Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve [Criterion Collection] [DVD]

Most anyone who has sat several feet away from a rickety 16mm film projector or a wheezing VCR in a classroom will tell you that most educational films fall somewhere between dull and inept, but the French biologist Jean Painleve proves that every genre of filmmaking has its standout artists. Born in 1902, Painleve was a scientist who saw the possibilities of cinema as an educational and research tool, but he was also someone who loved film as an art form -- he once hosted a screening of Battleship Potemkin in Amsterdam at a time when it was illegal to show the Russian masterpiece in public -- and the short films he made are the rare examples of scientific cinema that reveals an inventive visual style, an intuitive rhythm in the editing, and an intelligent, joyous wit. Painleve (who died in 1989) was a hero in France but little known in the United States beyond a tiny cult of admirers, and thankfully the Francophiles at the Criterion Collection have decided to do something about this with the impressive three-disc set Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve, which includes a sampling of the dozens of short films the director completed in his lifetime. Disc one features thirteen of his best known shorts, most of which deal with marine life (Painleve developed new methods of shooting underwater to document the lives of squids, seahorses, sea urchins and other creatures of the sea), and the first eight also form a cycle called "The Sound of Science," which includes an original score written and performed by the great alternative rock group Yo La Tengo in 2001; one can watch the films with Yo La Tengo's new music or with their original soundtracks, and the disc also includes an interview with the band as they discuss their approach to scoring the work and how they came to create new music for the films. Disc two features ten films that cover a broad range of Painleve's interests -- four shorts created for the mathematicians at Le Palais de la Decouverte, three early silent works, two research films created with an academic audience in mind (Painleve often made two versions of his films, one prepared specifically for researchers and another which used music and narration to make them more accessible to general audiences) and a stop-motion animated comedy inspired by a short comic opera about the legend of Bluebeard. And the third disc collects Jean Painleve Through His Films, an eight-part French television series in which Painleve speaks at length about his remarkable life and work, illustrated by rare photos and clips from his films. Painleve's films and the documentary on disc three have all been transferred to disc in their original full-frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and while the condition of the original film elements is variable -- some reveal occasional scratches and splices while others show unfortunate signs of age and poor storage -- the transfers are excellent, capturing the sharp images and rich textures of Painleve's outstanding cinematography, and despite the occasional flaws the films are a treat to watch. The audio for the films has been mastered in Dolby Digital Mono, except for Yo La Tengo's score for "The Sounds of Science," which is in Dolby Digital Stereo. The narration, interviews and inter-titles for the films are in French; optional English language subtitles are included, but no multiple language options. And in addition to the three discs, the package includes a beautifully designed booklet with plenty of photos and an essay on Painleve by critic and historian Scott MacDonald. While educators are advised to give Science Is Fiction a look -- many of these films would still be excellent for use in the classroom -- film buffs simply looking for a remarkable visual experience will love this, too, and this set is one of the more pleasant surprises to emerge from Criterion in years.
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