Movie Math


The Review’s Review

I love movie math. I love microrationalizing macroabsurdities, laser-focusing on hyperspecific justifications. 13 Going on 30 is a perfect proof. Once upon a time, it’s Jennifer Garner’s (Jenna’s) thirteenth birthday. She wishes she were thirty, she claims to her mom, having read a Poise magazine article touting the thirties as the prime of one’s life. “You’ll be thirty soon enough,” says her mother—and indeed, if Mom had known the film’s title, she might have clocked just how prescient she was. Jenna’s invited the popular clique, the Six Chicks, over for her birthday, despite the truth bomb from the boy next door, Matty, that “there can’t be a seventh sixth chick. It’s mathematically impossible.” The Chicks trick Jenna into “seven minutes in heaven,” that is, waiting blindfolded in a closet for a kiss (that never comes). When she realizes she’s been duped, she desperately chants the mantra she learned from Poise: “Thirty, flirty, and thriving.” By law of rhyme and the rule of threes, exactly thirteen minutes in, counting the opening credits, Jenna falls out of bed in her sprawling Fifth Avenue apartment.  

At thirteen, Jenna’s too early for everything: a retainer around her top teeth, tissue paper stuffed down her shirt to make breasts. At thirty, she’s already running late. Jenna tumbles into a waiting car; ten minutes later, she’s in a meeting for the editorial job she didn’t know she had thirty seconds earlier. The boss, with chin hair plucked into a devil goatee, pins up fourteen nearly identical magazine covers: Poise and its rival Sparkle are side by side. June’s Poise features Jennifer Lopez’s ten secrets; Sparkle’s got her eleventh. 

Math goes on. Manhattan-Matty and Jenna reunite, only for Jenna to discover that she’s been shitty to Matty in the seventeen-year blackout interim. There’s impossible real estate math: they live blocks away from each other, he in the Village with a sunken living room and a backyard, she near Union Square with a walk-in shoe closet. Even for 2004, the salaries don’t add up to a down payment on a fourth of one of them.

Time, like movie math, is bouncy: business day, lunar month, fiscal year. (I recently got into an argument about the existence of a “business week.” I argued pro: fourteen business days equals two business weeks.) I first watched 13 Going on 30 on a plane, flying backward in time. Now, I’m thirty-four going on seventeen. For the past five years, I’ve been teaching at the university where I did my undergraduate degree, but this is my last month there for the foreseeable future. It’s spring, so campus is getting ready for reunions. It’s a reunion off-cycle year for me—year thirteen—but Princeton’s reunions are famously a cosmic wormhole; even those of us who don’t believe in anything go into a New Jersey fugue state for a weekend that’s actually three days but one night. But in movie math, this all totally tracks: micro-obsessing over minutes lets you leap out of the frog-march of linear progression. 

—Adrienne Raphel

First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s portrait of a small-town pastor suffering a crisis of faith, is also a story about equations, summations, and calculations of all kinds. I saw Schrader present the film recently at Metrograph, where I also started Archway Editions’s recent print publication of the screenplay, plus a reissue of The Transcendental Style in Film, Schrader’s seminal 1972 work of film criticism. The two books, taken together, are a kind of blueprint or formula for the movie itself—or maybe more like print transubstantiations of it. First Reformed, appropriately, is a movie structured around the Book. But it is also about math: “I will keep this diary for one year, twelve months, and at the end of that time it will be destroyed,” Reverend Toller says in the voice-over that opens the film. The plot proceeds by a string of numbers. 250: years that the eponymous Dutch church has been in operation; 2050: the year that we will no longer recognize the Earth as our own; 2,500: grams of Semtex wired to an ecoterrorist’s suicide vest (“Hamas-style,” according to the screenplay); $85,000: the charitable contribution made by BALQ Industries, a paper manufacturer, to First Reformed’s semiquincentennial Reconsecration celebrations; 22,978,929: the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions that make BALQ a Top 100 Polluter.

Schrader’s claustrophobic, calendrical pacing heightens the sense that our 113 minutes of runtime are a kind of countdown to the capital-E End. His characters suffer from a similar fate: Michael, one of Toller’s flock, is thirty; his wife, Mary, is in her second trimester. By his calculations, at age thirty-five, their daughter will be alive in a world that is “unlivable.” How, Michael asks his pastor, can one sanction such a pregnancy? Toller’s own son is already dead; following a “patriotic family tradition,” after Bush’s war on terror, and at his father’s urging, he’d enlisted in Iraq. “There was no moral justification for this conflict,” a repentant Toller says of that war. “Michael, whatever despair you feel at bringing a child into the world cannot equal the despair of taking one out of it.” Toller himself, alcoholic and periodically puking blood between diary entries, spends the movie avoiding the doctor’s appointment that might put an end date on his own life.

The movie is a study in a series of symmetries. Everything important arrives as symbolically doubled, first within the world of the film, then again, invisibly, in the much older story that haunts both Toller’s consciousness and Schrader’s script: if characters are often foils for each other, they are also incarnations of Biblical ones. If the pink Pepto-Bismol that Toller pours into his whiskey recalls an oil spill, it is also the blood of Christ. The brilliance of First Reformed is in the speed and grace with which these equivalences are formulated and then, just as quickly, dissolved. A (Christian) life, the film concludes, is not mathematical. Life cannot be counted, proven, or justified. People like to say that Jesus died when he was thirty-three; actually, according to historians, we don’t know for sure—he could have been thirty. Or thirty-six. And the Bible doesn’t give a number at all. 

—Olivia Kan-Sperling, assistant editor