Thursday, December 02, 2010

Math and philosophy drive the plot of a spoofy horror thriller, "The Oxford Murders"; indie movie from all of corporate Tinseltown

First: the “intellectual” premise of the film below harks back to my own graduate school days at the University of Kansas, where I earned an MA in Math in 1968. I remember Dugundji’s Topology text and the Axiom of Choice.

Shortly after moving to Minneapolis about the time I published and started promoting my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book (in 1997), and through the Libertarian Party there, I met a college student, with roots in Britain, who would help me get a televised speaking engagement but through whom I learned something about “humanities” in college these days, especially, Philosophy. Yes, people major in Philosophy (more than one that I met at Hamline; I met another through Pride Alive later).  And philosophy graduates students become law students often, but not until bartending for "low pay" in Brighton, England.

So it tickled me to find a movie about a “psychologically feminine” math and philosophy professor (actually, “Logic” with all its symbolic derivations) at Oxford (Arthur Seldon, played by John Hurt) who befriends a becoming graduate student (Martin, played by Elijah Wood, who “less or more” looks and behaves like the college student I met. The film is “The Oxford Murders”, released by Magnolia Pictures and ThinkFilm, but with big international corporate backing from Warner Brothers, Universal, Eurimages (France), and particularly Telecinco (Spain), directed by Alex de la Iglesia Mendoza, from Bilbao (I city I visited in 2001 and which may look to film, as well as other high tech things, to replace its aging steel and manufacturing industries). Now that I ponder the title, I suppose this could be John Grisham’s Oxford, MS; but no, the film looks very British (the indoors may have been done in Spain). This movie shows that the corporate giants like to brand big films as independent to attract "grown ups" to art houses. The film is based on a novel by Guillermo Martinez, which the director says is not very visual.  

The opening of the film shows the two lead characters separately, before they meet; they’re both into the world of math and epistemology. As a grad student, Martin has to ponder how you prove things in humanities, maybe if writing papers about Hegel. He attends a seminar given by Sheldon (“Can we know the Truth?”  -- "Philosophy is dead") and volunteers that he sees truth in the number Pi (welcome to the world of Aronofsky). Hurt has been speculating abou the nature of absolute Truth, whether it’s drawn from experience or just derived by logic from axioms.

An old woman is found passed away in Martin’s rooming house near campus, just when Seldon is meeting him there. Pretty soon we have a mystery with the structure of the movie “Se7en”. It seems like people who have little time to live anyway are showing up, with someone pointing out evidence of foul play; and pretty soon both “Sherlock Holmes” partners are figuring out the mathematical pattern. There’s a hint of the CBS series “Numbers” (or “Numb3rs”). There’s even a Clue Board (as an allegory to the plot) with the red token of Miss Scarlet (in the Dining Room). I think Mr. Ree, a forgotten board game from the 1950s, might make a better analogy.

Martin has some passionate scenes with his girl friend (he lets his tummy out in one scene, a bit sloppy), and that might even provide even more indirect clues. There’s a wonderful climactic scene at a concert performance of a modern choral work, apparently by Roque Banos (although it sounds a lot like Britten), where an orchestra member collapses, dead (I’ve never heard of that really happening) – homage to a climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much” with Arthur Benjamin’s rousing “Storm Cloud Cantata”. The other movie that comes to mind would be New Line’s “The Number 23”, or maybe even Summit’s “Knowing”.

The film is set in 1993, just before the Internet become significant, so there is plenty of real world evidence around, even a scene where a victim talks about Turing and code breaking manually with 1940s computers.

The extras on the DVD are numerous and long, and are in Spanish with subtitles. Even Elijah Wood is speaking fluent and idiomatic Spanish. The entire cantata by Banos is offered on the DVD.

The opening of the film, on a WWI battlefield with a "professor" stopping to write in his notebook with bullets flying aorund, reminds me of my own Army Basic in 1968. 

The mood of this film and it's intellectual questiosn reminded me of Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen"; the film does mention the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle at least once.

Official Magnolia site is here.

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