Friday, 7 March 2014

In defence of Pi.

My good friend Graeme Cooper recently berated the film Pi (Darren Aronofsky) saying it was one of the worst films he had ever seen and that it angered him. Well, as much as he hates the film, I love it. Here is my response to him and anyone else wanting to join in the ruckus:

In defence of Pi.

Your first issue was that “only two people mattered in the film” and that everybody else was “boring and pointless”.

The film is firmly fixated on the main character – the recluse genius. All other characters only matter to the film inasmuch as they relate to him. So while only two people mattered to you, there is only the main character that really matters. The film, then, will live or die according to how interesting we find the genius (very), his plight (riveting), and the actor’s performance (incredible), and so on. There are five main secondary characters, but before I move onto these I want to say that I think it’s perfectly legitimate for a film to be concerned solely with one person. Actually, I think it’s quite common for intense, psychological films to do this. Apocalypse Now and Jacobs Ladder spring to mind, but I am sure there are many more. It’s probably the case that the decision by the writer/director to focus on one person is deliberate: that person functions as an anchor for the audience whilst they process difficult subject matter and it keeps things simple.

You’ve acknowledged the genius’s mentor – the Go-playing old man – as someone who mattered (i.e. somebody you liked), so we need not concern ourselves with him. The other characters are the Asian woman next door, the happy young girl, the Jewish man he meets in the cafĂ©, and the corporate black woman who tries to woo him. These you mark out as “boring and pointless”. I disagree. Even though they may not all be fully fleshed out characters in their own right, they are important to the story and understanding the genius’s psychological state.

The Asian woman is beautiful, sensuous, and caring. He is concomitantly poorly groomed, asexual, and caustic. The Jewish man mirrors himself most closely. They share the same obsession and since this obsession means everything to the genius they become friends. The Jewish guy is cool. He has a good beard, speaks naturally, and has a fun side but also a serious side. All in all, an interesting character. The black woman for the company I don’t recall so well. I mean, clearly she is the ugly and ruthless face of profit-making willing to do whatever it takes to acquire the lucrative number. She smooth-talks him and promises him material reward – a new computer for starters. The genius is disinterested and has rejected the rat race. Isn’t there a brilliant line where he shouts something at her “Don’t you get it? I’m trying to understand our world! I don’t deal with petty materialists like you!”

The young girl represents a simplistic outlook and taking joy from the little things, again two things our protagonist rejects. At the end of the film, there is a scene where the little girl asks the genius to do some sums but now he cannot answer as before. He is genuinely happy not to be able to answer. Why? Not – as you say – because the film promotes the mantra “ignorance is bliss”, but for other reasons. Because he has overcame his obsession; he can feel the elements; the park is beautiful; the young girl is beautiful and is still warming to him; and because the answer to the sum “34x66/13” does not matter to him at this point. This, I feel, is quite different to ignorance is bliss. Yes, he didn’t unravel all the mysteries of the number and so technically remained ignorant to them, but at what cost would it have been to him to keep going? Look what pursing the number did to his health and to those around him. It nearly destroyed everyone. Nobodies motives were pure in pursing the number; not his, not the Jewish sect, not the shady corporation.

The genius’s self-inflicted lobotomy is not to stupefy him, but, I believe, to rid him of the obsession of which the growth on his head had became the physical manifestation. I don’t think watching Pi is about finding a message as such, but in experiencing its intensity and immersive quality. I don’t think there is an “ignorance is bliss” message at all. If we must take a message from his example, it’s that the pursuit of some knowledge, potentially dangerous knowledge, might not be worth it, especially if the pursuit of said knowledge is self-destructive and harmful to those around you. Make of that what you will.

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