A few months ago, my wife and I discovered a terrific film series at the spectacular AFI Silver theater. (The AFI is a palatial, Deco-styled marvel that anyone who cares about film ought to visit at least once. We live about a mile and a half away and consider ourselves stupendously lucky.) Science in the Cinema, as the series is called, pairs free screenings of science-inspired films with post-show discussions led by major scientists. Our first visit was so completely spectacular I felt like I had to tell the entire world about it. It’s the closest I’ve ever come in my entire life to experiencing what I wish church was like.
The main cinema at the AFI Silver holds 400. On the evening we went, every single seat was occupied — the room was quite clearly testing the limits of the fire marshal’s authority — and there were scores of people turned away at the doors as well. The excitement in the space, before the film began, was palpable. I honestly wondered whether the room would ever get settled down. We arrived early enough to get great seats: just off center, a bit more than halfway back, and energy-wise, it felt like we were sitting in the middle of a congregation, not an audience. People were, as the kids say, stoked.
The film we watched that evening was the excellent Contagion. I knew I would love every minute of it going in, and I did love every minute of it, and I was very pleased to have loved it so much. What really made the evening special, however, were the scientists who spoke afterward: Anthony S. Fauci, the head of the NIH, and W. Ian Lipkin, who happened to have been the lead scientific consultant on what may be the most scientifically accurate science-inspired film I’ve ever seen. They spoke off the cuff, each of them, for about 20 minutes total, then took questions from a deeply-passionate audience for another 40 minutes or so. On the whole, it was as if the conversations I’d begun in my head while watching the film were externalized and extended by the community. We wrestled, collectively, with challenging and vital matters: things relevant not only to our daily experience of living in a disease-challenged world, but with the less-obvious ideas and questions baked into the ways in which we think about epidemics. It was magnificent.
If Science in the Cinema ran every week, like church, I would go every week. Conversely, and perhaps more importantly, if church were more like Science in the Cinema, I’d also be inclined to show up regularly. I’d even be completely happy to make a weekly donation to pay for the experience, which was worth far more to me than the cost of a movie ticket, to be sure. But I’ve yet to find a church that’s sufficiently rooted in evidence and the scientific method, or that proffers its stories as material for deconstruction, rather than as canonical texts. (If they did that, we wouldn’t be living through a perpetual culture war.) I’ve yet to be so inspired by anything religious.
Finally… if I were going to start a theater company, it would resemble Science in the Cinema. But I can’t say anything more about that, because… you know… what if I did that? Because I think I could do that, and be really happy, and feel like I’d done my community a really good service.
I guess I have some thinking to do.