Friday, December 31, 2010

Don't Stretch My Suspension of Disbelief

Nearly every time I saved a draft of a blog post, it never got posted. So I will try to knock off this entire post tonight, even though I keep telling myself that I should finish off tomorrow. If this post doesn't properly get my point across, n'nu.

I recently watched the movie Pi and was sorely unimpressed. Here's the story in brief: Max Cohen is a crazy mathematician who is searching for patterns in numbers, specifically the stock market and the decimal expansion of (i.e. "the digits of") pi. Max's teacher pressures him to give up his search, comparing him to Icarus (the guy from Greek mythology who flew too near the sun). Max meets this Jew who does mivtzoim like a Lubavticher but is actually a member of some occult kabbalistic group which is looking for the 216-digit number which will tell them the 216-letter name of god. Just to add to the fun, there's a Wall-Street firm trying to use Max's research to make money. His computer is doing some calculations for him (we never find out what) and outputs some outrageously improbable stock predictions followed by a 216-digit number and then dies. Max agrees to share his research with the Wall-Street people in exchange for a new computer chip. He does the calculations again, get the same number, and the computer dies again. The Wall-Street people try to get the information from him at gunpoint, but he is whisked away by the occult pseudo-Lubavitcher, who brings him to the synagogue, where the leader of the kabbalistic group tries to force the 216-digit number out of him. He refuses. He lives miserably ever after.

I understand that when you watch a movie, you agree to "believe" that certain things are possible, even though they're not. So I have no problem that the janitor in Max's building just happened to see Max searching for a computer print-out in the trash and the Wall-Street lady just happened to bump into the janitor to find out about it. It's a movie. The improbable happens in movies.

I also have no problem that the Lubavitcher-numerologist translates "etz hachaim" as "tree of knowledge." That gematria-wise a 216-letter word does not correspond to a 216-digit number is also OK. I'm pretty pissed they thought that members of occult kabbalistic groups try to put on tefillin with wholly uninterested strangers like Lubavitchers do. But I understand that it's a movie. People don't get everything right.

And that the girl next door has a crush on Max even though in real life no girl would get near this guy? Again, it's a movie. The producers needed to throw in some romance to make it interesting.

But there are some inaccuracies that touch the essence of the movie that you cannot overlook. And that's why this movie sucks.

Max is looking for meaningful patters in the decimal expansion of pi. Well guess what, buddy, there really shouldn't be any pattern there. Remember that it's an accident of history that we use a base-ten numbering system. We very well could have had a base-sixteen or base-twenty numbering system in which pi's digits would be completely different.

Mathematicians definitely spend a lot of time searching for patterns in stocks. But they look at the percentages, not at the digits. The digits are completely meaningless. Max resembles an eccentric mathematician (he's anti-social, lightning quick with arithmatic, and obsessive) but he doesn't think like a mathematician. He thinks like a regular schizophrenic.

Max's computer is supposed to compute something (we're never told what) but instead keeps on crashing. We're supposed to understand that it crashes because he was computing something that was supposed to remain mysterious. Computers don't crash when you make them compute something mysterious. That's just not how computers work.

And then the computer spits out The Number, which Max didn't ask for. That's not how computers work. If you ask it to crunch number about stocks, it will spit out stock-related numbers. It won't spit out the number that holds the secrets of the universe.

Oh yeah. We're never told what Max is searching for. What kind of pattern is he looking for in pi and in the stocks? What kind of calculations is his computer doing? What is the 216-digit number supposed to stand for (other than "a string of digits that Wall-Street people and occult kabbalists want to study")? I feel like the meat of the movie is missing.

The response to all this would be something to effect of: the movie is about man's search for hidden knowledge, about the desire to manipulate the world, and about the need to let things remain mysterious.

To paraphrase Rabbi Chanina the Bible-teacher, go outside and tell that to your literature professor. That's hogwash. A good work of fiction creates a fictional world which resembles the real world in important ways to illustrate true ideas about the real world. For example, Brave New World creates a fictional world where people have flying cars, and everybody has what they need. But that fictional world resembles the real world in that people deal with pain, pleasure, religion, and boredom the same way they do in our world. Therefore it's a good book. Another example is Logicomix (which happens to be a stupid book, but that's besides the point). Logicomix is chock-full of historical inaccuracies, but it's about a real person's (Bertrand Russel's) struggle with a real issue (Russel's paradox) with real implications (the foundations of set theory, logic, and mathematics). So it can tell us something useful about the real world. But Pi creates this fictional world in which math is not at all like real math. So what does it teach us?