It makes sense that indie-rock band Yo La Tengo would write and perform its own score for the surrealistic nature films of Jean Painlevé. As musicians, the members of Yo La Tengo have always been as interested in texture and drone as they have in melody, and as a documentary filmmaker, Painlevé focused more on the alien imagery of the animal kingdom than he did on educating his viewers. Painlevé was a scientist who scandalized the academy in the ‘20s when he suggested that an artform as vulgar as cinema could be used to record and convey the wonders of the natural world. By the ‘30s, Painlevé drifted into a circle of Parisian artists and activists, and began using his films as subtle political tracts, peppered with visual whimsy. Like Yo La Tengo, Painlevé found patterns in chaos, and used those patterns to propel his point of view.
The three-disc Criterion DVD set Science Is Fiction: 23 Films By Jean Painlevé contains a 90-minute program of assorted Painlevé footage backed by a Yo La Tengo live performance, along with a three-hour documentary about Painlevé and the 23 unadulterated films cited in the title. It’s those originals that are the set’s real selling-point. The films run the gamut from 1978’s “Liquid Crystals”—six minutes of swirling color set to a free-form orchestral score—to the relatively more straightforward 1967 short “The Love Life Of The Octopus,” which delivers useful-but-creepy information about octopus mating habits. Throughout his career, Painlevé made films for scientific researchers to use, films for the avant-garde crowd, and films for classrooms and general audiences. Science Is Fiction offers samples of each, and while some of the lengthier silent studies from the ‘20s can get a little tedious, films like “ACERA, or The Witches’ Dance”—which documents the balletic courtship ritual of a small mollusk—are astoundingly beautiful.
Even more remarkable than the way Painlevé’s work catches the eye though is how multi-layered it so often is. Science Is Fiction contains one of Painlevé’s most famous films, 1945’s “The Vampire,” which uses bats as a metaphor for Nazism, but the set also features films that emphasize the kinky sexuality and alternative methods of organizing among animals, covertly arguing for a more libertine perspective in human society. Painlevé could blow minds—as in his jaw-dropping “The Fourth Dimension,” which explains dimensional space via juxtapositions and manipulations that Luis Buñuel would envy—but he was just as content to lull an audience with pretty pictures of birds and fish, while subtly changing the way they perceived the world around them.
Key features: In addition to all the goodies listed above, the set adds a short interview with Yo La Tengo.