MasterChugs Theater: ‘Leviathan’

Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s enthralling documentary about a New Bedford-based fish trawler in the North Atlantic opens with a quote from the book of Job. “Upon earth there is not his like,” it reads in part, referring to the dreaded deep sea creature Leviathan, “who is made without fear.”

It, like the film, isn’t meant to be informative in any conventional sense: There are no voiceovers, interviews, or even onscreen titles, beyond the aforementioned citation from Job at the start of the film. Instead, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have mounted cameras around a ship, and on the helmets of some of the crew, all to show the process of catching, sorting, and gutting fish as a noisy, roiling chore, involving speed, muck, and hard physical labor.

Immersive is a fantastic way to describe the movie in a nutshell. Coincidentally, fantastic is another way.

Leviathan concerns a system whose very functionality seems incomprehensible: a commercial fishing operation so wholly in thrall to the churning agitations of its environment that nature itself not only has the power, but the will to topple it. Fish aren’t so much heaved from the sea as they are wrenched from it, jerked with the force of market pressure, the fishermen at work a hulking mass of bodies made as much a fixture of the system as the machinery roaring around them. The ship looks vaguely alien, like an earthbound Nostromo adrift in the deep space of the North Atlantic, the New Bedford coast a veritable new world. Remarkably, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, working under the aegis of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, have managed to present this essentially unknowable system to us from within its own borders, so that the perspective adopted belongs to it, as though viewed from a cog rather than from an observer of the machine. In other words, Leviathan devises a ruthlessly efficient and invisibly controlled system of its own, one seemingly governed by the chaos of life aboard this ship. It becomes a thundering, alien machine.

The approach is radical and crucially modern, only possible now: Castaing-Taylor and Paravel took dozens of miniature GoPro cameras and fixed them in and around every available crevice, mast, deck, or fisherman’s helmet, the footage then compiled and composed with the rhythm of a city symphony at sea. The film thus exists within impossible spaces: cameras plunge into the drink, careen wildly, skid and glide like refuse, launch well into the air. It becomes so that you can no longer even ask yourself how such and such shot or effect was achieved; its impossibility is central to the disorienting effect, to the sense that you’re seeing the world as nobody does, and there’s magic in not knowing. And because the inherent threat of losing cameras to the abyss, of images caught but drowned forever, looms larger every moment, one feels as though there are real stakes.

There’s also real fear: As a visceral experience, this film is overwhelming, its images as shocking as they are precarious. A shot which begins on the side of the boat, observing torrents of blood and guts gush without end into the water below, is overtaken suddenly by waves, by deathly cold water rushing over the lens. Once the camera is fully submerged, the sea becomes a blur of color and noise like something out of Brakhage, until we are lifted, slowly, back to the surface, where an army of seagulls bears down on us hungrily.

Yet even when the action is confusing, Leviathan’s texture is extraordinary, as fluorescent lights play across wet rubber coats and gloves, while pinkish entrails slosh about. Throughout, the natural and the mechanical battle spectacularly.

Not everything in the movie is a knockout. The absence of any larger context might lead viewers to make presumptions about what Castaing-Taylor and Paravel are saying about the commercial fishing industry, with their long takes of rough-looking men hacking animals to pieces. But the “you are there” approach means Leviathan is filled with askew images unlike any other. It’s difficult to describe the eerie beauty of flocking seabirds photographed from below, or the surreal effect of the shot of an opening in the side of the ship, where discarded fish parts slop out, as though the boat itself were retching.

And yet, it’s this oxymoronic existence that causes it to live … and enthrall.