Math Professor Creates Unconventional Film

Photo: Professor Edward Frenkel starred in and directed a film that artistically explores the beauty of math, featuring a ritual suicide and sex scene in a discovery of the 'formula of love.'
Anna Vignet/Staff
Professor Edward Frenkel starred in and directed a film that artistically explores the beauty of math, featuring a ritual suicide and sex scene in a discovery of the 'formula of love.'

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UC Berkeley math professor discusses his film

Reporter Samantha Strimling talks to professor Edward Frenkel about a film he made to showcase the beautiful and sensual side of mathematics.

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Correction Appended

Directing and starring in a highly stylized, 26-minute ode to Japanese cinema featuring a sex scene and a ritual suicide is not how a world-renowned mathematician typically expresses his love for his subject. But that is exactly what UC Berkeley math professor Edward Frenkel chose to convey his passion for mathematics.

Frenkel teamed up with French art director Reine Graves and Sycomore Films to make "Rites of Love and Math." The film, which premiered in April at the prestigious Max Linder theater in Paris, took three days to shoot and about a month to edit, costing around 100,000 euros in total.

"I have noticed if you try to (convey math's beauty) literally - just a professor at a blackboard - people are kind of scared of this," Frenkel said. "There is a kind of defense mechanism where people just shut down, so I thought maybe an artistic way."

Frenkel and Graves ultimately chose to represent math in the film by tattooing a formula on a woman's body, leading them to explore the Japanese origins of tattoos. This led them to "Rites of Love and Death," the only film directed and starred in by Yukio Mishima, one of Japan's most famous writers.

Looking to pay homage to Mishima, Frenkel made his film with a similar artistic style - minimal text and only music from Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde - and the same basic story line. Yet, in an effort to infuse the film with mathematical themes, Frenkel added the formula tattoo scene and switched the male lead from a soldier to a mathematician.

"To me, if the viewer comes out with the idea that mathematics and beauty could be said in the same sentence, in the same breath - that's (what I want)," he said.

Both Frenkel and Mishima's male leads commit suicide due to a moral dilemma. While Mishima's soldier commits suicide in order to honorably evade the order from his emperor to execute his friends, the mathematician commits suicide upon discovering that "the formula of love" can be used for sinister purposes.

"I know that people studied in the pure pursuit of knowledge and wanting to discover the structure of the universe, and they inadvertently discovered nuclear reaction," Frenkel said. "This pure research, very much like the kind of research that I do now, actually led to very profound consequences, and some evil - the atomic bomb."

Like Mishima's film, Frenkel's film features a sex scene as a final farewell before the suicide. Despite Frenkel's reservations about his colleagues' opinions, Thomas Farber, a novelist and senior lecturer for UC Berkeley's English department, said "the passion in the film is PG, nothing that would raise an eyebrow except that is was made by a mathematician."

Frenkel said the decision to include the sex scene was made because, in addition to paying respect to Mishima's film, he wanted to challenge the notion of what mathematicians can do.

"How about this: We have a mathematician who is in love, who is fighting for his ideas, and he is in love and there is actually a nude scene. He is actually making love to a beautiful woman," he said. "How about that compared to the stereotypes people are used to?"

Frenkel said he believes his students are smart and mature enough to handle the nude scenes and is more concerned about whether it will inspire them to pursue math.

Senior Nicole Bennett, who took a class with Frenkel last fall, said that he made an effort to make math "beautiful" by comparing new formulas to works of art, to which students responded well.

Frenkel also hopes that his film will inspire similar projects that portray mathematicians in a "real and complicated ways." He has already begun collaborating with Farber on a screenplay for a feature-length film about an English professor and a mathematician.

Additionally, Farber said by making this film, Frenkel is changing perceptions about what mathematicians are capable of beyond the classroom.

"He is on cutting edge of his field," he said. "(His film) may surprise students, but it may also interest them to see the human possibility."

Clarification : An earlier version of this article may have implied that Edward Frenkel alone explored the Japanese origins of tattoos, leading him to "Rites of Love and Death." Frenkel and Reine Graves were both led to the film after exploring such a topic together.


Correction: Monday, August 9, 2010
A previous version of this article misspelled Edward Frenkel's name. An earlier version also misquoted him as saying "I know that people studied in the pure pursuit of knowledge and wanting to discover the structure of the universe, and they inadvertently discovered nuclear research." In fact, he said "discovered nuclear reaction."

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Contact Samantha Strimling at [email protected]

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