Science on Screen expanding beyond the Coolidge

by Andrew Doerfler / Beacon Staff • February 17, 2011

Some people use movies as an escape from the grind of real life. Fans of the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Science on Screen project, however, prefer their cinema — both nonfiction and fiction — with a helping of research-backed reality.

The Coolidge is now prepping the monthly series, started in 2005, for a nationwide expansion. Since its start in 2005, the program has presented movies preceded by explanations from area experts detailing the science that contributes to the film’s world — viewers of Fight Club learned of biological/anthropological reasoning behind masculine violence; fans of Full Metal Jacket discovered the scientific basis behind combat trauma.

Representatives from the Coolidge, with help from grant-making institution the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, launched their national initiative at this year’s Arthouse Convergence, an annual rendezvous of independent cinemas leading up to the Sundance Film Festival.

The Coolidge, one of the Convergence’s founders, presented a plan to offer six to eight primer packages — including a complete list of the Coolidge’s past features and $7000 in seed money — for theaters hoping to start their own science-based film programs.

Interested theaters must turn in their applications by April 1 and the six to eight theaters chosen will be notified by June 1.

The series has already proven its appeal in the Boston area. Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation associate director and Science on Screen curator Elizabeth Taylor-Mead said that the program has been a success from its start, which she credits to creative and unexpected pairings.

“The point of the series is that any film can be a departure point for a conversation about science,” Taylor-Mead said in a phone interview.

George A. Romero’s zombie thriller Night of the Living Dead, for example, may seem completely fantastical. But a presentation from Harvard psychiatrist Steven C. Schlozman not only explained a neurobiological basis for the behavior of the undead, but also enthralled audiences with the humor and passion with which he delivered his lecture.

“If he had talked for four hours, everyone would have been happy,” Taylor-Mead said.

That particular screening’s influence extended beyond the walls of the Coolidge. After the enthusiastic response to his presentation, Dr. Scholzman went on to write a book on the subject: Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse, due in March, compiles a collection of fictional “documents” from doctors attempting to cure a zombie pandemic. Now, according to Taylor-Mead, Dr. Schlozman has been talking with George Romero about working on a film.

Taylor-Mead hopes the concept can have a similar impact in communities across America. But the Coolidge isn’t looking to start a franchise for itself. Though it will provide a start-up kit — complete with a list of past features — to serve as a launchpad, each theater that comes aboard will design and run its own program.

Taylor-Mead believes that the Coolidge knows what works for Boston, but trusts that the individual theaters will best be able to discover what will be appealing to viewers from their own communities.

But for now, the Coolidge continues to focus on its own program. To celebrate Valentine’s Day, on Feb. 21 the theater will screen Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella Death in Venice, which tells the story of a sickly writer’s obsession with an adolescent boy.

Harvard medical school psychologist Nancy Etcoff will precede the screening with a discussion on the hierarchy of physical beauty. If the Coolidge Corner Theatre still needed to convince hesitant viewers of science’s value in cinema, this might be the presentation to do it.