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PI: FAITH IN CHAOS (1998)



PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: philosophy of science, determinism

CHARACTERS: Max (Sean Gullette, lead character), Sol (older friend of Max’s), Devi (Max’s female neighbor), Rabbi Cohen

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR DARREN ARONOFSKY: Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006)

SYNOPSIS:
Pi: Faith in Chaos is the fictional story of Maximillian Cohen, a mathematical genius seeking to understand the order of the universe. Max believes that everything around us may be understood in numbers and if you graph the numbers of any system then patterns will emerge. He is haunted by migraines and hallucinations as the stress and mounting pressure of his work wears him out. As if the pressure alone of unlocking the secret to understanding the universe is not enough, a group of Wall Street goons and a mystic Jewish sect are all after the 216-digit number that Max is able to uncover. Finding the 216-digit number is just the beginning for Max; his real great effort is in how he utilizes his newfound knowledge.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. The complete title of the film is “Pi: Faith in Chaos.” How does the concept of faith apply to the film?

2. Max states the following to Rabbi Cohen: “It's more than God... it’s everything. It's math and science and nature...the universe. I saw the Universe's DNA.” How could a mathematical pattern be something like the Universe’s DNA?

3. Suppose that there is a mathematical pattern that allows one to comprehend the order of the universe. How would that impact questions about free will and determinism?

4. In the “Actor’s Commentary,” Sean Gullette (Max) explains that the “stock market contains a true order because it is a chaotic system and Quantum theory teaches that whenever there’s a true natural chaotic system there must be a natural order within it.” Max is basing his assumptions and work on the assumption that the stock market is a natural organism. Do you agree with him?

5. Aronofsky uses the “hip hop pill montage” to signify the start of each of Max’s headaches. In the montage, Aronofsky uses extreme camera angles, drastic contrast lighting and somewhat creepy music to create a “manic” atmosphere until the headache attack is over. Although the hallucinations are different each time Aronofsky repeats the same sequence of events and music accompanying the attacks. Is this pattern, the sense of familiarity it gives the viewer, an important aspect of the sequence? That is, if each headache sequence was entirely different, would the “manic” effect be more vivid or less vivid?

6. Aronofsky designed the “hip hop pill montage” because he wanted to bring the hip hop style that has permeated the music and fashion industries, but remained lacking in cinematography. Do you think that designing a sequence based on a style compromises the film, enhances is, or does not make a difference (if done well)?

7. In the Director’s Commentary, Aronofsky discusses Farroukh (the neighbor’s, boyfriend) in a scene where Farroukh threatens Max. The director states that this scene, and largely Farroukh’s character, got cut because he was created to increase intensity and add to paranoia and fear in Max, but Max already had enough. Do you think that the film would have benefited significantly from Farroukh’s character, had be been more prominent?

8. Euclid, Max’s impressive homemade computer, is built from parts Max collected from a computer scrap yard. What is the significance of a computer made from junk yard parts being used to discover the pattern in the stock market that Max believes will allow him to understand how the universe works?

9. Patterns are everywhere in this film. In particular, spiral pattern are found in coffee creamer, the child’s slinky, smoke, plants, shells. What is the significance of the spiral pattern in relation to Fibonacci numbers and the golden spiral?

10. Pi’s setting is designed to look “timeless” with a rotary phone, Euclid (made of scraps), original floppy disks, a dot printer and black and white film. To what extent is Max’s quest timeless also?

11. Sol, a character designed to develop Max’s human side, quit his work on pi and number theory supposedly because of a stroke. However, Sol attempts to dissuade Max from continuing his work (or to at least take a break) because of the stress it is causing Max. Sol relates Max’s work to Icarus flying too close to the sun. Sol declares, “Fly too high: you get burnt.” What is Max’s motive for discouraging Max?

