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Science Is Fiction

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The outlandish mating habits of the octopus and the surprisingly antic flips and spirals of starfish are just two of the subjects of the extraordinary French filmmaker Jean Painlevé, who began making science documentaries in the late 1920s. The Criterion Collection this week released a three-disc set of Painlevé's work titled Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé, which ably illustrates his ability to hover at the intersection of science and fiction. Painlevé was inspired by contemporary Surrealist artists and was passionate about filmmaking as both a means for documenting the world and for crafting visual pleasure. In his 1948 filmmaking manifesto, he insisted, "You will not use clever editing unless it illustrates your good intentions," adding in the next rule, "You will not show monotonous sequences without perfect justification." Nothing in Painlevé's body of work is overly clever or monotonous; instead, his work is audio-visual poetry, but designed to educate. The Love Life of the Octopus from 1965 features a dramatic flurry of graceful tentacles and gigantic suckers, while the colorful 1956 film Dancers of the Sea examines the seemingly static starfish, revealing the five-armed echinoderm's surprisingly fluid and mobile locomotion techniques. While many of us consider the science or nature documentary a particular form, Painlevé championed both the inherent beauty and mystery of the underwater creatures he studied, and the potential of an emerging form of artistic filmmaking. More information here.

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