The Sloan Film Summit

Two things happened on the last Saturday in October.  The first snow of the season came.  That was the first thing that happened, and unfortunate too, because there’s a leak in the boiler in my building, so gas doesn’t have the necessary pressure to make it up five flights of pre-war pipes.  At least that’s what the super told me in Spanish while we stood in the clouded basement, two men sharing in the sacred ritual of the steam (albeit in an accidental sauna).  But never mind that, because there was the second thing: later that day I attended my first summit, a meeting of important people, for film and science.  When I was invited all I could conjure was Camp David and G-8—20, but, to my knowledge, there were no heads of state there at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

Every 3 years The Sloan Film Summit gathers filmmakers from around the world to privately discuss the eco political future of our planet . . . wait . . . !  what I mean to say is they’ve all received financial grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the creation of science-themed narratives for the lay public.  Directors who have previously participated in this program include Warner Herzog, Darren Aranofsky, and Julian Schnabel.  Presented by the Tribeca Film Institute, there were 70 attendees this year, filmmakers with projects at various developmental stages.

I saw a staged reading of seven screenplay excerpts, ranging from the historical to the hysterical.  Or both, in the cases of Noah Miller’s Project Alpha—about a 1979 parapsychology study featuring two full-of-shit teenage subjects—and Matthew Evans’ The Wizard of Sussex—about Charles Dawson and the “missing link” hoax of 1912.  The staged reading itself is the real transitional form, a display of work on the way from page to screen.  It was cool to be able to observe these midway moments in the development of films.

Next was a delightful panel—”From Science to Fiction”—featuring scientists Dr. Janna Levin and Dr. Stuart Firestein alongside three filmmakers.  I found out that after graduate students show professors their data, the professor will often say “So what’s the story here?”  Results are even re-organized superficially for the sake of making sense, at which point scientists can realize that they’re “missing a scene,” maybe, and so they go back and conduct another experiment.  Sounds familiar, because scientists and artists are both creative problem-solvers.  Their methods may differ, but any human being striving for discovery, striving for anything, has inherent drama.  It’s the job of Sloan grantees to erase, hover over, or fancy-foot across and back from whatever arbitrary lines might separate an audience from material.

Now for a true story of my own, one funny to me: I am sitting in the hospitality room at the summit drinking straight half-and-half that’s supposed to be for coffee, when in comes a caravan of caterers each wearing one latex glove and holding up a tray of assorted chocolate cookies as though they’re grapes for Cleopatra.  Milk, then cookies?  A formal logical fallacy I recognize as “affirming the consequent,” necessarily false.  I’m a little giddy because logic seems to have been trumped, and so I say to one caterer “Thanks dude!  You baked all of those cookies yourself?” and he looked right at me and gave me just the answer, nothing more: “No, I didn’t.”  I read his face, it was like the face of a lay man reading to a dense scientific abstract.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is not dedicated to studying the phenomenon of why everyone doesn’t always laugh at every single one of my jokes.  The Sloan Foundation—through it’s Program for Public Understanding of Science and Technology—is dedicated to educating and engaging the public with science-themed books, radio, public and commercial television and film, theater, the Internet, and new media.  They’re distributing $10 million this year through all phases of the creative process, from commission to distribution.  I had the pleasure of chatting with Doron Weber, who runs the program, and he told me that in his 15 years he has seen science distilled more-and-more successfully into the mainstream.  There are 4 Sloan-supported feature films being released, and many more coming down the pipe.

Which leads me to a serious question: Would the Sloan Foundation pay for space heaters in my apartment, if I called them spacetime thermodynamos and wrote a story about it?  Because I’m working on it, in layers.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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