SCIENCE IS FICTION: The Films of Jean Painlevé

Science is Fictionedited by Masaki Bellows and Marina McDougall with Brigitte Berg
The MIT Press / Brico Press ($39.95)

by Kelly Everding

Certain books unveil the marvelous, offering those that encounter them a glimpse into strange new worlds. Such an experience is guaranteed to readers of Science is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé. Anyone who thinks the love life of the octopus or the limping crawl of the vampire bat may prove enchanting will definitely benefit from this beautiful and thorough retrospective of a singular filmmaker.

Science is Fiction begins, naturally, with a biographical essay detailing the full and fantastic life of Jean Painlevé. Son of mathematician and twice prime minister of France, Paul Painlevé, and Marguerite Petit de Villeneuve, who died soon after his birth (1902), Jean grew up with a strong love of nature and photography. Despite his hatred for school as a child, he eventually graduated from the Sorbonne with a degree in zoology and biology. Painlevé met his life-long partner Geneviéve Hamon there, and together they pioneered science and documentary filmmaking. In the mid-1920s, the couple befriended many avant-garde writers and filmmakers, including many surrealists, taking in the cinematic outpourings of Jean Vigo, René Clair, and Luis Buñuel. Although his first experience with filmmaking was as an actor, Painlevé quickly took to the camera and combined his scientific leanings with the artistic medium of film.

Painlevé's first film, The Stickleback Egg, was screened in 1928 before the Académie des sciences to a great deal of hostility. The scientific community resisted his work, calling it "entertainment for the ignorant." They distrusted film, believing it to be a medium of deceit, but Painlevé's films were embraced by the avant-garde of France. (Man Ray, for example, used Painlevé's footage of underwater starfish in his film L'Etoile de Mer.) A self-proclaimed anarchist, Painlevé took part in anti-Nazi demonstrations throughout WWII, when he temporarily discontinued filmmaking. Throughout his life, Painlevé championed science and documentary filmmaking, serving as director of the Committee for the Liberation of French Cinema (which he co-founded during the war), and founding a nonprofit organization, the Institute of Scientific Cinema, which helped distribute and show documentary films made all over the world. He continued making films until 1982, the last one entitled Pigeons of the Square. Painlevé died in 1989.

Science is Fiction unfolds wonder after wonder. Beyond the fascinating life of Painlevé, we are treated to an insightful essay by Ralph Rugoff entitled "Fluid Mechanics," a critical look at the inner workings of a Painlevé film. "Painlevé's cinema can instill unease and wonder in equal parts," says Rugoff, and rightly so. As he explores undersea and microscopic worlds never before revealed to the general populace, Painlevé artistically plays on the viewer's need to familiarize or anthropomorphize the bizarre creatures' behaviors. As Rugoff explains, "Painlevé's films often proceed according to an alternating rhythm of seduction and repulsion as we are invited to identify with a particular aspect of a given creature, only to have it revealed a moment later just how monstrously different this other life form actually is." Painlevé made three versions of each science film: one for the scientific community, one for universities, and one for the general public—the latter he would often score to modern jazz.

Of course, it would be hard to imagine such fantastic films without some visual aids, and Science is Fiction provides an abundance of them. Pictures of Painlevé and Hamon at work and play pepper the biographical chapters, along with photos of Painlevé with his colleagues and friends such as Eisenstein (when he visited France, Painlevé smuggled him into Switzerland in a laundry basket so he might meet his favorite movie star). And the middle portion of the book includes marvelous photograms and photography by Painlevé. The photograms are stills taken from his films along with the text, giving a nice idea of how the films progress. Included among these is a short sequence of stills from the 1927 film Methuselah, which Painlevé shot to be shown interspersed between scenes of the stage play by Ivan Goll. Antonin Artaud played a small part in the film. In an interview with Painlevé included in Science is Fiction, Painlevé reveals that Artaud, playing a bishop, was approached by two nuns and some young girls who proceeded to kiss his ring. Artaud responded by exclaiming, "Get back, daughters of Satan!" We also learn that Artaud stole the money intended to pay for the actors and filming of these sequences. Painlevé held no grudges.

Painlevé's most successful film was The Seahorse (1934) which was one of the first films to use footage shot underwater (and the only film of his to break even). Painlevé was always experimenting and kept on the cutting edge of camera technology (he and Hamon created one of the very first hand-held cameras, fashioning straps from belts to hold the camera steadily in place). The seahorse held a special place in Painlevé's pantheon of aquatic life because of its unique transgression of gender roles, in which the male seahorse carries and painfully delivers the eggs placed in its pouch by the female. Says Painlevé, "this symbol of tenacity joins the most virile effort with the most maternal care." But Painlevé's oeuvre extended far beyond the animal kingdom; he made films on reconstructive and plastic surgery, a solar eclipse, The Fourth Dimension, and a claymation version of Blue Beard that foreshadows the work of Jan Svankmajer.

Also collected in this book are a number of essays by Painlevé and his admirers. Painlevé writes about the difficulties and rewards of being a science film maker—trying to capture delicate gestures and behaviors without interfering with creatures performing them. In "Feet in the Water," he bemoans his inability to catch fleeting, one-of-a-kind moments, "but there are consolations: the greatest being the ability to eat one's actors—crab, shrimp, sea urchins, squid, all finely cooked in new and unusual ways." In "Mysteries and Miracles of nature," he questions the motives of science films: "Does the complete understanding of a natural phenomenon strip away its miraculous qualities? It is certainly a risk. But it should at least maintain all of its poetry, for poetry subverts reason and is never dulled by repetition. Besides, a few gaps in our knowledge will always allow for a joyous confusion of the mysterious, the unknown, the miraculous." In "The Castration of the Documentary," written in 1953, Painlevé speaks passionately and cogently about the demise of documentary filmmaking, arguing that most filmmakers are sloppy and uninspired. In the end, he exhorts the few documentarians left to rise above the mediocre:

You who do not practice the defeatist motto: "It's better than nothing"; you who have a strong enough cinematic eye to impose it on subjects you feel something for; you who will not agree to make a film about sugar production for the simple reason your grandfather was diabetic; you who scorn saccharine sentimentality and refuse to disfigure a work with it. It is you who hold the fate of the documentary—battered and bruised by a thousand blows from all sides—in your hands.

Painlevé showed true passion for his work and dedicated his life to it. Science is Fiction is a fitting tribute to him, short of a film retrospective. As André Bazin writes in "Science Film: Accidental Beauty,"

The camera alone possesses the secret key to this universe where supreme beauty is identified at once with nature and chance: that is, with all that a certain traditional aesthetic considers the opposite of art. The Surrealists alone foresaw the existence of this art that seeks in the almost impersonal automatism of their imagination a secret factory of images. But Tanguy, Salvador Dali, and Buñuel have only distantly approached the Surrealist drama in which the late lamented Doctor de Martel, preparing for a complicated trephination, first sculpts on the nape of a neck—shaved and naked as an eggshell—the outline of a face. Whoever has not seen that has no idea how far cinema can go.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000