Judge Clark Douglas is adding strange avant-garde music to this review to make it more compelling.
Mesmerizing, utterly unclassifiable science films!
The fine folks at Criterion have a well-established track record of putting out high-quality films. When one thinks of The Criterion Collection, the first things that come to mind are probably their lavish and remarkable releases for esteemed films like Brazil, The Seven Samurai, 8 ½, and so on. Every once in a while, Criterion will stray just a little further off the path of normality to provide a substantial release for creations that don't fall within the realm of conventional cinema. Consider their release of Hiroshi Teshigahara's architectural study Antonio Gaudi, the ballet compilation Martha Graham: Dance on Film, or the grab bag of goodies presented in By Brakhage: An Anthology. Criterion offers another unusual release of assorted items with Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé.
Between the 1920s and the 1970s, Painlevé created many documentary shorts chronicling the life cycles of various creatures and organisms. He is regarded as a pioneer of cinema in numerous ways. Not only was Painlevé able to come up with unique and fascinating ways to present nature on film in a manner that had never been done before, he was also one of the first directors to suggest that entertainment and education could play a role within the same medium. In its early days, cinema was regarded by most as solely a newfangled frivolity. Many responded with irritation and anger when Painlevé presented educational discussions of scientific ideas on film, but the ambitious young director continued to do pursue his goals regardless. According to this new Criterion compilation of Painlevé films, the director always crafted three different cuts of his films: one for the scientific community, one for the academic community, and one for the general public.
The first disc of this collection offers thirteen shorts crafted for the general public. While the academic and scientific shorts were typically very dry, Painlevé did everything possible to amp up the entertainment value of the shorts he created for the average human being. He shortened the running time, removed some of the more clinical information and added engaging and unusual music (everything from avant-garde material to jazz) to help keep the viewer engaged. Painlevé also had a bit of a sense of humor, inserting little jokes and absurd sight gags into his mostly straightforward documentaries. For instance, in a short about vampire bats, Painlevé inserts clips of Nosferatu just for fun. Some of the shorts play more like strange music videos than anything else (the mysterious "Liquid Crystals" for instance), while some are very affable informational pieces.
The shorts included on Disc 1 are:
The first disc also includes "The Sounds of Science," an option that allows you to watch 8 of the shorts that featuring original music by the rock band Yo La Tengo. The narration and sound effects are removed from these shorts, simply offering a combination of music and images. I actually found these very fascinating, further accentuating the art-film feeling of the images Painlevé provides here. Also included on the first disc is a 10-minute interview with the members of Yo La Tengo, who reminisce about scoring the shorts and the various musical approaches they decided to take for each film.
The second disc takes us into somewhat more obscure territory as we are given some examples of Painlevé's non-mainstream work. First, we're treated to a collection of silent films from the 1920s. These certainly offer some nice images, but they also serve to demonstrate just how important music is to the artistic success of the shorts. We also are given a handful of films created for the scientific community. It's remarkable to consider just how tedious these are in contrast to the edits made for the general public. They offer the information in a very dry and banal manner. Fortunately, there is one delight to be found on this second disc: an stop-motion animated film called "Bluebeard" that Painlevé created with the assistance of his children in 1938. It's a lot of fun, and well worth checking out.
The full contents of Disc 2:
Films for the Le Palais de la Decouverte
The audio and video quality of the shorts varies drastically depending on age and other factors, but generally the level of quality here is a little below Criterion's typically high standard. There are plenty of scratches, flecks, and smudges on all of the shorts, along with some significant noise during quite a few of them. The music sounds perfectly satisfactory more often than not, though minor distortion and other types of damage are evident in some of the earlier scores. The primary extra here (aside from the aforementioned Yo La Tengo material) is a 169-minute television documentary called "Jean Pavlievé: Through His Films." Though perhaps not quite up to the standard of similarly lengthy Criterion documentaries offered on the releases of directors like John Cassavettes and Ingmar Bergman, it's still a very engaging watch that covers a lot of ground. The documentary is divided into eight parts, so it doesn't have to be absorbed in one sitting.
I'm not sure that I would recommend Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé to the average viewer, as these odd little nature documentaries are certainly an acquired taste. Even so, this is a very admirable and important release that offers a thorough and diverse examination of a director's career. With roughly eight hours of material here to dig through, I think you'll have a considerably greater appreciation for Painlevé and his work after spending a weekend with this collection. My hat is off to Criterion for a job well-done once again.
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