RADICAL APPROACHES to the COMPLEXITIES of Today's Film and Media, with Special Interest in POLITICS, PREJUDICE and FEMINISM.
Director: Lucien Casting-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, France/UK/US, 87min
In this age of hysterical consumption and endless distraction, it has become commonplace for people, especially young people, to escape from the sensorium of their daily surround by reducing their focus to the miniature screens of their smart phones. These screens offer the panoply of codifiable information that seems necessitated by the demands of their social interchange and the pressures of education/work within an economically precarious society. Implicitly the phones reduce the world, or at least those aspects of the world necessary for practical life, to what seems a manageable size. In fact, the sensorium is increasingly understood as a distraction from the electronic environment within which smart phones (and all the other digital devices for accessing information and communicating with others) function. As a result, it is hardly surprising that a new generation of motion-picture artists would become interested in confronting this tendency toward the miniaturization of sensual experience, that a Sensory Ethnography Lab would be instituted at Harvard University (its goal: “to support innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography…that explore the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human existence”), or that Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who established and runs the SEL, and his filmmaker colleagues would dedicate
themselves to the production of motion-picture experiences that evoke the power and fascinations of the sensorium itself and the various kinds of information experiencing it can make available to us.
Nevertheless, the newest product of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan is beyond surprising—its immersion of its audience within the audio-visual surround created from Castaing-Taylor/Paravel’s experiences on fishing boats shipping out of New Bedford, Massachusetts feels not only overwhelming, but entirely new in the annals of modern theatrical cinema. While the film’s title seems to be a reference to the Biblical leviathan, a large sea monster or whale (its opening quotations from Job confirm this Biblical reference), the leviathan in Leviathan is the film itself. Made to be shown on the big screen with surround sound, Leviathan swallows us—regurgitating us out of the theater at the end of 90 minutes, exhausted and happy to have lived through what is as close to a sensory trauma as any film in recent memory.
Of course, there is nothing entirely new under the sun, and there are precedents for Leviathan. The 19th century maritime paintings of Winslow Homer and J. M. W. Turner, for example, and on a different register, the action painting of Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning: Castaing-Taylor/Paravel’s digital cameras seem at least as close an approximation to the procedures of action painting as Stan Brakhage’s gestural 16mm filming of the late 1950s, which has often been compared with the action painters’ gestural brushwork. There are cinematic precedents as well, including Georges Franju (particularly his Le Sang des bêtes [“The Blood of the Beasts,” 1949]), as well as Brakhage himself (The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes  is regularly shown to Sensory Ethnography Lab Students) and Castaing-Taylor’s erstwhile colleague (and the subject of a book edited by Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash), Robert Gardner, especially Forest of Bliss (1986), Gardner’s city symphony of Benares, India.
And there are precedents within the work of the filmmakers themselves. Many viewers will be familiar with Castaing-Taylor’s recent Sweetgrass(2009, co-made with Barbash), a beautifully shaped observational documentary of sheep ranching in Montana, with a particular focus on the then-disappearing, century-old tradition of herding sheep into the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains near Yellowstone for summer pasture. The sequences in Sweetgrass devoted to the labor of shearing the sheep and taking control of the birthing of lambs to assure the maximum productivity of ewes predict the depiction of physical labor in Leviathan. Paravel has had her own successes, including Foreign Parts (2010), a feature-length collaboration with J. P. Sniadecki, that explores the automobile junkyard at Willets Point in Queens, New York, and some of the lives that unfold there, and more to the point here, her earlier experiment in on-the-street shooting, 7 Queens (2008), within which her freeform camerawork allows her to capture the energy of the people she meets during a walk along the No. 7 subway line that threads through Queens.
What will most powerfully strike most viewers of Leviathan, however, is the soundscape of the film, engineered by SEL audio innovator, Ernst Karel, and Hollywood sound-designer Jacob Ribicoff (The Wrestler, Revolutionary Road). For decades, it has been a quest among independent filmmakers to make sound function on an equal footing with image, and of course, there have been successes: Peter Kubelka’s Unsere Afrikareise (“Our Trip to Africa” 1965) comes immediately to mind. But in Leviathan, as in most of the films to come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, sound comes before image and has sensory impact at least as powerful and complex as the imagery. In this case, the near-deafening noise of the fishing boat and of the processing of the fish and shellfish create an aural “nest” within which human speech can rarely be made out. If the film’s spectacular imagery completes the experience of the film, it does not deflect attention from the sound. Even as we sometimes struggle to see what we’re seeing and to understand how it fits within the daily round of the fishing boats, we continue to struggle, as the filmmakers must have, to become accustomed to the din of the industrial process of harvesting the ocean.
The impact of the endless motion of the boat, buffeted by waves and wind, is continually visceral: severed fish heads float toward us, then away, toward us, then away; the view out the side of the boat reveals a nearly black ocean—much of Leviathan occurs at night—that seems to move one way as boat and camera roll another and as the inevitable flock of seagulls floats above the fray, waiting for fish scraps to be washed overboard. Often, we are (literally) immersed in the film, as the camera reveals what’s going on around the boat under the surface of the sea. Throughout Leviathan, we see, within the cataclysm of sound and imagery, the intense demands of the dangerous work being done on these boats—some of the most dangerous work on the planet—and the stamina and skill of the men who dedicate themselves to it.
I am just beginning to explore Leviathan, and to come to grips with its organization of imagery within an unusual and challenging cinematic structure. Critical detachment will remain difficult at least for a few more screenings. For example, after the film’s only sedate moment—of one of the fisherman nodding out in front of a television (he watches it as we watch him)—what is the full range of implications of the sequence that concludes the film, where the world is literally upside down? Of course some things are obvious even after a single experience of Leviathan. It is clear that Castaing-Taylor/Parevel’s film is the inverse of Sharon Lockhart’s Double Tide (2009)—Lockhart has had regular interchange with the SEL filmmakers—during which we watch a traditional form of labor for what appear to be two 45-minute, rigorously framed shots of a woman clamming, morning and evening, in a Maine tidal cove. Where Lockhart’s lovely film is meditative, observational, choreographed, Leviathanverges on the overwhelming, is thoroughly immersive and as unpredictable as the ocean itself. We are experiencing not only the labor of the fishermen, but the labor of the filmmakers themselves, from inside their experience as they and we are rocked to and fro, continually astonished at what, after more than a century, cinema can still do to us and for us. Welcome back to the sensorium, folks!