Nothing New is a monthly feature devoted to photography and other visual artifacts that I feel have not been given the recognition they deserve. That may include underappreciated portions of the body of work of a major photographer, the entire body of work of a relatively unknown photographer, or particular kinds of visual media that–for whatever reason–haven’t gotten their dues.
It’s hard for me to write intelligently about Jean Painlevé–not because there isn’t anything good to say about him, but because many people have already said it very well. Weirdly, though, Painlevé remains a marginal figure. His work was the subject of a retrospective (which really served as his introduction to a U.S. audience) mounted by Marina McDougall in 1991. Nine long years later, a thorough and lucid book, Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean Painlevé was published, and now apparently a related compilation of his films is available on DVD, at least in Britain.
Painlevé’s short features on animals just aren’t like anything else out there. His work is a far cry from the Discovery Channel aesthetic, and it shows just how different our approach to the filmic rendering of animals could be. His wildlife are startlingly free of narrative drama. Whereas major and groundbreaking efforts like Planet Earth or Blue Planet operate by taking us into an environment and drawing us into the story of a predator working to catch prey or a mother caring for her young, Painlevé’s shorts are informal in tone, condensed, and without much storytelling drive. Instead, he seems to be pointing the camera at something, tugging at your sleeve, and saying: “Hey. Look at this. Isn’t it weird?” The drama of these films emerges less from a story than from the wild combination of visuals and music. In “Le Vampire,” smooth Duke Ellington compositions are juxtaposed with macabre images of a vampire bat. The music languidly proceeds as Painlevé introduces a guinea pig into the container holding the bat. The guinea pig looks enormous and bovine in comparison to the vampire, but it eventually succumbs to the bat’s razor-sharp fangs in an eerily romantic kiss. In another movie–“Acera, or the Witches’ Dance”–familiar ditties are reprised in strange combinations and minor keys in what sounds like an imitation of a B-horror-movie’s opening credits.
This seems like the perfect time for a resurgence of interest in Painlevé. In a time of short attention spans, when bizarre non-narrative movie clips quickly build cult followings through YouTube, Painlevé’s approach to cinema feels prescient. His movies antedate most other nature films (he started making movies in the late ’20s), and in a way they’re the opposite of the sort of documentaries that have proliferated and defined the genre as we know it today. Rather than ending on a note of universality and the sense that all life fights the same battles, his works end–generally quite abruptly–on a note that emphasizes the discordant diversity of life. Even his more familiar subjects, like vampire bats and seahorses, seem like strangers once seen through Jean Painlevé’s lens.
All images/films © Les Documents Cinématographiques.