Darren Aronofsky’s Pi shouldn’t have succeeded, but it remains the director’s most important film

Artisan Entertainment

Today is Pi Day, and there’s no better way to celebrate it than talking about Darren Aronofsky’s disturbing, strange and influential, feature-length directorial debut, Pi.

Pi is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. As an irrational number, it can’t be expressed a complete fraction but only as an infinite decimal. Since the number is infinite, most refer to the figure as 3.14159, or in simpler, more conversational cases, 3.14. Hence why March 14 — the fourteenth day of the third month — has become Pi Day.

Pi has become more than just a number, however. Many mathematicians, artists and philosophers have spoken at length about why the figure is beautiful. In a series of drawings from 2015, artists imagined Pi as a visual spectacle. As Steven Strogratz wrote in The New Yorker, “The beauty of pi, in part, is that it puts infinity within reach.”

Aronofsky uses the complex beauty of pi to tell a story about a man searching for something more than his dreary life. Pi is a film that explores the beauty of life’s infinite possibilities as they appear through mathematical algorithms and numbers.

Aronofsky is better known for his work on films like Black Swan, The Wrestler, Noah and Requiem for a Dream, but Pi was a perfect example of experimentation in film. Unlike the other four, Pi was a much harder film to sell — it only starred one actor and was deliberately confusing. It was also filmed in black and white, featured little dialogue and progressed at a snail’s pace, but to date, Aronofsky hasn’t made a better or more beautiful movie about philosophy and life.

Darren Aronofsky’s Pi shouldn’t have succeeded, but it remains the director’s most important film Artisan Entertainment

Pi is a weird, weird movie

The first thing you should know about Pi if you’ve never seen it is that it’s strange. Aronofsky told Indiewire in a 1998 interview that he applied many of the techniques he learned in film school to the movie. He took inspiration from “Japanese surreal, sci-fi film Tetsuo” and was “influenced by Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone and Frank Miller’s comic book Sin City,” according to Indiewire. Aronofsky chose to explore the avant-garde side of cinema and made a movie about math that audiences could relate to and be exited by.

“People seem to be responding that they get it,” Aronofsky told Indiewire. “People who hate math are like, ‘It’s not a math movie, it’s a mystical movie.’ It’s pop math, really. Everyone bought Chaos, that chaos book that everyone read the first three pages and then it became a doorstop or something. That’s what the film is. It’s like the first three pages of those cool math books.”

“It’s not a math movie, it’s a mystical movie”

Understandably, Pi is a weird movie to sell. The film follows a young, repressed mathematician named Maximillian Cohen, who has become obsessed with trying to find a numerical pattern in the stock market’s chaos. Unlike other financial films like Wall Street or The Big Short, the focus of the movie isn’t on the financial sector. Instead, Pi uses the stock market and its chaos as a way of exploring a man’s frail mental state. It’s a keen look into an obsessive mind that becomes almost claustrophobic as every number he comes across throws him deeper into despair.

Aronofsky is a director who likes to examine the mentality of his characters. In Requiem for a Dream, he studies the emotional state of addicts and the mentally disturbed. In Black Swan, Aronofsky breaks down the complicated relationship between dancers and the competitive animosity that exists within the world of professional dance. The director likes to examine humanity at its worse, but with Pi, there’s a type of beauty surrounding Cohen’s dark, obsessive habits. His life has a purpose.

Pi could not have been made today

I said earlier that Pi was an incredibly strange movie, and that’s putting it lightly. It’s the type of film that unfortunately could not have been made today. Even in 1998, when Aronofsky debuted the film at Sundance, he acknowledged that Pi would be a hard sell.

“You can imagine what Pi looked like on paper,” Aronofsky told Indiewire. “I came to Sundance and I really saw the films they were praising were really great films made by directors who were really doing their films. Here are these bad-ass people who went out, made out their own projects and Sundance is praising them, and you know what, if you go out, you do what you want to do, if you’re not a copycat and you just do it, you’ll get recognized. That’s the only way to do it well.”

“You can imagine what Pi looked like on paper”

Still, Aronofsky admitted he was able to grab producers willing to drop more than $60,000 on a strange, avant-garde and black and white film at a time when it was becoming increasingly rare. Now, Pi seems like something that would be made into a 10-part series by Netflix or FX.

Pi is one of the last independent movies of the late ‘90s that can be looked at as a byproduct of an era that’s long gone. Aronofsky was able to garner critical acclaim with both that and Requiem for a Dream, allowing him to pursue projects like Black Swan, but the era of film that existed when Pi was released — a one-person narrative — is long gone.

There are a few movies and TV shows you could spend your Pi Day watching; most notably being Bryan Fuller’s underrated Pushing Daisies television show, but if you’ve never seen Pi, today is the perfect excuse to put it on and get lost in Aronofsky’s artistry.

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