Criterion Files #468: Go Under the Sea with ‘Science is Fiction’

By  · Published on April 6th, 2011

Welcome to Guest Author month at Criterion Files: a month devoted to important classic and contemporary bloggers. Each Wednesday for the month of April, a writer and fellow Criterion aficionado from another site will be giving their own take one one of the collection’s beloved titles. This week, David Blakeslee, writer for CriterionCast and Criterion Reflections, takes on Jean Painleve’s Science is Fiction set. Tune in every week this month for an analysis of a different title from a new author.

With the attendant buzz and ephemeral fanfare that accompanies a new Criterion release now faded after nearly two years and 100 additional spine numbers, I think it’s safe to say that Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé is one of the most easily overlooked DVD sets in the Criterion Collection. Lacking anything in the way of sexy celebrity star power, built around the career of a director unfamiliar to most contemporary movie fans, and mainly because it’s relegated to the seemingly dry and stale category of “nature documentaries,” Science is Fiction probably doesn’t leap off the shelf into the hands of even the bravest blind-buyers. Who can blame them for simply concluding that Disney, National Geographic and the BBC’s Planet Earth and Life series, in all their Hi-Def 1080p glory, have surpassed these primitive, mostly black & white curiosities? And yet, I think I can make the case that this impressive three-disc set is one of the most entertaining, versatile and rewatchable titles that Criterion has issued.

So that’s what I’m here to do.

Let’s start with the man himself. Jean Painlevé had a career and personal story as admirable as any director in the Criterion canon. Disc 3 of this set offers a nearly 3 hour mini-series of TV episodes that allow us to get to know him on a personal level. Born to privilege in Paris (his father served multiple terms as the Prime Minister of France), Painlevé came of age at a crucial time, as the Surrealist movement flourished in the 1920s. Though not a full-fledged Surrealist himself, his early films bear the marks of that influence, and he collaborated in various ways with Luis Bunuel (as “chief ant handler” in Un Chien Andalou), Antonin Artaud and Michel Simon, all really cool dudes that you should learn more about if you haven’t already.

His educational pursuits led him to explore medical and eventually zoological studies that, combined with his early fascination with the emerging medium of cinema, led him to become a significant pioneer in both disciplines. He developed camera equipment and filming techniques that allowed some of the earliest filmed explorations of underwater life, at both the everyday and the microscopic scale. An iconic photograph of Painlevé in his diving gear, wielding a massive apparatus that would subject many a lesser man to instant drowning or permanent back injury, captures the essence of this marvelously imaginative innovator.

But it’s not just the technical aspects, as impressive as they are, that make Painlevé such an essential figure; it’s what he did with the footage, how he presented to humanity some of the first impressions our species had on a mass scale of the extraordinary weirdness lurking in the waters all around us at every moment of every day. Disc 2 provides an exemplary collection of his more straightforward, educationally-based scientific films. In them, he demonstrates a solid capacity to make abstract concepts like dimensionality, time and distance accessible to a general audience. As an added bonus, we get some 1930s-era speculations about space exploration and an operatic clay animation of the French folktale Bluebeard. I tell ya, this set is loaded with surprises!

But the real treat, where I’m ending up but a first time viewer should start, is Disc 1, a career-spanning collection of the aquatic films for which he’s most famous. Here is where Painlevé’s marvelous combination of droll wit, benign confrontation and sheer visual poetics come to full their full fruition. Begin with a straight viewing of the films as they were first conceived, with Painlevé’s intended narrations, where we explore the mysteries of sea urchins, sea horses, vampire bats, liquid crystals and the love life of the octopus. Despite Painlevé’s serious efforts to advance scientific research, he is no dry pedagogue. Indeed, he’s a strong advocate for anthropomorphism, reading human emotions and motivations into animal behavior, usually with sardonic overtones. And he does so not by talking down to viewers in the cutesy manner we often associate with films about animals, but with a sophistication best appreciated by adults who’ve lived a little. The short video clip on Criterion’s Science is Fiction page, with its quip about “no officially sanctioned position” for octopus sex, offers just a brief sample of Painlevé’s willingness to engage viewers on a level they can relate to.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the films on Disc 1 in their original versions, featuring the intriguing blend of narration and avant garde musical soundtracks (including jazz, popular tunes and noise collage) that Painlevé had in mind, an additional treat awaits. Indie rock legends Yo La Tengo provide an alternative suite of musical accompaniment to the first eight films on the disc, and it’s this sublime blend of sound and pictures that has made Science is Fiction my most frequently played disc of the nearly complete Criterion library that I own. I simply love putting it on as a sonic wallpaper when I’m doing other things, knowing that I’ll be surprised and delighted at any moment I glance up to take notice of whatever output is emanating from my A/V system. Here, the lack of necessity for narrative engagement and the open invitation to just jump in the pool and splash around is too good to pass up. The deeply elemental nature of what Painlevé captures in his camera, combined with Yo La Tengo’s mastery of organic improvisational musical textures to accompany the visuals, always puts me into a pleasantly meditative, mildly transcendent state. More than a simple collection of fractal images or skillfully assembled polygons, the organic quality of Painlevé’s work, though reduced to 2-dimensional portability, renews my appreciation of the essential and astonishing wonderment that is life itself. I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask for much more than that from watching a movie.

Besides being a fan of pioneering nature documentaries and watching all the Criterion releases in chronological order, David Blakeslee is a featured writer and voice for CriterionCast and Criterion Reflections, and you can (and should) follow him on twitter @CriterionRefs.

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