Review of Zoological Surrealism: The Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé

Zoological Surrealism: The Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé
by James Leo Cahill

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2019
408 pp., illus. 72 b/w. Paper, $28.00
ISBN 978-1-5179-0216-2.

Reviewed by
Allan Graubard
July 2019

Jean Painlevé was a leading documentary filmmaker in France who focused on scientific subjects, the first to consistently use cinema as it evolved for this purpose, including microcinematography. From 1925 on he directed some 200 films over seven decades, presenting images to general audiences rarely if ever seen before. Schooled in neo-Lamarckian comparative anatomy – a principal perspective during the Third Republic (1871-1940), prior to its absorption into biology and genetics post WWII – Painlevé also collaborates with surrealists, contributing to their journals and extending their founding interests in scientific research that includes comparative anatomy among other major disciplines.

The bridge thus established between comparative anatomy, Surrealism, and cinema is the subject of this intriguing study that James Leo Cahill, its author, an expert in cinema studies and French cultural history, presents with clarity and depth. It is a study that scientists, poets, artists, and their allies will benefit from, especially in charting the differences between anthropomorphic and anthropocentric perspectives that modern ecology and environmental science also use to effect.

That anthropomorphism can work reciprocally, projecting human concerns and values onto nonhuman life but also transforming those concerns and values in that projection is one noncentric axis that Cahill balances his arguments on. The subtitle alone signifies this vector throughout the book. The “nonhuman cinema” that Painlevé revealed through his films, the majority of which image animate life at different scales – those “strange aquatic and land-based creatures from octopuses, sea urchins, crustaceans, and seahorses, to insects, vampire bats, and the people who observe them” – reveal a charged intermediate zone: where who and what we are as a species encounter other species specific to their milieu, prompting wonder, disorientation, and knowledge through heightened self-reflection.

The other contingencies that enter into this zone, ever human, cultural and historic, which Cahill discusses as context and inspiration for Painlevé’s films, flesh out the book’s five chapters. Their primary titles lead the way: “Neozoological Dramas”; “Metamorphoses” (via the life history of crustaceans); “Amour Flou” (or blurred sex, a transition from Andre Breton’s heterosexually typed Amour fou, or mad love); “Substitutes, Vectors, and the Circulatory Systems of Modernity”; and “Carnivorous Cinema.” The latter title does not refer to a cinema that consumes its audience in a gustatory fashion, although to a surrealist that possibility has it charms, but to a study of the food chain and killing, which we humans have industrialized to satisfy our hunger. A brief concluding chapter opens the door to further research into the provocative realms that the book engages: “Unfinished Revolutions, Untimely Nature.”

Producing his first films in the silent era then as “talkies,” many with Hot Jazz and Swing soundtracks intersect with brief narrations, mark Painlevé’s cinema: as much at the forefront of imaging technology as it was in responding to the revolutionary poetic and politics that Surrealism defined in France, still a colonialist power. When utilizing scientific methods to observe the life history of animate beings, whether immediately visible or invisible to us, an equal tendency arises that poetry and myth appeal to. Painlevé’s filmic accomplishments, and one reason for the popular success he gained lay in his appreciation of each tradition, their methodologies, and how they can sway each other. It should be noted that Cahill brackets the various influences on Painlevé’s films within a somewhat foreshortened span of years (1924-1949), linked to the arc of Surrealism as a major cultural factor, which lessened post-WWII, and the scientific interest in non-human phenomena prevalent in France then.

A final thought: In a period, such as ours, when documentaries on nonhuman beings and other phenomena proliferate -- digitally produced, marketed, and accessible -- it is well worth considering the in situ character of Painlevé’s work, the laborious effort that went into making his films, the new instrumentation he needed and their design and construction, including the underwater camera, and the physically-based distribution routes available. The differences then to now, of course, are profound.

One result, however, is fairly clear: The ease that we can view documentaries and the insights gained about their subjects can make us take all too much for granted; that contemporary science and digital imaging have, or can, explore to repletion the animate or, for that matter, the inanimate world, while diminishing or forgetting the founding existential character of that work; where it comes from, how it arises, why and how documentarians portray their subjects, and to what end.

Cinematic technology has come quite a ways from Painlevé’s film-based cameras. Be that as it may, our need for critically understanding visual documentation, point of view, type of representation, format, cultural, historical and political influences, audience reception, and their effects on how we see our world have not changed. This book certainly takes that to heart.