CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Happy Pi Day!

Pi is a very disappointing film. It has almost nothing to do with 3.14. And as a math student, I was desperately hoping a movie called Pi would have something to do with 3.14. But alas, no. All I got was a solid film about a man's mental breakdown. It errs on the side of the ridiculous (the scene where the Chasidic Jews save the protagonist from the Wall Street brokers with handguns seems a bit bizarre in retrospect), but it is otherwise an intelligent portrait of a man on the edge.

Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) is not a people person. He is paranoid (with good reason) and is prone to mental breakdown. His hand shakes uncontrollably when he is in situations beyond his control, and he often needs to end conversations abruptly when overstimulated. And so, of course, Max has the unique ability to create a computer program to predict the stock market and find the name of God. Why do the movies always fall for the crazy ones?

Darren Aronofsky creates an aesthetic which perfectly suits Max's story, furthering the viewer's identification with this broken soul. The film is shot in grainy black and white, mirroring Max's view of the world around him. In his mind, either everything is alright, or nothing is alright. And if nothing is alright, then Max is not alright. And when Max isn't alright, he is liable to do things he will regret in the future. In this respect, he is like a large number of us, except amplified. When his computer gives him "impossible" predictions, he destroys his computer. His world is distorted, and he can only view his world in one of those two states. In this way, the grainy black and white look of the film is perfect for immersing the viewer in Max's world.

The thing about Max is that he is not a mathematician. He is a human calculator, to be sure, but he is not a mathematician. To call him a mathematician because he can do phenomenal calculations in his head is to call Raymond Babbit a mathematician, and this is just not so. Max is a genius capable both of immense calculation and complex algorithms. He is the perfect computer programmer, but he hardly talks about math. The only chance he gets to articulate his thoughts on math come when he talks to his new friend Lenny (Ben Shenkman) about Fibonacci's Sequence and the Golden Ratio. The only other real math we get is the well known tale of Archimedes and his bathtub. It's unfortunate that so many people will think of this as deep math, when these are just stories told about mathematicians, like how Pythagoras was killed by his love of beans.

Unfortunately, math is a subject that will never be properly tackled on film, since it is, to be frank, boring. And it is one of the most misunderstood subjects in the academic curriculum. Sudoku has nothing to do with math. It is pure logic. All those stories people will tell about Archimedes and others are stories. Nothing to do with math. If you want a good read about mathematics, I recommend "Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea". It is all about math, but it is in fact a history of the subject, with very minimal calculation. They even give you a proof that Winston Churchill is, in fact, a carrot. If you get a chance, check it out.

Pi is not a movie about math. It's about math the same way A Beautiful Mind is about codebreaking. However, unlike A Beautiful Mind, Pi is very well executed, with strong acting, writing, and cinematography. It takes a fractured look at a fractured mind, and all it finds is the hidden beauty in the leaves we can never see. Because, when all is said and done, that beauty will still be there. The patterns of the leaves' formation on the tree may come and go, but it won't be nearly as satisfying as taking a break and just looking at the beauty that nature has to offer us. This is the message Pi delivers in its ending, and Pi is a film worthy of this message.

I still prefer Donald in Mathmagic Land.

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