Science Is Fiction/The Sounds Of Science Review

The Films

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 Discs

This is a 2 disc set presented in a gatefold tray with dustsleeve enclosure. The disc trays include a pocket for the booklet which accompanies this release and a copy of the BFI release catalogue. The two discs are dual layer with disc one containing the films reviewed above with their original soundtracks whilst disc two includes the sea life films scored by Yo Lo Tengo and entitled "The Sounds of Science". Disc one also includes the extra features. In terms of video quality these films are clearly from old prints but the quality of the transfers is exceptional considering this. The transfers are sharp, well balanced in terms of colour and with excellent contrast even in the oldest of the films. Some of the colour looks over vivid such as in the Blue Beard still above but this is largely the eccentricity of the Gasparcolor system that was used to film it. These films look terrific despite the passage of time and the only quibble I had in the two hours of watching them was a single tape artefact, this is an exceptional loving presentation. The audio on disc one is less imperfection free with rumbling and constant background noise on 3 or 4 of the films, it isn't annoying but it is there, the music on disc two is freer from pops and hiss and the soundtrack lacks any mastering issues of distortion. The removable subtitles are clear white type with sure grammar and spelling.