(spoilers for Black Swan and Pi)
I recently wrote about Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Since then, I’ve watched through all of Aronofsky’s films (minus Noah) in order to grasp his directorial preoccupations and commonly used stylistic moves. His first feature film is Pi, a black and white thriller about a mathematician trying to crack the code of the universe. Much like Nolan’s Following, It acts as a sort of overture for his entire filmography, giving us a glimpse at what themes he will explore and what techniques he will employ in his later films. It may be low-budget and rudimentary compared to his later efforts, but Pi still stands among Aronofsky’s best thanks to its focus and atmosphere.
Something I considered when I watched Black Swan was the idea that Aronofsky is at his best when exploring the dangers of ambition. I found this to be true when watching Pi, and to some degree when I had a chance to watch The Fountain (I’ll discuss this more in depth in a separate post). He has a knack for directing characters with a singular focus on a certain idea or topic, revealing their destructive dedication through his pacing and composition. For instance, one technique Aronofsky commonly employs in Pi, particularly when the protagonist Max is out in public, is a close-up tracking shot of his face as he goes about his business. This does a great job of making the viewer feel claustrophobic, unable to view much of the film’s world. It’s a gracefully executed maneuver because it makes us feel like Max, so singularly dedicated to a goal that we aren’t even able to consider the outside world. And yet although we’re forced to feel tied to Max’s struggle and prevented from taking in his surroundings, it doesn’t break the film’s immersion: it only serves to create a tight, focused narrative with clearly defined goals. Most mediocre films could benefit from Pi’s refusal to wander. This focus also allows Aronofsky to control the atmosphere of the film, creating an unsettling and surreal world centered around a singular struggle. It’s an immersive, and sometimes even taxing, cinematic experience.
After considering the ending of both Black Swan and Pi, I was tempted to conclude that because the protagonists of both films ultimately die as a result of their ambition, Aronofsky is warning his viewers about the dangers of a singular focus on a goal. However, I think this might be a bit of an oversimplification. Perhaps Aronofsky is simply trying to demonstrate how integral ambition is to the human experience, and that just like anything else we go through, it can be destructive. His films explore the depths of the human experience, the challenges we’re forced to endure, and the standards we set for ourselves. They also explore the consequences of these standards, but they’re all the more beautiful for it.