August 26, 1998 / 4 Elul, 5758

Darren Aronofsky,
the next 'Spielberg?'

A trip to the
gematria zone

By George Robinson

FOR DARREN ARONOFSKY, filmmaking is a cross between a family reunion and old home week at his alma mater. In his first feature film, Pi, he gave roles to his Aunt Joanne, his college roommate and a friend from film school --- and he financed the flick with contributions from just about everyone he knows.

The resulting film is an eerie, unsettling mood piece perched somewhere between Hitchcockian suspense, Twilight Zone sci-fi and David Lynch weirdness. The protagonist, Max Cohen (Sean Gullette, who co-authored the film's story), is a renegade mathematics genius who, defying the wishes of his mentor Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis), has been exploring the seemingly logical notion that number patterns can explain the universe, with the intention of using his knowledge to conquer Wall Street. Max is a reclusive and increasingly paranoid character, seemingly hunted by both a gang of stock analysts with mysterious government connections and a no-less-determined group of Hasidic students of Kabbalah who are convinced that the mathematician has the key that can bring Moshiach.

Gradually, the migraine-plagued Max begins to disintegrate.

Was Aronofsky drawing on personal experience in concocting this dark, brooding tale?

"It's a scrapbook of all kinds of stuff I think is cool," the 29-year-old director said in a phone interview. "I've used experiences that happened to me, things I've heard about from other people, things I've read. Then I squeezed together into a narrative."

The Hasidic subplot grew out of one of those "experiences that happened to" Aronofsky. When he was 18, he volunteered for work on a kibbutz but ended up, much to his dismay, working in a plastics factory. After a few days of agony, he ran away to Jerusalem, where a Hasid offered him food and lodging in exchange for a few hours of Torah and Talmud classes each day. It was his first exposure to gematria, the method of Torah exegesis based on the numerical value of the Hebrew letters. Needless to say, gematria is at the heart of Pi.

"That was really the seed of my interest in Kabbalah," Aronofsky said. "I found the stuff I learned there interesting and very convincing. When I started working on Pi, I did a lot more research. Almost everything in the film [relating to Kabbalah and gematria] is true."

In fact, Pi is one of the first movies to boast a "Judaica consultant" in its credit (although he was primarily responsible for assuring the correctness of scenes involving tefillin and Hebrew).

Aronofsky's interest in Kabbalah is a far cry from his upbringing in Brooklyn and his education at Harvard and the American Film Institute (AFI).

The son of New York public school teachers, he was raised as a Conservative Jew but, by his own admission was "not too religious." He didn't plan on a career in filmmaking either. His major at Harvard had been social theory, but his junior-year roommate was an animator working in the college's film department. "At the end of the semester, I would have a bunch of papers and he would end up with a bunch of movies," Aronofsky says, laughing.

Yearning for more concrete results, he took his first film class and received his first A. Clearly he had found his métier.

It was at Harvard that he also found his first star. His best friend in college was the wiry Gullette, who appeared in Aronofsky's thesis film. That film, "Supermarket Sweep," was a national finalist in the 1991 Student Academy Award competition, and helped secure the director admission to the AFI's master's program.

Which is where he found his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique. Libatique is largely responsible for the unique look of , a haunted black-and-white in which the grain of the film itself becomes a major character.

"Matty wanted to shoot black-and-white reversal film," Aronofsky explained, "and it has a unique and different kind of look. We wanted to make a black-and-white movie, no gray tones. And we wanted the dancing, chaotic grain that's prominent in the image. The image is made out of this incredible chaos, and out of the chaos comes this ordered image."

In other words, the film's very appearance is based on the same principle as Max's search for the numerical secret of existence. Even the unusual choice of a 1:66-1 aspect ratio (the relationship between the width and height of the frame) for the film is motivated by mathematics. As Aronofsky noted, "That ratio is very close to the Golden Ratio" proclaimed by Pythagoras and affirmed in Renaissance art by Da Vinci.

Aronofsky's film was made on a minuscule budget of $60,000. James Cameron probably spent more than that catering one day's lunch on the set of Titanic. But the young director has expectations of moving up the ladder yet again. His next projects are somewhat more ambitious, but no less personal than Pi.

And, as he observed with justifiable satisfaction, "We've showed we know how to make films."

New JWR contributor George Robinson is a New York-based writer.

© 1998, George Robinson