Edinburgh Festival `98: When all the parts add up

Mathematics made exciting: Pi in the sky? Not when horror meets sci-fi in a thriller. By Liese Spencer
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The Independent Culture
MATHEMATICS = DULL. If that equation sums up your attitude towards the subject, then two independent movies by debut directors at this year's film festival should change all that. Imaginative exercises in number crunching, Pi and Cube apply very different formulas to their subject. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Pi charts the story of tormented maths genius Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette, who also wrote the screenplay), a brilliant but reclusive student of number theory who holes himself up in a cramped apartment in New York's Chinatown to seek not only the patterns that govern the stock market, but the numerical key to the universe.

Obsessed with finding perfect order in a chaotic world, Max works feverishly at his massive computer, taking time out only to visit his mentor for the odd game of Go. As he seems to be reaching some kind of mathematical epiphany, however, his story takes a dark turn. Caught between a group of Hassidic Jews plotting the divine importance of Talmudic numerology, and the more worldly interests of a shadowy Wall Street brokerage house, Max finds himself increasingly plagued by monstrous migraines and paranoia. He begins to hallucinate horrors on the subway.

"If you don't have the science, then what you are doing is not mathematics, it's numerology," Cohen's teacher fumes at Max. Pi, with its wild sci- fi speculations and conspiracy theories, is undoubtedly the latter, using sometimes hokey plot devices to figure a metaphysical frisson from maths' sexy permutations. But with this much originality, who cares if the film's logic doesn't bear scientific scrutiny? Strikingly shot in binary black and white, this richly atmospheric film is more than the sum of its sums. An intriguing play of Pythagorean mysticism and uncanny imagery, Pi makes for fascinating and sometimes unsettling viewing.

Mathematics meets horror sci-fi once again in Canadian director Vincento Natali's visually inventive Cube. More literal in its nightmare, Cube sees a seemingly random sample of strangers trapped in a giant, Chinese box of interlocking, different coloured chambers that resembles some lethal Rubic's cube. As they try to escape, Natali's cop, thief, maths student, psychologist, autistic adult and surly architect stumble across a deadly collection of booby traps, while picking their way through their own moral maze of conflicting personalities and beliefs.

Why are these characters here? Natali chooses to keep the audience as much in the dark as the characters, so that they, too, can share in the confusion and claustrophobia. Occasionally, moments of visceral violence erupt.

In some ways, all films are mathematical problems, requiring directors to think in three dimensions, to draw up their own visual geometry and orchestrate time and space. Filmed entirely on a 14-ft square set in a Toronto warehouse, Cube's labyrinth presented Natali with a more elaborate puzzle than most. "The idea originally came from the need to shoot it all in one location," says the director, "but it was actually a very restrictive set to work on. We shot most of the film with one whole wall out, which left me with only 180 degrees to film in. So instead of moving the camera, what I'd frequently do was move the actors. That's where it became a bit of a strain on my brain, because I had to stay on the right axis, keep track of which directions the rooms were moving and keep my eyelines matched."

Afraid that audiences would be confused by the geography of the Cube's identical rooms, Natali carefully storyboarded the film so that its characters were always moving in one direction. A mathematics consultant was brought in to check the film's vital statistics. "It's funny," says Natali, "because the maths consultant said, `if I were really to design this place, that would get me another PhD. To work out all the permutations for those rooms would be so complex'."

There were other problems. The wood and plexiglass set was like a furnace, and the different colours had a strange effect on the actors. "The red room was always particularly disturbing," recalls David Hewlitt, "you got this constantly headachy feeling, and everyone got really angry between takes. Whereas the green room was all calm and lovely. It really was like some weird psychological experiment." Luckily, Natali believes the tight shooting schedule and physical discomfort helped lend the actors' struggle for survival a certain authenticity.

When the film was finally finished, Natali says he had "the pleasure of seeing all the different pieces fit ominously into place. Cube seemed to define itself independently of my contribution. In this respect I felt less like the man in charge than the subject of my own experiment." The ability to marry abstract ideas with human storylines is helping to put an exciting new spin on the traditionally despised genres of horror and sci-fi. They may even get the figures to add up where it matters most to Hollywood: at the box office.

For Natali, they are part of a new wave. "I think science fiction is the most relevant genre for our age." Natali sees this future as computer- led. "I think the next few years will be very exciting. I think eventually the digital medium will replace film, and people will be making movies in their basements and distributing them on the Web." Perhaps the mathematical fantasies of Natali and Aronofsky aren't that far off.