Leviathan: Is This What Drowning Feels Like?

02/27/2013 4:00 AM |

Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Véréna Paravel

Shot across two months over several sorties on a New Bedford fishing boat, this extraordinary film can feel like getting digested by the sea. Unless you’ve recently half-drowned in darkest night below a dreamlike storm of paper-cut-out seagulls and tumbled in a tide of fish and brine and chum beset by the slosh of waves, you haven’t seen anything like this. Aiming for sensory fidelity and steeped in the ethos of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, directors Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have, like many an experimental filmmaker adopting new techniques or media in search of a truer, closer rendering, found a way of seeing that’s so viscerally and disorientingly vivid and fresh as to flirt anew with the abstract and visionary.

Leviathan shows tattooed, slickered fellas genially hauling and gutting fish and stingrays on deck, but just as often the camera is left to the elements, making an adventure of perception. Perspectives on and off board plunge, soak, and dangle us in water and the catch; at one point, as if in a piece of guerrilla nature photography, a chance deck-level camera position turns a gull’s slippery scramble into a desperate drama. As men go about their business (and listen to heavy metal), they choose what lives and what washes back out to sea; the ocean feels especially vast and enveloping by night—no walk-through or voiceover here. (Paravel codirected the Willets Point doc Foreign Parts, which also demonstrated her knack for digging into a tough milieu.) There’s an amniotic glimpse from within an indoor shower, and a shot of a man dozing off in the compact mess room to the television sounds of a reality show and an Ancestry.com ad (which happens to remind us of the centuries’ old pedigree of the endeavor).

As a chronicle of labor and nature’s dramas entwined, Leviathan might be compared to the glorifying, experimental works of Vertov or Dovzhenko, and its immersive, close-to-the-bone visual voyages dredge up the impressionistic waking dreams of Brakhage and his followers. It’s radical in blurring where “documentary” and “experimental” begin and end. The landscape, the sights and sounds seem alien because they are, considering the typical consumer’s packed-and-processed removal from the physical reality of life’s back end. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel seem to invite the reception as horror movie: over-whelmed, abandoned in the dark in the absence of guide, surrounded by the indifferent sea’s dangers, the frequent fish-eye’s view making the fisherman’s job feel arbitrary, bizarre, and biblical in scale.

Castaing-Taylor codirected Sweetgrass, that sheep doc that outfitted ranchers with intimately immediate radio mikes and in so doing turned inside out the conventional cinematic feel of man-in-landscape. Sound molds the experience of Leviathan, too, through the wizardry of sonic mavens Ernst Karel and Jacob Ribicoff: the sonic push and pull of water, or the hydraulic whine and grind of cranes (feeding the biological-mechanical vision of ship as beast). The surplus sensory input is embedded in the sound design: the blasted-out mikes of the cheapo cameras at times evoke nothing so much as water actually passing over your ears, that analogue stop and start inducing panic and wonder.

Which brings us to easily one of the year’s most ecstatic images: emerging from the water, point of view volatile and bobbing, to the sudden, hellish and yet serene vision of gulls filling the sky above—the last thing you might see before being pulled down forever.

Opens March 1

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