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: Even though the camera is so liberated and seems to move fluidly within the body of the vessel, there’s such a sense of confinement when you watch these people who are forced to do these repetitive gestures. They can’t even control when they’re asleep or awake. We watch one of them nod off in the staff lounge while watching a TV commercial about Colon Flow medication. They’re trapped in this world, but there’s such liberation to the camera as it flows between animal and human kingdoms. That’s possibly why birds, rather than fish, have become the emblem of the film, and populate its posters. You would think a seagull was free, but it has its own Icarus-like constant proximity to danger. At the end of the movie, there’s a shot of crisp, white, tiny firefly-like birds flying in the upper-right corner of the frame in a sea of darkness. They’re absolutely lost, but there’s a beauty to the way in which they can make pinpoint illuminations in our, by now, extremely widened vision.

SOOK-YIN: It’s about ecosystems and the discomfiting relationship between all these species. The unease between humans and animals is a recurring motif in the work of the director, Lucien Castain-Taylor. After a while, the seagulls, the fish being gutted, and the fishermen all struck me as animals. The font used in the title and credits throughout the movie is heavy-metal and Germanic. While the captain steers the ship and listens to hard rock, the camera closes in on the dark wrinkled folds of flesh around his black marble eyes, peering out as if they belonged to a dying fish writhing on deck in two inches of water. It made me wonder about their crazy undertaking. How much money do they make? Why do they work such a stressful job? When do they have sex, and what other kinds of urges do they have? Just as I was thinking this, the camera panned over to a huge tattoo of a naked mermaid on the massive bicep of a guy shucking oysters. His movements made it look as if she were undulating. And yet there are no women onboard, only men. They are like strangely pious priests or a band of soldiers waging a war that is their livelihood.

ADAM: And sexuality, as you’re saying—the sea and sea vessels have constantly taken on feminine properties throughout history. You’re right that the men are reminiscent of metal-heads or skinheads. There’s a kind of brotherhood to them…

SOOK-YIN: It’s a devotional sacrifice to be at sea.

ADAM: They’ve chosen this lifestyle and inked the markings of that love onto their arms. At the end, there’s a list of all their crazy nicknames, showing that they’ve become what they do. It’s no surprise that some faces look like catfish.

SOOK-YIN: Not only is it a list of their nicknames, but a litany of shipwrecks—industrial trawlers like this one—that have gone down. Leviathan didn’t seem like a criticism of the fishing industry, but an acknowledgement of the dangers and difficulty of the work. Some people will have a hard time with this film. It’s very graphic. You see fish getting their heads chopped off and blood gushing from portholes. It’s an unflinching look at an industry that delivers what appears on our dinner tables. It forced me to reevaluate my diet choices. When I went to the fish market afterwards to buy tuna, I thought about this documentary, and it changed the meal for me.

ADAM: I ran into a friend of ours who had seen the movie and cried quite a bit during it, empathizing with the fish. It provokes those emotions by giving us such an interactive experience with their gore.

SOOK-YIN: There is an undeniable horror seeing so many living creatures go to slaughter. It’s not only the plight of the fish, but the plight of the men, both of which are very moving.

ADAM: And the treatment doesn’t involve squared-off blocking and neutral angles. It’s multi-perspectival.

SOOK-YIN: You actually feel like one of the fish. The cameras are being flung from the air into the water. You are a fish caught in the net and you are dying.

The sound design, too, was astonishing: the winding of that mechanical chain, with men screaming in absolute fright because they could go overboard—the magnitude of all that ramped-up tension was captured in sound.

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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