DVD Review HTF DVD REVIEW: Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé

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  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer

    Apr 24, 2006
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    Charlotte, NC
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    Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé
    Directed by Jean Painlevé

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1925-1982
    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
    Running Time: 302 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 French
    Subtitles: English
    MSRP: $ 49.95

    Release Date: April 21, 2009
    Review Date: April 10, 2009

    The Films


    The Criterion Collection has brought to the home video enthusiast an impressive number of the international cinema’s masterpieces (the DVDs are now well into the 400’s in Criterion‘s numbering system). Occasionally, however, they toss into the mix a package that has nothing to do with narrative filmmaking. During my two-plus year tenure as Home Theater Forum’s Criterion reviewer, I’ve experienced at least two of these that readily come to mind - Martha Graham: Dance on Film, which featured some almost forgotten videos made for PBS by the legendary dancer-choreographer, and Antonio Gaudí, an experimental film by Hiroshi Teshigahara on the celebrated architect exploring his grand designs set to the music of different eras. Now the Criterion Collection brings us Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé, a collection of scientific investigations with scholarly narration set to music of differing styles, from classic to electronic.

    Jean Painlevé was a filmmaker and scientist who wished to share his scientific investigations in the world of microscopic organisms with both the scientific community and the general public. As such, he prepared three versions of his investigative film research: one for academics, one for the scientific community, and one for the general public. It is the popular versions of his experiments that are offered for the most part in this set. The films span decades of work, and these decades also reflect advancements in film technology (from black and white to color, differing film stocks which can increase the sharpness and detail he could squeeze out of his photography). He’s also added a quirky mixture of music styles to augment his narration. The film on diatoms, for example, uses the same kind of electronic tonalities that distinguished Forbidden Planet. Others of these short films use more standard sounding scores including some jazz riffs by Duke Ellington.

    Most of the films concentrate on marine life, and of those, the ones on sea horses, shrimp, and octopi are the most interesting. The short on liquid crystals will remind you of acid trip/LSD movies of the late 1960s. The short on the vampire bat is the most disturbing as it attacks a befuddled guinea pig that doesn’t seem to realize what’s happening to it as its blood is drained from its body. Finally, the pigeon film is very entertaining as interesting facts are brought forward that had somehow escaped me despite a lifetime of seeing and feeding the birds on city streets and in parks.

    The set also includes some of his silent work (these aren’t nearly as entertaining though one sees the origination of ideas for later films on the same subject that added sound and color), and we’re also treated (subjected?) to a couple of his films that were produced for the scientific community rather than the general public, and they are indeed clinical, dry, and in one case, difficult to sit through. Four of the shorts were produced for the Découverte Museum in a 1937 international exhibition, and one of them, "The Fourth Dimension," makes a startling and easy-to-understand case for time being the fourth dimension. The set concludes with one of its strongest items, a 13-minute stop animation short using modeling clay figures and set to a newly commissioned opéra bouffe score for “Bluebeard.”

    Here’s the line-up of the twenty-three short films contained in the package on two discs. Those films marked with an asterisk (*) are partially or totally in color.

    1 - Hyas and Stenorhynchus (10 minutes)
    * 2 - Sea Urchins (10 ½ minutes)
    3 - How Some Jellyfish Are Born (14 ¼ minutes)
    * 4 - Liquid Crystals (6 ½ minutes)
    5 - The Sea Horse (14 ½ minutes)
    * 6 - The Love Life of the Octopus (14 minutes)
    * 7 - Shrimp Stories (10 ½ minutes)
    * 8 - Acera, or the Witches’ Dance (13 minutes)
    9 - The Vampire (8 ¾ minutes)
    10 - Freshwater Assassins (23 ¾ minutes)
    * 11 - Sea Ballerinas (12 ¾ minutes)
    * 12 - Diatoms (17 ¼ minutes)
    * 13 - Pigeons in the Square (27 minutes)
    14 - The Octopus (12 ¾ minutes)
    15 - Sea Urchins (10 minutes)
    16 - Daphnia (9 ½ minutes)
    17 - The Stickleback’s Egg (26 minutes)
    18 - Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog (3 ¾ minutes)
    19 - The Fourth Dimension (10 ¼ minutes)
    20 - The Struggle for Survival (13 ¾ minutes)
    21 - Voyage to the Sky (11 minutes)
    22 - Similarities Between Length and Speed (10 ¼ minutes)
    * 23 - Bluebeard (13 minutes)

    Video Quality


    All of the films are presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Considering their age and the low budget considerations of the filming conditions, they are in fairly remarkable shape, but that doesn’t mean they excel in sharpness, detail, or color resolution. These old films are loaded with scratches, spotting, and even sections of emulsion decay, so there’s nothing of reference quality present or expected. The color levels on “Bluebeard” begin strongly, but they eventually fade and in a couple of shots have actually gone pink. The white subtitles are very easy to read.

    Audio Quality


    The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks are hounded by hiss, flutter, distortion, and sometimes timbre so tinny and screechy that it’s a trial to endure. On the other hand, it’s surprising given the age of some of the tracks that the sound has even survived, so one must temper criticism with realistic expectations.

    Special Features


    Disc one contains two bonus items.

    There is a video interview with the music group Yo La Tengo who discuss their work process for adding their own scores to some of Painlevé’s shorts in the bonus feature on this disc. It’s in anamorphic widescreen and runs for 9 ¼ minutes.

    The Sounds of Science is a 2005 compilation of eight of director Jean Painlevé’s shorts with a new score provided by the musical group Yo La Tengo. This new feature runs 95 ¼ minutes, and one will need to turn off the subtitles to be able to watch the amalgamation of image and sound without distraction.

    Disc three contains “Jean Painlevé: Through His Films,” an eight-part 1988 French television series with the 86-year old director discussing his life and work in fascinating detail. Running for 168 ½ minutes, the episodes can be watched individually or can be played together as one long program. They’re in 4:3.

    The enclosed 26-page booklet contains stills from the films, some photos of the director as a young man, and a biographical essay on the set’s subject by film author Scott Macdonald.

    In Conclusion

    3/5 (not an average)

    Seeming more for the rental than sales market, Science Is Fiction would seem to be one of those curiosities that one might pick and choose from among the offerings rather than sitting through the entire program (which “Play All” switches on the menu certainly allow you to do). Many of these shorts are fascinating early attempts to present scientific investigation in a popular vein for the general public, and perhaps we can look on these films as forerunners to Disney’s True-Life Adventures or even such celebrated programs as Planet Earth and The Universe.

    Matt Hough
    Charlotte, NC

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