Directed by Lucian Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, "Leviathan" is
an experimental documentary set on a New Bedford fishing trawler. Both
Lucian and Verena are members of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard
University; sensory ethnography attempts to merge aesthetics with the
anthropological study of people and cultures. Presumably the duo are
attempting to impart the "sensation" and "feeling" of life on a
Is sensory ethnography an art or an academic field of discipline? Is it both? Isn't good art already anthropological? Doesn't good art already convey the feeling and sensation of people, cultures and places? Conversely, doesn't a good paper or lecture by an anthropologist arguably a "type of art" - do the same? Why exactly does Harvard have a sensory ethnography department? Who does this department hope to reach?
Regardless, Lucina and Verena previously made "Foreign Parts" and "Sweetgrass", which delved into the worlds of urban chop-shops and rural shepherds. Both were comprised of interviews, dialogue, wide shots, and somewhat thin observations about labour, people and social relations. These films attempted to provide "insights" into their subjects.
"Leviathan" is a different beast altogether. Interviews, narration and dialogue have been jettisoned. Gone too are most medium and wide-shots, the film mostly comprised of close-ups stolen from small cameras mounted at odd angles throughout a fishing boat. These cameras capture roiling waves, dark skies, nets, fish, chains and much flopping, gasping and sloshing to and fro. The film is dizzying, disorienting, expressionistic, each shot like the pebble of a mosaic that never quite coalesces. Like obscure images torn from the swollen eyeballs of decapitated fish, "Leviathan" doesn't make much "normal" visual sense.
Fittingly, "Leviathan" opens with an epigraph from the Book of Job, a book which speaks of the impossibility of capturing a Biblical beast. "Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook," Job reads, "or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook?"
Do Lucian and Verena intend their film to be a similar statement on the "impossibility of capturing" certain "sensations" and "turths" via media? If so, good job. Or do the duo intend their film to be a "sensory experience" which honestly explores the sensory overload of commercial trawling? If so, then the film is mostly ridiculous. In the world of "Leviathan", fishing is a ghoulish horror-show, an unending blitz of stabbing sounds and discordant imagery. Here, everything is bathed in Old Testament doom and gloom, the oceans apocalyptic, the skies on fire and man and nature forever locked in a battle for supremacy; fishermen murder beasts by the millions whilst Nature reaches down and squeezes man.
But this is not the "reality" of fishing or the reality of fishing towns (see Frederick Wiseman's "Belfast, Maine"). It's more a freak-show for easily grossed-out First Worlders beholden to hand sanitisers, tampons, microwave dinners, anti-septic maternity wards and pre-packaged, bone-less meat. "Leviathan's" plays like a film about the working class which panders to the pampered and the intelligentsia. Assuming, of course, Lucian and Verena intended to make a film about fishing. For all we know, "Leviathan's" literally the adventure of a fish's dismembered eyeball.
6/10 Worth one viewing.
A documentary shot in the North Atlantic and focused on the commercial fishing industry.
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October 24, 2013 at 05:32 PM