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Science on Screen projects the Coolidge onto a national stage

The Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline has hosted the Science on Screen series for six years. The Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline has hosted the Science on Screen series for six years. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2005)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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Science at the movies comes in several varieties. There’s science fiction as a genre capacious enough for time travel, space travel, creatures, lab work, most of Charlton Heston in the 1970s, and many of life’s greater mysteries (why, in space, can no one hear you scream?).

There’s also just pure glorious science: medicine, engineering, entomology, botany, pharmacology, etc. They’re either the subject of a film or lurking beneath it, ready to be unpacked. For the past six years, the Coolidge Corner Theatre has been doing the unpacking with its Science on Screen series, in which movies are filtered through the expertise and perceptions of actual scientists.

Last year, Judy Shepard-Kegl, a linguist at the University of Southern Maine, considered the civilization and frustrated verbal awakening of an uncultivated boy in Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child.’’ Richard Wrangham, who teaches biological anthropology at Harvard University, looked at “Fight Club’’ through the lens of chimpanzee behavior. Andrew Cohen, a physics professor at Boston University, discussed the emotional impact of the aerial work in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.’’ Tomorrow, Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist, will discuss combat trauma and “Full Metal Jacket.’’

Developed by Elizabeth Taylor-Meade, the Coolidge’s associate director, and Richard Anders, a Boston-based entrepreneur, Science on Screen takes seriously science in the context of art and popular culture. In a recent phone conversation, Denise Kasell, the Coolidge’s executive director, said the surprise of the series was the “aha’’ moment people experience. “They leave the evening thinking, I never thought of that as a science film.’’

The Arthur P. Sloan Foundation thinks Science on Screen is such a good idea that it has awarded the Coolidge a $150,000 grant to expand the program to art houses around the country. The announcement was made official last week in Utah, at a four-day conference for independent film exhibitors called the Art House Convergence. Kasell spoke on the phone from the event, where she, Taylor-Meade, and Doron Weber, the Sloan Foundation’s vice president of programs, announced the news and demonstrated how their program can be implemented elsewhere.

The grant is a boon for the Coolidge, which has been building a reputation beyond Brookline with events like its Coolidge Award, which has gone to film artists as diverse as cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Meryl Streep, director Jonathan Demme, and animators the Quay brothers. Taking Science on Screen national further enhances the Coolidge’s national profile.

For the Sloan grant, the Art House Convergence’s North American, nonprofit member-theaters will be invited to submit applications for six to eight $7,000 awards to initiate a Science on Screen series of their own. Kasell says the winning theaters are free to spend the money as they wish (for publicity or to offset the cost of canceled screenings, say). With the grant, they also get the support services of the Coolidge’s staff. “We’re on call,’’ said Kasell, who added that the theaters that are not selected (they find out on June 1) are free to use and customize the Coolidge’s template.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

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