Gabriel Leif Bellman was working as a producer at MTV in New York in 1999, when he purchased his grandfather’s autobiography at the NYU Bookstore. The writer-director was reading the first chapter on the subway on his way home when he noted that his grandfather’s father owned a store on Bergen Street in Brooklyn—the same street that Gabriel now lived on. Shocked by the coincidence, he grabbed his Sony VX-1000 and booked the first flight to LA. See, his gramps, Richard Bellman, invented a branch of mathematics in the 1960’s that allowed people to solve problems in a new way. Because of the timing and emergence of computers, this had a profound effect on the disciplines of medicine, engineering and economics.
Math movies are unique (think A Beautiful Mind and Proof) as they ultimately end up provoking the limits of the human brain and the capacity to solve problems. Throw in the complicated state of the American family, and you have the perfect premise. Growing up, Gabriel didn’t know that his grandfather had been a famous mathematician. In his first feature, Gabriel followed a family circus in Ireland (Duffy’s Irish Circus, Cinequest 2005). But that was somebody else’s family. The grandfather that Gabriel knew as a young boy was paralyzed by a brain tumor and barely able to speak. Locked in that frozen body was ridiculously active gray matter—the man published more than 40 books and 600 papers, and also helped invent the atomic bomb. A great subject for a documentary with one big problem: no footage of his grandfather existed, and he had been dead for 15 years. Having been trained in quick-cutting, Gabriel had to change his storytelling rubric as the film was unfolding and things like Facebook were launching over the 12 years of production. People want to see things as they are happening. If film is the language of the present, how can we see and discuss the past as it is happening?
The answer to that lies in this filmic equivalent of a dubstep remix—classical music mathematic call and response, where generations collide and elder Bellman drops Kurtis Blow- Beethoven beats and younger Bellman does his Jay-Z/Glenn Gould freestylin’ to keep up. A mash-up of math, time-lapse and revelations, Gabriel’s filmmaking highlights his background as a poet (he also wrote the librettos for two Operas performed at Juilliard and NYC Opera and has written13 books). This is not just a biography, but a meta-biographical multiplication table.
Garnering critical praise for its raw, simple, real-time documentation of secrets unfolding, what begins as a simple quest to interview people who knew his grandfather slowly evolves into a 12 year odyssey. At least three of the subjects die during the making of the film, Gabriel’s father contracts cancer (twice), and he finds out that the FBI targeted his grandfather because of a connection to the Rosenbergs. The Atomic Age and the nuclear family do not make it through the film intact. And this is how we see the past as it happens—through examination, conscious and unconscious editing, and (ultimately) incorporating it into our new view of the present.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.” For those of us in the God Is Dead-Nietzschean-Vortex-of-Now, where real-time status updates create a permanently evolving edit in a movie we all take turns narrating, The Bellman Equation remains that rare type of new movie—and Leif Bellman that rare type of storyteller, striking chords in Homeric journeys of prodigal sons who return home to create a world that escapes (and partly encapsulates) the world of their fathers.
- The Fresh Prince