Emily @ the Edge of Chaos is a zany, offbeat, hugely enertaining movie about writer Emily Levine.
The frenetic Pee Wee Herman-style opening credits waste no time letting you know you’re in for a wild ride.
What follows is essentially a revved up, one-woman stage performance in front of a live audience, one that is tricked up with Monty Python inspired cartoon graphics.
It’s a comedy. It’s a documentary. It’s an exploration into some heady topics ranging from science, physics, philosophy, politics and a dash of religion. It’s Emily Levine’s take on life and the meaning of life in an ever-changing world.
At its core is a look at paradigm change, from Newtonian physics to relativity, chaos theory and quantum physics. While it might seem impossible that topics like these could be remotely funny, Levine succeeds in doing just that.
And, it’s personal. At one point of her successful writing career in Los Angeles she suddenly experienced a medical meltdown that severely affected both her brain and body function.
Eventually, it was discovered that she had a brain tumor which was operable, restoring her life. But the experience of dealing with her health issues drove her to retreat and simplify her life.
She moved to a small town, visited the local library and began to read books about physics and science. And she began to see parallels between her life and “the big picture.” It all started to make sense.
Granted, there have been other movies and projects about fascinating, funny, intellectual women.
I’m thinking of the late Carrie Fisher’s HBO comedy special Wishful Drinking (2010) based on her one-woman Broadway show, or Martin Scorsese’s recent TV series documentary Pretend It’s a City (2021) about Fran Lebowitz.
But neither of those projects prepares you for what’s in store when Emily Levine takes the stage and launches into a free-roaming, freeform discourse on topics that loom large and linger in our collective consciousness.
She guides us through topics that seem bewildering and beyond our layman’s level of understanding, offering enlightenment and humor every step of the way.
She’s a standup comic with a stratospheric IQ, who jokes “I understand everything about science, other than the actual science part.” She delights in trying to understand it and make sense of it without losing her sense of humor in the process.
As mentioned earlier, she is joined by computer generated cartoon versions of famous people voiced by famous Hollywood stars: John Lithgow as Sir Isaac Newton, Leonard Nimoy as Sigmund Freud, Richard Lewis as Aristotle, Matt Groening as Benjamin Franklin, Lily Tomlin as Ayn Rand. The list goes on.
The movie is as informative as it is funny. And it is very funny.
Reflecting on the either/or element of Newtonian physics with the lack of any middle ground, she quips “At least with right wing versus left wing, you had a sense that there was a chicken in between.”
One of the first books she read when she embarked on her intellectual journey was on quantum physics. One of the cartoon physicists zooms into frame at one point to exclaim “If you think you understand quantum physics, you don’t understand it at all!”
Levine plunges deep into the world of dark matter and other perplexing questions such as the debate about whether light is a particle or a wave (as it turns out, it’s either or both depending on what approach you take in measuring it).
Yes, the world of physics, and the world itself is a chaotic place, as suggested in the title.
Attempting to measure the physical world in order to try to understand it and control it becomes a problem in and of itself.
She cites the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, best explained by a former psychology professor of mine who said that when you try to measure the temperature of a hot cup of coffee, the temperature of the thermometer changes the temperature of the coffee.
Emily @ the Edge of Chaos is a movie about change and dealing with change.
It is profound and philosophical, bringing to light the interconnectivity of our reality with illustrations like “The Butterfly Effect” in which, theoretically, the movement of a butterfly’s wings can set into motion a series of atmospheric events that could result in triggering a tornado thousands of miles away.
It’s a lot to think about.
It’s an exploration of the delicate balance between order and disorder, between predictability and chaos, in our own lives as well as the vast universe in which we reside.
Emily @ the Edge of Chaos is a gem of a film. Sadly, it is the final work of two talented women, Emily Levine who passed away in 2019 and producer/director Wendy Apple who passed away in 2017.
As a footnote, Wendy Apple was the producer/director for The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing (2004) a brilliant film about the history of film editing, which is required viewing in my History of American Cinema class each fall.
They both will be missed. But they’ve gone out leaving behind a fascinating film that will remain relevant and entertaining for quite some time.
Emily @ the Edge of Chaos starts Friday, May 7, and will be available for audiences through Kino Marquee.