Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé [DVD]
Director : Jean Painlevé
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1925-1982
During his long and nothing less than astonishing career, French filmmaker Jean Painlevé directed or codirected close to 200 films, the vast majority of which were short naturalist documentaries that sought to popularize scientific understanding of obscure underwater life. Born into a wealthy and privileged family at the turn of the 20th century, Painlevé was a man of many gifts and passions, particularly a fine-tuned scientific mind and an appreciation of art, both of which he drew from his widowed father, a mathematician who was also Prime Minister of France. What makes Painlevé such a unique and extraordinary filmmaker is the way he fuses art and science via an intensive curiosity. Painlevé’s films about the lives of tiny and strange sea animals take on great power because they convey a sense of absolute wonderment and abandon, and we get lost in both the fascination and the artistry.
Prior to the publication and subsequent translation into English of the anthology Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé (2000) and a 2001 retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, Painlevé was virtually unknown in the U.S. This is largely due to the fact that film history is constructed around dominant forms of cinema--meaning studio and independently produced feature films and documentaries that play to theatrical audiences--which necessarily tends to discard any consideration of the historical margins populated by industrial, educational, and government-sponsored films that serve a specifically pedagogical purpose. And, to be fair, the vast majority of such films are bland and functional, with little persistent interest outside of their historical role and perhaps camp value derived from their outdated information and attitudes.
It is precisely in this regard that Painlevé’s films stand out, not only because of their rigorous scientific veracity, but because they are compelling works of art that are clearly the products of a playful imagination. It should surprise no one who has seen even a few of his films that Painlevé was involved with the Surrealists in the 1920s and that he had a particular affinity for the films of Luis Buñuel. With their evocative fascination with the strangeness and alien qualities of the natural world, many of Painlevé’s best films are as surreal as there are informative, turning physical entities like an octopus’s tentacles into bizarre abstractions that focus our attention on strange beauty as much as functionality. Ever the humanist and political opportunist, Painlevé constantly strove to use his animal subjects to reflect on human nature, not by imposing anthropomorphic qualities on them, but rather by contrasting them (often subtly, sometimes directly) with the human world. Hence, the depiction of the painful process by which male sea horses give birth to fertilized eggs in The Sea Horse (1933), his most commercially successful film, becomes a de facto statement about the constructed nature of human gender roles (particularly at that time). More directly, Painlevé draws parallels between Nazis and the vampire bat in The Vampire (1945), and many scholars have seen Freshwater Assassins (1947), a film about the vicious battles among pond-dwelling crustaceans and assorted water bugs, as a post-World War II commentary on human destructiveness.
Even if one were to resist any kind of socio-political reading of his films, they still fascinate on both technological and artistic levels. Although usually left out of conventional film histories, Painlevé was a technological pioneer who recognized how film equipment could be used to expand both human knowledge and perception. He was among the first to take cameras underwater, and he also helped pioneer the combination of microphotography with undercranking the camera to create time-lapse photography, thus allowing us to see complex processes otherwise invisible to the naked eye. In this respect, he is a direct descendent of one of cinema’s primal scenes: Edweard Muybridge’s setting up a battery of 12 still cameras in 1877 to prove that racehorses lift all four hooves when galloping, which was the first instance of photography being used to expand the human senses.
From an artistic standpoint, the best of Painlevé’s films are small masterpieces that turn the natural world in a compelling visual feast. Even after his brand of educational-scientific filmmaking became more common (his earliest films made in the 1920s were largely rejected by the scientific community, which couldn’t imagine that a technology as vulgar as the cinema could contribute to their endeavors), Painlevé’s films continued to stand out because he was not interested in pedagogy alone, but rather in the art of cinema and its potential to educate. He had started as an actor in the 1920s (where he met the great Michel Simon) and was fascinated by Surrealism and other avant-garde traditions, which opened his aesthetic sensibilities. Thus, he was willing to experiment with the use of music, scoring The Vampire to the jazz of Duke Ellington and using Pierre Henry, a pioneer of electronic music, to score The Love Life of the Octopus. Although the majority of his films were scientific in nature, Painlevé also dabbled in fictional film and animation (1938’s Bluebeard, a strange claymation version of the opéra bouffe), and he crossed paths with some of the luminaries of early cinema, including Sergei Eisenstein (whom he showed around Paris and then snuck into Switzerland in a truck full of dirty laundry) and the French directors Jean Vigo (with whom he was best friends until Vigo’s untimely death in 1934), Robert Bresson (whom Painlevé helped in his capacity as director of French cinema immediately after World War II), and Georges Franju (with whom he worked on the great documentary Blood the Beasts, for which he wrote and performed the narration).
Painlevé ultimately left behind an immense body of work, spanning from the mid-1920s (his first film was 1925’s The Stickleback’s Egg) to the early 1980s (his final film, 1982’s Pigeons in the Square, was edited while he was recuperating from two hip replacements and back surgery). His tenacity was matched only by his unique melding of an aesthete’s sensibility, a scientist’s rigor, and a boy’s fascination with technology. Ultimately, it was Painlevé himself who best summarized his work: Speaking in 1945, he described the best of cinema as “a synthesis of art, science, and poetry,” which is precisely what we see in his films and what keeps them as fascinating and compelling today as they were when he first made them.
|Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé Criterion Collection 3-Disc DVD Set|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||April 21, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Writing a review of the anthology Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé in a 2001 issue of the Quarterly Review of Film & Video, film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon noted, “What one wouldn’t give to see Painlevé’s films released on videotape, or better yet, DVD format!” Eight years later, here we are with this three-disc collection from Criterion that, while hardly comprehensive given the enormity of Painlevé’s oeuvre, represents an excellent sampling of his work that includes all his most popular and well-known films. Criterion has not denoted in the liner notes from what elements each film was transferred, but I can only suppose that they were taken from the best possible elements (interestingly, the liner notes say that the images are windowboxed, but they’re not). Of course, because Painlevé’s films have been so consistently ignored (and the fact that many of them date back to the 1920s), not all of them are in the best of conditions. The quality of the image is varied across the 23 included films, with some looking quite good with only minimal signs of age and damage while others bear fairly significant scratches, dirt, and wear. The color films have some inconsistencies, particularly Bluebeard, which was restored in 1995 but looks to have been assembled from vastly disparate prints. Nevertheless, it is hard to quibble about the quality of these neglected films given the fact that they are now so readily available; just being able to see them for oneself is a blessing for cinephiles, especially those who treasure the obscure and marginalized.|
|There are two main supplements included on this three-disc set. First is “The Sounds of Science,” an original score by alt-rock band Yo La Tengo set to eight of Painlevé’s films (the recording was made at the Webster Film Series in St. Louis in 2005). This is accompanied by a new video interview with the three band members, who explain how they came to score Painlevé’s films and their experiences playing live with them. For those interested in more information about the filmmaker himself, the third disc includes the eight-part, nearly three-hour French television series Jean Painlevé Through His Films (Jean Painlevé au fils de ses films), which was directed by Denis Derrien and Hélène Hazera and originally broadcast in 1988. This is an immensely informative and fascinating documentary that allows Painlevé to tell his life story and expound on the various anecdotes behind the making of his films.|
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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