Friday, November 6, 2009


It's simplistic to say that budget doesn't matter, but a good director working with no money can make a film that's fantastic, while a bad director with hundreds of millions will never make a good movie. In an illustration of the former rule, here's Pi. For only $60,000, here's a film that launched two careers - writer/director Darren Aronofsky and composer Clint Mansell - and made millions of dollars.

Pi can be described as a mathematical thriller, which sounds much more bizarre than it winds up being. It's about mathematician, Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), who is looking for patterns in everything in the world, but mostly the stock market. He also stared into the sun once, and suffers from headaches and trippy blackouts. He might also have some heavy OCD, though this is merely implied. In looking for a pattern he finds a mysterious number, of interest to both some Jewish numerologists thinking that the number is god, and some Wall Street types looking to use it for personal gain.

The film spits out reams of mathematical exposition in rapid fire, which might not completely make sense but work in the film world. The way it's filmed leads to the preposterous notion that math is out to get Max - it's really people, but you know - and it gets genuine tension out of abstract concepts. It makes math sort of scary and fascinating, and one becomes both genuinely curious about the conclusions Max is on a train track towards, and almost frightened of them.

This could not have worked without a talented director at the helm, because it relies a lot on the direction to get the overall point across. Clever camera work and editing does a lot to keep the rhythm going and build the tension. Even better, it's a rare film that knows how to use handheld shots. Lots of low budget (and, who am I kidding, even high budget) crap uses handheld to make itself look edgy and cool, but this actually uses it for dramatic effect. It also uses smooth camera moves when necessary, and the camera is always where it needs to be, doing what it has to.

Special attention has to be payed to the score, which gave us Clint Mansell, and tracks which have been in every film trailer since he burst onto the scene. He gets the intensity exactly right, making math exciting, interesting and dangerous. It's also the perfect music to type to, curiously enough. Sound and image keeps the film going at a breakneck speed, and even makes exposition exciting. Exposition is so rarely exciting that this is an achievement.

I'm sure lots can be written about whether or not the math and theories are correct, but that's less important than what they mean to the characters in the film. Aronofsky creates a world where math is danger, and he's so good at creating this world that for 80-some minutes, you completely accept it. It's exciting, intense, and $60,000. That takes talent and skill, and it's why Aronofsky is an acclaimed filmmaker today, and even why Clint Mansell is a sought after composer.

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