Brian Jannelle, Adrian Guillette, Arthur Smith, Asterias Vulgaris
US theatrical: 1 Mar 2013 (Limited release)
Water. There’s lots of it in Leviathan. Set on board a groundfish trawler out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the documentary shows water in myriad modes, water rough and roaring, sloshing and crashing, relentless. Water here is dark and ever in motion. Water slips onto the deck, slams into raincoated human figures, sprays from shipboard showerheads, bears fish. It fills the frame, so that no horizon line is even imaginable.
You see water from long distances, stretching across the screen into a disappearing horizon. You see water up close, splashing onto the camera lens, distorting your sight. Or, maybe not distorting so much as refining and reframing. For this is a film that offers a range of perspectives even within a single shot, presenting the sea as simultaneously gorgeous and daunting, thrilling and mundane.
That Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s film does all this while granting precious little conventional access to the men who fish the sea and work with the wind is remarkable in its own way. You see men in fishing gear, certainly, in boots and coats and rubber pants, you see their tattoos, their muscled arms handling nets, dumping fish from nets into pens and buckets, slicing fish bodies so their bright red blood combines with the sea water, so that all of it turns shades of red.
You see faces too, bearded and weathered. The boat’s captain, identified as Brian Jannelle, identified only in the closing credits, appears a few times. In this, he becomes familiar, at least compared to the other men, who may glance into the camera once, or pass by with hooded head bent over his work. But even as Jannelle looms over the boat’s wheel in one shot, or gazes at an off-screen TV in another (as an infomercial’s voiceover describes the risks of indigestion and “constipation that comes and goes”), he remains as unknowable and as awesome as any other living being in the film. Like the seagull you watch clamber and scrape inside a rocking bucket, urgently seeking fish flesh to pick at, and like the fish who flop and splat on deck, the men on board are in motion, brutal and inexorable.
And so Leviathan illustrates—or alludes to—its title, in images too large and too close for you to fathom wholly. Filmed over months, with the help of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, the film documents experiences, but rather than pulling narrative from them, allows them to linger on screen as such, translated to two dimensions, but not reduced, exactly. For the film also tells a story about what films do (or can do), how they mold beginnings and ends, how they offer cause and event, how they invite viewers to share, or maybe just to invest. Here, again and again, the waves are loud and huge, so the boat seems boat small in comparison; some tight frames might reveal blood drips on a bird’s beak, some profoundly long shots can’t even try to encompass a moment, but let it recede and fall away, wavelike and also, like wavelike: films mimic and interpret, films guess. And so you see, sometimes, a sea that’s dark and huge and roiling, so extended beyond the frame that you have to guess what’s out there.
The size of images in Leviathan is another question, how a fish head, cut off and rolling loose on a deck, might loom as a gargantuan image, gills seeming to move, still, might be as mesmerizing on this wide screen as a shot of the deck from overhead, where the men and masts look small. Laying these distinctions alongside one another so they might be compared and also fall into one another. In the process, or in processing, you might also think about how you come to your conceptions of the sea, of fishing, or devastatingly hard work. What do you know of water at this scale, save for images like these, but never quite like these? The film offers industry, broadly defined, in the form of machines that grind and sheer numbers of fish that are caught and cut up. And it offers detail, the effect of the wind on a turned cheek or flapping pants, the sound of the wind that never ends, and the different sound of underwater, glugging, muffled, pressured, the sound here made both familiar and utterly unknown. Above water, life on the boat is harsh, the days and nights continuous, the thundering and soaring concurrent. The film is also respectful, suggesting more than confirming, leading you to imagine more than assuring your understanding. And in this, Leviathan may be most like the boat you’re seeing, the boat that rides atop crests and careens through water, that pitches in wind and carries men, men with cigarettes and thick gloves and also lives you’ll never know.
Noisy, resilient, and also utterly unshaped, the water that fills the film is introduced with an epigraph from Job 41, evoking the poetry and also the fineness of creation, as well as the work:
He maketh the deep to boil like a pot; he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment.
He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary.
Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.
Leviathan goes on to ponder these words in images. You might wonder who makes and who is made. Or how any making at all persists, in the face of destruction, in the wake of commerce. The deep inspires fear, even as it does more making.