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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 3 Discs
FEATURES
  • The Sounds of Science, an original score by Yo La Tengo to Jean Painlevé's films, plus an interview with the band
  • 169-minute, 8-part telvision series Jean Panleve Through his Films

Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve


Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By:
2009 | 315 Minutes | Licensor: Les Documents Cinematographiques

Release Information
DVD | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #468
RLJ Entertainment

Release Date: April 21, 2009
Review Date: April 12, 2009

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SYNOPSIS

Jean Painlevé was a film director, critic, theorist, and animator, yet his interests and studies also extended to mathematics, medicine, and zoology. Amazingly, all these disparate strands came together in a groundbreaking, decades-spanning artistic career. Operating under the credo "Science is fiction," Painlevé forged his own unique cinematic path, creating countless short films for both the viewing public and the scientific community. Moreover, he was also one of the first filmmakers to take his camera underwater. Surreal, otherworldly documents of marine life, these films transformed sea horses, octopi, and mollusks into delicate dancers in their own floating ballets. This anthology features twenty-three of Painlevé's shorts in their original form, as well as Yo La Tengo's ninety-minute original score The Sounds of Science, written in 2001 to accompany eight of the director's films.

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PICTURE

Criterion’s collection of 23 short films by director Jean Panlevé presents the films in their original aspect ratio of roughly 1.33:1 over the first two dual-layer discs of this three disc set. While the booklet mentions that the image for the films has been windowboxed I’m pleased to say they haven’t been in this case.

(A list of the films can be found in the supplements section of this review.)

The digital transfer over all 23 films is very good, presenting a consistently sharp image when the source materials allow it. Noise can be noticeable during the opening credits of some of the films, but the films themselves present smooth looking pictures.

The quality of the source materials vary from film to film. Some of the earlier films, like HYAS and STENORHYNCHUS, present an extensive amount of damage with blotches, scratches, and tears, getting fairly heavy at times. But the age of the film doesn’t seem to play much into how good the film will look, as a couple of the silent films on the second disc (also from the same period as HYAS and STENORHYNCHUS) present fewer flaws. All the films have their fair share of marks, scratches, and flickers, though, some get a little heavier than others. It appears the more popular ones, such as The Sea Horse and The Vampire look better and were probably taken from better source materials. Shrimp Stories is also another clean looking one, and may actually be the best one.

The black and white films present decent black and gray levels. The colour films have strong colours, though they can pulsate and fade at times. The animated feature Bluebeard can present very sharp colours at times, but then they can fade in an instant.

The restoration hasn’t been as extensive as some of Criterion’s other recent releases, but the films still look a little better than I was expecting. The damage can be heavy, but it’s not a deal breaker and the digital transfer itself still presents a smooth picture.

6/10

All DVD screen captures are presented in their original size from the source disc. Images have been compressed slightly to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

Similar to the video the audio quality varies from film to film. Some of the older films present harsher soundtracks with distorted narration and music, and a heavy hiss with some cracks and pops in the background, while other tracks present relatively clean soundtracks with no apparent damage. Silent films of course come with no soundtracks. All of the films with audio are presented in Dolby Digital mono.

Eight of the films on the first disc also come with an alternate audio track featuring music from Yo La Tengo’s The Sounds of Science (more on this in the supplements section.) Since these recordings are new (the notes say they come from a 2005 performance) it should be no surprise that the quality is substantially better than the original soundtracks, presenting sharper audio with more range.

5/10

SUPPLEMENTS

It may not look like there is much on here in the way of supplements, but altogether with the short films there is about 8 hours worth of material on here (9 and a half if you count the alternate Yo La Tengo tracks.) It’s a very extensive release, one of Criterion’s more impressive titles so far this year.

The first dual-layer disc presents 13 of the short films under a section called Popular Films, totaling 182-minutes. These films include: HYAS and STENORHYNCHUS, Sea Urchins, How Some Jellyfish Are Born, Liquid Crystals, The Sea Horse, The Love Life of the Octopus, Shrimp Stories, ACERA, or The Witches’ Dance, The Vampire, Freshwater Assassins, Sea Ballerinas, Diatoms, and Pigeons in the Square. Other than Liquid Crystals (which is a visually interesting set of experiments on liquid crystal) they are nature films of sorts, covering various sea life, organisms, and animals. You can either watch them all by selecting “Play All” or use the index to select each one individually.

On the first disc you will also find the alternate tracks presenting music by Yo La Tengo, under The Sounds of Science. Only eight of the films get the alternate tracks: HYAS and STENORHYNCHUS, Sea Urchins, How Some Jellyfish are Born, Liquid Crystals, The Sea Horse, The Love Life of the Octopus, Shrimp Stories, and ACERA, or The Witches’ Dance. Again you can either watch them all together by selecting “Play All” or going through the index and selecting each individual title from there.

I had never heard these tracks before and I rather liked them, very suiting to their respective films, fitting with the images on screen even when you get a borderline headbanging solo during The Love Life of the Octopus. Other than that instance the music is fairly mellow, sort of New-Agey. Spoken narration is not included with these films, but the subtitles come on by default, looking to be the same as the ones included with the original films. You can’t alternate between the original tracks and the Yo La Tengo on the fly, but I can’t see where this would be an issue.

