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Message Icon Event: Jean Painlevés underwater revolutin - Event Date: 19 Apr 2009 Post Reply Post New Topic
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Quote scubazine Replybullet Calendar Event: Jean Painlevés underwater revolutin
    Posted: 20 Apr 2009 at 03:09
Long before the high-definition panoramas of "Planet Earth," before even the landmark wildlife documentaries of Richard Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau, a Frenchman named Jean Painlevé was making films that captured the natural world as it had never been seen before.

The son of a mathematician turned politician (who twice served as French prime minister), Painlevé (1902-89) spent his life straddling the arts and the sciences.

He studied biology at the Sorbonne but was also a habitué of the Dada-mad Paris salons of the 1920s, where he befriended the likes of Man Ray and Luis Buñuel. Accordingly, his films, which mostly focused on underwater life, fused a scientist's eye for observation with a surrealist's taste for the uncanny.

A new three-disc release from the Criterion Collection titled "Science Is Fiction" due out this week brings together 23 of his short films and an eight-part made-for-TV documentary, featuring an interview with the octogenarian Painlevé, not long before his death.

Painlevé made three versions of all his science films: one for the scientific community, one for universities and one for general audiences. Most of the versions in this compilation are the so-called popular ones, which were shorter and often featured whimsical narration and lively soundtracks.

Although Painlevé believed in film as a research and pedagogical tool, he was a big hit with the surrealists and in his element with the popular films, which brim with wit, lyricism and sheer exuberance. In his quest to document the least-seen and most magical of marine fauna -- all manner of fish, mollusks and crustaceans -- he was also, by necessity, a technological pioneer.

Before his time, glass-bottomed boats were used for aquatic photography, but Painlevé helped devise one of the first underwater cameras as well as one of the first handheld cameras.

"The Seahorse" is a prime example of how Painlevé revels in the utter strangeness of a specimen under scrutiny even as he seeks fanciful analogies. He compares the sea horse to, among other things, a caterpillar, a chameleon and a King Charles spaniel, and ascribes to it a few human qualities to boot, as when he remarks on its upright stance and "pompous air." ("We're allowed and obliged to use anthro- pomorphism," Painlevé declared.)

There is a recurring fixation with the reproductive patterns of these strange creatures, especially when they deviate from gender norms. The male sea horse, for instance, is "impregnated" by the female, carrying the eggs to term in its pouch. "Acera, or the Witches Dance" captures sea snails in what could be described as a hermaphrodite orgy.

Painlevé was active in the anti-fascist movement, and some of his postwar work reflected his disgust and horror at contemporary atrocities. One of his best-known shorts, "The Vampire" (1945), his only film about a mammal, finds a gruesome embodiment for Nazi Germany in the blood-sucking Brazilian vampire bat (even likening its extended wingspan to a heil Hitler salute).

"Freshwater Assassins" (1947) goes below the placid surface of a pond to reveal the eat-or-be-eaten imperatives of the food chain.

Painlevé's ear for music was unerring. Both "The Vampire" and "Freshwater Assassins" make use of unlikely but wholly effective jazz scores ( Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford, respectively). "The Love Life of the Octopus" enhances its monster-movie atmosphere with some eerie musique concrete by Pierre Henry.

One disc offers the option of watching eight of the films set to a Yo La Tengo score, lush, dreamy compositions that add to the amniotic vibe.

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