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Sex, Lies, and Nature Documentaries

The natural world on film has never looked better. Which, in a way, is a pity.It's 1928 and Schenectady, New York, is...

The natural world on film has never looked better. Which, in a way, is a pity.

It's 1928 and Schenectady, New York, is culturally relevant: It's home to the first television station in the world. Across the continent, Mickey and Minnie Mouse make their first film appearance. That same year, a Scottish biologist named Alexander Fleming discovers Penicillin and alters the course of history. Frederick Griffith inadvertently proves the existence of DNA and does the same. In France, a young scientist, the son of the Prime Minister, screens his film at the Académie des sciences. The audience, scientists all, is outraged. This is a medium reserved for penny arcades and darkened theaters, not halls of science. Worse still, the film was actually entertaining. The young scientist recalled one crying out, "Cinema is not to be taken seriously!" before storming out of the theater. The young scientist's name is Jean Painlevé, and though it was one of his first films, it was far from his last. He was just 26.

Soon Painlevé formed the Institute of Scientific and Technical Cinema, where he would make Lymph Glands of the Frog, New Research on Amoebas, and Operation on the Upper Palate, among other genre classics. But this 1928 short that sent a collective shudder through the Académie was called L'Oeuf D'Épinoche. It focused on the egg of the stickleback, a tiny scaleless creature related to the pipefish. After it was screened, a journalist from Le Vingtieme siecle questioned the film's validity. "How can we be sure that what we see on the screen is documentary truth?" he wrote. "When an actor is in front of the camera, he transforms himself, he modifies his behavior ... So, are we sure that the stickleback's egg itself is not disturbed, modified, or distorted by the camera and the lights?" Since Painlevé film on sticklebacks' eggs first appeared on movie screens, an awful lot of people—scientists, journalists, folks who love Werner Herzog—have been asking the same exact question: "How can we be sure that what we see on screen is the documentary truth?"??

Let's fast-forward 65 years. It's 1993 and television, Mickey, Minnie, and Penicillin are everywhere. DNA was everywhere before 1928, but now we know it's everywhere. The jury's still out on those nature films, though. That year, David Quammen writes this in a column for Outside magazine: "[T]he mass marketing of video nature, carries an ambivalent mix of implications ... People witness amazing processes and behaviors that they never otherwise could, and as witnesses they acquire, maybe, a certain vested concern for the preservation of wild places and wild beings. The negative implications are less patent and more complicated. Among them: People are lulled, pandered to, hypnotized, and misled ... Worst of all, they are enticed to believe that nature as they have seen it—concocted expertly from flickering photographic images—represents nature as it exists. Of course, it doesn't. Images can lie, even photographic images."

?Quammen goes on to cite Charles Siebert's 1983 essay, "The Artifice of the Natural." In it, Siebert argues that nature documentaries are more telling as objects of human creation than studies of the natural world. The nature documentary, he says, is like a city: "fast-paced, multi-storied, and artificially lit." Nature is the antithesis: slow, earthly, camera-shy. But one thing is certain: Nature, or our version of it, sells. Television was just getting started when sticklebacks came on the silver screen. Mickey and Minnie went on to spawn an empire that just spent millions on the nationwide release of Oceans, itself a re-edit of the largest nature documentary project ever (BBC and Discovery's co-produced $20-million epic, Planet Earth) which itself spawned another multi-million-dollar series, Life, which just completed a successful run on Discovery.

The point is, we're a long way from 1928 and outrage over stickleback eggs. We've grown up. Now we're outraged about beetle sex.


Last month, The Guardian featured a story on animal rights on film, which used as an example a furious response to a BBC documentary featuring a pair of copulating beetles. The particular problem, people thought, was television presenter Bill Oddie's narration of the encounter. "He crash-lands on top of a likely looking lady," Oddie begins. "There's a bit of luck! One thing's for sure: this boy is horny!" The article goes on to interview Brett Mills, a lecturer in film studies. Mills gets to the heart of the matter. "We can never really know if animals are giving consent," he tells The Guardian. "But they do often engage in forms of behaviour which suggest they'd rather not encounter humans." While we may never really know if the beetle sex as depicted by the BBC and described by Oddie is consensual, we can be fairly certain that animals would rather not participate in moving pictures. In fact, I think it's pretty safe to say that animals would much rather be left alone. Which brings me to the octopus. And the cameraman.

The octopus is crawling away from the cameraman, who we can only assume is there but we do not see. We see the octopus, in all sorts of bizarre situations, fleeing the scene. Always fleeing the scene. First we're in a studio, and the octopus is white on black. Then we're outside, and the octopus is cornered among rocks. Then it's falling off a window sill; then it's crawling over a crib, across a baby doll. Then the octopus is perched in a tree, then it's falling out of the tree. Finally the octopus is, mercifully, in a tank of water. But the scene is still bizarre and horrific, for the octopus is crawling over a human skull. The octopus is always crawling, as frantically as an octopus can crawl, away from the cameraman. The film is The Octopus, and it is more a work of cinematic surrealism than nature documentary. The cameraman is Painlevé, who by this time had more or less left the scientific community and been embraced by the art world. Fernand Leger, Marc Chagall, and Man Ray were all admirers.

After this transition, Painlevé said something really interesting, something that Quammen and Siebert and critics and film nerds would find fascinating and maybe outrageous maybe simply just honest. He said, basically, "I'm a filmmaker, so I lie." He took the same footage he had from the natural world and he produced two cuts, one for science, one for mass consumption. He sped up, slowed down, and generally jazzed up the popular versions of his films (sometimes they were literally soundtracked with jazz music). The Octopus—with its skull and baby and bizarre scenarios—is pure entertainment, made to horrify and amaze and, just maybe, after it's shocked you and sucked you in, educate. While Painlevé was spurned by his scientific peers, by the early 1930s he was embraced throughout France. "The science films of Jean Painlevé," wrote one critic, "bring to mind the enchantment of Shakespeare and allow one to glimpse the exhilaration of the mathematician lost in the silent music of infinitesimal calculations." By the time he died in 1989, Painlevé had made more than 200 films, including some of the first work in television for that same Mickey and Minnie empire.

In 2001, in a stroke of genius, the San Francisco Film Festival screened eight of Painlevé's films and had Yo La Tengo perform a live original score. They called the project "The Sounds of Science," and it appears on a recently released Painlevé anthology, put out on DVD by Criterion last year. It ended up being the company's best selling product in 2009. For a title, Criterion found inspiration from a collection of essays about the filmmaker (this columnist found it inspiring and essential, too). The name is perfect, and says everything about truth and lies and nature on film while saying almost nothing. It's taken from a phrase Painlevé was fond of repeating: la science est une fiction. Science is fiction.?????????????

Fiction, in this situation, is the perfect word. It comes from facere, which means "to make." So if science, and film, are fictions—that is, man- (and woman)-made—can we ever get nature right? Or can we just entertain ourselves with more and more impressive highlight reels from the natural world? Discuss amongst yourselves while I go outside and look at something real and true like a tree. Or maybe I'll get lucky and find two beetles going at it.

Image of Painlevé courtesy of The Criterion Collection

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