By Mike WhiteVarious Artists - Pi Soundtrack (Thrive Records, 7750 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046)
It's a rare soundtrack nowadays that features modern music from various artists that doesn't come off sounding like an "MTV Party To Go" or "Big 80's" compilation. The music of pi is quite an exceptional exception to that rule. Though eleven different artists are included on the album's thirteen tracks, the songs share a tonality that is similar enough to give the impression that the film was scored by a single artist. The artists and their work may be diverse but the songs selected from their oeuvre all lend themselves to providing the perfect music for director Darren Aronofsky's striking visuals.
At the center of the film is protagonist Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a genius convinced that mathematics is the language of nature. He is a proponent of "Chaos Theory," holding that by discovering patterns where none are apparent one can unlock the secrets of the universe. Max isn't an altruist motivated by humanitarian goodwill; instead he desires to unlock the patterns within the stock market as he views it as an organism which exhibits numerical life-signs.
At the heart of Max's quest is the constant pi which has been used for centuries to calculate the area of a circle with the equation A = pir². Pi is an transcendental number, continuing into infinity without periodicity unlike pi the movie, which is a film of patterns; Max is a creature of habit - his daily log, his regiment of drugs, and even his personal stories are repeated throughout the film.
Through an apparent glitch in Max's computer, Euclid, he discovers a string of 216 numbers setting him on a path that pits him against corporate grease-balls, (un)orthodox Jews, and himself.
The driving beat of the music acts as an audible pulse to the film, echoing the pounding in Max's head and quickening as the narrative (Archimedean) spirals towards its conclusion. The IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) songs are appropriate aural accompaniment for they imitate the film's theme in the paradoxes they present. At once, they appear chaotic and tightly structured recalling Max's quest to discover a pattern within the apparent randomness of pi. The songs simultaneously sound starkly electronic and organic, acting to propel the notion of life within mathematics which is demonstrated throughout pi as with the inexplicable ants and ectoplasm inside of Max's overwhelming, anthropomorphic computer system.
Sonically, these ideas are expressed in the ringing bell David Holmes' "No Man's Land" and the use of dripping water to set a rhythm in Banco De Gaya's "Drippy." The latter tune's inclusion of the strains of a female singer wailing a Middle Eastern tune tends to recall the multi-cultural setting of Max's Chinatown abode and his Arabic neighbors like the lovely Devi (Samia Shoaib).
The use of natural sound is best encapsulated in the Aphex Twin song "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball" which, ironically, is on the soundtrack album but not heard in the film. By far my favorite song on the CD, it often moves at a breakneck pace, unwavering, driving forward even when beats are played backwards. Much of the track lacks a melody and, instead, seems more content being a study in rhythm. The title of the tune comes in part from Aphex Twin's use of the sound of a ball bouncing against a hard surface, its pace increasing as it loses inertia. Soon this natural sound is mimicked with manmade gear as if this natural system is being graphed to discover the pattern within.
The contrast of the film's themes is echoed not only in its music and narrative but also in the stark, high contrast black and/or white cinematography. Being shot on 16mm reversal film, cinematographer Matty Libatique implemented yellow filters to reduce greys and widen the gap between black and white. This left no room for shades of grey between the two extremes, just as there is no space between binary digits 0 and 1.
In the mind of Max Cohen, there need not be shading. There is reality and there is fantasy and Aronofsky unflinchingly presents both with equal conviction, tossing aside the typical cinematic devices that typically denote a shift between these realms. Even in ERASERHEAD (to which I've seen pi compared on numerous occasions), when director David Lynch manipulates the tone of the film, delving into dreams within dreams, he does so by punctuating these moments with language of cinema; fades to white, dissolves, etc.
This lack of "clues" to the legitimacy of what members of the audience witness allows the viewer to sympathize with the obsessive Max Cohen. The film is narrated from a first person point of view and we strive along with Max to discover the truth among the dark visions. Unlike the more typical "omniscient third person" narrative, we are not given an opportunity to feel superior to Max because we are only allowed to doubt the veracity of his world to the extent that he might.
Identifying with Max Cohen can be an unsettling experience. Personally, I was engrossed in the film and felt exhilarated as Max doggedly pursued his quest. After the lights came up in the theater, I proceeded to walk down to my favorite Royal Oak haunt (where I wrote the majority of this issue) and write an extensive, albeit odd, letter to Rich Osmond that touched on just about every aspect of my life. I wrote of friendship, films, and family with an unfamiliar clarity of thought. I could only hope to have that on more frequent occasions.
The idea of a surrealistic film with math as a core theme might sound incredibly odd and dry. In this way, it catches the viewer off guard in its unrelenting narrative pace and extraordinary images.
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