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A Mind Is a Terrible Thing

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¹

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed and written by Darren Aronofsky

With Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart, Stephen Pearlman, Samia Shoaib, Ajay Naidu, and Kristyn Mae-Anne Lao

By Bill Boisvert

What is it like to be smart? That's a question that movies find almost impossible to answer, partly because thought itself is so hard to dramatize. Film deals with exteriors, reveling in pornographically exposed surfaces and hectic motion. Thinking, however, is inherently private; hidden from view, thought baffles the camera with its inertia and interiority.

The problem becomes more glaring when movies portray geniuses, characters who not only think constantly but think thoughts that are incomprehensible to the rest of us. Traditional methods--montages of pacing and pencil chewing, stretches of scientific-sounding dialogue--fail to demonstrate their mental prowess. That requires gimmicks like the stunt calculation, in which the genius does complex math problems in his head or counts a pile of toothpicks in an instant, or testimonials in which bystanders pay unsolicited homage to the hero's brilliance. Good Will Hunting repeats this last device to the point of self-parody. Barroom conversations revolve around Will's similarity to Einstein; his girlfriend asks, "Do you have a photographic memory?"; his every chalkboard scribbling makes full professors smack their foreheads in enlightenment. Unfortunately scenes like this tell but don't show--we have to take their word about the toothpicks and the gibberish on the chalkboard. Unlike menace or sex appeal, intelligence can't be embodied on the screen; we'll never see a character as self-evidently smart as Godzilla is big or Demi Moore is topless.

As if to compensate, movies usually tie intelligence to more colorful and histrionic personality quirks--to juvenile delinquence in Good Will Hunting, to autism in Rain Man, and to acute psychosis in , this summer's "indie genius" movie. Max Cohen is a brilliant mathematician (we learn this right off the bat from a combined stunt calculation/testimonial scene in which a little girl with a calculator quizzes him in long division); he's obsessed with finding the hidden pattern that governs everything in the universe--especially that most profound manifestation of cosmic order, the stock market. His quest seems to pay off when his computer screen briefly flashes a 216-digit number that enables it to predict stock prices, but the computer crashes and he loses all trace of the number. As Max struggles to reconstruct it, he suffers more and more intensely from symptoms of mental collapse--blinding headaches, blackouts, hallucinations, and a growing conviction that he's the target of a conspiracy that wants his number for nefarious purposes.

Max's breakdown progresses in grainy, high-contrast black and white, replete with jittery camera movements and dark, claustrophobic interiors. To complement this visually expressed dementia, Max explains his worldview in voice-over monologues that connect a grab bag of Nova topics, including spiral galaxies, conch shells, sunspot cycles, flooding of the Nile, and caribou die-offs. The links between these disparate phenomena are ominously hinted at but never spelled out, though they apparently involve the number pi and other icons of middlebrow math veneration like the golden ratio, Fibonacci sequences, and Mšbius strips. With this odd mixture of elements the film's tone is gloomy, portentous, and hysterical, yet at the same time strangely earnest and square, as if David Lynch had tried to somehow make a movie version of Scientific American.

This stylistic approach has some potential, with its tacit equation of mathematical genius and paranoid schizophrenia. After all, both mental states impose a seamless theoretical construct on the world, without compromises or exceptions: every number obeys the distributive law; everyone is out to get me. Perhaps the schizophrenic is only a more militant version of the mathematician, willing to upend reality for the sake of logical consistency. The parallel draws between the two is intriguing, revealing the tenuous equilibrium that keeps our rational mental faculties from freezing into a rictus of insanity.

But turns what should be a metaphoric relationship into a stupefyingly literal-minded thriller. Max, it turns out, isn't crazy at all: he is indeed being pursued, by not one but two conspiracies--an evil brokerage firm and a sect of Jewish mystics who believe his number is actually the true name of God. (As a matter of fact, it is.) Beaten bloody by these cabals and haunted by the prospect of both a stock-market meltdown and the rebuilding of the temple, Max is forced to reckon with the human cost of number theory.

In this way hammers home its real message: math is a paradigm for the madness of our age, for all the dehumanizing processes industrial society uses to manufacture knowledge and belief. The plight of the genius poignantly illustrates the crisis of modern consciousness--the mind alienated from the fruit of its labor. For Max rational thought turns out to be a trap through which his native insights can be extracted by ruthless financiers and power-mad fanatics, the behind-the-scenes elites who dominate the world. Worse, math blinds him to the wisdom of the heart, as embodied by his next-door neighbor, an attractive young woman who brings him home-cooked meals, tousles his hair, and coos, "You need a mother." She represents all things life affirming, loudly enjoying orgasmic trysts while poor Max tinkers with his computer and suffers psychotic episodes. Looking for advice, Max turns to an older colleague named Sol Robeson, who tells him he needs to give up rational thought altogether. "Stop thinking, Max," Sol urges. "Just feel, with your intuition." Sol knows what he's talking about; his own encounter with The Number precipitated a stroke. "It's death, Max!" he croaks. The film's lesson couldn't be clearer. Thinking is bad--rational, controlling, and exploitative. It leads to brain trauma and death. Feeling is good--intuitive, empathic, and nurturing. It leads to healing and sex.

