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The public at large embraced the new medium of film almost instantaneously, but the scientific establishment was a much tougher sell. Criterion's exceptional, fascinating DVD set Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé presents over a half-century's work by a remarkable French filmmaker. Painlevé quit school and turned briefly to acting in the early 1920's, befriending avant-garde artists, surrealists and filmmakers. Drawn toward solving technical problems, specialized in filming the marvels of nature, often in detail undetectable by the human eye. Jean Painlevé initially concentrated on tide pool sea creatures, pioneering underwater techniques and micro-cinematography to record the life cycles of sea urchins, sea horses, shrimp and octopi. Although the filmmaker worked in conjunction with experienced naturalists, the scientific community at first saw no value in his amazing mini-epics of nature's wonders.
Painlevé's scientific nature studies display a technical finesse advanced far beyond commercial filmmaking. They sometimes took years to produce, condensing countless hours of field study into a few minutes of true-life visuals more effective than any lecture description. We see the inner workings of tiny creatures not clearly animals or plants. Shrimp use their differentiated leg-appendages to clean and polish their faces and mandibles. We discover that male sea horses are charged with the task of giving live birth -- and witness a pregnant father popping miniscule small fry out of its bulbous stomach pouch. Sea urchins move about on hundreds of little hydraulic-powered sucker tentacles. A dragonfly larva seizes a victim with its large pincers, dissolves its interior with fluid and then sucks it dry. Painlevé describes his work as revealing the architecture of nature.
Jean Painlevé made lengthy scientific versions of his films with inter-titles or voiceover that only academics could follow, and then fashioned lightly humorous cut-down versions for the general public. The flavor is definitely French. A color investigation of the octopus regards the mating ritual as an amorous event. Telling us that the male octopus turns white with fear when its larger mate finally responds and becomes more aggressive, the narrator describes the difficult task of depositing sperm in the female's respiratory orifice: "There's no officially sanctioned position for doing that!" A film on shrimp begins with a Groucho Marx joke. A study of fairly disgusting mollusk-worms called Aceras shows the creatures using spiral-shaped flesh-flaps as "wings", spinning upright like miniature dervishes. As the worms are hermaphrodites, Painlevé then gives us an eye-opening "Acera orgy". Strings of the creatures copulate, while the worm at the end of the chain continues its normal behavior, eating mud.
Painlevé's career took him in many directions. He filmed a procedure in which a dog's blood is drained and replaced with an artificial oxygen-exchange fluid. For a special 1937 exhibition, he made four films to champion French scientific advances. The Fourth Dimension explains the invisible dimension of time, with graphic representations that stir the imagination. A matchstick in the fourth dimension resembles a burning plank stretching to infinity. Another film examines the physical limitations of gigantism and miniaturization with visuals appropriate to a Science Fiction film ... the bones of a man enlarged ten times couldn't support his weight, while a sufficiently tiny man would have no need of a skeleton at all.
These theoretical analysis films occasionally suggest troubling thoughts. A study of the balance of nature infers that the same forces that limit the numbers of bacteria, rats and locusts also control the human population. A montage of environmental factors that prevent insects from overrunning the globe includes a shot of American labor demonstrators scattering before tear gas. Jean Painlevé occasionally encountered difficulties convincing the scientific establishment of the value of his films, especially when his filmic evidence contradicted accepted, "official" knowledge. Science has always had public relations issues, and Painlevé experienced his share.
Painlevé experimented with different genres but always returned to scientific studies. The disc set includes the ten-minute mini-opera Bluebeard, his solitary foray into elaborate clay animation featuring several truly macabre visuals. Censured by the occupation authorities during the war, Painlevé retaliated with The Vampire, a grisly demonstration of the vampire bat's feeding habits set to music by Duke Ellington. The film ends with a ghoul-like bat extending a wing in a gesture that French audiences immediately recognized as a Nazi salute.
Painlevé often tracked his films with progressive music from his avant-garde associates. Some scores are abstract electronica. Music from The Threepenny Opera compares the microscopic Diatoms to "ships with eight sails".
"We're allowed and obliged to use anthropomorphism", declares Painlevé, making a distinction between his academic films and their audience-friendly popular versions. His humorous films never falsify facts, however, as do the Walt Disney nature films of the 1950s. The last entry, 1982's Pigeons in the Square, is a delightful children's film that uses anthropomorphic humor while teaching the basics of scientific observation. Two girls mimic the pigeon's walk as a teacher describes the meaning of their motion. A mating dance is broken up by another bird, prompting the comment, "And here a member of the vice squad intervenes." The finish is a "soccer" match between pigeons hustling to possess a small ball of dough. Painlevé was by this time restricted to a wheelchair and had to direct through assistants, but the film retains his distinct personality.
Criterion's 3-disc set Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé includes an eight-film selection scored by the band Ya Lo Tengo, as used in their stage performances. The films are split between B&W and color and all are in fine shape. The rare Bluebeard is restored and intact but has many shots with weak color.
The third disc contains an eight-part, 169-minute French television show devoted to Jean Painlevé's life and career from his associations with the 1920s art world to his later work in color and on video. Reflecting on the fates of his performers, Painlevé recalls that, "It bothered me that I could do whatever I wanted with the animals". He then quips, "The world is full of microbes trying to eat us -- but that's on their conscience".
Painlevé was always in demand for assignments but never made much money from his movies. His sea horse film was one of the few that showed a profit, which he maximized by investing in a line of jewelry that cashed in on a brief sea horse-themed fashion trend. His technical innovations were well known among French filmmakers. A chest-mounted camera he developed so impressed the New Wave crowd that it was used for the "hand-held" street scenes in Breathless. Painlevé proves an excellent interview subject in a show that gives us a full portrait of very special filmmaker -- from the filmmaker himself.
Author Scott MacDonald provides the thoughtful insert booklet essay.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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