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The Lives Aquatic

Daniel Elkind
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An octopus slips off what appears to be a dissection table and goes for a stroll. It flits across the laboratory floor, slides out a window, hoists itself over the face of a doll, slithers through the crook of a tree, and plops into an aquarium, where it briefly explores a human skull. Then it enters the sea and swims out of frame. We are witnessing the opening sequence of The Octopus at the film’s premiere. It is 1928, and Jean Painlevé, silent-film auteur and son of the former prime minister of France, has pioneered nothing less than a new way of seeing.

Though he was not the first filmmaker to take the camera underwater, Painlevé might have been the first to truly grasp the cinematic potential of the life aquatic. Over the course of a five-decade career that spanned some twenty-nine theatrical documentaries (plus many more as producer) and more than a hundred scientific articles and research films, he cast in starring roles the likes of the stickleback, octopus, shrimp, sea urchin, seahorse, hermit crab, lobster, water flea, and freshwater hydra. Imbued with a surrealist spirit, Painlevé’s investigations into the unknown lives of animals seem to defy genre, occupying an unlikely, uncanny space between science and cinema, pedagogy and mythology. 

Yet to envision is, in some sense, to invade, to penetrate, to pry. Though he tried, Painlevé never quite accustomed himself to the cruelty required to expose the intimate parts and processes of marine creatures to scientific scrutiny. “I find it terrifying that I can exercise authority just because I’m the strongest,” he later confessed. “It’s always bothered me in my films, no matter the subject.” Instead, Painlevé preferred to “integrate” himself into the ocean, where he could encounter “animals in their own home, at their level, and not above them.” 

Painlevé conceived of cinema as a form of free inquiry, a way of asking questions about the universe without presupposing a clear answer, or any answer at all—of being led by the camera’s omnivorous curiosity. Employing close-ups and sudden shifts in scale, his documentaries reveal disorienting new realities detail by detail, cell by cell, node by node. We see the undulations of rock urchins and the suckers of cephalopods appearing somehow both concrete and abstract, earthly and alien, comic and tragic, spectral and alive; perhaps we begin to understand “crustaceans as creatures that are hard and soft, lumbering and graceful, mendacious and whimsical,” as French-literature scholar James Leo Cahill writes in Zoological Surrealism: The Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé, his thoroughgoing and expansive 2020 biography of the maestro.

No one had ever attempted to raise the aesthetic stakes of documentary film quite as Painlevé did, employing sound to create “provocative juxtapositions” and smuggling analogy and humor and a kind of symphonic elegance into early cinema. Yet beyond the radical innovation of these early experiments is another sleight of hand: the way he subtly turns the tables—or the camera—on the viewer. In the absence of an obvious point of reference or standard of measurement, the viewer is lost in the magnificent spectacle of magnification unfolding on-screen, an effect that produces a suggestive mixture of pleasure and exhaustion, not unlike the aftereffects of a psychedelic experience. 

Painlevé’s unorthodox inversions came early on. Whereas figures like Georges Bataille came to what was then known as comparative anatomy through surrealism, Painlevé discovered surrealism and film through his studies in comparative anatomy at the Sorbonne, mining biological and zoological phenomena the way Max Ernst would mine the unconscious to generate new narratives in collage form. Painlevé’s time at the Laboratory of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology (“Physiology” was later replaced by “Histology”) and at a marine research station in Brittany inspired his first published surrealist text, “Neo-zoological Drama” (1924), which appeared in Ivan Goll’s short-lived journal Surréalisme. The piece reads like a page torn at random out of a lab notebook, and incorporates observations he likely conducted of the life cycles of predatory flatworms: “So sweet is the plasmodium of the Myxomycetes; the eyeless Prorhynchus has the dull color of the born-blind, and its proboscis stuffed with zoochlorellae solicits the oxygen of the Frontoniella antypretica; it carries its pharynx in a rosette, a locomotive requirement, horned, stupid, and not at all calcareous.”

Perhaps the most radical aspect of this early text, as Cahill argues, is its emphasis on the specimens under observation, a critique of the sudden intrusion by alien researchers from beyond the frame. Cahill persuasively links the Aragon-Breton branch of the surrealist movement—which championed the revolutionary potential of the unconscious to transform daily life, in opposition to Goll’s purely aesthetic view—to new models of reality shaped by breakthroughs in physics and psychoanalysis. Following the ghastly human devastation of World War I, the surrealists’ focus on disgust as a visceral emotion, on violence on a bodily and microscopic level, took on profound political dimensions. (Encounters not unlike this one took place in homes all over America too: the novelist Philip K. Dick would forever remember his father, a World War I veteran, as a terrifying apparition towering over him in their kitchen in his army-issued gas mask.) 

