Scene Analysis | Shot-by-shot Equations in Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi”

According to Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), the protagonist of Darren Aronofsky’s directorial debut Pi, math is a language – a series of distinct characters, each with values that, when strung together in an equation, express a new value. It is like Spanish, or music, or code. Yet Max’s assumption, though, is that math is not just any language but the language of nature. And it is this assumption that drives Max to search for a pattern within the mathematical constant pi so as to explain the operations of the universe, a pattern he believes he can find in the stock market.

Consider the “Fibonacci Sequence” scene between Max and Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman) at the diner. This is scene is the second time the two characters interact; in their first meeting at the diner, Lenny eagerly tried to discuss Judaism, which Max dismissed. In this second meeting, Max intently studies a newspaper’s stock market report in an attempt to discover the pattern behind pi when, again, Lenny conveniently runs into him and takes the next seat at the counter. Although Max is visibly apprehensive, Lenny persists and discovers that Max works in number theory. This prompts Lenny to speak about his own interest in Gematria, the correspondence of the Hebrew alphabet to numbers, and how the ancient Jews also understood Hebrew as a numerical system. Taking Max’s pen, he demonstrates how the mathematical values assigned to Hebrew letters and words mimic the interrelated concepts shared between these words, such as father (3) + mother (41) = child (44). “The Torah’s just a long string of numbers,” he explains, adding that “some say that it’s a code sent to us from God.” As he begins to explain what happens when you divide the numerical value for “Garden of Eden” (144) with the value of “Tree of Knowledge” (233), Max interrupts him when he notices that they are part of the Fibonacci Sequence, in which 144 divided by 233 approaches Theta, or the Golden Spiral found throughout nature. “You see? There’s math everywhere,” says an impressed Lenny.

During the scene, Aronofsky seamlessly invests us in Max’s intellectual pursuit by manipulating the language of cinema to mimic, and thus enter, his worldview.

We follow Max and Lenny’s mathematical equations on paper though a series of extreme close-ups. As Max explains the Golden Spiral, we see the cream in Max’s coffee swirl under the surface, a close-up of Lenny’s mouth as he exhales cigarette smoke, which twists into nothingness. The basic intent behind this sequence is to emphasize the newfound importance of the Golden Spiral as it relates to Max’s quest, but it also forces us to adopt Max’s mathematically-geared perspective – to see the world broken down into parts and symbols. Shooting a series of close-ups also encourages our brains to associate them together into a kind of visual sentence (or, dare I say it, equation) to create a meaning. In this way, Aronofsky uses cinematic language not only mimic Max’s habit to see and understand nature through numbers but also to enter this worldview entirely.

Thus it seems that we ought to take Lenny’s comment a little more seriously, for in adopting Max’s worldview through the cinematic language, we do find that “there’s math everywhere.”

Bo Clay is a film enthusiast and studies Buddhist narratives at Harvard Divinity School.

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