Saturday, July 03, 2010

In the agora of ideas

There was some discussion in Comments recently about the film Agora, by Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar, that tells the story of Hypatia, the brilliant female mathematician, astronomer, and teacher who lived in 4th-century Alexandria and was apparently murdered by a religious mob. Not many films get reviewed in Science, the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Agora is given a rave (June 18). I have not seen the film, but according to the reviewer -- Stuart Firestein -- it takes a nuanced view of the whole science/religion controversy. Another film considered in the same review is the French-made Oceans, a documentary about the seas. Both films were released in Europe to popular and critical acclaim.

Firestein notes that Agora required a year to find an American distributor. Oceans was picked up by Disney but re-edited to make it less challenging and coorporate-friendly. The reviewer writes:
To me, a larger question is why there is no adult market in the United States for an environmentally sensitive and demanding film with an informed and important scientific message. Did potential American distributors turn down Amenabar's star-filled, award-winning, historical action film because it had a cogent scientific theme? Why are films like Oceans and Agora finding strong, sophisticated, adult audiences in Europe and failing to attract attention in America?
Well, you tell me.

But I will add a story.

The film Frankie Starlight, made from my novel The Dork of Cork, had three beautiful Hollywood stars; Matt Dillon, Gabriel Byrne and Anne Parillaud. But the real stars of the movie were Corban Walker and Alan Pentony, who played the adult and child protagonist of the film, who happened to be a dwarf. The whole point of the novel and film was to force us to rethink our notions of beauty.

In Europe, and the rest of the world, Corban and Alan were prominently featured on posters and in advertising. The American distributor pushed Dillon, Byrne and Parillaud to the fore. Walker and Pentony weren't even named on the box that held the VHS! According to what I was told, "Americans would be turned off by dwarf actors," which pretty much defeats the whole point of the film.

Is it that Americans are really so unsubtle? Are we too quick to let corporate interests define us? Or have we become what the corporate interests want us to be -- passive consumers of insipid intellectual pabulum?

And speaking of Dork, Tom has directed me to this Huffington Post list of the twelve worst book titles. Ah well, it's not a National Book Award, but it'll do.