So for all its trappings of erudition, the film's attitude is profoundly anti-intellectual. But then, that's true of most indie genius films. In Good Will Hunting the hero is so alienated from the intellectual establishment that he can only get into MIT as a janitor. A blue-collar kid from the slums of Boston, he has no use for the pretensions of academe, as he informs a grad student he's just finished humiliating: "You dropped 150 grand on a fucking education you could have got for $1.50 in late charges at the public library!"

Will thumbs his nose at higher education because he can dispense with the whole tedious process of schooling. He doesn't need to study, take notes, or sit through boring lectures. He recalls the entire corpus of organic chemistry "like you remember your phone number." His strokes of genius come unbidden, the way "Mozart could just look at a piano and play." Will has no patience for literature searches, footnotes, colloquia, and all the other scholarly crutches on which lesser minds hobble about; he vaults effortlessly over their puny research papers without so much as a citation. The mere task of writing down his thoughts strikes him as a pointless trammeling of his creative flow, because he'd rather not spend his life "explaining shit to people" who just "fumble around and fuck it up" anyway. "Do you have any idea how fucking easy this is for me?" he jeers, using a cigarette lighter to torch his latest theoretical breakthrough while his faculty mentor weeps and grovels at his feet.

Will represents a familiar American folk hero--the know-nothing--writ very large. His genius functions as supercharged common sense, working-class street smarts that encompass even the finer points of "combinatorial mathematics." His brilliance gives him a direct, authentic understanding of the world, unmediated by institutions and free from the biases of received opinion. For him no question requires study or reflection; the answers are always obvious, straightforward, plain as the nose on your face. It's the intellectuals who can't see things straight, always fumbling around and fucking things up, always demanding to have shit explained to them. Their ideas are always blinkered by precedent, their research always perverted by sinister bureaucracies. He wants no part of it, Will rants to the stuffed shirts who would recruit him for the National Security Agency; after all, it's blue-collar grunts like his buddies who always go to war to clean up after the Pentagon Poindexters.

Will ends up a messianic figure--the anti-intellectual who bests the intellectuals on their own terms and thereby gains the moral stature to renounce the life of the mind forever. He achieves this state of grace through the ministrations of his psychiatrist, Sean, an earthy type who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, fought in Vietnam, and curses as lustily as Will himself. Sean has something Will can't get from books: life experience. Will may have read everything ever written about Michelangelo, Sean says, but he still doesn't know "what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel." Sean's advice is breathtakingly simple and platitudinous: "Do what's in your heart, son, and you'll be fine." With this mantra, Will can finally stop thinking and start feeling; at the end of the movie he blows off a budding think-tank career and heads out west to find Minnie Driver.

takes this act of redemption to the extreme, suggesting that Max's only hope is to destroy the part of his brain that thinks about math. The movie grotesquely portrays his mental self-immolation as a blow against authoritarianism and a reconnection with humanity. This denouement is typical of the film: it takes a vague but certainly false conceit and jazzes it up with lurid expressionist mannerisms. The mixture of visual bombast and sophomoric philosophizing made the movie a darling of the Sundance festival and director Darren Aronofsky a rising star in Hollywood, with critics hailing as the resurrection of an engaged art-house aesthetic. It also makes by far the dullest movie of the year, a drama that is more story problem than story.

But of all the film's assaults on art and patience, none is worse than its blood libel against an innocuous math symbol. Pi is not a malevolent rune of power; it's a modest, helpful little number, as useful in the bicycle shop as in the astrophysics lab. The distinction is crucial. Earlier generations of radicals--real indies, not poseurs angling for a development deal--embraced the rationalist legacy of the Enlightenment. They didn't see the search for knowledge and comprehension as a Faustian bargain, struck between a handful of unwary geniuses and the corrupting forces of Moloch. They saw learning and scholarship as a steady process of social liberation by which ordinary people could access a common stock of human experience infinitely larger than any individual's tiny hoard. They championed reason as a force that topples despots, sweeps away superstition, dissolves hierarchy, and empowers the masses to take history into their own hands. , Good Will Hunting, and their ilk stand in stark and appalling contrast to that tradition. For all their pseudopopulist rhetoric, they endorse passivity and defeatism, urging us to abandon a complex world for the emotional security of domestic life. Demi and Godzilla wouldn't have it any other way.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pi film still.

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