner workings of how the 216 digit string interacts with the Torah, it plays fair with the audience. Information is given at a mile a minute, but there are no cheats in sight. And there are some really neat ideas at play here relating to how the numbers 3, 1, and 4 combine differently within the hebrew language to mean different words like "child", "father" "mother" etc..and the plotline surrounding the Jewish sect seeking to work with Max in order to learn the "true name of God" is one of the more fascinating aspects of the script. Surprisingly, for all its attempts at complexity, Pi has some surprisingly simple messaging that life itself doesn't fit into any describable pattern, which is a lesson that Max eventually learns by its conclusion. The problem being, Pi's attempts at character study are completely undone by fairly shoddy acting. Whereas most films have waves of rising and falling action, Pi starts off strongly, but it weaknesses begin to wear on the viewer in that by the conclusion you find yourself looking at your watch.

In speaking with Hannah about Aronofsky, who is probably her favorite Director, she maintains that one of the hallmarks of his career is his ability to pull off tremendous performances from actors and actresses that you wouldn't normally think much of in most cases, and certainly nowhere near as much beforehand. I completely found myself in agreement to that point in that I could look at The Fountain and think back to how little I generally thought of Hugh Jackman as a capable performer beyond his stagey persona. But within that particular work, you're able to see the full range of what he's able to bring to the camera. I still believe it's his finest on-screen performance. This may go double-time for both Mickey Rourke and Natalie Portman, who were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor and Actress in their respective year with Portman winning. Neither actor has really bounced back with anything anywhere near the same calibre since. All of this, along with say Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream, has to be credited to the efforts that Aronofsky is able to partner with actors on. There's just some incredible mojo there for lack of a better term. In Pi, there wasn't much for him to work with.

Most of the blame has to fall squarely on a pretty dull lead. Gullette, who was co-screenwriter for the script, simply is unable to convey the emotional complexities that his own script required. A script that is clearly focused on character struggle needs a strong central performer, and Gullette comes across as so unconvincing that it often pulled me out of the experience. In particular, anytime anger was involved, his acting was almost laughable. The problem being, Max takes up about 99% of the screentime, so we're a captive audience to his special brand of torture. It's strange to say that a film's strength is also its greatest weakness but somehow Gullette pulls it off in his writing/acting combo. The other performers fare somewhat better, at least Margolis and Shenkman who give capable readings. Anyone else who appears on camera is clearly an amateur, but they're so rarely on-screen that it matters little.

There are nice visual flares throughout, which keep the film from falling into the dreaded "Following territory", whereas rather than Christopher Nolan's debut, Aronofsky's camera chops were out on display and he certainly did a much more admirable job of scene setting and mood striking. Yet, the film just feels lesser than the grand spectacle of sight and sound that has come under his name, particularly in recent years. I was surprised to note that Clint Mansell composed the score for Pi, as its clangy house electronic music was a far cry from the gorgeously rendered scores that populated any of his future collaborations with the Director. It's just one more example of how the film just didn't quite gel together.

If more could have been done at the embryonic stage, I believe Pi would have been a more successful first feature for Aronofsky. Certainly it was a stepping stone to greater heights, but such a strong script deserved more affection at the casting stage, small budget or not, which could have brought a greater depth to the characterization and not sacrificed the verisimilitude that a movie like this requires for its audience. I know Pi has a cult audience, and its ideas are worthy of praise, there just had to be a better messenger of them that Aronofosky could have and should have found. As it stands, Pi is a cerebral movie that is dramatically inert.

Were I to grade this film I'd give it a C+

Next time on First of Fourteen, I plan on delving into the new Criterion release of Terrence Malick's Badlands when time allows, which will hopefully be soon!

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