In Paris, Painlevé rubbed shoulders with the avant-garde of the time, including Sergei Eisenstein, Antonin Artaud, Marc Chagall, and Man Ray, who borrowed some of Painlevé’s starfish footage, and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, who hired him as their entomologist, or chief ant handler, for Un chien Andalou (1929). Films like Painlevé’s The Octopus inspired Picasso’s erotic, tentacled portraits of his lovers throughout the 1930s and beyond, while sculptors like Jacques Lipchitz were taken with the “plastic richness” of his films devoted to cultivating attention to the minutest movements of sea spiders and shrimp.

Painlevé made no effort to disguise the conditions under which films like The Octopus were shot, making explicit his use of the aquarium in a laboratory setting, while conjuring a scientific vision of nature that was simultaneously pragmatic and fantastic, tame and wild. Like other filmmakers inspired by surrealism’s critique of positivism, he sought to undermine the prevailing tendency of modern science to “domesticate the unknown by means of knowledge,” as Michael Richardson puts it in his book Surrealism and Cinema. Indeed, Painlevé’s films call into question the very idea of pure documentation, exposing the artificial in all attempts at capturing nature in its so-called natural state. “Science is a fiction,” Painlevé declared in an interview. “To make science-fiction is downright useless.” At the same time, he was inclined toward poetic flourishes and was steeped in French literature. Cahill knows his classics, and one of the unexpected delights of his book is his attempt to illuminate Painlevé’s numerous references to Victor Hugo’s highly influential 1866 novel Toilers of the Sea, which features an epic octopus battle probably based on Hugo’s own personal observations. “The dream-world is the Aquarium of Night,” Hugo wrote, comparing the spectral seascape to the otherworldly projections encountered only during sleep. Cahill attempts to disassociate anthropocentrism from anthropomorphism, arguing for the radical, open-ended potential of the latter, not merely to show us a series of images, but to confront us with what we cannot expect to see, by means of artificial perspective—what Jean Epstein called “an eye outside of the eye.” Cahill admits that in depicting horny seahorses, curtsying shrimp, and vampiric crabs, Painlevé often “flirts with anthropomorphism,” but argues that this may not necessarily be a bad thing, after all; depending on how it is used, this, too, can be a method of discovery. In Painlevé’s postwar film Freshwater Assassins, for example, the mercenary title applies not only to the aquatic protagonists but also to the filmmaker, who choreographs the titular assassinations and cruel spectacles, much as Baruch Spinoza once did by pitting spiders against each other. Like Ovid did before him, Painlevé emphasizes the morphos, or form, at the center of anthropomorphism, thereby initiating some much-needed introspection about the mysterious origins of human consciousness and its potential futures.

Cahill’s Zoological Surrealism follows previous University of Minnesota Press titles on cinema, posthumanism, and interspecies studies, including Cynthia Chris’s brilliant Watching Wildlife (2006) and Donna J. Haraway’s When Species Meet (2007), which chronicle the ways innovations in how we see continue to alter our idea of where and who we are—our romantic notion of having a special place in the universe. Yet it seems the more we know, the smaller we feel. Nietzsche referred to this vertiginous experience as that of humanity confronting its “parochial location [seinen Winkel],” its singular niche. Cahill terms this process of disabuse “cinema’s Copernican vocation”—that is, the ability to perpetually cast humankind out of the center of its own system of values and to humble our sense of significance and narrative control. I think it’s what the journalist Chamine meant when she wrote flatteringly of Painlevé’s crustacean films: “He forgets himself.”

As the Holocene careens violently into the so-called Anthropocene, Painlevé’s emphasis on making visible the lives of nonhumans, test subjects, and outright monsters—of kindling our empathy for the faceless—offers a timely reminder that the camera possesses a potential beyond that of assuaging its human creators. The gaze can be allowed to linger, for example, on a landscape that we have transformed forever and temporarily abandoned, as in the time-lapse photography and landscape films of Peter Bo Rappmund, who painstakingly documents megastructures like the eight-hundred-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System from beginning to end. Or, as in Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass, where the camera follows shepherds and their flocks into the mountains of Montana with no music or extraneous narration—nothing but diegetic sound. As the body count rises, along with the temperatures and the seas and the scores of species driven to extinction, these films also become melancholy museums to all that we have lost in such a short time—a kind of Noah’s archive, in Cahill’s clever phrase. 

Good stewardship is nothing if not based on caution and reflection—the self-awareness to know that we will never really know enough. As Painlevé himself put it in 1936: 

There is nothing more pretentious than becoming ecstatic over something banal in order to give the appearance of discovering something in it that others have never seen, when, just like you, they have tickled its mandibles or gobbled up its head, liver and all the rest. But this familiarity does not confer any claims to knowledge. Particularly when we are trying to engage audiences with animals encountered on every corner, like crabs and shrimp. In order to maintain interest, it is necessary either to force them to perform sketches, bustle about, and if possible, to kill or be killed, or to transform our eyes in order to see them in a new manner. 

It may not be our duty to complete this Copernican revolution, but neither can we afford to desist from the task. 

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