Science Is Fiction/The Sounds Of Science Review
As the son of a well known politician and celebrated mathematician, Jean Painleve was expected to follow in his father's footsteps, but instead he chose first a failed attempt at medicine, and then, more happily, zoology. This passion for the natural world, alongside an early exposure to cinema as an actor, led to his eventual development as an early science film and documentary maker. Responsible for almost 200 films in his lifetime, Painleve's work opened the door for later contributions from the likes of Jacques Cousteau in cinema and the televisual giant that is Sir David Attenborough. His films are intriguing both with their populist approach and their educational intent, he was clearly one of the first film makers to aim to reach a wide audience with subjects of natural discovery rather than fictional entertainment. This BFI edition collects together nine of Painleve's short films dealing with the natural world, an early attempt at a short entertainment, and a surprisingly innovative animation film from 1938.
Acera or the Witches Dance (13 minutes, 1972) is a colour film, scored by Pierre Jansen, dealing with the life cycle of a underwater mollusc. The camera captures a grace in the beast's movement which is balletic, and the on-screen narration makes comparisons between these organisms and the human viewer - "above the eyes is a furrow". There is fascinating footage of the blind, bi-gender beasts fertilising their own kind whilst being fertilised as well in a kind of sea life orgy. This possession of both sexes means that they are mother and father to their young.
Moving on, The Love Life of the Octopus (13 minutes, 1965) is another narrated tale with an octopus being followed from the shore back into the sea as it goes about its life as a predator. We follow the beast as it mates by locking one of its arms in another octopuses windpipe and when it breaks free it releases the sperm to impregnate its mate. We then see the mother's maternity. The images are accompanied by musical cues comparing the octopuses to chain gangs as they tie themselves to one another, and sound effects to illustrate its rapacious nature. How Some Jellyfish are Born (14 minutes, 1960) is a black and white short which starts with the collection of polyps samples at the beach which are then viewed through a microscope at scales of between 400 and 1000 times their normal size. The polyps develop by "budding" from their parent and splitting off, and we watch as they grow the ability to create the venom which will later paralyse the unfortunates it hunts. These microscopic organisms, between 1-2 millimetres large, will eventually become types of jellyfish. Viewed in this way, both magnified and speeded up, they are magnificent and deadly beasts. In Liquid Crystals (7 Minutes, 1978), crystals of acetic acid, caffeine and urea are seen under a polarising microscope with no narration but accompanied by the music of Francois de Roubaix. The colours form fantastic weaves and patterns as the crystals change under heat, the effect is beautiful and absorbing and here Painleve's method is to choose images to best complement the pre-existing music.
Seahorses (15 minutes, 1934) is an amazing, very early, black and white film shot with improvised equipment at a time when cameras where largely immobile and impractical - Painleve had to invent his own solutions to capture aquatic life on film. Starting with footage of a seahorse colony as they use their tales to grip onto rocks and one another, we get to see the natural anomaly of the male seahorses being fertilised and bearing their young. We see a section of a pregnant seahorse and then watch the young embryos as, slowly, they are born. The narration enjoys the infants as they play with each other like school kids, and the piece ends with the mixing of footage of racehorses with their underwater counterpart. Shrimping Stories (13 minutes, 1964) watches, in colour, shrimps as they hunt other sea creatures and devour them. Every month, the shrimp sheds its whole skin and the scenes of this metamorphosis are eerie, as this translucent creature leaves a copy of its whole outline behind it in seconds. The film illustrates both the strength of these beasties as they pick apart crustaceans as well as their surprising intricacy with careful and delicate self-hygiene. Using the music of Chopin, Hyas and Stenorhynchus (10 minutes, 1929) shows us three very different examples of camouflaging sea beasts. First, a spider like creature which camouflages itself in sea vegetation in order to feast on smaller unsuspecting organisms. Then a more crab like crustacean which can use algae or even other beasts to conceal it in its voracious efforts to feed. Finally, we watch the wormlike spirograph which has a fan like funnel of tentacles that it uses to encompass those creatures which get too close, a little like a wiry underwater venus fly trap.
Sea Urchins (11 minutes, 1954) considers the life of an anenome - how it uses its spines to both protect itself and filter food from the rocks it is attached to. It has vicious looking teeth in its centre and it moves by way of suckers on its its spines that it attaches to rocks to drag itself along. The final Painleve naturalist piece moves on to dry land and considers the vampire bats of South America in The Vampire (9 minutes, 1945). Intercut with scenes from Murnau's Nosferatu, pitched as a sly allegory to Nazism, and scored by music from Duke Ellington, we witness an encounter between one of these bloodthirsty bats and a guinea pig. True to best Christopher Lee form, the bat neutralises the larger rodent easily before sucking its blood at leisure. We learn it could ingest the rodent's full supply in one sitting and that it thins the blood as it consumes it.
