leviathan has a really subtle point if i think really hard about it

Last year, the New York Times ran a profile of the filmmakers behind Leviathan, which I just saw on Monday. Here’s how the profile began:

Tucked within the syllabus for a class that the filmmaker and anthropologist Lucien Castaing-Taylor teaches at Harvard is a rhetorical question that sums up his view of nonfiction film: “If life is messy and unpredictable, and documentary is a reflection of life, should it not be digressive and open-ended too?”

Just so you know, I cannot in good conscience recommend Leviathan, as I was tempted to walk out of the theater due to boredom. That said, this aphorism from Castaing-Taylor does not even make the best case for the film, and of the reviews I’ve read, I haven’t seen anybody else do it, either.

Leviathan is composed of a series of long takes of seemingly random views from all around and on a large New England fishing vessel. Some of the shots are of seamen (none of whose words we can make out distinctly; there’s essentially no discernible dialogue), and some are of fish in various parts of the catching/chopping/disposal process, and some shots are of birds flying nearby (apparently, at times, from the perspective of a fish) and none of this coheres in any way into anything like a story. “Digressive” is probably the right word. This movie is literally moving pictures and almost nothing else.

This storyless, mostly sensory-centric aspect of the film is what appealed to Noel Murray, for example, who wrote an A- review of the film for the A.V. Club. “Leviathan is an immersive experience, plunging viewers into darkness and chaos, amid a rush of vivid color and rapid movement,” he writes. What did he like about it? “Leviathan’s texture is extraordinary.” A.O. Scott, writing for the NY Times, says the movie “aims to leave viewers feeling unmoored.” Yup, sounds about right.

So fine, the movie is about raw lived experience more than plot or narrative. But frankly, there’s a more complex reading of Leviathan that’s possible if you take into account two scenes in particular.

photo by fab4chiky under cc

A warning, however: What I’m about to describe sound like the most boring parts of this movie or really any movie. First, there’s a scene of a crew member showering. (Nothing tantalizing; it’s all torso. A section of this is in the trailer.) Later, and more importantly, there’s a single extended static shot showing the mess hall (or whatever they call it). Literally next to nothing is happening, except one of the fisherman is watching TV and trying not to just nod off right there. Judging from the TV sounds (we can’t see the screen), he’s watching Deadliest Catch or something like it, and we hear a couple of commercials, including one for some kind of anti-constipation medicine (IIRC).

Each of these shots lasts roughly the length of a full scene by the standards of regular movies, so they are more than passing notes, yet they have essentially no significance in and of themselves, much like the rest of the doc. They’re only important because they clash with the visceral-experience mode that most of the rest of the film is in. In contrast, they’re downright banal, and the scene in the dining area — the one that makes reference to the TV show that is a more commercial and conventional version of the documentary we’re watching — seems to have an ironic, self-reflective layer that is about as visceral as Andy Warhol. (To be clear, folks, I don’t think Warhol is visceral…at all.)

Maybe this is the ultimate in what Castaing-Taylor called “digressive and open-ended.” If you took the perfect cross-section of life, you would get a lot of incomprehensible junk, sure, but you’d also get a shower scene or two and even one moment that is replete with meaning, which I think the TV-watching scene qualifies as. The message of this movie, whatever Castaing-Taylor thinks the message is, seems to be that even in chaos you cannot escape bits and pieces of order and narrative.

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