A Few Theories to Explain the Movie PI
Ok, so the movie isn’t called PI, but rather π, but since most people don’t type in alt codes, I’m guessing PI will be the search that people will use. Is that internet denizen? Did you find this by typing π or PI? See, I thought so.
Alright, so, the other day, over at my movie recommendation page (which, you can find here), Ryissa was kind enough to recommend that we all discuss the crazy head trip of a movie PI. And PI was so familiar to me, and had been on my radar for so long that I had just assumed that I had already seen it, but had forgotten to do a review of it. So I flip it open, and start watching just to refresh myself on the details. But alas! 5 minutes in, I was still completely lost. I hadn’t seen it after all. So I popped some popcorn (this is just a metaphor, I definitely don’t eat popcorn while watching a mind job like PI. But I digress.) and settled in.
The movie is about a genius mathematician who is on the search of some key or some hidden code in the number PI. But ten years later, he had still not discovered it. He coincidentally bumps into a Jewish Kabbalist, and spirals out of control as he continues his search for God and the face of the universe. I have a great trailer here for you… you should try it.
So yeah, it’s a little bit, um dark. And yeah… could be a little bit too intense for the more delicate among us. But yeah, totally a great film. I believe it won Best Director at Sundance and it was also nominated for the Grand Jury prize in 1998? No, I read that in an interview recently. Somewhere. Anyway. It is not your average everyday mind job sort of a movie, its a full bore, fullon, let’s drill a hole in our head sort of a movie.
But, like all other THiNC. movie reviews – if you haven’t seen the movie, I’d move along if I were you. You’ve been warned. From here on out, here be dragons.
PI Overview and Walkthrough
As PI (anyone know why I am capitalizing both letters in PI? This confuses even me. Hrm.) kicks off we quickly learn that Maximillian Cohen is a reclusive introvert, with some serious OCD tendencies. In a word, the guy isn’t even slightly well. (Wait, that wasn’t a word. This write up isn’t starting off well… like at all.) Max avoids the neighbors, dodges the kids in the apartment buildings, he’s fairly mental to start with. Oh, and on top of that? He has migraines (heard the term Thunder Clap Migraines the other day, and am now happy I got to use the term out loud. So fun.) that he fights with jacked up concoctions of his own making. Think serious home brew badness, that usually end with him wrapped around the base of the toilet, unconscious.
When Max meets up with Sol Robeson for a game of Go (GO?) we learn that Sol was his math professor years earlier. 10 to be exact. But since then, our aspiring math genius has basically produced nothing. Instead? He’s unsuccessfully chased meaning in the long chain that is PI. (Pi? Gah. GAH?) Until one day, he runs into Lenny Meyer, Jewish adherent to Kaballah and its mysterious ways.
Quick Sidestep Primer on Kaballah
Kaballah (to put it very very simply) is a discussion of the internal dimensions, or the hidden qualities, of the Torah. Or, the secrets of the Torah. Kaballah teaches that when God came down to Mount Sinai, and imparted His wisdom to Moses, Kaballah began and it was this revelation of truth that has been sought to be fully understood in its hidden meanings. Kaballah is really esotericism meant to help describe the relationship between the eternal and the finite (or God’s creation). It is not a religious experience in and of itself, but seems to be used by numerous different religions and denominations. It is an attempt to answer some of the deeper ontological outstanding questions. And it is through these understandings that its followers will attain spiritual realization. Ok? It’s 100% about uncovering the truth and spiritual realization. That’s the bit you really need to keep in mind.
The Search Begins
So with Max bumping into a Kaballist and having his brain turned inside out with the possibilities of God being in the numbers (did I mention that yet? that a part of the revelation of God in the finite is through numerology. Or the study of numbers.
And while Jewish Kaballa starts Max’s real journey, Max is truly looking an enlightenment of any sort. Max believes that math is the language of nature. That everything around him could be understood by numbers and mathematical formulas. He believes that in any system, if he were to graph the numbers inherent to it, patterns would emerge.
