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Second Time Around 

Wednesday, Nov 18 1998
The Sources of Pi
Darren Aronofsky's clever film won immediate cult support when it opened earlier this year, and as Pi (or 3.14, to use its proper title) reaches repertory theaters and passes to video, no doubt its reputation will grow. The tale of a mad mathematician seeking ultimate truth in the first 216 digits of the non-repeating number that represents the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, Pi is a cleverly worked out parable of the necessity of preferring real life to any number of numbers, no matter how meaningful. Playing the possessed visionary Max Cohen, who builds a supercomputer in his New York apartment, co-scenarist Sean Gullette rolls his eyes and clutches his head convincingly as his search for the meaning of that magic number afflicts him with blinding headaches that fling him to his hovel's floor.

Since Cohen's pain seems centered in his temple, perhaps the filmmakers are suggesting its source is temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), which some psychologists have postulated as the source for the religious visions of prophets from Moses to St. Paul, and the secular visions of artists from Dostoevski to Van Gogh. I'm intrigued but doubtful: Using TLE as an escape hatch adds a nice touch of quasi-scientific skepticism to Aronofsky's movie, in which we're otherwise given to believe Max is truly onto something real in his mathematical pursuits.

Of course, lots of people in the movie think Max is onto something real; he's pursued both by an evil corporation out to manipulate the stock market, and a group of Jewish cabalists who believe the 216 digits, properly invoked, might grant them access to God. Again, Aronofsky draws from real traditions. Umberto Eco's wonderful book The Search for a Perfect Language explores the ways in which, over the centuries, humans have manipulated both words and numbers to try to discover the true nature of the universe. The Jewish tradition of cabala is just one branch of this search. There's precedent for the stock market plot element as well: John Brockman's interesting The Third Culture (1996) cites at least one former Los Alamos physicist who's trying to use chaos theory to predict and trade in financial markets.

Another element of Max Cohen's persona may well be drawn from the brilliant mathematician Gregory Chudnovsky, who with his brother David set out to calculate all the digits of pi. Employing their own mathematical formula and a specially made computer, whose homemade coils, like Max's machine, snarled around their apartment, the Chudnovskys at one point held the world's record for defining pi when they hit the 8 billion digit mark. (Other researchers with more modern machines have long since passed the 50 billion digit mark, a blow to home-grown geniuses everywhere.)

Pi is not a movie of complete and dazzling originality, as some have claimed. It is, however, a film that creatively draws on an eclectic mix of fact and speculation, and speculations about facts, in an extremely clever way. As such Pi is a rare good example of "science fiction" that is literally that -- fiction about science.

-- Gregg Rickman

Pi screens Sunday and Monday, Nov. 22 and 23, at 7:15 and 9:15 p.m. (with matinees Sunday at 2 and 4 p.m.) at the Red Vic, 1727 Haight (at Clayton), S.F. Admission is $6; call 668-3994.

About The Author

Gregg Rickman


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