Rites of nude math professors and Berkeley

All Edward Frenkel wanted to do was make a movie to share the beauty of math ...

“Frankly, I'm a bit baffled by all this,” Frenkel told us in an email follow-up to a phone interview conducted later this week. The UC Berkeley math professor was referring to the fact that the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, who had announced they would sponsor today (Wed/1)'s US premiere of his sensual math film, Rites of Love and Math, decided to pull their support earlier this week.

They had us at "sensual math film."

“I don't look at it as an erotic film, but there are some erotic elements,” says Frenkel. After meeting with some filmmakers in Paris, where he was on a research trip, Frenkel teamed up with Reine Graves to produce a 26-minute short that is shot on a Japanese kabuki set in a vivid palette of reds, whites, and blacks. He and co-star Kayshonne Insixieng May appear naked on a bed throughout most of the piece.

The film was inspired by a Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, whose movie Yukoku (its English title: Rites of Love and Death, get it?) follows an army lieutenant faced with his friends' planned coup 'd état against their emperor. The lieutenant makes love to his wife for the last time before they ritually disembowl themselves. Years later, Mishima committed a similar suicide.

Frenkel's version, though it borrows heavily from the aesthetics of Yukoku, has been called slightly more “Dan Brown.” In his film, a mathematician finds the formula of love, precious information he realizes might be harnessed by the powers of evil. Sensing impending doom, the brave calculator arrives at his lover's house to etch the formula onto her stomach – preserving it. It is meant to be commentary on the dilemmas that scientists face when they discover life-changing findings – think Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project.

We asked Frenkel whether he expected that his nude scenes the movie would change his students' view of math (and their professor) and he replied “to me, the ideas expressed in this film aren't far from what I teach [students] in my class. Although, when I do it in the classroom, I do it in a much more conventional way.” Missionary? We kid. He expects the film to make the connection between math and the humanities, math and the world around us.

Frenkel also wrote the script in an effort to combat the strident negative stereotyping of mathematicians in the media as anti-social mad scientists. “A formula could be beautiful, like a piece of music, or a poem, or a painting,” he says.

Which seems like something the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute would be on board with. The organization's stated mission is “to foster the genuine interest in mathematics held by people of all ages.” What better than a temperature-raising ode to the power of plus, minus, and divide? (For the record, the short's unrated, though Frenkel somewhat optimistically estimates it would be deemed PG-13.)

Robert Bryant, the MSRI's director, did have this to say in a letter published on the group's website: “Early in the week of November 22, I began to get emails from distressed and upset colleagues who had viewed the trailer and found it disturbing, offensive, and/or insulting to women.” Though Bryant himself has seen both Frenkel's version and the Mishima original, and found a screening of the two together “at first glance, to be a natural fit for MSRI,” he eventually caved to pressure from those for which Frenkel's trailer “was revealing deep-seated gender issues in the mathematics community.” Another of MSRI's stated goals are the advancement of women in all levels of the study of math.

Frenkel, who grew up in a small town near Moscow is surprised at the response to his film in his adopted community, home of such a storied free speech movement. 

“It appears that the criticism came mostly from people who have not seen the film!” he says in his email response. “I think one shouldn't jump to conclusions about any film after watching a two-minute trailer. I think some will view this as a form of prior censorship, because those who have criticized the film and put enormous pressure on MSRI to pull out have in effect tried to suppress the film before it was shown.” 

He adds that his co-director Graves is “herself a woman director in a male dominated field,” and that the film has been screened on three different continents and featured positively in a number of publications including Science magazine. “The film is not a commentary of gender issues in science, and it should not be interpreted this way.”

At any rate, it all should make for a thrilling Q and A at the end of the free screening, which will be attended by Frenkel himself.

Marginalizing women? Or celebrating their role in truth and integers?

Rites of Love and Math and Rites of Love and Death (Yukoku)

Wed/1 7 p.m.; 

Free with tickets available at East Bay Media Center (1939 Addison, Berk.)

Landmark Shattuck Cinemas

2230 Shattuck, Berk.

(510) 464-5980