ENCYCLOPEDIA OBSCURA: EINSTEIN'S BRAIN
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"Einstein teaches me about love as well as science.
Some months ago, my film science teacher announced that he would be presenting a non-mandatory film after his lecture. When you're a student, the words 'non-mandatory' often sound a lot like 'forty winks back in the bed-sitter', and I was ready to pass the opportunity up. But once I heard it was about a Japanese guy looking for Einstein's brain, I decided to give it a go. I was kind of expecting Buckaroo Banzai meets Frankenstein in Japan. Little did I know this was a documentary, and that it would prove itself to be far stranger than the combination above could ever have been. This is Einstein's Brain.
My teacher had fist seen this documentary while attending a film festival, and a couple of years later he was fortunate enough to discover it was about to air on Swedish television. He taped it, I borrowed and copied it, and it looks like shit, but it's the only copy I'll ever find. Next, I decided to go look up some info on the subject. A Google search resulted in six hits, only three of which were in English, and only one of which actually described the content in brief. Over at imdb, you'll find one user comment. This is a rare gem ready to be forgotten completely, and I see it as my duty to bring you the story of a man's quest for - in his eyes - the holiest of grails.
A little history lesson: When Albert Einstein died in 1955, his brain was extracted and donated to the Princeton Medical Center. No reports were written on the subject, and the famous cerebrum fell into obscurity.
Enter professor Kenji Sugimoto. Sugimoto has devoted thirty years to studying Einstein, and now he's ready to make a pilgrimage to the promised land: Princeton, New Jersey. How he ended up with a documentary crew I do not know, but they hire an interpreter for whenever the good professor's knowledge of the English language runs thin, and they're off.
Before we move on, it's important that you know a few things about Sugimoto's appearance and behaviour. First of all, the word 'Einsteinbrains' pops up at least once per sentence whenever he opens his mouth, and he's not afraid to ask strangers about where it is like most people ask for directions to the nearest McDonald's. His default reactions to people's answers are 'ah, so' or 'hah-haw.' He mumbles or sings softly to himself in Japanese all the time. He's pretty much a Japanese Winnie-the-Pooh with less than mediocre social skills, only bigger and with crazy hair. Also, 'brain' instead of 'honey.'
Once in Princeton, Sugimoto runs over to the brains at display in the medical center. He checks once, he checks twice, but no Einsteinbrains. He asks an employee if he could please show him where the brain is, but no luck. It is listed in their registry, but is nowhere to be found. The professor expresses his disappointment by exclaiming 'ha-hàw'. It appears that the man assigned to researching on the brain, one doctor Thomas Harvey, failed to produce one single status report in five years and was fired in 1960. For some reason, he had taken the brain with him when he left. So while this round is lost, there is still hope; The search for Harvey begins.
A quick look in the phone directory reveals that there in fact is one Thomas Harvey living nearby. Eager for results, Sugimoto is transported to the listed address. The owner of the house opens the door. Sugimoto asks if he is Thomas Harvey and if he please could show him the Einsteinbrains, failing to notice that this man doesn't look like he could have been neither fired nor born by 1960. Harvey suggests that the professor might be looking for a different Thomas Harvey altogether and informs him that he doesn't have anybody's brains. 'Ah so' replies the professor, and he's off to execute 'pran B'.
Phase one in plan B is travelling to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. After buying an official Einstein t-shirt as well as asking a couple of students who happen to walk by if they have any interest in Einsteinbrains, our mumbling protagonist starts tracking down someone who might have any useful information regarding Harvey's whereabouts.
Dr. Harry Zimmermann informs the professor that he in fact has Einsteins brain right there in his office. This is in truth good news. Sugimoto can hardly wait to get his hands on the relic, and it shows. Not only does he start emitting strange 'chhhaaaaw!' sounds, he also grows restless and his hands turn itchy all of a sudden.
Dr. Zimmermann isn't quite ready to whip out the lump of grey matter, though; First, he feels like describing the history of the Princeton Medical Center in painstaking detail, his memory of what Einstein was like and a long story about his career. Sugimoto's frustration grows more and more visible: Will this man never shut up and answer the question already? Is there no way to stop his endless rant? Finally, our professor is able to cut in and ask for the fourth time if he please could see the brain. 'Yeah, sure' answers the doctor. Then he does not go get the brain but reminisces about what it was like working with doctor Harvey instead, completely ignoring his guest. I don't think people visit his office very often.
After a long and less than fascinating story, Zimmermann pulls out a box from his shelf. It has a distinct not-like-a-brain-container-at-all shape. It appears that all the doctor has to offer is a couple of cross sections, each twenty microns in thickness. The doctor tells a story about a discussion he once had with his collegues about whether one could tell a person's intelligence by looking at a brain and throws in a few facts about the German neurologist Nissl and how he discovered how one could dye brain cells to make the different layers and textures clear and crisp. The professor doesn't listen at all, but rummages through the box with all the enthusiasm of a kid realizing the Christmas present he is unwrapping in fact is Snake Mountain.
