Matrices And Fractals, One Frame At a Time

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Despite its obscure selections and embarrassingly nerdy title, "Cinemath," the PFA's new series of math-inspired film, manages to churn out three weeks worth of fascinating avant-garde cinema in addition to investigations into the controversial (at least in the realm of science) use of mathematics as entertainment and art. The intersections between the two fields are of greatest interest here.

I managed to catch the first night of "Permutations and Configurations: A Calculated Cinema," the avant-garde subset of the series which appears every Tuesday night at the PFA (I apologize for the math puns). As more of a film person than a math one, I was a bit hesitant about seeing these short films, scared I'd be subjected to really bizarre math. Ah, but to my satisfaction, I was happily subjected to bizarre film instead.

The head-scratching one was Hollis Frampton's "Zorns Lemma," a 45-minute movie about expectation and subjectivity in film. Like so much avant-garde cinema, the expectations are created by patterns set forth by structures sustaining the movie. In this case, these patterns are structured by sets and the subsets within them. Like math, it's equally frustrating as beautiful.

We were also treated to "Powers of Ten," which may sound familiar to those of you who didn't fall asleep in high school physics. It opens with a shot of a man and a woman having a picnic, before the camera "zooms" in and out a magnitude of 10x at a time, ultimately revealing both the universe and a proton.

The highlight of the night was a pair of "films" by Anthony McCall. Imagine a 30-minute film which consists only of a white point which starts to move, slowly tracing out a curve. At the end of the 30 minutes, the point has become a full white circle.

Imagine that before the light hits the screen, it must travel through thick smoke emitted by an unseen smoke machine, the smoke capturing in 3-D the distance between the projector and the screen, essentially creating not simply a circle on the wall but a conical surface in midair. The experience is intense you can walk to it, "touch" it, feel it, enter it.

Being there is like grasping the pure wonder of the first audiences of the silent cinema and seeing the Lumiere train pull into a station. It's what theorist Tom Gunning calls the "cinema of attractions," where the movies incite our exhilaration not of any realism or narrative, but the thrill and novelty of film itself. The joy of being at the screening was to listen to people's responses, from the smart-ass comments of math majors to the "Mom, this is so interesting!" of a little girl. In the dark, we not only saw geometry unfolding in time, but small children's fingers poking into the light beam from the innocent thrill of encountering a fresh new visual medium.

In the following weeks, films such as these, featuring directors like Bruce Conner and Norman McLaren, will be featured in the series, as well as feature films like Peter Greenway's "Drowning by Numbers" and Gustavo Mosquera R's "Moebius."

Columbia math professor Dave Beyer noted afterward that both math and movies exist to describe "our sense of perception, which is what we're all trying to do. Math is not an isolated experience." To this he added that math indeed holds a place in the filmmaker for "we are all mathematicians."

Seems too that we're all film lovers and for me, that's what this series is all about. That movie enthusiasts exist across cultures and disciplines is no secret; that this love for cinema has created exciting hybrids and experiments is the lesson the PFA is offering with Cinemath.


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