The Grotesque and Lonely World of Leviathan

Every week or so, Sook-Yin Lee and Adam Litovitz have a movie date. Then they talk about the movie. Discussed this week: Leviathan (2012) by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, a documentary about the commercial fishing industry in the North Atlantic.

SOOK-YIN: I didn’t know much about this movie going into it. I knew it had to do with fishing, which sounds about as dull as shopping for a fridge. Boy was I ever wrong. At the theatre an usher greeted us with a warning, saying that some audience members may be sensitive to the hand-held footage. When the movie begins, you’re staring into a swirling ocean abyss, wondering what the hell is down there. There’s the muffled voice of a guy screaming orders at another guy struggling to unwind an enormous chain, and if he can’t, it’s going to be bad.

ADAM: It’s almost like the boat is giving birth to us. We slowly see things take focus, and there are hints of primary colours: a red suit and blue gloves against the backdrop of hazy green water. The name Leviathan evokes both the biblical monster and Moby-Dick, another work in which a vessel encapsulated society (or the human body). There’s also Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and thesense of political fervor conjured up as we witness and question such large-scale ventures. There’s even an ’80s sci-fi movie about it.

SOOK-YIN: And now Leviathan is a very unusual documentary. At first, it struck me as more of an experimental film, but then it became clear that it was an incredible slice of reality about a world to which I’ve never been exposed.

ADAM: It manages to merge the organic and mechanical in ways I haven’t seen before. You’re being sloshed about in a tray full of puffy fish. The netting and chains look like umbilical cords or alien tentacles or freshly ground beef. This world we should be familiar with looks very alien. There’s a foreignness to the behaviour of these workers that we can’t quite understand. For the first part of the film we only see parts of bodies, shot with many different styles of moving-camera photography, but halfway through we start focusing on the faces of the actual workers, with a few static shots appearing to finally give some grounding.

SOOK-YIN: The beginning is perplexing. Once you solve the first puzzle, you’re introduced to the crew on this industrial fishing vessel who battle an indomitable ocean while netting mass quantities of fish and shellfish for the commercial market. The structure is designed to make it as gripping as possible. Leviathan is unique in that it’s an experiential movie that causes a bodily reaction. It made me terrified, afraid for everyone. I felt soggy and seasick. I got to take a shower with a big burly fisherman from the point of view of a soap dish. These brawny manly men are work-oxen, blubbery as whales, who could crack your skull like a peanut, but who have met their match in a powerful ocean. There is so much tension among the crew. Everyone chain-smokes; it’s almost nurturing the way they feed one another cigarettes, performing their ghastly and dangerous duty. Everything is barely okay. It’s on a razor’s edge.

ADAM: It was like dub techno, meditation music, and heavy metal finally found their ideal visuals. It really straddled a spectrum of audio excitements and entrancements.

What would it have been like if the filmmakers chose a much more banal, less visceral workplace environment to throw all these GoPro cameras at? Let’s say it was this office [Sook-Yin’s windowless room at the CBC, spartan in appointment]. What would that feel like?

SOOK-YIN: When I left the theatre, I had been Leviathan-ized. My view of the world became like fifty GoPro cameras. This movie changes your perspective. I was walking down the street and everything was in Leviathan-vision, security guards waiting behind locked glass doors. I was seeing them from different angles and hearing things more acutely than usual. It lasted for the rest of the evening. Anything could be shot in that way and it would be fascinating. Take a seemingly mundane moment, throw fifty GoPros at it, crank the volume, and it’ll be revealed as something altogether different.

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