British Universities Film & Video Council

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Science is Fiction / The Sounds of Science: The Films of Jean Painlevé

Science is Fiction / The Sounds of Science: The Films of Jean Painlevé GB. 2007. BFI. DVD (region 2 PAL). BW & Colour. 215 minutes. £24.99


Oliver_GayckenAbout the reviewer: Oliver Gaycken is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and a core faculty member of the Film Studies Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. His book manuscript, Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, is under contract with Oxford University Press. His articles have appeared in Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television; Science in Context; Journal of Visual Culture; Early Popular Visual Culture, and the collection Learning with the Lights Off.

The BFI’s two-DVD set contains eleven Painlevé films: Acera, Or The Witches’ Dance (1972, music by Pierre Jansen), The Love Life Of The Octopus (1965, music by Pierre Henry), How Some Jellyfish Are Born (1960, music Pierre Conté), Liquid Crystals (1978, music François de Roubaix), The Seahorse (1934, music by Darius Milhaud), Shrimp Stories (1964, music by Pierre Conté), Hyas And Stenorhynchus (1929), Methuselah (1927), Sea Urchins (1954), The Vampire (1945, music by Duke Ellington, ‘Black and Tan Fantasy,’ and ‘Echoes of the Jungle’), and Blue Beard (1938, music by Maurice Jaubert). The second DVD features a soundtrack by indie-rock mainstays Yo La Tengo that was commissioned by the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2001. (Eight out of the eleven films on the first DVD receive accompaniment; left out are Le Vampire, Blue Beard, and Methuselah.) Purists may object to the imposition of a new soundtrack onto films that already have musical scores by distinguished composers, but Painlevé’s own sense of playfulness most likely would have appreciated this novel effort at popularizing his work, which was continually seeking to connect with a non-scientific audience.

The set also contains noteworthy extras: two films made by Percy Smith while working for Charles Urban: The Birth Of A Flower (1910), a time-lapse study that was produced as a Kinemacolor film (the version on the DVD is a later, tinted, version produced for Urban’s ‘Kineto’ collection of popular scientific films), and The Strength And Agility Of Insects (1911), a series of demonstrations where insects are shown juggling such items as a cork, a bit of dust, and a lizard. Colour On The Thames (1935), a Gasparcolor film by Adrian Klein, complements Painlevé’s Gasparcolor film, BLUE BEARD. These extras gesture towards a dimension of Painlevé’s work that rarely receives attention, namely his role as a film collector and programmer.

This collection improves on the previous BFI release of Painlevé films on VHS in the late 1990s, and it is a significant step not only in the recovery of a neglected figure but also in the investigation of science’s importance to the avant-garde. It is a wonderful companion to the growing number of writings available about Painlevé, in particular Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé, edited by Andy Masaki Bellows and Marina McDougall with Brigitte Berg and published in 2000 by the MIT Press.

Oliver Gaycken

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