Friday, May 11, 2007

Science as Literature

Jean Painlevé's short film Le Vampire

The films of Jean Painlevé are not very good science, yes, but they're great cinema.
The later ones--the color ones, especially--veer dangerously close to reality, but
Painlevé's early, sensationalistic science shorts present a view of nature so radically simplified that it becomes something completely new, an imaginary fauna that could only exist in the movies. Familiar animals become mysterious monsters or, via the narration, take on human characteristics. The sea is an alien planet, not because it is so removed from our experience, but because Painlevé has said it is. Tangential connections are made between unrelated species; Painlevé is like a writer who treats biology as literature, Darwin as Shakespeare. Themes and characters might be borrowed from previous works (the world of science), but the stories are distinctly the director's own. Jean Painlevé is Celine and Julie at the zoo.

In Le Vampire, Murnau and Schrek's Nosferatu interacts with a vampire bat, paraded with its guinea pig prey in front of a stagy backdrop. The vampire bat's bite is like a trick--in fact, animals in Painlevé's films seem as though they're gifted in sleight-of-hand and escapism, or as though his beloved ocean was a circus, or maybe, as the score suggests, a night club act.

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