10:18 – Press Return
The algorithm that Max is working on is attempting to predict the direction and the specific future stock prices of all the stocks in the stock market. Each time he takes a sample, and then later looks again, he is hoping that his computer model will tell the future. But his chips keep overheating with the work. There is a bug somewhere. And when he talks to his professor, his professor tells him that sometimes when the computer thrashes in its death throes, it becomes aware, it becomes alive. Which fascinates Max, because the last time his program thrashed and died, it spat out a 216 digit long sequence of numbers. And coincidentally, his Kaballist acquaintance is also looking for a 216 digit long sequence of numbers.
And as things begin to rapidly speed up, Marcy Dawson arrives, yet again, and offers Max a classified computer chip to help with his research. And about that time, things in Max’s brain begin unhinging. Like literally. He even finds a brain (his brain) sitting there on the stairs, that he begins to poke and prod. 1830, press return. And as the data keeps coming back with nothing, and no results, he begins cutting his hair off and finds an incision there, a scar near his ear. He has another migraine attack and crashes out, only to wake and find that pretty much everyone in the apartment is there with him. Apparently, he was screaming? He’s not doing well.
It turns out, that when he threw away the number previously, Marcy and her team had been tracking him and took the number from the trash. And they are after him to get the entire number from him. Why? Because the number is a door… it is the key to some sort of enlightenment, or the ability to touch the face of God? So when goes back to his professor, he learns that it was the number and his research that gave him a stroke and forced him to stop. Right? Which, it is this conversation that causes him to dive back into his research and ultimately have another stroke. So great job Max. Good on you for killin’ the old guy!
PI and the Coming Messiah
Lenny Meyer saves Max from Marcy and company and brings him to a synagogue? Some hidden location where they are doing Jewish rites. And as they are performing them, Lenny tells Max that once a year, the High Priest was allowed to go into the Holy of Holies. And if the Priest was considered holy, he survived. The Priest had one job, to invoke the name of God, and it was 216 characters long. And with that, the coming of the Messiah was one year closer. If he was not holy? He died, and they dragged him out of the temple with a rope tied to his ankle. And when Rome destroyed the temple in 70AD their knowledge of the name of God was lost. And so, ever since then, they have been looking for the key. Those 216 characters that would equate to God’s name.
They then begin arguing about the fact that the number wasn’t meant for Max, but rather for them. And Max tells them he was the one that discovered it and it was inside him, purifying him. But Lenny thinks that its actually killing him. Eventually Max leaves without giving them the number. He heads home and he feels another headache coming. But instead of taking drugs in search of a solution, he just lets the headaches come. And he begins destroying all of this computer equipment violently. And Max has a voice over during his freak out, stating again (echoed from the beginning) that when he was young, his mother told him not to stare into the sun, so he did. And then he begins drilling into his head.
We see Max and the neighbor girl talking. She keeps asking him math questions, and he can’t answer any of them. And he is finally happy because the demon has been exorcised.
PI Movie unpacked
There are probably as many interpretations of the movie PI as there are numbers in PI. It is such a nebulously slippery movie. Elusive like quicksilver. But it probably has something to do with obsession and compulsion. It probably has something to do with good and evil. It might just have something to do with conspiracy theories and dark forces in the world today. And so I have pulled a few random theories together to see if we can better understand this crazy movie.
Movie PI a Study of Mental Illness
In my own personal life, I have met more than just a couple developers that slide into this space of obsessive compulsive disorder standpoint. And watching them count as they wash their mug exactly 20 times in order to adequately clean it I got just a little bit of a glimpse of what it was that Max might be going through. Or as I watched them check a door lock 10 times in order to validate it is in fact locked. But Max? He is a whole different level of obsessed. Obsessed with this conviction that the numbers hold a hidden truth. Obsessed with finding and unlocking that truth.
So from this perspective, this entire movie has nothing to do with Jewish Numerology or spiritual truths. These are just general coincidences. Actually, Max is literally the least reliable narrator cinema has ever seen. Could it be this movie was entirely in his head? Could it be the company that gave Max the chip didn’t even exist? And maybe, this struggle about the numbers were simply Max struggling internally. Bottom line, it actually doesn’t matter. What really matters is that Max is struggling with his grip on reality. And his real search? Is all about determining what is the real. Max was pretty much insane the entirety of this whole movie. We can’t really know if any of this was real or not.
