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?


  1. Never tell a math student to watch an art pic.

    Pi isn't about the number - it's a McGuffin - a plot device to drive the action. If Max were searching a number, a rare bird, a unicorn or a thumb-tac, it wouldn't matter.

    What pi about is the visual trip - the speed of the city, the drifting of the clouds and the puffs of smoke. Tight cinematography and rapid cuts . . . The dialectical tension of Max - pulled by his manic nature and the calming power of his teacher. The drama in max's head. Is he a genius? Or does what he see threatening him nothing more then his paranoid delusions.

  2. When you peel away all the layers of the story, there's nothing left to it besides for "drifting clouds, puffs of smoke, [and] tight cingematography." That's a pretty crappy story.

  3. Remember, Aristotle put opsis last.

  4. But an amazing movie.
    E - it's like saying that if you peel into a symphony, all you have is the creaking of sound waves as they pass through pieces of wood and catgut.

    Cinema isn't always about stories. It can be about the vision, the site and experience, the ideas conveyed . . .

  5. Opsis comes last in a play, but not last in a symphony.

    Do tell, what is "the vision, the site and experience, the ideas" behind this movie?

  6. not happening any time soon. I'm out of town for almost a month.

  7. I gave you some of it - the cinematography, and the insanity - the drama in Max's head. The numbers are just a ploy to drive him crazy, what we focus on is his mind.

  8. Ha. You watched it! You made my day dude!

    I agree with you though, the Jewish stuff isn't believable and the math stuff isn't believable. I mean, if he's so unmaterialistic and just wants to find a pattern in pi, then why's he always trying to figure out how the stock market works? What would he do with money anyway? Buy a new computer? : P

    The Chabad are pretty much like they are in real life though. I don't see too many differences. ; ) But seriously man, besides for a few things, you're just like Max!

  9. I saw it 11 years ago when it came out.

  10. Man, you musta' been a kid. I know I was in grade school back then..

  11. From what I gather in this exchange, Mottel told e to watch this? Or am I completely off base?

  12. 'I' told e to watch it! (The protagonist kind of reminded me of him)... It turned out Mottel had also seen it though.

  13. People do ask questions about the digits of pi. They also ask about the digits of pi in different number bases. For example, given an arbitrary string of digits, will it show up eventually. (This is unsolved, by the way) Your suspension needs a little stretching.

  14. TRS: they both recommended I watch it.

    Mottel: A story about someone going crazy, but the thing driving him crazy is totally unbelievable, is a rather poor story.

    Max: right. that's a scientific, wholly non-mystical question, and you wouldn't solve it by throwing numbers into your computer.

  15. and then dramatically hitting return.

  16. Well next up then is A Beautiful Mind, that mathematician really is schizophrenic. Though the story is also pretty romanticized.

  17. Actually maybe not, it's more drama than any real math stuff.

  18. AWM says: TL;DR....

  19. E, you know about looking for meaning, but you want that kind of scientific meaning which, in the movie, was a metaphor. Scientific meaning isn't satisfying in that way (to the movie's intended audience) because it's too external. The external can only point to something you can feel internally--i.e., through metaphor. The clarity of the mathematical understanding represents an inner clarity but the language of the movie may not speak to you because what the intended audience should find exotic and mathematical fails to be convincing to you. I'm just impressed that the filmmaker took this project on. If you fixed those details, would it work for you?

  20. awm says: from a review, mentioned in wikipedia, of the film, ", it's not hard to suspend disbelief." :a chart of bad science in space movies, very interesting.

    bullets in movies:

    discussion of movie conventions, but not realistic:

    news story of physicist complaining about broken rules in movies:

    plot holes in famous movies:

    bottom line, if you are going to watch movies, then just be entertained, don't think about how realistic it is, especially when it is peripheral to the point of the film, see mottel above.

    if not, youre gonna be sorely disappointed with our world

  21. Listen up: This is what I really meant to say in the postJanuary 2, 2011 at 12:18 AM

    My point (which I didn't get across too well before) is as follows:
    When I watch a movie, I suspend my disbelief and engage in the world of the movie as I would the real world. Every time something non-realistic happens, I ask myself, "Hey! How could that happen?" Then I remind myself that it's fiction and anything can happen. Each of these little jolts pulls me out of the movie-world for a second. The more realistic the movie, the fewer these jolts, the more seriously I take the movie, the more emotionally engaged I become, the better the whole experience.

    When Lenny says "etz hachaim" and translates it as "tree of knowledge," that's a little jolt. I can get over that. But when the central idea of the movie is non-realistic, I'm constantly reminded that it's not true, and I can't appreciate the neurosis and all that jazz Mottel mentioned.


Forth shall ye all hold.