Altered States

Pi
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Insomnia
U Film Society, starts Friday

There's probably no way to say this without sounding like a snob, but here goes: Movies play differently at festivals than in the real world. I won't dwell yet again on the wearying conditions of Cannes or Sundance, except to cite mathematical proof that the fifth or sixth movie in a given day better be damn good if it's going to keep your attention. By contrast, the tendency to overrate a festival film that quenches one's thirst for the rare potion of pure, visual cinema seems unavoidable--especially at Sundance, with its preponderance of unsightly formula and its dizzying mix of altitude and attitude.

Anyway, it was here that 28-year-old Darren Aronofsky earned the Filmmakers Award and plenty of critical acclaim for Pi, a sort of mad scientist psychodrama shot through with the grisly speed of the Japanese cyberpunk shocker Tetsuo and the DIY dread of David Lynch's Eraserhead. At Sundance, Pi certainly stood apart from the trendier talkathons. But back home at the art house, both its story and its style reveal the calculations of an artist so desperate to get noticed that he forgot to cover his id.

What I mean is that Piis about nothing but its ambition--the tale of an obsessive math genius who finds clues to the universe everywhere he looks, told by an indie filmmaker who's convinced that every point-of-view shot signifies something really deep. Relentlessly subjective, the movie trains its camera on the mind of Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a workaholic loner who suffers chronic migraines while seeking the numerical pattern that governs both the stock market and the Torah, using a jerry-rigged supercomputer. (Some might wish he'd get to work solving the Y2K problem.) Right from the start, Aronofsky sets up an equation between his black-and-white images and his protagonist's vision, so that, for instance, when the genius observes that "there's math everywhere," the filmmaker cuts to a close-up of swirling cigarette smoke, prompting the viewer to consider how this geometrical pattern might read on a graph. Other spooky "spiral shapes" (seashells, ears, microscopic blood samples) abound, while the soundtrack's incessant techno beat obviously approximates the pounding in Max's head.

This AV formula forces us into a hyperattentive mode that pays off big at first but yields diminishing returns. It may be surreal when the hallucinating Max discovers a twitching brain on a subway platform and, probing it with his pen, instantly feels the poke in his own gourd. But it's just plain silly that whenever the movie runs out of ideas, Aronovsky gives the math whiz another bad headache, compelling him to pop pills and give himself injections until, when he (or the plot?) becomes truly despairing, the guy puts a power drill to his skull. Pi is so much in its own head that it takes on the protagonist's absentmindedness with regard to narrative logic. When Euclid, the hero's supercomputer (no match for HAL-2000), spits out the 216-digit number that may prove the key to all existence, Max--in what can only be described as a plot contrivance--crumples up the only printout and throws it in a public-park trash bin to be lost forever.

Speaking of numbers, the most remarkable thing about the film is how effectively it transcends its meager budget (between $20,000 and $60,000, depending on who's calculating). Bargain-basement FX aside, Aronovsky makes the most of his resources, staging much of the movie in Max's one-room efficiency and freely invoking the Kabala to show that he means business. But there's something cheaply offensive about a movie in which Jewish men invariably represent the voices of reason while females of various races are depicted as nattering rivals--like the black woman Wall Street broker (Pamela Hart) who pursues Max to the point of stalking, the young Asian girl (Kristyn Mae-Anne Lao) who interrupts his thought process by testing his long-division skills against her pocket calculator, and the distractingly sexy Indian neighbor (Samia Shoaib) who brings him unwanted samosas and insists that he needs a mom. It's as if the gifted up-and-comer imagines himself competing against these caricatured people of color for grant money--although something tells me Aronofsky will graduate to blockbusters without much headache.

As first-person psycho-thrillers go, the Norwegian Insomnia isn't so pretentious about its protagonist's state of mind. And where Pi's mystery amounts to an impenetrable tease, Insomnia's whatzit rewards the viewer's close attention. Once again, we're in the general vicinity of Lynchville: The movie opens with a murdered teenage girl (Maria Mathiesen) on an autopsy table, and an investigator (Stellan Skarsgard) carefully inspecting her fingernails, which appear to have been scrubbed by the killer so as to leave no trace. Hence hero and villain share the same procedural expertise, and that's not all. While chasing the chief suspect through dense fog near the start of the film, Skarsgard's sleep-deprived detective unwittingly aids the accused. Or perhaps the cop's slip-up wasn't an accident. Around the time that this guy shoots a barking dog to death and takes a scalpel to its furry corpse, we begin to wonder about his motives, if not his mental health.

On the surface, Pi's superficially cyberpunkish style would seem to type it as the darker film, especially since Insomnia takes place in the northern Norwegian land of the midnight sun. But where Pi's investigator is rarely portrayed as less than trustworthy, Insomnia's seems dubious at best--what you might call an unreliable narrator. As in Basic Instinct, the detective has a hair-trigger temperament and is himself being investigated by a mysterious and manipulative suspect--who, being a crime-thriller novelist (just like Sharon Stone's Catherine Trammell), casts a few playful aspersions on the policeman's personal narrative. "Sometimes one has to alter the truth," says the writer (Bjorn Floberg), tauntingly hinting at the Skarsgard character's immoral methods. That the cop can't sleep suggests another layer of delusion: Is Insomnia's living nightmare only happening in his mind?

Director Erik Skjoldbjaerg hits on a unique visual conceit for his debut, delivering a film noir set entirely during the day. Accordingly, the movie's enigma isn't so much brought to light as left to sit baking in the sun until the cop's weathered condition becomes the viewer's. Skjoldbjaerg's tightly wound plot allows the audience little time to relax, although, lacking Sundance hype, Insomnia does feel like a sleeper.

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