Particles, fevers and the documentary tradition

Out this week at the Landmark Theatres Embarcadero Center Cinemas is a small, yet potent documentary about a scientific experiment of “Edisonian” proportion.

Particle Fever

The story centers on the moments leading to the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, meant to provide further explanations into the origin of all matter as it exists in our universe.

As scientists embark on the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in history, director Mark Levinson gains access to the neuroses behind the great minds taking us to the edge of human innovation. As they seek to unravel the mysteries of the universe, 10,000 scientists from over 100 countries join forces in pursuit of a single goal: to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and find the Higgs boson, potentially explaining the origin of all matter. Luckily for us, Levinson focuses his view on 6 main players who are able to turn complex physics into a compelling dramatic story. It’s to be said that he also had the support of honored editor Walter Murch, perfectly suited to turn physics into poetry.

From the caves of Werner Herzog’s epic Cave of Forgotten Dreams (the BEST example of proper 3D usage) to the layered equations of the world’s greatest physicists we are inclusively brought into the exciting field of scientific discovery without dumbing down the facts. At first it might not seem glamorous but Levinson makes just the right choices in narrators to guide the audience from a slow start to an exciting finish. Monica Dunford is our buddy as she breaks everything down for the non-doctoral candidates among us. David Kaplan brings it all home with a reminder of the scope and importance of this multi-billion dollar science experiment. If they can’t excite your kid to pay attention in science class no one can.

Oscar-shortlisted film, The Missing Scarf, also attempts to describe the Big Bang with humor at its heart. Here’s a teaser! The full film won’t be available for viewing for a few months. I’m not entirely sure why…

Ultimately Particle Fever is a great documentary as it is able to bring us into the world of science without making one feel like an outsider. Levinson takes an historically (pre-CBS’ The Big Bang Theory) un-sexy field and translates it into edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

It’s great work that reminds you how American filmmakers are propelling documentary films into the mainstream with urgent & important work. Nowhere is this more palpable than when in person at Sundance Film Festival or HotDocs where the standouts come to be films such as Chasing Ice, Dinosaur 13, 12 Feet From Stardom, How to Die in Oregon, and After Tiller among others. Although much of American fiction filmmaking can feel static and prosaic, the documentary tradition is alive, well, and fruitful.

This brings me back to the Bay Area as one of the subjects, particle physicist Savas Dimopoulos, makes the focus local for a moment with mention of his tenure at Stanford University, which in turn connects me to its documentary tradition.

Stanford alumni have included local greats Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine of the upcoming (and entrancing) The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden. Side note: You can catch these two at their Landmark Embarcadero screening coming up Friday, April 11th. Stanford has also hosted the great minds behind The Island President, Jon Shenk & Bonni Cohen. What a coincidence that Stanford has produced such quality documentary work from two dynamic teams (and couples) such as these! The even better part is that both of these production companies are local to San Francisco and constantly working to bring us quality documentaries.