Movie PI a Kabbalah Primer
Or maybe, it is a struggle for Jewish and numerological truth. Could it be that the Jews that Max ran into were the one true thing in this movie? And their search for the name of God was actually the true pursuit here? Those 216 characters and the progression towards the coming Messiah?
It is true that the Jewish religion is utterly on ice since the destruction of the temple. I have been dying to get my hands on a patient Jew who would be open to talking to a Christian about how their religion works since the destruction of the temple. How forgiveness of sins are currently occurring. How they are executing their religion without the single most important feature of it, the temple. Because it is baffling. From a Christian perspective, Christ came, and took away the need for sacrifices in the temple. He was the perfect sacrifice, and the need is now gone. And so when the temple was destroyed it was because there was no need for it anymore. But, obviously, from a Jewish perspective (non-Messianic Jewish perspective anyway) the temple is EVERYTHING. They cannot walk closely with God without forgiveness of sins through the regular sacrifice of animals. Just not a thing. And since the only place that a temple can go is on the temple mount (that is not allowed to be built upon) they are truly out of luck.
So this movie surfaces some interesting theories about God. The desire to progress towards the coming year of the Messiah. And that they could make the coming arrive sooner by working, doing. There was one line in the movie that I found really interesting. That it is through Mitzvah – good works – that is our spiritual food for our hearts and minds. And it is Max who is working himself into insanity by trying and trying to hamster wheel his way to find the face of God.
PI a Conspiracy Theory Kickstarter
Another theory that sort of works in unpacking the craziness of this movie is a view of Marcy and her constant surveillance of Max. Instead of looking at it as a spiritual riddle to be solved, or a psychological puzzle to be solved. What if the key to this movie is that of a Big Brother and Government question?
If we look at the entire timeline, we know that Max has been in pursuit of something important in the mathematical realm for over ten years. He goes into seclusion and disappears from the world. But we also know that Marcy has been attempting to get ahold of Max for a very long time. That she was a fan of his paper and his research.
"I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to finally meet you. I've studied your papers for years."
The government apparently thinks that there is something to his research, and they want it. Which is why they give him the computer chip. Which is why they go through his trash and continue calling and calling and calling. But ultimately, the question here is bout power. And control of numerological truth. This actually is similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark. And the control of religious truth as power.
My Own Theory on the Movie Pi?
I actually think that the truth of this movie is deeper than these three glancing blows at what this movie is all about. But to understand my theory, we sort of need to walk away from the movie all together. And we’ll begin with the word Ennui.
I believe this movie begins and ends in the zeitgeist of our society today – and the massive levels of despair and loss that riddles our culture. But why? We are more technologically advanced than any culture before us. We have levels of comfort that no other society before us have ever had. I mean, this is illustrated by the fact that you are able to walk into your bathroom and run water out of a spigot in your house. Better yet? You can run HOT WATER from your shower head. We have beds, and conditioned air that keeps us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Our kitchens are filled with delicacies that most societies had never heard of let alone had available year round. Like, oh I don’t know, strawberries and watermelons. All genetically modified for size and sweetness and a lack of annoying seeds?
And yet? We are a despairing culture. We are at a loss.
But, there is a thread throughout PI that talks about the desperate search for truth. Or better yet, capital T Truth. Absolute Truth. We are desperate for a relationship with our creator, or some deeper meaning to this crazy thing we call life. Personally? My days on this planet are rapidly accelerating towards my end. When we are young we think we have all the time in the world. But very very quickly we realize this couldn’t be further from the truth. And so we begin scrambling for something deeper. This is indicated by Max’s obsessive compulsive mad dash at the answers. And when he does find the 216 characters. When he memorizes it… the question comes, who is worthy for this truth? Who is good enough to obtain it, to touch the face of God? Is it religions. Is it governments? Is it those of us who have conducted adequate Mitzvahs? Adequate good works? Or is there a deeper more true reality underlying it all?
I personally believe that the movie is about man’s insane pursuit to know the face of god. To control him. To turn him on and off with a switch. To invoke him in the bowels of our computers and to predict the stoke markets and the world around us.
Your Thoughts on PI
So I have more than said my peace on PI. What are your thoughts as to what it is trying to say? Is it just some man going insane? Is there a deeper truth about religion? Is it saying something about governments and governmental power? Or was it all in a dream made up from Max’s mind? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.