Experimental Reviews

Digits of Pi (2019) – 2 stars

Director: Tom Bessoir, Joshua Pines

Writer: William Shanks, Tom Bessoir

Cast: Jahna Rain

Running time: 3mins

Experimental film walks a fine line between a great number of diverse and contradictory pitfalls. Minimalist cinema can often stand accused of being lazy, or of having nothing to say, while more profligate works can be labelled as confusing, or elitist in the way they disseminate messages in a way only a minority of viewers will be able to decode. At the same time, if such a film fails to be sufficiently challenging on any of these fronts, even the most forthright champions of avant-garde innovation may think twice before singing its praises.

According to Directors Tom Bessoir and Joshua Pines, Digits of Pi is a transcendental film inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, which also pays homage to Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s abstract musical Einstein on the Beach. The film has varying degrees of success when it comes to meeting those standards, but as a piece on its own it is two things; thoroughly irritating and pleasingly underwhelming. If that sounds like a paradox, it is, but in previously mentioned bigger picture of experimental film that seems heartily appropriate.

Before I go any further, it is important to point out that I am not evaluating this by the same standards as the narrative or documentarian content which also appears on this platform. It should go without saying – as it does for the other experimental films I have reviewed – a string of numbers being reeled off for three minutes while a set of circles shimmers in the background does not make for a riveting cinematic spectacle – if you are looking for that, you should be in a multiplex instead of the exhibition where Digits of Pi is presumably playing.

With that being said, in the context of experimental film, Bessoir and Pines’ minimalist approach does have some admirable traits. As the disembodied voice of a woman (Jahna Rain) plods her way through the initial digits of Pi, “3.14159265359…” and so on, her sing-song tones evoke something truly inane; the ‘jingle’ technique insurance companies use to forcibly implant their phone numbers in our minds. It enrages me that so many of these parasitic ear-worms still ringing in my temporal lobe (particularly the infuriating “0800-00-10-66” of Hastings Direct), and after watching Digits of Pi I similarly found my inner-monologue reluctantly echoing “…aught, two, eight, eight, four…” for the rest of my day.

The audio is accompanied by a shimmering circle, which does indeed draw heavily from Duchamp’s work, and this uncluttered approach means that we have ample time to meditate on the never-ending sequence of numbers steadily bombarding up. What this means is that audiences have sufficient elbow-room to let their minds do some talking, and find their own interpretation – a key element of the best avant-garde filmmaking. In my case, as a complete package I thought Digits of Pi seemed like a comment on the mind-numbing boredom of infinity itself – something which doesn’t sound all that enjoyable, but I found myself smirking at.

Many people like to wax lyrical about how amazing the universe is in the way its gigantic nothingness seems to go on forever, and I have never been able to engage with this starry-eyed mysticism regarding the cold and empty void that surrounds us. To me, an endless string of data –which our mortality means we can never know the end point of – illustrates the futility and tedium of our existence in the uncaring vacuum of eternity, and in a world where we are constantly told to attribute values of marvel and wonder to this nothingness, that feels kind of liberating.

With that being said, it is also arguable that Digits of Pi doesn’t really do enough to mark itself out from what has already come before. Plenty of films have already been made about the bizarre and meaningless procession of random data that makes up existence. Anemic Cinema in particular did this – and in what might be seen as a more creative method.

Much more than just an endless swirl, the silent piece also hosts a series of rambling and nonsensical sentences (the French puns, alliterations and wordplay do not translate well, but as Carolyn Klarecki – who hosts a copy of the film on her YouTube channel points out, it’s terrible English subtitles are also rather enjoyable.) While the illogical string of words might carry all the material consequence of going painstakingly through pi, the absurdity here feels a lot more imaginative – like there was effort and craft which went into it. Without that, audiences can and do end up resenting films like Digits of Pi, even when they go into a screening with an open mind regarding experimental cinema.

Similarly, the Directors’ statement illustrates this short-coming by conjuring thoughts of Einstein on the Beach. While it might be a musical which has angered many pig-headed viewers, who adopt the rather tired standpoint that “If I don’t like it, it can’t be music” – before bleating about Emperors and their new summer wardrobes – if you see any of Glass and Wilson’s masterful work, you will know how dazzlingly intricate it is. The staging and the sound are utterly mesmerising, and even if there isn’t an inherent meaning forthcoming from its babbling sound and peculiar visuals, the craft that went into it make it totally arresting.

There are other films which have built on these aspects – and even films in the narrative world which have drawn upon them successfully. Pontypool, for example, is a low-budget zombie horror set in a radio station, manages to pull this off to set up what is a deliciously off-beat genre study. The film’s stunning opening sequence features host Grant Mazzy’s dulcet tones delivering a meandering monologue on similarities between French and English words which mean different things – ultimately to stimulate thoughts on the grand coincidental nature of the universe, while also to establish the idea of a linguistic virus. Meanwhile, a foreboding synthetic hums over the on-going rumination, complimenting electronic sound-waves that eventually collapse into a single distinctive circle – echoing Duchamps, while doing something new and engaging.

This is where Digits of Pi falls down hardest by comparison – while I enjoyed the opportunity it gave me to contemplate some of life’s biggest questions, simply does not do enough to build upon the works which inspired it. In fact, it does not seem like it would be difficult to re-create at home. Record yourself reading the ABC, play it on a loop with Windows Media Player’s Visualisations turned on, and arguably you have produced a similar experience. If that is the case, then in the future, the filmmakers behind it need to do substantially more to differentiate themselves from the pioneers they hark back to.

The people behind Digits of Pi clearly have a great knowledge of experimental film, and a true respect for the historic masters of the art-form. In this case, however, they have perhaps been overly respectful, and rather than seeking to strike out on their own, making something which looks to elaborate or diverge from those inspirations, they have ended up mimicking them. If they can exhibit greater confidence in their own creative vision in future, they will undoubtedly produce something truly eye-catching and thought provoking. It is a confidence I suspect they have – especially as it takes an impressive amount of gall to share a “Writer” credit with William Shanks, who first calculated pi, in a film where all the dialogue consists of that number – it is just a matter of applying it better.

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