Darren Aronofsky's Piece of the p

by James Berardinelli
July 7, 1998

Most first-time feature directors like to develop a project that allows them to remain in familiar territory. These days, it's usually some sort of intimate, character-related drama that illustrates Generation X angst. Darren Aronofsky, whose debut film, p, premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, had a different agenda when he began working on his first movie. He intended to do something unusual, something that would stand out rather than get lost in the crush of low-budget, out-to-find-yourself dramas.

p is a dark, stylish science fiction thriller. Hollywood has conditioned audiences to associate the words "science fiction" with $100 million budgets, space battles, mayhem, and state-of-the-art special effects. But, as all real fans know, it hasn't always been like that. In its purest form, science fiction is about ideas, not pyrotechnics. The genre has room for the likes of Star Wars on one end and p on the other. p is one of two 1998 features to present a science fiction storyline without the aid of big-time special effects. Like the other film, The Sticky Fingers of Time, p is rich in plot and thematic content, and the intellectual aspects of the movie more than make up for the budgetary limitations.

p is about the struggles of a mathematical genius, Max Cohen (played by Sean Gullette), who is attempting to uncover mathematical patterns in every facet of life. In order to help his investigation, Max has built a supercomputer named Euclid, which has evolved to the point where it's on the verge of attaining consciousness. With Euclid's help, Max is close to figuring out the patterns behind the stock market, which would allow him to predict its future performance with complete accuracy. His success makes him the target of criminal types, who want his formula to make money, and a group of Jewish mystics, who believe that Max may have discovered the key to revealing the true name of God.

The Greek letter "p" is used in mathematics as the symbolic representation of the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. (Remember C=pd?) Rounded off, it's equal to 3.1416, but the digits after the decimal point actually stretch out to infinity, without ever repeating. Is all of this too deep or seemingly-technical for the average movie-goer? When I sat down with Aronofsky recently in a Philadelphia coffee bar, he offered this response: "p has always fascinated me as a number. It's a really wild concept. While the movie uses ideas about math, it's not actually math."

There is a wide variety of thematic material in the film. It can be viewed as an exploration of the line separating genius from madness. Alternatively, it can be seen as a modern-day fable about what happens when man, in his hubris, strives to define and control the undefinable and uncontrollable. p also has heavy religious and metaphysical overtones one of its key ideas is about using the numerology of the Hebrew language to discover the secret name of God. Aronofsky confirmed that this was one of the things he considered the most carefully when making the movie. "In a sense, all of my films are about searching for God."

Aronofsky's decision to film p in black-and-white was driven by stylistic decisions, not budget, since Super 16 color film stock is actually cheaper to process. "The style," he said, "comes out of the narrative." When I asked about the influences for p, he mentioned Philip K. Dick, Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone, and Frank Miller's comic book, Sin City. The Twilight Zone inspiration is the most obvious p's edgy, paranoid approach and often- unpredictable narrative fit neatly into the niche that Serling carved into our national consciousness with his landmark television series.

Although p looks the way it does in part because Aronofsky was trying for a gritty, harsh appearance, money (or lack thereof) was an issue. Having committed himself to making a movie rather than just thinking about it, Aronofsky, a 29 year-old Harvard graduate, found himself working on a shoestring budget. The shooting schedule was hectic and pressure-packed. On one day, Aronofsky and his cast and crew shot for 21 hours. Aronofsky smiles about it now, but, reading excerpts from his journal (which is on-line at the p website: http://www.pithemovie.com/), it's clear that there was a lot of tension involved. When I asked the director what he would have done differently if he had been given unlimited funds, he laughed and said, "I would have made Jurassic Park 3. No, seriously, I would have made a different film. p is what it is because of what I had to work with."

To date, Aronofsky's biggest thrill came at the Sundance Film Festival., where p was an unqualified hit. (I recall hearing the buzz, although I did not see the movie, when I was there). Aronofsky nabbed the Festival's Directing award, but his strongest memory resulted from a sold-out morning screening at the huge Eccles Theater. "1200 people gave [the film] a standing ovation. It was incredible." It was also at Sundance that Aronofsky inked a deal with Artisan Entertainment that will give p a North American run during the summer. While the film will likely play only at art house venues, it will give interested viewers across the nation an opportunity to immerse themselves in the strange, evocative cinemascape contained therein.

Aronofsky wasn't forthcoming with any specifics about his next project, although he did confirm that he's working on something, that it won't necessarily be science fiction, and that it definitely won't be in black- and-white. In the future, he would like to work on both sides of the art house/multiplex line, making movies for all sorts of audiences. When I prompted him with the name of John Sayles, he nodded his agreement, saying "Like Sayles. Except he only writes for Hollywood. I'd like to direct, too." It will be interesting to see where Aronofsky goes from here.

p, distributed by Artisan Entertainment, opens in New York on July 10, 1998, and in other select cities on July 24.


© 1998 James Berardinelli


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