Sunday, April 06, 2008

PROOF: the movie

Proof” is an intriging movie in part because it proves nothing -- in fact, it persuades one that the only proof possible is often proof that the negative is not true. This is explicit in the dialogue. And it flirts with the line between sanity and insanity -- sometimes sanity is only proved by a lack of proof that it is insane.

This is a story/play/movie creation arc, so there were many chances for the crowd to say how they equated in their opinions, but I’ve only seen the movie, so that comparison line of thought is not possible. I would have guessed that the movie was written specifically for Gwyneth Paltrow, particularly given the amount of time she was on the screen, and I would have been wrong. Many commenters objected to Jake Guydenhall on grounds that he was too “hunky” to be a convincing mathematician -- but he doesn’t “read” as hunky to me, not because of the star turn with “Brokeback Mountain” but because I’m imprinted with someone more like Anthony Hopkins as attractive. Which goes to show that this movie was not aimed at my demographic, widely rumored to read books instead of watching movies and not eager to see a rock band at a wake.

I have to say that I enjoyed and admired the movie, but what I was really getting off on was the U of Chicago campus where I earned my MA and MDiv, even though some of the places in this movie didn’t exist on the campus when I left in 1982. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, in spite of longing to go there, and it was partly because doing theology is as crazy-making as doing mathematics. One of the similarities is the meritocracy that puts old guys in charge of young guys so the power-struggle can be deadly: that which doesn’t kill your career makes you tenure. Given the overheated atmosphere, the older sister’s defection to the media-controlled life of a Manhattanite, considered “normal,” seems smart. Though all she would really have had to do is transfer to the MBA program to have achieved the same thing.

A few moments were break-your-heart, the most moving being when the mad old mathematician, believing he has leapt to sanity, that his “machinery” is again pumping and brilliant, forces his daughter to read out loud his “proof” which reveals it to be the kind of thing one writes at 2AM, thinking it’s the secret of the universe, but turns out to be unintelligible. It is indeed an accurate account of what a dysfunctional brain pursues: trivia arranged in Gertrude Steinish patterns that mean nothing. Realizing that, precisely because he has been so confident that he forced his daughter to read it out, was the end for him. Standing out in his yard at night in the cold and snow, he couldn’t even perceive his own insanity, so he was done. This was a moment of sanity. Cold hard rationality.

Another of the moments comes when the young male mathematician realizes the brilliance of the “final proof” and believes it is the nova-burst of a brain about to burn out: the old man’s. But it is the daughter’s work (she’s too “dishy” to be a mathematician, despite her lack of makeup, right?). No one believes her. She doubts herself -- did she really work that out? It’s an insanity-making proposition when everyone in one’s world insists you are wrong, that your own inner proof of existence and effectiveness is false.

Likewise, when the memorial for the dead mathematician unfolds in Rockefeller Chapel -- the very peak of American wealth and prestige, the location of the awarding of high degrees and honors, a demonstration of Euro architecture celebrating American religion, the height of culture and sophistication -- the daughter dares to walk to the lecturn (NOT the pulpit) interrupting the inevitable string quartet, in order to tell the truth. Where were all these “friends” when her father needed them? Why is he suddenly valued now that it does him no good? Why has she sacrificed so much of her life (she can tell you how much, right down to the quarter-hour) to take care of a cranky, demanding, insane old man? She says bluntly, “I’m glad he’s dead.” And the U of Chicago audience, paid extras though they may be, show no emotion -- but I’d bet you ten dollars on each of them that they understood exactly and quite sharply. Happens there. Other places as well, of course. Society puts this in the insane column when it’s made explicit.

To me the montage of math department people working at the “proof notebook,” their excitement and enthusiasm over the “beauty” and humorous exasperation at the “awkward” parts were really the essence of why anyone wants to get to that level of accomplishment in that kind of setting. The rewards of elegant thought, shared with others, is a kind of deep intimacy that exceeds the obligatory physical comforting in the bedroom included for the target demographic. If the actors or script don’t quite get there, at least they were close. At least they knew it existed.

To people who feel lucky to finish high school, such arcane and seemingly cold grad school lives are as alien as life on Mars. To the therapists around the university trying to keep people somewhat emotionally attached and functioning on this planet, they are certainly high-maintenance. This movie goes a long way to presenting the case for worthiness. To outsiders it may be the grand Gothic architecture, the change-ringing bells, the bright horn fanfares, the gowns and receptions that mark the value of such an institution. But to the truly functional thinkers, it is the meshing of minds over tables and blackboards, the seeking of proofs of no less than the design of the universe, that is both the high honor and the reward.

If it doesn’t drive you crazy. And maybe one of the tests of sanity is honesty. The other might be what Kenner Swain (my former classmate) constantly asked: “What does it mean?” And the only rational answer to that is, “it depends.” Or if you’re attending the U of Chicago, “What is your method?” Cinematic narration is a pretty effective method when it’s done well.

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