Chicago, Athens, and Jerusalem

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Proof is the bottom line for everyone

Posted by erweinstein on October 5, 2005

I have a confession: I haven’t seen ‘Serenity’ yet. I’ll get to it, I promise. But at the University of Chicago, everyone is excited about the movie ‘Proof’. In case you haven’t heard, it’s about an earth-shatteringly brilliant but mentally ill University of Chicago mathematician (Anthony Hopkins), who in his final years is cared for by his daughter (Gweyneth Paltrow), herself a would-be mathematical theorist. The title has multiple meanings, but one of them refers to the discovery of what may or may not be an extremely important mathematical proof, completed by the Hopkins character during a period of mental clarity. On Tuesday night, I saw a special screening of ‘Proof’ at the campus cinema. The theater was packed to capacity, and the management actually delayed the start of the film by fifteen minutes so they could fill the last few seats. In addition to being set at the University of Chicago, the exterior shots were actually filmed in Chicago. Because it was the home-town crowd, there was some unnecessary but expected cheering upon viewing familiar locations or hearing some of the characters’ particularly Chicago-centric banter (including the obligatory potshots at Northwestern). However, the movie was excellent. In addition to agreeing with Roger Ebert’s four-star review, I have my own comments and analysis.

Based on the play of the same name by David Auburn, ‘Proof’ has invited much comparison to ‘A Beautiful Mind’. They are very different movies. ‘A Beautiful Mind’, besides being over half an hour longer, is about the insanity of a brilliant man and/or the brilliance of an insane man. ‘Proof’ is about how the daughter of a brilliant and insane man deals with her father’s death, the return of her callous and successful older sister (Hope Davis), and the advances (both professional and romantic) of her father’s former student (Jake Gyllenhaal). I like both movies, but for very different reasons. As a dramatic story, ‘A Beautiful Mind’ was more exciting, more touching, and more disturbing. However, ‘Proof’ raises some fascinating and difficult questions about the nature of academic scholarship and the importance of different types of interpersonal relationships. Even after the resolution (or lack thereof) of these issues in the movie, I was still pondering them. For lack of more precise terminology, ‘A Beautiful Mind’ was a movie that made me say, “whoa”. ‘Proof’ was a movie that made me say, “hmm”. They’re both intellectually rewarding movies that depict academic titans and confront challenging issues, but ‘Proof’ is a more inherently philosophical film, because it forces the audience to ponder personal and scholarly issues at the same time as the characters.

Some parts of the movie came off as trite, and elicited laughter where it was not intended. I believe that this was largely due to the transition from play to movie. A stage is more intimate, so certain conversations seem less silly (such as the exchanges revealing Hal’s romantic interest in Catherine), and the play had no limousine in it (there was one particularly laughable scene, which is supposed to be dramatic, involving a limousine driving away).

For some reason, I am particularly impressed by works of art whose titles have multiple meanings. The movie’s title also refers to proof in the ordinary, non-mathematical sense, meaning conclusive evidence or demonstration. I can think of at least two different aspects of the movie where proof of this kind is being sought. In particular, there’s a point late in the film where one character asks another character to take something on faith—to believe something without proof, if you will. The second character can’t do it. When you see the movie, you can decide for yourself why the second character makes that decision. Sinister or selfish motives are a possibility, but I personally think that the answer is more benign: that’s simply not the world these characters live in. They demand proof, even when the situation seems to be governed more by emotion than by logic.

That particularly poignant part of the movie, as well as the movie as a whole, reminded me of some Paul Simon lyrics (the song is “Proof” from the album Rhythm of the Saints):

Faith is an island in the setting sun
But proof, yes
Proof is the bottom line for everyone

It strikes me that this would be a fitting unofficial motto for the University of Chicago, considering its unique history. Originally founded as a nonsectarian Baptist-run institution, the university drew a great influx of theologians to the city of Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. A massive debate—centered around the university’s divinity department—between liberal and traditionalist Christians led to the publication (in Chicago) of a series of essays called the Fundamentals, from which fundamentalist Christianity takes its name and inspiration. The university has since abandoned its religious past and become a great center of scientific research, particularly in the physical, biological, and social sciences.

Anyways, when you get down off your ‘Serenity’ high, go see ‘Proof’. It will certainly give you something to think about.

UPDATE: I saw ‘Serenity’. It was awesome. But so was ‘Proof’.

One Response to “Proof is the bottom line for everyone”

  1. […] Simon attacks and partially dismantles this case for faith in the next song on the album, “Proof“, I (myself a Jew from a major northern US city–Chicago) have always been left with an […]

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