Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Science & Religion at Film & History conference

Last weekend I attended the Film & History conference on Film & Science: Fiction, Documentary and Beyond. The range of topics was enormous - from bioethics in films to cinematic extraterrestrials to several sessions on Doctor Who (and at the conference banquet, for some reason I ended up on a table full of Doctor Who experts/fanatics - and no I have never watched a full episode. Apparently the new series is very good). Issues of science & religion interaction, of course, came up in several sessions. Here are a few places that I found interesting:

Everett Hamner from Western Illinois University gave a fantastic talk on probing science & religion interactions through films. While he touched on films like Twelve Monkeys, 2001, Blade Runner etc, he spent most of his time analyzing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (you should definitely check it out if you haven't seen it). For example he talked about the film as an approach to the tension between predestination and free-will (when the protagonist - played by Jim Carrey - feels that he is powerless against the those that are erasing his memories). I actually ended up having a long chat with him afterwards about the possibility of developing a course on science & religion through film and about a research collaboration dealing with the analysis of creationist films.

Another interesting talk was by Tom Prasch from Washburn University. He talked about the use and full acceptance of evolutionary principles in movies like the X-Men, Blade, and Underworld and on TV shows like Heroes. Far from any objections to the theory, the plot in all these films is driven by mutations and evolutionary principles (ok - so they may exaggerate a bit - but still..). His point is that at a time when the teaching of evolution is under siege in schools, these movies are doing a fine job of promoting evolution as a sound and accepted science (hmm...movies doing a better job than schools...).

Then there were talks on post 9/11 disaster films (such as the new War of the Worlds - yes, even though it was terrible) and the depiction of religion in them. One really interesting session was Film and the Apollo Era: Moon Madness - Anxiety, Conspiracy and Spectacle. One of the speakers in the session, Matt Hersch, talked about the depiction of astronauts in fictional films from 1968-1980. The story in these movies was usually driven by breakdowns of astronauts due to stress - something that did not happen to actual Apollo astronauts. So where is the science & religion connection? Well, one of the movies he talked about was The Ninth Configuration. I haven't seen it - but it is about an astronaut who starts questioning his faith under stress. Interestingly, this astronaut character first appeared briefly in The Exorcist, and this whole movie is an expansion of that character. From some of the stills he showed, this movie has some surreal imagery and looks fascinating. Has any one seen this film here? Matt also mentioned that many of the Apollo astronauts (real astronauts - not the fictional ones) actually became more religious, including one Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin, who later founded a Christian ministry and spent his post Apollo years looking for the Noah's ark. Oh boy...I will try to avoid any lunar jokes at this time.