Schepisi: I.Q. (1994)
Written by Andy Breckman and Michael J. Leeson, and directed by Fred Schepisi, I.Q. is one of the more oddball romantic comedies of the 90s. The matchmaker here is none other than the great Albert Einstein, played by Walter Matthau, in one of his more compelling late career roles. Keen to provide his niece Catherine Boyd, played by Meg Ryan, with a better suitor than the supercilious psychology academic James Moreland, played by Stephen Fry, Einstein does his best to set her up with Ed Walters, a local mechanic played by Tim Robbins. The catch is that Catherine is a brilliant physicist herself, and well on her way to academic tenure, whereas Ed is an autodidact, and has taught himself the rules of general relativity with no formal training. To that end, Einstein and his academic cronies conspire to help Ed pass himself off as a serious physics researcher, and so convince Catherine that he is worthy of her affection.
This paves the way for a quant spacetime romance that often feels as if it was actually made in the mid-50s, so quiet and mild is its approach to its subject matter. In the mid-90s, directors across the board were coming to terms with the implications of digital media for cinematic time. Schepisi takes a novel approach here, evoking a new cinematic regime at the heart of the 50s nostalgia-image that had dominated Hollywood in the 80s and late 90s, much as the film situates Einstein, the progenitor of spacetime, in the midst of a tranquil New Jersey pastoral, where he settles gently into old age at the tail end of his Princeton tenure. As the film proceeds, the vistas become wider, more expansive, and more abstract, until the enormous undulations of roads and fields suggest that the grids of spacetime were always embedded in the American landscape, and perhaps aren’t so very alien or threatening after all. In the final act, these enormous spaces broker a meeting between Einstein and Eisenhower, in a mythical common ground between the nostalgic fantasy of the 50s as zenith of American prosperity, and the prospect of a new digital spacetime on the cinematic horizon.
Likewise, the screenplay revolves around gentle motifs of space, time and motion, and often plays as so many quaint thought-experiments for illustrating the principles of general relativity. We see objects dropped from trees, shifting perspectives in moving vehicles, and fields of space that seem to expand and contract at a moment’s notice. Love is described as “attraction at a distance,” lovers ruminate that “somewhere an atom is colliding with another atom,” and one of Einstein’s cronies reflects comically on the impossibility of wasting time in his old age: “How can you waste something that doesn’t exist?” Even the meet-cute takes place as a quaint rupture in spacetime, as Ed has a vision of marrying Catherine the moment he meets her, and Catherine leaves her pocket-watch behind at his garage, displacing her sense of time until he returns it to her and begins their romance. All of this gives I.Q. a vaguely instructional quality, like an informercial about quantum physics made for very little children. Schepisi thus captures the way in which the sheer force of Einstein’s ideas inspired a whole new generation of amateurs and autodidacts, all personified by Ed’s fannish enthusiasm here.
I.Q. also captures the way in which Einstein’s ideas were reimagined by the next generation – the Baby Boomer generation. Relativity links with the counterculture through car culture – Catherine first meets Ed when her car breaks down and her fiancée James doesn’t know how to fix it; Ed bonds with Einstein by taking him for a ride on his motorbike; and Ed eventually transforms Einstein’s car into a space-age convertible, a grounded interstellar vehicle. It’s as if Ed, and the counterculture he personifies, represents a way to put Einstein’s theories into practice. Einstein might have thought through all these ideas, but the film suggests he never felt them until he leaned into auto culture, and its capacity to approximate the speed of light.
With this countercultural mileu comes a dawning sense that there is a cosmic shift in gender relations on the horizon, equivalent in scope to the emergence of general relativity. We see it when Catherine uses Xenos’ paradox to demonstrate to Ed that they can never truly hold each other, no matter how close they come, but it’s clearest in the way that the film positions women within academia. This is the distasteful side of I.Q. – its tacit assumption that a male autodidact is more legitimate than a female academic. You can see an origin point for academic mansplaining here, as Einstein and his cronies throw themselves behind Ed, and attempt to legitimise him as an academic authority, at the expense of Catherine’s very real scientific genius. In one scene, for example, Ed only passes a genius test because Einstein and his cronies each cough to indicate whether he should answer A, B, C or D on the multiple choice questions that are projected on a screen as he completes them. However, when he gets the question “which of the following is irrelevant to relativity?” the answer is E, and so the four men incline their heads towards Catherine, and Einstein jabs her painfully, to indicate their her position, as fifth in the row, stands in for this academic irrelevancy. By the close of the film, Einstein, growing desperate, insists that the only option is to for Ed to become “obtuse and obscure” enough to “undermine her confidence” in the field she has mastered.
Luckily, Ed, and the film, refrain from this option, even if they do keep it open as a possibility for the future. Instead, I.Q. ends with one final fusion of relativity and car culture, as Einstein takes some knowledge from Ed, and wires his car so that Catherine sputters to a halt on a local road, and then rolls across a massive green field, coming to a soft stop beneath an enormous tree, where Ed is waiting for her. Einstein watches this entire procedure through binoculars, removing the events to outer space, as Schepisi’s abstracted pastoral segues into full-on spacetime, leaving Catherine and Ed in the midst of a timeless undulation. Pulling back the top of Einstein’s convertible to turn it into a makeshift observatory, or spacecraft, Ed puts his arm around Catherine, and the two dissolve into the heart of the cosmos, as a comet named after Catherine’s father flies overhead: “This is so right. This is the way I wanted to see it.” It’s an awry 50s homage, a nostalgia-image that can’t ever quite ignore or escape another 50s, the mid-century of spacetime research whose digital corollary now looms on the horizon.
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