A vampire bat
The Criterion Collection has compiled 23 of Painlevé’s documentary shorts and spread them, in apparently random order, throughout two discs in five categories: “Popular Films,” “Early Popular Silent Films,” “Silent Research Films,” “Films for le Palais de la Decouverte,” and “Animation.”
Some of the “Popular Films” include HYAS and STENORHYNCHUS (1927), an intimate look at crustaceans; How Some Jellyfish Are Born (1960), which shows exactly that; Liquid Crystals (1978), an observation of liquids’ reactions to temperature and pressure changes that could be likened to a tame acid trip; The Vampire (1945), a Duke Ellington-scored allegory of Nazism starring a South American vampire bat and a guinea pig; Freshwater Assassins (1947), a lively look at the “forms of destruction in the food chain”; and Pigeons in the Square (1982), the longest and most recent film in the set.
Next is “Early Popular Silent Films,” which were shown in Parisian avant-garde theaters to a general audience and feature no musical accompaniment. The most fascinating one is The Octopus (1927), which captures the titular creature changing its color to camouflage itself (though the effect is almost unnoticeable in black and white).
The two “Silent Research Films,” targeted at “scientific and university communities” are Painlevé’s first film, The Stickleback’s Egg (1925) and the bluntly-titled Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog (1930).
Next are the four “Films for le Palais de la Decouverte,” all of which were screened at the Paris museum and center around mathematics, the most informative being The Struggle for Survival (1937), an apocalyptic observation on the procreation of mice, locusts, and humans in relation to the limited food and space on Earth.
Finally, the sole “Animation” film is a stiff, amusing claymation version of Bluebeard (1938).
The bulk of this review has been descriptions of half of the included shorts. The reason being that Jean Painlevé is either your cup or not. In 2009, most film aficionados (even the pretentious avant-gardeners)--no doubt in part to the broadcast of Planet Earth and the reputation of the more cemented oceanographer Jacques Cousteau--could be left underwhelmed and downright bored by a waltzing seahorse, shedding shrimps, and reproducing mollusks.
This is not to discredit this decades-spanning collection. It is, above all, a thorough showcase of a forgotten filmmaker, scientist, and innovator of early underwater photography. Call them science, avant-garde, or “scientific-poetic,” but if The Love Life of the Octopus doesn’t entice you, then Jean Painlevé is not for you.
The 11 other shorts in the collection are:
Sea Urchins (1928)
The Sea Horse (1933)
The Fourth Dimension (1936)
Similarities Between Length and Speed (1937)
Voyage to the Sky (1937)
Sea Urchins (1954)
Sea Ballerinas (1956)
Shrimp Stories (1964) Diatoms (1968)
ACERA, or The Witches’ Dance (1972)
The Sounds of Science is a collection of eight Painlevé shorts (HYAS and STENORHYNCHUS, Sea Urchins, How Some Jellyfish Are Born, Liquid Crystals, The Sea Horse, The Love Life of the Octopus, Shrimp Stories, and ACERA, or The Witches’ Dance) set to experimental band Yo La Tengo, who recorded music specifically for such a purpose and have played the series on world tours.
Yo La Tengo Interview (9:20): In this companion piece to the previous feature, the New Jersey trio (Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, James McNew)--who also composed the scores for Junebug, Shortbus, and others--discuss how they became involved with the project, their improvisational methods, how their tracks differ from one another, and how they interpret Painlevé’s work.
Jean Painlevé Through His Films (2:48:41): This thorough eight-part documentary from 1988 uses archival footage, film clips, and interviews with Painlevé to provide a comprehensive look at the director and his work. Painlevé takes us through his childhood, meshing his love of science and film, capturing aquatic life on camera, specific works (and their respective successes and failures), the audiences his films have reached, and much, much more. This is a terrific, though exhausting, addition to the set that supplies a plethora of information for any art film aficionado.
Also included is a 24-page booklet with an essay titled “Going Beneath the Surface” by author Scott MacDonald.