Re: [Frameworks] science film query

From: James Cahill (email suppressed)
Date: Thu Dec 30 2010 - 09:48:56 PST

Hi Serge,

I would second Jennifer's recommendation to look into Oliver Gaycken's work. And I suppose it goes without saying -- or perhaps was already said -- that Hannah Landecker's essays from Critical Inquiry and Isis on scientific filmmaking and classical film theory are key to such a line of thinking. Whenever it appears, the promised Caboose edition of Germaine Dulac's writings in English translation will do much to fuel this sort of thinking, as she was quite fond of insisting on the intimate link between these modes of filmmaking ("The science film is unceasing in the great education it gives to artists: the education of cinema itself." “Le Sens du cinéma,” 1931)

If you have access to the BFI or Les Docs editions of Painlevé's work on dvd (in addition to the Criterion set) you will also be able to get your hands on some edu-sci shorts such as Percy Smith's wonderful insect and botany films, Eugène-Louis Doyen's separation of Siamese twins, and Jean Comandon's botanical films (Paula Amad has written on the relation of science film and aesthetics in "These Spectacles are Never Forgotten" from Camera Obscura and in her new book on the Albert Kahn archives). Altogether that's maybe 12-18 minutes of film material from 1900-1930s, but a pretty fantastic 12-18 minutes.

For some less ecstatic/more institutionally contained educational material, check out Valérie Vignaux's book "Jean Benoit-Lévy ou le corps comme utopie" which includes a dvd featuring a number of his educational and propaganda films from the 1930s that could be screened in class with minimal translation. The set includes a marvelous short film on hands at work.

The British charitable organization the Nuffield Foundation had a film unit that made a handful of films between 1960-1964 that fit the bill, particularly since they managed to hire two students with scientific training from the newly formed film program at the Slade to make their films: Don Levy and Peter Whitehead.

Levy's "Time Is" from 1964 is included on the BFI dvd for Herostratus. It not only played in the classroom but at happenings. Henry K. Miller published a piece on Levy and the Slade School in the BFI booklet accompany Levy's films that helps give context to the film and its reception.

Peter Whitehead's "Perception of Life" (possibly a bit more difficult to find) from 1964 also was produced for the classroom but had a second life in underground film circuits, and makes for a rather interesting hors d'œuvre to his better known work. A special issue of the journal Framework on Peter Whitehead is set to be published in 2011 and include a text on "Perception of Life" and the intimate, entangled relationship between scientific, educational, and experimental filmmaking and modes of viewing these films aesethetically and scientifically.

I presume Gustav Deutsch's "Film Ist" (1998), which draws heavily from archives of scientific films, and is available on dvd from Index, is on your list films? Tom Gunning has a text included in the booklet accompanying the dvd that is quite good.

On a more contemporary note, Hannah Rose Shell is a filmmaker/scholar (at MIT) who has made a number of really engaging videos on the relationship of science, experimentation, and aesthetics, and has a number of scholarly articles out as well. Mary Billyou also has a neat short film "1-9" (ca. 2007) that uses early 20th century footage of subjects having epileptic seizures (which she has whited-out) that evokes a lineage of scientific and aesthetic research that spans from turn of century medical institutions to the physics lab at SUNY Buffalo in the 1960s and onward (insert references to Conrad and Sharits but also, and why not, Martin Arnold and others).

Good luck,


----- Original Message -----
From: Serge Levchin <email suppressed>
Date: Tuesday, December 28, 2010 8:47 pm
Subject: [Frameworks] science film query
To: Experimental Film Discussion List <email suppressed>

> Hello FWs -
> I am trying to put together a proposal for a course in film
> history, dealing
> primarily with the evolution of science/research and educational film.
> Plenty has been written on the general history of these relatively
> marginalgenres - especially on their origins (i.e. on Muybridge,
> Marey, etc.) - but
> I wonder if anyone has done work on any kind of cross-breeding between
> sci/research/edu film and experimental film (or even arthouse film).
> Jean Painlevé is the only one coming to mind who could be said to
> straddleboth domains. A few of Peter Greenaway's films
> (particularly A Zed and Two
> Noughts) borrow some themes/techniques from research film - in this
> casetime-lapse cinematography.
> (At the risk of saddling Tony Conrad with another string of
> inanities) I'd
> love to get some input - both in terms of artistic films that
> reference the
> sci/research/edu genres and books/articles that deal with such
> borrowing. I
> expect borrowing in the other direction took place as well, but
> that may be
> a good deal harder to trace.
> Also - on the off chance that someone on the list knows of major
> repositories of sci/research/edu films - I mean archives, museums,
> hospitals, etc. - from all eras, I would love to hear about it as
> well. I
> think I have tracked down the majority of commercially available
> films.
> Many many thanks for reading and giving some thought to the matter.
> happy holidays, and best regards
> serge
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