Next week, we release a definitive, three-disc set of the short documentaries of Jean Painlevé (1902–89), the pioneering French scientist-educator-filmmaker (and sometime Dadaist) whose mesmerizing studies of marine life, especially, have been attracting wide audiences and new fans for decades (including the rock band Yo La Tengo, which regularly performs with the films, and whose eight-film score is included on the release). By way of an introduction to this truly unique artist, we present his “Ten Commandments,” originally published in the notes accompanying his touring “Poets of the Documentary” program in 1948. On first glance, they may seem simple enough, but once you’ve watched the films, many more layers of meaning will become evident. On the second commandment, for instance, “one might wonder how scientifically informed nature films can be said to express convictions,” film scholar Scott MacDonald muses in his essay for the release, “but it is precisely Painlevé’s implicit (and sometimes explicit) reasons for selecting the organisms he does and his manner of presenting them that reveal his attitudes.” Among those attitudes seems to be an interest in confronting conventional ideas about gender, MacDonald writes, evident in his films on sea horses (male and female collaborate on child birthing), daphnia (self-reproducing females), starfish (hermaphroditic), and the stunning Acera (bisexual), which, when mating, “do a kind of ballet during which the cloaks that encircle their bodies fly open, evoking tutus.” Painlevé’s film about these last creatures, notes MacDonald, is “reminiscent of moments from Oskar Fischinger films and from Disney’s Fantasia.”
Here are all ten of Painlevé’s filmmaking convictions, practiced over six decades and more than two hundred luminous films:
1. You will not make documentaries if you do not feel the subject.
2. You will refuse to direct a film if your convictions are not expressed.
3. You will not influence the audience by unfair means.
4. You will seek reality without aestheticism or ideological apparatus.
5. You will abandon every special effect that is not justified.
6. Trickery will be of no use unless the audience is your confidant.
7. You will not use clever editing unless it illustrates your good intentions.
8. You will not show monotonous sequences without perfect justification.
9. You will not substitute words for images in any way.
10. You will not be content with “close enough” unless you want to fail spectacularly.