More noise than signal

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 debut film will always be a film I struggle to view dispassionately, as it’s another one of those movies I watched in my formative years of film viewing that pushed at the envelopes of what I’d considered film could do, putting it in the exalted company of Takeshi Kitano and Shin’ya Tsukamoto. So, despite its unarguable weirdness, I’m hugely fond of it.

Shot on a shoestring of $60,000, which perhaps more than any other factor accounts for its remarkable look, it follows genius mathematician Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) who’s working on a theory that the stock market is a natural system, and like all natural systems, must have a pattern that he can find with the aid of his jury rigged supercomputer Euclid.

Max’s genius comes at a price, as he’s plagued with crippling headaches that seem to be getting worse the closer he gets to his goal, along with a side order of unsettling hallucinations. His paranoia isn’t helped by mysterious corporate body that’s surveilling him under the orders of Macy Dawson (Pamela Hart), and trying to bring him under their wing to benefit from his work should he succeed.

Fending them off for now, he has a chance meeting with Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman) a Jewish numerologist who introduces him to the kabbalah, the Torah numerology bonkerism that his cult of Hicidic Jews have been toiling away at. Max’s interest is piqued when Lenny starts talking about their ultimate aim of finding a certain 216 number string, which happens to be the exact length of the error string Euclid put out in its latest number crunching run, before giving one nonsensical stock pick and failing.

Coincidence, as his mentor Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis) would have it, but it turns out that wildly improbable stock price was correct. Being so close, he’s finally won over by Marcy’s offer of an advanced, classified computer processor, which Max uses to run through the Torah as a different dataset, again yielding a crashed computer and the 216 character numeric string that now can’t be printed, with Max resorting to pen and paper, before another crippling headache incapacitates him and has him passing out.

What follows is a dizzying chain of events, imagery and proclamations about the nature of the number that don’t make a lick of sense, but never fails to carry me along with them despite their ludicrosity, all leading to the by that point seemingly obvious migraine control technique of DIY trepanning with a power drill.

This is a rare instance where a consistently overpowering visual and sonic assault on the viewer didn’t just deflect me from the film, but instead drew me in. By the nature of this episode we’ll talk about the visuals, but particular mention must first be made of ex-Pop Will Eat Itself member Clint Mansell’s pounding, driving score that provides a manic bassline for the film to dance jerkily to. Incredible work, and the start of a great new career for him.

The intensity is reflected in Sean Gullette’s performance, which is commendably manic. The supporting cast largely do well with what they’ve got, although some characters are wildly underwritten, such as Samia Shoaib’s next-door neighbour Devi, who’s also saddled with the clunkiest lines in the script. However, they’re all very much the support, with the spotlight firmly on Gullette.

The film is shot in black and white Reversal stock, difficult to work with, but giving it a high contrast, gritty, punchy feel that suits the tone of the film perfectly. Aronofsky says he was inspired by the graphic novels of Sin City, and it’s interesting to see how close you can come to that in the camera, as opposed to the reams of digital manipulation route Robert Rodriguez was forced down.

I’m sure the wall of sound and breakneck editing pace, along with some pretty esoteric subject matter, means that this is very much not a film for everyone. It is, for want of a less slippery term, a bit too film school project-y for huge mass market appeal, but this certainly showcases the assured hand and attention to detail of Aronofsky right from the outset of his career, so if you liked his later, more familiar films such as The Wrestler or Black SwanPi goes to show there’s great reward in diving into his back catalogue.