- Another Nature Speaks to the Camera:Natural History and Film Theory
The London Film Society was founded in 1925 with a mission of bringing avant-garde and foreign films to British audiences. Its programming included a number of films that have gone down in history as landmarks of experimental cinema: Ballet mécanique and Entr'acte from France, the German expressionist classics The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, and Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and October from the Soviet Union. These selections gave the Film Society a certain modernist cachet, and its screenings attracted the likes of Roger Fry and Virginia and Leonard Woolf Alongside these ambitious international films, however, the Film Society also had a curious liking for a humbler, more homegrown kind of programming: the natural history short.
Film Society records show that they exhibited many short science and nature films. Laura Marcus attributes their "strong emphasis on scientific and nature films" to the predilections of Film Society cofounder Ivor Montagu, a former zoology student at Cambridge.1 These "bionomic" films included selections from the Secrets of Nature series. Produced by British Instructional Films between 1922 and 1933, Secrets of Nature aimed to entertain and educate the public with footage of plants, animals, and microorganisms, along with explanations of their life cycles. The series applied the latest cinematic techniques to an old-fashioned brand of natural history. Most of its stars were common, local British species, such as the barn owl, the raven, the ant, the scarlet runner bean, and even the myxomycetes, a slime mold the filmmakers rebrand under the much cuter term "myxies." The Film Society screened several of the Secrets, among them [End Page 243] The Comma Butterfly, Plants of the Pantry, The Frog, The Aphis, The Strangler, Down Under (a film on the growth of plant roots), Water Folk (on water fleas), Magic Myxies, and Gathering Moss.2
Plants of the Pantry (1927), a Secrets short shown at a 1929 Film Society meeting alongside Man Ray's L'étoile de mer (The Starfish), typifies the series, which unites modernist visual abstraction with a grotesque aesthetic and a revelation of the beauty hidden in the ordinary. The film, like many of the Secrets, presents a life history of its subject—in this case, the mold that grows on food—including its growth, dissemination, and reproduction. And, like many other films in the series, Plants puts on display the technical virtuosity of natural history filmmaking, emphasizing that the technological apparatus reveals things normally invisible to the human eye. Plants begins with an intertitle signaling its use of time-lapse: "Rapid-motion photography has been employed in this subject, most of the pictures being taken at 200 to 20,000 times the normal speed." This speeding-up allows viewers to witness the growth and movement of the featured organism. Plants of the Pantry also uses magnification and microscopy to usher viewers from a macroscopic view of a piece of meat, the mold's substrate, to a dramatically smaller scale, and with these techniques the filmmakers take an otherwise unappealing, even disgusting, subject and transform it into something altogether different. "[C]heese that has become wild and woolly is in reality a garden of exquisite plants," reads one intertitle. The images reinforce this point: the time-lapse and magnification abstracts the mold enough to make it into an art object, rather like a Jackson Pollock painting in motion (fig. 1). The film showcases the power of cinema to defamiliarize the ordinary and to uncover the secret beauty in grotesque or abject things. It's not difficult to see why Ivor Montagu and the other Film Society programmers would find its weird vision compatible with Man Ray's mysterious surrealist film, which itself includes many close-ups of a starfish in a jar, its spiny legs evocative of the natural history genre.
The London Film Society was not alone in its taste for science and nature films; other European avant-gardes liked them too. In Paris, the surrealists embraced the work of science filmmaker Jean Painlevé, who brought them films on the octopus, sea urchin, seahorse, hermit crab, and other, mostly aquatic...