Included in this section is an interview with the band’s members Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and James McNew. It’s a brief 9-minute segment (presented in anamorphic widescreen) with the three quickly recapping how they became involved with doing the new score for these films, and how they went about it, which involved just improvising endlessly while watching a VHS tape of the films on a small black and white TV. They also touch on how the films’ (which they consider abstract art “with fish”) visual styles influenced their work.

It’s a nice little section, but I would have liked more footage from their actual performances, which are only briefly shown in the interview supplements.

The second dual-layer disc includes the remaining short films, divided into specific sections. The sections are “Early Popular Silent Films”, “Silent Research Films”, “Films for le Palais de la Découverte”, and “Animation”. Each section also gets a brief bit of text giving a description of the films and Painlevé’s intentions with them.

Early Popular Silent Films are three “nature” films Painlevé intended for general audiences to “entertain and educate.” The films included here are The Octopus, Sea Urchins, and Daphnia. They are actually similar to films found on the first disc, but of course in this case are silent.

Silent Research Films presents two films Painlevé intended for the university and scientific communities, The Stickleback’s Egg, a sped up film that shows the development of a fish egg, and Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog, a brief film covering an experimental serum to be used in cases where there is a large amount of blood loss. This one is obviously not going to be for everyone, but I’ll spoil the ending by saying the dog turns out fine in the end (though another feature on this set expands on this film.)

Films for le Palais de la Découverte presents a set of films that differ greatly from the other films previously seen on this set. They don’t involve living organisms but are instead heavy in mathematical theory, with plenty of diagrams and graphs, though they still contain Painlevé’s artistic touch and style, and are distinctly his. The films included here are The Fourth Dimension, The Struggle for Survivial, Voyage to the Sky, and Similarities Between Length and Speed..

The final section, Animation, only presents one film, Bluebeard. The notes mention Painlevé was inspired by the use of film in studying movement and came up with this animation that used clay figures. While this type of animation has come a long way since the animation here is still fairly smooth and natural, and it has some impressive action scenes in it.

Disappointingly you can’t simply watch all of the films straight through. You have to go into each section and from there you can either “Play All” from that section (if there is more than one film) or select the individual film you wish to view.

The third dual-layer disc presents one lone feature, but it’s a rather large one. The disc includes the 1988, 169-minute, eight-part televisions series Jean Painlevé Through His Films, an incredibly thorough set of interviews with the director about his life, career, and films.

The series is primarily made up of interviews with the director for this documentary, and a good chunk of it is Painlevé sitting there talking. This may not sound like the most intriguing way to spend close to 3 hours, but it was actually a pleasant feature and Painlevé makes for a fantastic interview subject. You have the option to watch the whole thing straight through or select each episode individually if that makes it easier.

Painlevé of starts with his childhood and school. Apparently he wasn’t great in school but found a passion for math and science. Eventually he also found a passion for filmmaking and then was able to combine the two loves. From here the documentary focuses on his film career.

The documentary is very thorough and covers a lot of material. Painlevé talks about a number of his films, most of which appear on this set, mentioning how he shot them, financial troubles, a lack of technical skills in certain instances, and admits he wasn’t always that familiar with the subject he was filming. He talks about his studio/lab, has plenty of anecdotes, and also at times can’t help but further educate on the subjects of some of his films (he obviously had a passion for these subjects.) He also has a good sense of humour that helps the whole feature avoid becoming incredibly dry (on sea urchins he says there’s nothing as tasty but “I’d never eat my star performers.”)

He goes into film history and how he’s had to adapt to changes in the medium, the most significant change being the advent of sound, which he still considers the death of cinema (and also calls The Jazz Singer an awful bore of a film.) He talks about the various people he’s worked with and friendships that have ended (one friendship was ended when footage was accidentally destroyed), and also expands on what happened after some films were completed (such as the disastrous results involving the serum used in Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog.)

Painlevé also offers some analysis of his films, including underlying messages found within them, such as Nazism being presented in The Vampire. He also recalls instances where his films first played for audiences and their reactions to them. The documentary also includes footage from some of his other films that are not included on this disc.

In all it’s long and it’s presentation may sound sort of stale, but it’s actually a rather fascinating look at the man and his work, and I recommend watching it.

The set also comes with a 24-page booklet with an essay by Scott MacDonald, giving a brief bio for Painlevé and offering a thorough examination of his work, the place of his films (and nature films in general) in cinema history, and offers somewhat unfair comparisons to Disney’s own nature films. Missing, unfortunately, are Panlevé's essays on the films, which were included in Criterion’s original announcement. It’s unfortunate they’re not here (or included as text notes on the disc themselves) but the included documentary features Painlevé talking about most of the films on the disc, though not all of them.

Despite that minor disappointment it’s still an incredibly thorough release. The list of supplements may not sound like much, but the documentary feature is all that’s really needed and perfect for anyone whether you’re familiar with Painlevé or just discovering his films.

9/10

CLOSING

This is an absolutely wonderful release. The video and audio have room for improvement and haven’t been as extensively restored when compared to some of Criterion’s other recent releases, but the films are more than watchable, and the selection of films chosen for this release are all wonderful choices and are a perfect introduction to the director’s work. The Yo La Tengo music tracks are a nice inclusion, but I think what seals the deal on this release, and makes it an incredible bargain, is the documentary on the director and his work. At almost 3 hours it’s one of the more thorough special features I’ve come across on a DVD. A high recommendation.


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