It's become a truism to say that the only way to get the full measure of a film is to see it as it was meant to be seen: on a big screen. In my experience, though, I can remember few objects where the truism is more appropriate than Leviathan, since the environment where you will see it will irrevocably change your perception of it, even if the film itself doesn't; it simply reveals other layers, like a sensory sculpture that changes every time you look at it. My first exposure to Leviathan was streaming online on a home screen, and only later did I experience it "properly" in a theatre; the film was the same, but the response wasn't, especially as it is such a startlingly unique proposition.

     The film du jour in the auteurist set since its premiere in Locarno in September 2012, Leviathan was produced under the aegis of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, the experimental audiovisual structure run by Lucien Castaing-Taylor at the University of Harvard, and technically could be described as a documentary about a fishing boat trawling the Atlantic out of New Bedford - only it has no truck with the traditional documentary forms and seeks a sort of filmic equivalent of "automatic writing", a truer, abstract form of cinéma-vérité that would pretty much eject the idea of a programmatic point of view. Mr. Castaing-Taylor and his co-director, Véréna Paravel, attached cameras to the bodies of the fishermen, to the boat's deck, masts or rigs, filming from points of view that humans don't usually take, and assemble the footage to present us the routines of life and death aboard that are never ever seen, let alone in this way.

     Working mainly with long, uncut blocks of footage that seem to have been recorded without any human intervention, Ms. Paravel and Mr. Castaing-Taylor aren't interested in a traditional narrative frame and prefer to spool Leviathan as a sensory trip, a claustrophobic stay in the "belly of the beast" that is a modern fishing boat, dishing in its travels death and destruction to the seas so humans can live (and yet, in less than ideal circumstances, as one particularly ironic take shows). That alone says that this is by no means a conventional film (let alone a conventional documentary), and the extraordinary soundtrack, a collagist symphony of mechanical and natural sources put together by "sound composer" Ernst Karel and sound designer Jacob Ribicoff, only underlines its status as a kind of theme park ride where you are experiencing the film viscerally instead of passively looking at it.

     There can be a sense that there's far too much theory behind Leviathan, that its purely experiential approach may put it much closer to the concept of a multimedia abstract or a video art piece; in fact, Ms. Paravel and Mr. Castaing-Taylor have reworked the base footage into a series of site-specific installations that have traveled through several countries. And yet, there is a sense that to see Leviathan in a big screen, to become immersed in its haunting, stark visuals, its whiplash-inducing jerky camera movements and its white-noise soundtrack, is to really find the essence of what it is. I still have no idea what that essence is, but Leviathan is like nothing I've ever seen before.

Directors/cinematographers/editors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel
Sound composition and mix: Ernst Karel
Sound design: Jacob Ribicoff
Producers: Mr. Castaing-Taylor, Ms. Paravel (Arrête Ton Cinéma, Sensory Ethnography Lab)
USA/United Kingdom/France, 2012, 87 minutes

Screened: IndieLisboa Film Festival 2013 official competition; online streaming print, Lisbon, March 25th 2013; official competition screening, Culturgest, Lisbon, April 23rd 2013


Smarten Up said…

Sorry but this filmmaker is full of it. The film is a waste of our good time, better spent sleeping than watching...

Just because you are a Harvard professor and go out to sea and get wet and bumped around does NOT make your footage worth seeing. A real tough editing is needed here, such as when I ran this dvd at quadruple fast forward, reducing it to just a few minutes. Even then, some scenes should be deleted.

Were they really surprised that all flesh food on the plate comes at a high price? Do all these film reviewers and their academic buddies never think about food, until they find themselves on the deck of a trawler? Hey !--HEY! that is real life--and real DEATH, get it Prof??

Eat some vegetables if you are so guilty, but keep this stuff as a home movie; "What I Did on My Sabbatical..."

Sound was unhearable, in fact frustrating, more informative as silent on fast forward! And that essay by Cyril Neyrat? Not only must it have been poorly translated, it was written in garbage-academese...sincerely hope no one got tenure for that!

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