DIR/WRI/PRO/DOP/ED : Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel
In B.S. Johnson’s 1966 novel, Trawl, the author describes a journey on a North Sea fishing boat. Inspired by the work of the fishermen, he starts to mull over his past. The further he gets, the more thoughts are dredged up. The book’s conceit is that that the mind in contemplation is like a beam trawl sieving the sea bed for catch, and it’s the fish, and the water, too. The metaphor seems to be perfect; but in Leviathan, an avant-garde documentary about a North American trawler, things are the other way round. The film is consciousnessless, sheer experience hurled together out of which the viewer is expected to tug some meaning. There’s no time for narration, or intertitles. We’re left mulling over the very few instances of explication; the title itself, and the epigraph, which comes from the Book of Job: “It makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron / and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.” A few minutes in the company of the pitching and whirling camera and that makes pretty literal sense, at least. But the title could be referring to any number of other Leviathans – the fishermen’s grueling routine made me think of Thomas Hobbes, of nature as “a condition of war of every man against every man,” and the filmmakers certainly had Moby Dick in mind. But the film is so uncompromising in its commitment to a pure observational style that it’s impossible to be certain about semantics.
One question the film might be asking is this: how can you meditate on your experience if that experience completely overwhelms your senses? Whether it’s Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World, the sea in cinema is often where you go to escape the limitedness of life on land, think differently, reevaluate things. This is an old idea – in Moby Dick, Melville pays just as much attention to the oceans within as those without. Leviathan‘s 80-foot trawler docks in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Ishmael and Queeqeg share a bed in the Spouter-Inn. But there’s no sign of the complex humanity with which Melville made sure to imbue his sailors. After watching Leviathan, I can’t say that these fishermen ever dream about anything but bigger and bigger piles of undifferentiated fish gore. There’s no let-up. Work at sea is strenuous and dangerous and often takes place in shifts of 20 hours. The actual torture and destruction of the sea creatures themselves come across as sorts of analogues to this. Fish are caught, hacked up, and their remains are swept into the ocean, again and again. The camera is sometimes among the dead eyes and viscera, sometimes attached to a fisherman, and sometimes it’s actually getting tossed around on the waves. The inner lives of the human subjects are not broached. There’s a scene in which a dangerously exhausted man fights sleep while watching Deadliest Catch; he doesn’t get the chance to speak, to articulate his own sense of his life, and the section ends up being merely exploitative and callously comic.
Leviathan is undeniably a thrillingly kinetic experience, thanks to smart use of some GoPros, and it sometimes gets at nature’s abstract beauty in the way that the best of experimental nonfiction film always has; Stan Brakhage’s Commingled Containers comes to mind. But it’s such a tough watch. We struggle to keep our awareness of ourselves as consumers of difficult cinema while boredom bears down on us. Imagine going into a museum and finding out that you could only look a painting one square centimetre at a time over a period of about 90 minutes. Here are some apposite lines from the same section of the Book of Job out of which the epigraph is taken: “Who can strip off its outer coat? / Who can penetrate its double coat of armour?” Why make a film so impenetrable out of such fascinating raw material? There were many walkouts during Leviathan’s tour of the festivals, and I was tempted. The film could have been stunning, with more varied footage or some subtle exposition; as it stands, Leviathan is a blood-soaked exercise in bloody-mindedness, just another pile of the fish guts it so thoroughly documents.
Darragh John McCabe
Leviathan is released on 29th November 2013