PRINT April 2013


Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan

Two stills from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 87 minutes.

THERE’S NO DENYING the power of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s splashy shock expressionism. Leviathan—or Leviathan, as it appears, white on black, in the movie’s titles—is not only named for the biblical sea monster; this account of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic is itself something of a prodigy. The forbidding Gothic typeface is part of the meaning, as if to ask, What hath God wrought?

Castaing-Taylor and Paravel come out of ethnographic film (he is codirector of Harvard’s Film Study Center and perhaps best known for the 2009 sheepherding documentary Sweetgrass, she an anthropologist who codirected, with J. P. Sniadecki, Foreign Parts, a 2010 study of car-repair shops in the junkyard district of Willets Point, Queens). Leviathan, which begins with an extended quote from the book of Job, is, however, closer to the handheld Sturm und Drang of Stan Brakhage’s “Pittsburgh Trilogy” (1970–71)—especially its morgue-set capper, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes—than to any conventional verité. Not that Leviathan partakes of Brakhagian silence. On the contrary. The roar of the ocean is heard before the first images flicker out of the void. The sound mix of hoarse cries, metallic clanks, and powerful motors provides a continuous industrial din.

At the same time, Leviathan is gorgeous. The colors verge on lysergic. The editing is convulsive yet seamless. The camera lurches like a drunken sailor. The blur is magnificent. Some of the underwater shots—of the sea filled with shreds and detritus of a thousand orange starfish—are as heady as the onrushing Star Gate sequence from 2001. Leviathan: “King over all the children of pride,” per Job. The movie’s title evokes the self-destructive quest of Moby-Dick (as well as the medieval gate of hell, Thomas Hobbes’s term for the absolute state, and William Blake’s metaphor for England’s naval might). In its vertiginous churning, this all but wordless, Bible-thumping nor’easter, a storm-pelted Father Mapple sermon shot in the fishing beds off New England on boats that, like the Pequod, set out from New Bedford, Massachusetts, evokes the primeval chaotic emptiness called “tohubohu” in the book of Genesis and (more locally) Albert Pinkham Ryder’s seascapes.

Aurally clamorous and visually ravishing, shot mainly at night and mostly in mega-close-up, Leviathan abstracts the harvesting and processing of seafood into a vision of terrible beauty. Down on the deck, the camera swims with the floodlit fish slosh. Jewellike bloody slime ebbs and flows. An impossibly bulging net is rudely dumped in the spectator’s face and (whack!) a fish head bounces on camera, making eye-to-eye contact. (I first saw the movie at a press screening for the 2012 New York Film Festival; people didn’t walk out of the Walter Reade Theater, they ran.)

Castaing-Taylor and Paravel share an interest in people’s working lives. Their emphasis here is not just on the fruit of the dark-seething sea but also on the physical labor and endurance required to maintain a seagoing charnel house. It’s nearly forty-five minutes before a human face comes into focus; the movie is all but over before you hear something like a human conversation. Late in the day, Leviathan abruptly becalms itself to ponder a fisherman at rest. Nearly as startling as everything that has gone before is this static portrait of a bearish guy sitting in the ship’s galley with a TV (evidence suggests he is watching the Discovery Channel’s long-running deep-sea-fishing reality show Deadliest Catch) and a big jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise—the sequence is the length of a Warhol Screen Test.

And like mid-1960s Warhol or Kiarostami’s “undirected” dashboard-cam opus Ten (2002), Leviathan is an exercise in automatic filmmaking. The movie was created with a dozen waterproof, wearable GoPro cameras, variously positioned on the ship’s mast, affixed to poles that might be swung through the air or dunked into the briny deep, sent skidding across the deck, or strapped to the fishermen’s headgear. Given such remarkable stunts, Leviathan is in some ways sui generis. At the same time, however, it engages with several other brutally inventive, big-theme documentaries, including not only Brakhage’s first-person eye-brain frenzies but Franju’s surrealist Blood of the Beasts (1949), in which the butchery ends with a cheerful rendition of Charles Trenet’s “La Mer,” and Bill Viola’s Vegetable Memory, a late-’70s Betamax recording of Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market—a kindred kinetic, chroma-noisy vision of huge frozen tunas being hosed down, hacked apart, and packaged for shipping.

Leviathan concludes as it began, with a gaudy, spuming nocturne. Everything goes tohubohu and we’re back in the water or somehow flying above it. Ocean is indistinguishable from sky as an M. C. Escher pattern of white gulls (reversed and upside down) hovers over a dark, roiling field. There’s a surging, churning immersion in a sea of light and then primal black blackness. The title is reiterated, along with a dedication to and list of the New Bedford fishing boats that have been lost in the depths: Grinding its metal teeth, voracious leviathan swims on, devouring itself.

Leviathan is currently playing in select cities across the US.

J. Hoberman’s most recent book, Film After Film: Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?, was published by Verso last year.