12. Ants, the only organic creatures in Max’s apartment other than Max, are another reoccurring pattern in this film. Without watching the “Director’s Commentary” the significance of the ants may be missed. Aronofsky was visiting Mayan ruins in Mexico with friends when, he says, “Suddenly I started to realize that in the center of this plaza were these ants. A whole city of ants. These giant 20 or 30-foot high anthills with rivers of ants flowing between the different hills and then streams of ants going out into the rainforest to grab supplies and bring it back home. I had one of those moments where I suddenly saw that here, at the center of one of humanity’s greatest civilizations, which was extinct and gone, it was inherited by this great city of ants and sort of the relationships and levels of life and existence. Those ants didn’t give a shit about the Mayans. All they cared about was that they were going to get their leaves and fruits. It was one of those moments where there was no difference between ants and people.” In the film ants infest Max’s apartment to the point where the ants destroy Euclid; after he receives the new computer chip the ants are seen less. How does this relate to the ants taking over the extinct Mayan civilization?

13. The newspaper ad for Lancet-Percy, Marcy Dawson’s Wall Street firm, is frequently shown. “Lancet-Percy 86% Accuracy (Only God is Perfect)” What is its significance?

14. Sean Gullette, the actor who plays Max, thinks that Max’s paranoia is not that the world is out to get him, but that the world is out to help him. How specifically does Max’s environment actively reach out to help him find patterns?

15. During the last “hip hop film montage” of the film Max does not swallow the pills. Instead, he redirects his pain into the destruction of Euclid. What is the significance of this break in pattern.

16. As the second act progresses, Max’s headaches increase in intensity as he becomes more stressed by his quest and desperate for understanding. his hallucinations become less obvious as such without paying attention to the pattern of the “hip hop pill montage” sequence

17. Sol and Max begin arguing about why Sol quit his number theory work:
Max: You were afraid of it. That’s why you quit.
Sol: Max, I got burnt.
Max: C’mon Sol.
Sol: It caused my stroke.
Max: That’s bullshit. It’s math, numbers, ideas. Mathematicians are supposed to be out on the edge. You taught me that!
Sol: Max, there’s more than math! There’s a whole world…
Max: That’s where discoveries happen. We have to go out there alone, all alone, no one can accompany us. We have to search the edge. We have to risk it all. But you ran from it. You’re a coward.
What’s at the heart of the dispute between the two?

18. Sean Gullette, the actor who plays max, states the following in the actor’s commentary to the film: “One of the, to me, good ambiguities of the film is that it’s not God that pushes him back, or maybe it is, it’s not necessarily a neurological thing that pushes him back, it’s not necessarily something psychological, or maybe it is, it’s not necessarily something in the natural world, but something is causing him to retrace his steps and destroy all evidence [of his work on number theory]”. What’s Gullette’s point?

19. Sean Gullette states that, at a certain point, we start to see the film “as being the science fiction of inner space rather than outer space. It’s a mapping of Max’s interiority and consciousness. And at a certain point in the film we start to realize, and Max starts to realize, that there’s a one to one correspondence between what’s going on in the world around him and what’s going on in his head. And that the increasingly bizarre connections between all the shit that’s happening between the Hassids, Wall Street, and the number are replicated by the agonies of his brain. And so he decides he has to investigate closer the phenomenon inside and turn his science upon himself for the first time. He hasn’t paid a lot of attention to himself in the past.” What’s Gullette’s point?

20. Sean Gullette states that “One of the interesting things we’ve found is that our intentions have very little to do with how this film is seen. I knew this would be a film about questions and not answers and something that would function on its ambiguities.” What’s Gullette’s point?

21. During the last hallucination of the film Max is incessantly repeating the 216-digit number in a blinding white void. Then Devi, the neighbor that represents the outside world, comes in to see if he is okay and Max hugs her. Max snaps out of his hallucination and realizes that he is alone when he sees Sol’s note on the floor. Why is this significant?

22. Why does Max decide to destroy the mathematical section of his brain and thus permanently rid himself of the ability perform mathematical functions?


Author: Chanda Lammers
 
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