11/04/12 - Chinese 2, 7:15 p.m.
By Brad Franklin
LEVIATHAN is a film that is both unique and indefinable. It is easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. It is not a typical documentary. Its subject is commercial fishing off the New Bedford Coast of Massachusetts, but it does not treat its subject as a documentary would. There is no narration. There is no (discernible) dialogue. The only non-visual communication between the filmmakers and the viewer is a biblical quote from Job (made ominous with a scary font) that elucidates the film’s title and an endnote honoring the countless vessels and crew lost in the very waters where they filmed. These are not negatives. These stylistic choices are what make the film a truly immersive experience in a way that no IMAX documentary could.
In essence, it’s a visual diary portrayed in hyper-realistic terms. The directors employ an essentially raw form of filmmaking by simply shooting the environment of a fishing vessel with cameras placed at impossible-seeming angles from improbable perspectives, leaving their intent equivocal. Sharp cuts interrupt uncommonly long scenes that encourage the viewer to absorb the full spectrum of emotion and information that the camera captures, which involve all facets of life and death on the boat. The camera is not passive; it is always interfacing with what it’s shooting. A single scene can illuminate the brutal and transient nature of life, and evoke awe and wonder at the glory of creation.
Despite its raw, HD video aesthetic, directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor (SWEETGRASS, AFI FEST 2009) and Véréna Paravel (FOREIGN PARTS) have crafted a beautiful and arresting record of modern life at sea. LEVIATHAN presents a common-seeming vocation as an encounter with the sublime. This is complemented with an artful eye toward edits. It is not always clear if an edit has been made, if the camera jumped or if something in the environment changed. When a clear cut does come along, you are usually transported to a completely different sphere of life on the boat, which is always jarring yet is part of the mechanism that keeps the film truly engaging throughout.
Most shots are extremely intimate, as the camera has no regard for personal space. It pushes in uncomfortably close to the fishermen’s faces and stays there, watching. It is literally left to languish on the deck with the dead or dying fish and is lowered down into the sea as it is passed between ships. Often, shots are upside down or so dark they are indecipherable, but this does not detract from the potency of the atmosphere; it creates it. Certain shots transcend their initial surface quality and take on a foreboding, almost frightening tension, partly due to the lack of a guiding voice, but also because of their length. In this way, LEVIATHAN stands with the QATSI trilogy in its meditative and engrossing stream-of-consciousness staring, albeit limited to the realm of commercial fishing.
If LEVIATHAN does have a thesis, it’s that documentary filmmaking needs neither narrative, identifiable characters or a clear message to engage an audience, as these things are discoverable without guidance.
Brad Franklin is a writer based in Los Angeles.