Eight underwater documentaries by Jean Painlevé, with soundtrack by Yo La Tengo recorded live in 2005. This is probably the avant-garde shorts collection I’ve watched the most times, but I’ve never bothered to take notes on the whole thing before, though I noted watching a couple of these with Katy here, and a bunch at Eyedrum with their original soundtracks here. The original films had their own music with wry voiceover, which is preserved here via subtitles. Geneviève Hamon is credited as codirector on half of these.
Hyas and Stenorhynchus (1927)
Crabby creatures that camouflage themselves with bits of algae and sponge, with a side focus on those worms that live inside long tubes and bloom out like kinetic flowers.
The VO calls this pose “a Japanese warrior”
Sea Urchins (1954)
Turns out sea urchins, and everything else in the ocean, are super weird and interesting. Below is a close-up on some of their feeler-protrusions. This is the first film in the series where Painlevé constructed the title and “fin” endcards with a stop-motion arrangement of the title creatures.
How Some Jellyfish Are Born (1960)
Set in Finistère in Brittany in NW France, close to the island of Ouessant where Epstein’s Finis Terrae was filmed thirty years earlier. The topic here is very tiny, crawling jellyfish that cling to algae, full of poisonous structures, and how they’re born is less exciting than the seahorses and octopi, sprouting out of pods like sci-fi space creatures.
Liquid Crystals (1978)
A major change from the other films both in subject (no animals here) and musical accompaniment (loud!), just some ass-kicking micro-photography of crystal formation.
The Seahorse (1933)
I’m not sure Painlevé deserves the “surrealist” tag applied to him, even though the surrealists supposedly loved his films. But he’s definitely playful, with the informative but humorous voiceover, and here when he overlays silhouettes of sea horses with a terrestrial horse race.
This one mostly focuses on the way sea horses give birth. Basically the males get pregnant, with a pouch full of eggs implanted by the females, then he carries the eggs until it’s time to convulsively shoot baby sea horses everywhere.
The Love Life of an Octopus (1967)
Octopuses (this is actually more correct than “octopi”) are absolutely horrific creatures. The way they move in water and on land, and the way they fight and eat and mate will all give you nightmares. It even gives octopuses nightmares – the film shows a couple mating, the male keeping “a prurient distance” while “pallid with fear”. However, the way the females produce giant strings of a half-million eggs, and stay in the nest slowly stirring them to keep them clean with fresh water, the eggs finally exploding into thousands of tiny octopodes, is quite beautiful.
Shrimp Stories (1964)
Maybe the only scientific undersea documentary to ever include a Groucho Marx impersonation. On second thought, maybe we can call Painlevé a surrealist after all. Shrimpies are such cuties, and I started to see how horrible it is that we eat them ten at a time, and thought this was going to be troubling. But then the film shows how they shed their hard skin as they grow (“like a ghost emerging from its diaphanous cloak”) and while defenseless before a new shell is formed they’re often devoured by their fellow shrimp, then they didn’t seem so cute anymore.
Acera or the Witches’ Dance (1972)
The most unfamiliar creature of the series, walrus-molluscs that swim in a blobby mushroom-dance when they’re not having perverse multi-partner sex. Love how the film has flash cuts to a woman dancing in a flowing dress as visual metaphor.