Forgetting Lesson: Jean Painlevé’s Gay Science


The French scientific and documentary filmmaker and para-Surrealist Jean Painlevé (1902−1989) established his reputation as the author of over 200 films, as well as an accomplished film programmer and activist. During the 1930s he made a series of critically ambivalent remarks about the pedagogical vocation of documentary films, describing film’s primary function in the classroom as causing spectators to ‘forget’ or ‘unlearn’ their lessons and expressing the desire to contribute to the total abolition of secondary education. Reflecting upon the relationship between Painlevé’s often overlooked pedagogical interventions and his films (particularly the documentaries Sea Urchins, 1929, and The Seahorse, 1935), this article develops a reading of the scientific documentary’s ‘forgetting function’ as part of an elaboration of a cinematic ‘gay science’: a film practice and theory regarding the epistemological and pedagogical stakes of documentary through both critical negation and an ethos of committed, creative experimentation.