While this certainly provides a quick fix, Sugimoto is far from content with four grams of brain. He was thinking more along the lines of four pounds. But does Zimmermann know where to find Harvey and the brain?
"Do you know about Dr. Thomas Harvey? Is Dr. Thomas Harvey... where lives Dr. Thomas Harvey in America? I wish to meet Dr. Thomas Harvey. I wish to... visit Dr. Thomas Harvey... How to gets information about Dr. Thomas Harvey. Prease tell me the information of Dr. Thomas Harveys."
I guess Zimmermann is more of a talker than a listener, even this impressive kaleidoscope of Thomas Harvey queries wasn't enough to make him understand the question. He suggests that Sugimoto should write his request down on a piece of paper, but the interpreter saves the day. Well, Zimmerman knows that Dr. Harvey had a wife from whom he now is divorced, that he moved around a lot after the conflict with the medical center, and a lot of other facts that Sugimoto has no interest in. Finally, Zimmermann reveals that Harvey died two years ago and that the brain is cut up into tiny little pieces and spread across the continent.
Professor Sugimoto is sad.
Refusing to give up, our hero mumbles his way to Washington DC, where he finds Einstein's file in the FBI archives. Sadly, 90% of the information is blanked out and classified, and his only lead turns out to be yet more cross sections. It's time to seek comfort and strength. It's time to take one's shoes off and climb a giant Einstein statue.
Hold it. What about Einstein's family? Surely he must have some living relatives? A little research reveals that there in fact is a granddaughter in Berkley, SF. Ha-haw. Running through the phone directory results in a few dead ends, but finally Sugimoto hits the jackpot and receives a confirming answer. Ach so! Hhaah! Sank you. Okeh! Evelyn Einstein wants to know why the professor has contacted her. The professor informs her that he is looking for Einsteinbrains. Evelyn Einstein invites him over.
Meeting Evelyn has an effect on our pilgrim. He can't sit still, he keeps scratching his knees and his hands sweat. He's one step away from his hero, his idol. This is a sacred moment. We learn that there has been some speculation whether Evelyn is Einstein's granddaughter, adopted granddaughter or daughter. Therefore, she has given some of her skin cells to a Dr. Boyd from the east. Apparently, he has a piece of the brain to provide him with DNA.
Eastwards we go. Dr. Boyd can confirm that he has a slice of the brain and that he got it from a mental institution where Dr. Thomas Harvey at some point worked. He tells about how silly he felt calling someone up out of the blue and asking for Einstein's brain. The professor nods approvingly and avoids eye contact.
Boyd's piece was sent by FedEx from Lawrence, Kansas. Sugimoto decides to travel there and locate the late Dr. Harvey's residence and... what the..? Harvey is alive and well! And he has almost the entire brain stored in three glasses in his closet! What an unexpected and fortunate turn of events! Obviously, Zimmermann prioritized quantity before quality when he handed out information earlier. If he had only known the frustration and disappointment he had caused poor Kenji. And the incredible joy the counter-evidence provided. Calmly and mumblingy he observes the pieces up close. The biological clockworks that toppled everything we thought we knew about time, matter and energy. The center for a passionate philosopher's musings. An icon and an idol for scientists around the world.
Humbly, the professor asks if he maybe could bring a piece back with him to Japan. 'Sure, why not,' Harvey replies and walks out to the kitchen to fetch his bread board and a knife.
Harvey finds an old pill cup to store the slice in and pours a little formaldehyde in. Sugimoto has acheived his goal. His crusade is at an end. How will he celebrate this joyous occation? The traditional Japanese way, of course.
He walks into a bar, orders himself a drink, walks up on stage, introduces the brain to fifty drunken Kansas farmers and fires up the karaoke machine. The other guests cheer and shout with joy, and take their partner out on the dance floor to share his moment.
The next day, he leaves for Japan by plane with the piece of brain neatly placed on the tray in front of him. It's a lot like the ending in Hannibal, but in a good way. Kenji Sugimoto is going home, and he certainly will have quite a lot to tell his students about at his next lecture.
And Thomas Harvey?
He was elected employee of the month at Lawrence's metalworks in his new position as an extruder apprentice.
This one ran a lot longer than I had originally planned. But I know that if I hadn't gone all the way with this, I would be kicking myself in a couple of weeks. This is a wonderful documentary. While the director (whose name I unfortunately do not know) does play up the comedy sometimes, it's never done to ridicule the person the film revolves around or the people he meets on his journey. The approach and material is thought-provoking, funny, sweet, absurd, poetic and something quite unlike anything else.
Now that I've joined Kenji Sugimoto on his journey no less than three times, I must say it is by far the most heartwarming documentary I've seen (and among the most disturbing), and I'm really glad I finally have a copy. I'll probably always have a borderline psychotic mumbling Japanese man in my head from now on, and hopefully so will you one day. If you ever get the chance to watch Einstein's Brain, seize the opportunity with both hands.
"I am born in Nagasaki two years after bomb. Einstein is made responsible for the bomb, but I do not blame him. I still love Albert Einstein."
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Copyright Per Arne Sandvik