Proteus, one of my favorite documentaries from 2004, is being released on DVD this week by First Run Features. It’s a fascinating look at the work of 19th century artist-naturalist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) that is experimental film, historical summary, and philosophical meditation all rolled into one. Laboriously assembled by David Lebrun over the course of 22 years, it’s a montage of etchings, sketches, and paintings (rephotographed and animated with narration, music, and sound effects) that positions Haeckel as the meeting point between the dominant worldviews of his day: scientific rationalism and Romanticism.
To represent the latter, Lebrun makes extended use of Gustav Doré’s famous 1874 engravings illustrating Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), which links the film to two other notable animated films on DVD: Lawrence Jordan’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1977) narrated by Orson Welles and recently distributed by Facets Video, and Paul Bush’s The Albatross (1998), distributed by LUX in the UK. All three films are labors of love that feature frame-by-frame techniques that recall the origins of film–itself born in the 19th century–and interpret Doré and Coleridge in unique ways.
Lebrun is fascinated by Haeckel, who oscillated between scientific research and landscape painting before finding his groove: cataloguing and illustrating 4,000 varieties of the 5,000 radiolarians known today, one-celled protozoa with complex mineral skeletons that pile up on the ocean floor. Aesthetically beautiful and a key in the burgeoning field of evolutionary biology, the film suggests the radiolarians allowed Haeckel to “depict the world around him with both the precision of the meticulous researcher and the passionate intensity of the mystic.” The illustrations are astonishing in their detail, and Lebrun spent years of his own life photographing them, organizing a thousand of them into visual sequences, and animating them into a kind of kaleidoscopic dance of forms. The sequences were achieved through a combination of large-format photography, photo retouching, optical printing, and lab work (much of which has now been rendered obsolete by digital technology), but the results are a spectacular visual achievement.
The rest of the film contrasts the rational scientific discoveries of the era (including those stumbled upon by transatlantic cabling and the voyage of The Challenger research vessel) versus the inner, philosophical quest for mankind’s place in the universe (as seen vividly in Goethe and the Romantic poets and artists who followed him). Lebrun draws a loose parallel between Haeckel and Coleridge’s ancient mariner, who undergoes a personal transformation, sees the world in a new light, and is compelled to wander the Earth while telling his tale. The camera explores the details of paintings and etchings while the multilayered soundtrack by George Lockwood (a Pat O’Neill collaborator) envelops the viewer in a rich, naturalistic atmosphere.
In comparison, Lawrence Jordan’s film is almost stately in tone, outside of its surreally random, cut-out images and objects (butterflies, serpents, flickering lights) that flit across the screen at unexpected moments. It’s a much more (perhaps even entirely) complete presentation of the poem and Doré’s illustrations, though Jordan–like Lebrun, whom he likely inspired–chooses to move his camera interactively, tilting, panning, and zooming across the engravings, timed to Welles’ rumbling recitation. Throughout his career, Jordan has prided himself on incorporating a subjective response to 19th century materials, and at times his camerawork is suitably first person: early images of the town that hosts the poem’s early wedding are animated to resemble the perceptions of someone walking into the town, and Jordan’s storm sequence even includes a shaky, “handheld” camera. Writing in Visionary Film, P. Adams Sitney maintains that “where [collagist Max] Ernst slammed together radically incongruent images from . . . found material and thereby released the terrors of monstrosities and the sensual depth of inconceivable landscapes, Jordan has chosen to refine their delicacy and to push his images almost to the point of evanescence,” a helpful distinction that attests to Jordan’s fondness for mythological or beatific imagery. Of the three films considered here, Jordan’s expresses the mysterious and immaterial inner recesses of the Romantics the most directly.
Paul Bush is an experimental filmmaker I’ve only recently discovered–you can see short clips of his work at his website (check out Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or the Lebrunian When Darwin Sleeps), but his two all-region PAL DVDs, Paul Bush: Working Directly and Paul Bush: Pixilated are definitely more ideal introductions (expensive as they are for roughly 40-minutes of content each). Apparently, he’s working on his first feature, Babeldom, which he previewed as a work-in-progress at this year’s Sci-Fi London festival–I’m eagerly awaiting its completion.
The Albatross is a visually stunning film Bush created by physically scratching away the emulsion on color film stock to reveal and control the layers of hues. The base imagery is a combination of live action, models, and Doré’s engravings, all of which are harmoniously transformed into flickering, shifting lines of crackling texture. The film shifts between dramatic staging with high-key lighting and quiet, moody tonalities in an extremely fluid manner, helped enormously by its immersive soundtrack that makes good use of sound effects and music (sea chanties and classical pieces) composed by Bush’s father, Geoffrey, who taught at the Universities of Oxford and London and who passed away the year the film was released. Bush’s adaptation is a highly condensed version, but its clipped, highlighting structure is almost Bressonian in its staccato leaps in time and abrupt transitions. Atmospheric effects–particularly falling snow–are beautifully executed, and create an enchanting effect bolstered by the film’s precarious balance between naturalism and abstraction. Bush elides the stated moral of Coleridge’s poem (“He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast”) and chooses instead to end on the mariner’s lament for his lonely ordeal, closing on an evocative sequence of breaking waves.