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.

Some jellyfish:


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.

Dory starts to remember things about her home and family, goes on an adventure, discovering she was born at an aquatic park. The others follow, and all are assisted by a couple whales and an Ed O’Neill octopus.

I told Katy it felt good, but not necessary – Matt Singer nails why:

Like so many of the studio’s previous features, Dory is a story about the unbreakable bonds between parents and children, mismatched partners bonding over the course of a long adventure, and the pleasures of a team working together to achieve a common goal. After 21 years, that formula is still very satisfying. But it also feels more like a formula than ever before.


Piper (2016, Alan Barillaro)

Dory and The Good Dinosaur have started an upsetting trend where the opening short is better than the feature. I’m probably biased because I love birds, and especially love watching sandpipers, but this story of a baby sandpiper learning to deal with the surf is the greatest film of all time. Director Barillaro has been a Pixar animator since A Bug’s Life.

Cool enough sci-fi/horror, but I can’t wait to watch the sequels to figure out how/why they built a franchise around the title scientist, a grumpy, arrogant guy who is poor at damage control. He sent three astronauts into space with nobody’s approval because he doesn’t enjoy paperwork or oversight. Two come back liquified, and the third is mute and insane, with mighty morphing abilities.

Nice landing:

Dr. Quatermass (QUAY-tur-mass: Brian Donlevy, Preston Sturges’s McGinty, also in Curse of the Fly) is soon joined by another terrible character, Police Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner of The Ladykillers) investigating the disturbance and deaths, who describes himself as a “plain simple bible man” with “a routine mind,” not a phrase that goes well with the melting spaceman mystery. Meanwhile things get weirder with the surviving astronaut Carroon (Richard Wordsworth, great-great-grandson of the poet), who’s admitted to the hospital where he smashes a cactus and his hand absorbs it, becoming a giant cactus hand, with which he kills and liquifies hospital people. Carroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean, small roles in the first couple Sam Fuller movies) decides to free her husband from the hospital with help from a doomed private investigator, setting Cactus-Carroon loose on the city.

Carroon smash cactus with man-arm:

Carroon smash chemist with cactus-arm:

Finally the team follows the trail of smashed and dessicated bodies, none of which are blamed on Quatermass for conducting his space experiments irresponsibly, and discovers that Carroon has transmogrified into a giant octopus, which is something they know how to set on fire, thus ending the madness. It’s explained that an intelligent energy-based life form invaded them in space, a possible influence on Interstellar.

Helpless burning octo-carroon caught on TV camera:

Based on a TV miniseries from a couple years prior. Val Guest made over 20 movies in the 1950’s, and is not Val Lewton, producer of The Seventh Victim and I Walked With a Zombie, though I get them confused. Produced by Hammer Films a couple years before Curse of Frankenstein kicked off their monster-movie era.