The Real Mad Scientist Is Always Better Than The Movie

Last night, New York's Imagine Science Film Festival featured four short films about mad scientists — but they left out the maddest parts. Even though the films brought some unjustly overlooked geniuses to light — and shed some new light on familiar ones — they were missing some of the most important, and wildest, historical facts about their subjects, who included Nikola Tesla, a pioneer of Vitamin C and the inventor of medical hand-washing. Which of these films (which are mostly online) is worth your time? And what details were too strange for the film-makers to include?


The Film: Joel O. Shapiro's 2005 film The Visionary The Scientist: The 17 minute film explores the more Fellini-esque side of scientists Nikola Tesla, starting with him no-showing his acceptance of the Edison Prize in 1917. What's Missing? The Visionary makes no attempt to be comprehensive, but a few more references to Tesla's extraordinary biography for those wanting to know more couldn't have hurt. The film focuses primarily on Tesla's tower, necessarily omitting for time much of his entertaining early life. Verdict: If you're curious, sample the gorgeous cinematography of the film here. The Prestige will have to do for now. The Film: The animated short Paprika, not to be confused with the 2006 feature length Japanese anime of the same name. The Scientist: Albert Szent-Györgyi, who extracted Vitamin C from paprika in the early part of the twentieth century. He also saved Jews during World War II, so despite the cute animation, there's a big time story here. What's Missing? To watch Paprika you'd think Szent-Györgyi was a paprika farmer in Hungary who happened to make a discovery. In reality he was a Cambridge grad with a long history of important science. But that's not the point in this child-oriented cartoon. Verdict: Paprika is a fun YouTube, if a bit light on science. You can watch it in its entirety here.

The Film: Jim Berry and Fritz Michel's hospital short Semmelweis The Scientist: Ignaz Semmelweis was a doctor whose genius idea that doctors should wash their hands is roundly frowned upon by a generation of obsessive-compulsives. A law school dropout, he found he could make an impact in early medicine. What's Missing? Set in a Vienna hospital (right), the filmmakers even made a trip to get a few evocative exteriors. Still, Semmelweis's epilogue reveals that Semmelweis was beaten to death by guards in a lunatic asylum, a scene you never omit from a screenplay. Verdict: Some of the production values scream "We shot this in Yonkers," but hey, they did shoot it in Yonkers. A fun and entertaining, if amateurish, look at nineteenth century science.


The Film: experimental documentary Great Stupidity and Profound Genius from director Benita Raphan, who last worked on a highly regarded Buckminster Fuller documentary. The Scientists: The film profiles Helen Keller, Paul Erdos (right), and other great geniuses in a unique free flow of sound and image. What's Missing? With echoes of Hollis Frampton's Zorn's Lemma, the film doesn't really make a convincing argument for how "stupidity" relates to genius, but it gets points for challenging Jesus' IQ and its compelling abstract visuals. The highlight is undoubtedly a ten year prodigy's explanation of how he solves complicated equations. Verdict: It doesn't get less marketable than a short documentary, but Benita Raphan's fascinating tribute airs on The Sundance Channel from time to time. She's a promising young talent in the field, and you have to eagerly anticipate her next project.

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