The two remaining Painleve films are the throwaway Methusaleh (7 minutes, 1927) and the excellent animation Blue Beard (13 minutes, 1938). Methusaleh is a short entertainment piece, originally intended to be show in between acts of a stage play. There are five scenes in which we see characters from Hamlet, a funeral, a skit on war and a marriage. Painleve appears as an actor in a number of them. There is some satire in the pieces but they seem more like friends messing around rather than serious art. In the animation piece, Painleve uses the story of the famous serial killing lothario. Painleve creates a stunning and colourful fable as Blue Beard takes his seventh wife. The wife is soon left alone in his castle when war takes her husband off to battle, and she makes the fatal mistake of walking into the forbidden room, a mistake each of her predecessors have also made as the presence of their corpses prove. When her husband discovers she has defied him, her end is guaranteed unless her rescuers can stop him.
Painleve's work emphasise the habits and rituals which allow us to see our humanity in his science subjects. If the narrations or choice of images sometimes overplay this theme it needs to be remembered that he was trying to reach an audience of the general public rather than the science community. I don't consider myself a lover of the natural world but these short films shed a light on creatures I'd never considered, and the majesty of their survival and the cruelty this sometimes requires gave me an appreciation bordering on awe. That these films do not seem old hat after years of the Discovery Channel and TV naturalism is an incredible testament to the maker's ability to intrigue, educate, and entertain. Sometimes the rudimentary methods and the lack of sophistication jar with the modern viewer - for instance I don't know if the best way to appreciate the miracle of life is to section a pregnant seahorse or set a bat on a guinea pig - but these short films have great charm and are absorbing slices of an unfamiliar life. In the field of science films, his incredible innovations, despite the limits of the technology, allowed him to film underwater and to present microscopic life that had been invisible to the populace before. This same innovation and gift for entertainment is present in Blue Beard, which must have been an incredibly difficult production given the early use of stop motion and the hot lights that the clay figures would have been subject to. Blue Beard is a film that shows that not only did Painleve have a novel way to present science, but he had a sure and satirical touch with fiction as well. These discs are an intriguing record of a real pioneer, and a diverting eye opener for a naturalist virgin like myself.
The second disc is accompanied by the music of Yo La Tengo. Not being an afficianado of their work, I would describe it as atmospheric prog rock - a kind of merging of This Mortal Coil without vocals with some of the thriller work that Lalo Schifrin has done. It certainly met the images well and gave the shorts a trippier, hipper feel than the original soundtracks - I am sure some people may find it mood altering. The rest of the extras on the disc include a longish introduction from Michael Abecassis and some earlier short science films from Percy Smith. The introduction is in English and well delivered, entitled Painleve the Magician. Abecassis makes the case for Painleve as a pioneer and situates him in a history of documentary including Georges Franju, the aforementioned Cousteau and Percy Smith. He talks about Painleve's influences from Dadaism and his habit of making three versions of his films for three kinds of audiences - universities, laymen and scientists. Percy Smith's film include Birth of a Flower and The Strength and Agility of Insects. The first uses time-lapse photography to capture the flowering of daffodils, orchids and, eventually, a rose whilst the latter gives inset the opportunity to show incredible physical feats as they hold and control objects many times their size. The final extra on the disc is the gasparcolour film, Colour on the Thames, which is a musical and early colour journey down the Thames from barges to sea liners as we reach the sea.
The disc set comes with a 32 page booklet with a biography and appreciation of Painleve written by Brigitte Berg, a re-appraisal of Painleve by film maker Jim Knox, and 2 final pieces, one on Yo La Tengo and the other on the history of Gasparcolor. Berg's article includes nuggets about Painleve swearing on the Beeb when a live programme did not go according to plan, and his final embrace by cineastes after years of critical snobbery due to his desire to entertain. Knox celebrates the director's anarchism and enjoys political allegories in his films, placing the director as a counter culture hero. William Moritz piece on Gasparcolor discusses the film stock's development and particular use in animation, and the formats eventual defeat by technicolor in the cinematic market. This fine booklet is concluded with the reprinted article by Mark Norris on Yo La Tengo where they discuss the Sounds of Science project and the particular issues in composing music to fit the specific durations of the films.
This is one of those packages which does great credit to the British DVD industry for the excellent transfers and myriad of extras. It is the kind of release that very few DVD companies can manage and one of the best packages the BFI has put together. A set which will appeal to those more familiar with Painleve and the natural world than myself, but also a release that the less initiated can appreciate as well.