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Leviathan (2012)

The History Channel // Unrated // October 22, 2013
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted October 31, 2013 | E-mail the Author
Perhaps spurred on by the success of the hit Discovery Channel program "Deadliest Catch" (which makes an "appearance" here), Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel climbed on board a New England fishing boat to film Leviathan, a nearly wordless 90-minute documentary. Captured on GoPro cameras mounted on sticks, the movie has no traditional narrative, no interviews, no obvious structure -- it's a series of raw takes that directly captures the mood and tone of life working on one of these ships.

At this point, readers may guess, and guess correctly, that Leviathan will only appeal to a very specific type of viewer. (At the very least, prospective viewers should check out the trailer before committing.) Although the footage captured by Castaing-Taylor and Paravel is frequently stunning, free of traditional restriction of movement, and chock full of entirely unique angles of the fishing process, this is an exercise in patience for those who aren't interested in the film's specific aesthetic. From time to time, the sights and sounds of nature are all-encompassing in a way that justifies the heavy Bible quote that opens the picture, but more often than not, there's literally nothing going on in the film -- which is, of course, part of what the directors want the viewer to experience.

A peek at the filmmakers' resumes sheds some light on the film's unique style. Both work in Harvard University's Sensory Ethnography Lab, which is advertised on Harvard's website as supporting "innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography that deploy original media practices to explore the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human and animal existence." The goal of Leviathan (and the Castaing-Taylor's previous film, Sweetgrass, a documentary about sheep farming) is to immerse the viewer so fully into the environment the film is attempting to capture as to lose the barrier between film and reality. This is the truth, as thrilling -- or as banal -- as the real world will allow.

Personally, Leviathan's discoveries tend far more toward the banal than thrilling. Late in the film, the viewer is treated to ten minutes of one of the ship's crew sitting in the galley, watching a television we can't see. As an episode of "Deadliest Catch" plays, he actually dozes off in front of the viewer. Other visuals seem to have a pointed message, whether the directors intend them to or not; at one point, the camera focuses on an empty beer can among the haul, twitching in the wind. The brutality of commercial fishing is depicted without comment, showing the fishermen hacking the fins off manta rays and gutting fish that appear to still be twitching. Later, the camera sits on the deck, observing fish heads sliding back and forth, while a bird struggles to climb over a barrier to get at some free food.

There is certainly an audience for Leviathan. The style may not be in tune with my sensibilities, but there's no doubting that it's a strong and specific style. In several of the film's more evocative shots, a flock of seagulls hovers over the water, picking at some of the disposed fish guts thrown overboard. It's a beautiful sight, but it would be just as beautiful to me if it were surrounded by ten minutes of the best material from Leviathan as it is surrounded by 70 minutes of tedium.

The Blu-Ray
Leviathan's poster and Blu-Ray artwork feature a dark shot of birds flying in front of gray skies, suggesting a horror movie rather than a documentary about fishing. Of course, that's probably what Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have in mind, so I guess it's fitting. The disc comes in a standard non-eco Blu-Ray case, and there is a booklet featuring an essay by French critic Cyril Neyrat.

The Video and Audio
Leviathan's 1.78:1 1080p AVC picture and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound are both impossible to judge by conventional standards. The film was shot on GoPro HD cameras encased in waterproof shells, which means the picture is inherently blocky, with all sorts of issues like bleeding color and a total lack of fine detail, not to mention some of the heaviest black crush I've ever seen. Voices and sounds are generally muffled and sound distant unless the camera is being physically subjected to something, like the rushing waves of the ocean. Of course, these are not actual defects with the Blu-Ray's presentation but part of the whole experience, especially the HD sound. No subtitles or captions are provided, and none are necessary for this essentially dialogue-free film.

The Extras
Given the reasons I disliked the film, the sole extra here is almost like a cruel joke. "Still Life / Nature Morte" (28:59, HD) is nearly a half an hour of footage of crew members in the break room watching television. Considering the movie already includes about 10 minutes of this material, shot from the exact same angle, featuring the exact same crew member, I doubt even the biggest champion of Leviathan will enjoy watching this piece.

Trailers for Neighboring Sounds, The Turin Horse, Our Beloved Month of August, Sweetgrass: The Last Ride of the American Cowboy, Museum Hours, and Night Across the Street are also included, as is an original theatrical trailer for Leviathan.

For some, Leviathan will be an overwhelming sensory experience, a thing of beauty that gives the viewer an honest peek into a brutal and uncompromising profession. For others, it will be 90 minutes of punishing boredom. Rent it.

Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.
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