Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Movie Review: Leviathan

Directed by: Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel.
Written by: Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel.

The reason why some critics will call Leviathan the best film of the year is the same reason why most audience members will not want to sit through the film – it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before – and that’s both the films strength and its weakness. The film has come out of something called the “Sensory Ethnography Lab” at Harvard, and is co-directed by professor Lucien Castaing-Taylor, (who co-directed Sweetgrass, about sheep herding a few years back) along with Verena Paravel. The film is a documentary and an ethnographic film – yet, not really either one of those. It was shot aboard a fishing ship based in New Bedford, Massachusetts – but if you to see a film about fishing, its challenges, consequences or methodology, than really this isn’t the film for you. The film really doesn’t offer anything we traditionally think of when we watch a movie. The film immerses us in the sights and sounds on board the boat (and sometimes, overboard) but provides us with no context for anything. You simply sit back and let the film wash over you – or you fight it, and then you’re in for a very long 90 minutes. Unlike perhaps any other film this year, Leviathan offers images that you have never seen before, will probably not see again. The problem is these moments of brilliance often come right alongside some tedious moments. This is a brilliant half hour Avant garde film, stretched to 90 minutes. While I know why some have loved it – and will declare it a masterpiece (watch it to rank very high on year-end critics surveys) – I also know why when the film was released earlier this year, it grossed only $72K. This is a film that is made with little to no thought of the audience – which is refreshing and frustrating in equal degrees.

I really do not know what to say about the film – so I’ll describe the three ways in which is was shot. The first is a traditional documentary format – with the filmmakers with handheld cameras simply filming the men as they go about their work. Fair warning to people with sensitive stomachs – if you don’t think you can take extended scenes of fish being disemboweled, well then this isn’t the film for you. The second way the film is shot is with cameras mounted to the workers helmets, to capture their POV as they go about their work. The third, and most interesting way the film was shot, was with cameras that were literally tied to the giant fishing nets, and thrown out to sea. It is this way that the film produces the images you have likely never seen before – the roiling, rough see, haunting images shot of seagulls from underwater that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I haven’t seen this type of thing before – and likely won’t again. Who else would shoot this way?

You won’t really get an idea of what life on a fishing boat like this is like from Leviathan. The film is often shot in disorienting close-up, so it’s hard if not impossible to tell just exactly what you’re looking at. The voices of them men are drown out by the natural sounds of the ocean around them, and the unnatural sound of the machinery churning. One, very odd and very long, sequence simply sits back and watches the captain as he watches an episode of Deadliest Catch on TV – the show giving way to commercials. What the point of this scene is, I have no idea.

And that’s about all I can say about Leviathan. It is a film like nothing you have seen before – even the aforementioned Sweetgrass had a more traditional feel to it than this one. This one is all about its images – that it invites you to get lost in, and think of – well, whatever those images call to mind. It is deliberately ambiguous – it doesn’t argue for or against anything. Most people will have interest in the film whatsoever – I understand that. Some will proclaim it a masterpiece – I understand that as well. For me, I’m right in the middle. I admired the film, without ever really loving it. Perhaps had I seen it in a theater, where it’s easier to get lost in it, rather than at home, I would have liked it more than I did. A good test of whether the film is for you is when I mentioned “Sensory Ethnography Lab” above, did it peak your interest, or make you scratch your head in confusion. But I think if you made it this far in the review, you already know if the film is for you or not.

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