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If you could go back in time, to the dawn of television, and tell those who were about to enjoy the brand new medium that, one day, people would stare in entertained awe as men manned massive trawlers in order to bring in the seasonal haul of fish, crab, lobster, et. al., one imagines a blank stare, followed almost immediately by a shriek in recognition of how horrifying this superficial future must be. All kidding aside, the fact that Deadliest Catch has been one of Discovery Channel's most popular programs, highlighting the hardships of those who make the sea their workplace and the dangerous job of harvesting same their struggle, is indeed a head-scratcher. Sure, the series (now in its ninth season) illustrates how difficult it is for modern fisherman, but the attempt to paste some kind of narrative on the otherwise nasty occupation has always smacked of forced sensationalism. For a documentary with a similar theme like Leviathan, there is no such storyline. Instead, using micro-cameras and the natural drama of life on the waters off the coast of New England, this almost dialogue free experiment in expression puts us right in the middle of the maelstrom (sometimes, literally) as man battles nature - and visa versa - for commercial dominance.
The premise is impossibly simple - get a bunch of GoPro cameras, place them surreptitiously on a ship (and its crew) bound for the shoals off New Bedford, Massachusetts, and watch as the high tech tenets of a decidedly low tech trade clash head on with everything and anything that can go wrong while out at sea. We get storms and surprises, the machine like efficiency of commercial fishing cast alongside the legends painted by such writers as Melville and London. Because of the nature of the recording, and the quality of the images, there is a weird disconnect from reality and the realism forced on the filmmakers. The ocean is portrayed as inky and ominous, diabolical without any of the endearing qualities that make men long for a voyage. Similarly, the workers are all defeated cogs in a chaotic fray, doing their diligent best to avoid death while making sure the latest catch is prepped and packed down for the journey to your local grocer. This isn't The Cove, where we witness the wholesale slaughter of dolphins for no damn good reason, or some activist-oriented agenda piece. Instead, Leviathan wants to cast you into the belly of the aquatic beast, making your next order of seared sea bass or cracked crab that much more thought provoking.
Those looking for a plot to follow will find themselves lost in directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's cinema verite leanings. They present this material with as little commentary as possible, leaving it up to the viewer to infer heroics where none might exist, horrors where the everyday challenge of feeding a nation is far more terrifying. There is also a shaky-cam quality to everything which may send certain viewers off to the "head" to give back a bit of their movie time popcorn. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of Leviathan is how foreign it feels. Even for someone whose seen more than a couple episodes of Deadliest Catch, the frenetic pace and problematic aspects of commercial fishing don't really have the effect that they do here. Perhaps it's because we don't have a narrator walking us through what has happened. Instead, we perceive things as a stowaway would - sudden, without sufficient context, and bombarded with visual and aural overload. That's the pageantry in such an approach. There is a definite "you are there" feeling to what is going on. A little more information would be helpful, but not mandatory. Thanks to the unusual way they present their observations, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel immerse us into a situation that's both scary and satisfying. You may not want to be part of this Leviathan, but once on board, it's hard not to appreciate the experience.
Though it's offered in a decent 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, Leviathan suffers from the limited technology upon which it was captured. Sure, the GoPro cameras offer a certain aesthetic charm, but they don't deliver the clearest or crispest image (especially on the non-HD digital format). The colors are muted and overly dark and the entire film has a haphazard feel that is the direct byproduct of using what amounts to less than complicated surveillance equipment. On the plus side, these size and dexterity provide images we wouldn't normally see via standard camerawork. Sonically, we are treated to a carefully created cacophony filtered through a nice Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Like the movie itself, the soundtrack is immersive and ambient. As for added content, we are treated to a dull "short" film comprised of two crew members, watching TV, and talking unintelligibly. Nothing much to it. We also get a Leviathan trailer and a essay from critic Cyril Neyrat. Nothing great, but decent nonetheless.
Leviathan is the kind of film that may put you off that holiday seafood cocktail or party crab dip. It could radically alter your perspective about how "the catch of the day" arrived on your plate while illustrating the rollercoaster career ride most commercial fishermen endure. Earning a halting Highly Recommended rating, it's a terrific piece of performance art, though some may wonder if all the flash is covering up for a true lack of content. Of course, if Discovery can milk nine seasons out of a show where people net the ocean's bounty for cash, Leviathan can offer up 90 minutes of less specific highlights. Thanks to technology, we can now venture into this particularly difficult occupation and experience it for ourselves. It's not always the most entertaining or enlightening of time, however.
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