If you liked Leviathan, it was a poetic, psychedelic experience of being on a fishing boat like you’ve never seen before. If you didn’t like Leviathan, it’s a physically dark, confusing, somewhat nauseating mess. I’m in the second camp. It’s interesting, sure, but I wish I could have seen what the hell they were doing at any point. Did so much of it really have to be at night?
Created by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, and in particular by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, who are the credited directors, Leviathan is an immersive work of, well, anthropology. The closest analogy (which is really close, actually) is the show The Deadliest Catch, but without a narrative. There’s no voiceover, no music, no anything but scene after scene of life on a fishing boat. Fish are caught, fish float in tanks, fish are butchered (unpleasantly, for those of us bleeding-heart liberal types), fish carcasses are disposed of, fish heads roll (literally). The cameras are everywhere, which is cool, but the perspective of a fisherman leaning out over the back of the boat fixing a chain that’s twisted the wrong way is completely negated, for me, by the camera being affixed to his head and the viewer being whipped around constantly. It’s neat to be able to put cameras anywhere, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
The film is entirely contextless, entirely by design, and good for them. They nailed it. I’m not asking for context in terms of peoples’ names or what they do when they’re ashore, I’d just like some context in terms of where the eff are we on this boat and why do we keep looking over there, and what does the chain do, and why does it matter? The narrative parallel from last year is All is Lost, the fantastic movie with Robert Redford. That movie didn’t have any dialogue either, and the lone character did a lot of things that didn’t immediately make sense. But JC Chandor (the screenwriter/director) has a great rhythm of setup/payoff; we don’t get what Robert Redford is doing with the stick, but oh! look! he’s using it as a lever for a pump. We don’t get why he’s turning the boat around, but oh! he went back for the sea anchor. The character doesn’t need to explain what he’s doing because we learn pretty quickly that he knows what he’s doing, even if we don’t. We believe in his competence from watching him work. The rolling consistency of setting up and paying off builds the character, but more importantly here, it lets us learn where things are on the boat and how they work.
In Leviathan, the payoff is intermittent, unclear, and often non-existant. There’s so little payoff that the set up itself is called into question; you can only put so many unrelated scenes in a row without tying them together in any meaningful way before you don’t expect there to be a point. And that makes you wonder why any of it matters.
For example, I’m sure there’s a really good reason why we watched a guy watching The Deadliest Catch for about five solid minutes. You may title your liberal arts thesis on it by drawing from the following selection of nouns: America, voyeurism, commentary, society, meta, statement, poverty, working-class, race. Similarly, I know for a fact that there are people in the world (Josh Larsen of Filmspotting) who were entranced by the plight of a particular fish head that just wouldn’t wash out of the holding area like the rest. And I’ll even give them that- there’s a kind of mini drama in watching it rock back and forth and spin around and wondering if it’ll end up going or not. But the shot(s) of the seagulls, and the very nearly static shot of fish in the tanks, which lasts forever… none of this adds up to a comprehensive whole, for me.
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel aren’t using their tools to paint a picture, they’re just squeezing out all the paint into a pile on the floor and calling it art. Sure, globs of paint are pretty, but they don’t add up to a picture of a flower. This movie is interesting, but consecutive shots of fish and fishing don’t add up to a documentary about a fishing boat. I can see how people would read in their own narrative and connections and love it, so good for them, I guess. My favorite part was the cool name and excellent DVD cover art (shown above).