a film by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel
The first impression upon encountering the visual and auditory splendor of Leviathan is of something radically new. After its initial screening in Locarno, many in the press said they had never seen anything like it before. Which is true, but also deceptive: a film like this rises up from the depths of cinema history, surfacing at the intersection of two traditions. Its greatness is due precisely to that rare achievement of coming to terms with a legacy through the most innovative of experiments. At its surface, Leviathan stuns us with the power of the totally unprecedented, but it moves us with the feeling of something familiar coming up from the depths of time.
First tradition: the history of cinema as the conquest of the perceptible tied to an adventure in visibility. In 1895, the first spectators of Le Déjeuner de bébé were not moved by the sketch of daily bourgeois life in the Lumière family so much as the quiet rustle of vegetation in the background: inside the image, living nature. As early as the 1930s, Griffith famously said that he was sorry that films no longer made you feel the wind in the trees. In the 1920s, the conquest of the perceptible by the French avant-garde privileged the aqueous elements, the stuff of heroic experimentation with cinematic fluidity. The films of Epstein, Renoir, and Grémillon flow like tragic rivers, roaring and swirling like the tempestuous waters of Finistère. Leviathan proceeds from this history, this tradition, reviving it through the new conditions of visibility enabled by digital recording. Think of it as Morutiers, Jean-Daniel Pollet's documentary about the Terres-Neuvas of Fécamp, multiplied by West of the Tracks.
Wang Bing's epic evokes another tradition: that of the ambiguous partnership between the history of cinema and the industrial, working-class twentieth century. Before he immortalized his nephew's breakfast, Louis Lumière recorded working people coming out of the family factory in the first film ever made. Cinema by turns sang the praises of industry, criticized the alienation and exploitation of laborers, and bore witness to the crises of the working class. Very early on, it also recorded industry's decline and inevitable demise. Watching Leviathan, one thinks of another film by Pollet: the poignant Pour mémoire, a documentary essay on the words and gestures of workers in the last days of an old foundry in Perche. In the year 2000, a broke young Chinese man without a producer borrowed money from his student friends to buy mini-DV tapes and spent months alone with the workers of a huge industrial complex, chronicling the closing of the factory and the death throes of a world. Balancing between two centuries, West of the Tracks inaugurated cinema's new anachronism: tomorrow's technology erecting the funerary monument to yesterday's world. Magnifying the rust and steam, the duration and textures of digital video paid the last tribute to the twentieth century of industry and labor. Leviathan takes its place in a similar vein of fantasy inhabiting memory. One of its directors' primary motivations was to represent an activity threatened by economic development. One of cinema's oldest virtues: part of the world is going to disappear, images of it must be preserved.
Leviathan prolongs the tribute by intensifying the anachronism. Whereas Wang Bing put his DV camera on a tripod and composed his shots like his illustrious documentary forebears, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel put their cameras on the ship's slippery deck, attached them to the top of the masts, the sailors' bodies, and the ends of long poles. They surrender control of the frame to the random movements of man and the elements. A decisive gesture, without which Leviathan could have descended into technological exhibitionism. But this is far from the case, and rather than the aestheticized and arrogant tour de force we might have feared, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have composed a dignified, humble, and vibrant elegiac symphony for the Old World. They achieve this by using the latest technology not to increase their mastery of the visible and establish their panoptic control of the world, but to seize the opportunity it offers to share this mastery with the world itself, and share the perceptible democratically with the workers themselves (Jacques Rancière). Leviathan's aesthetic drama is born of this dialectic between conquest and the surrender of control, the gain and loss in visibility, this constantly revived tension between exploit and failure, capturing and letting go. Rarely has a film thus settled in the flesh of the heart of the world, of the perceptible, to upset the conditions of visibility. The world of nocturnal fishing on the high seas secretes its own visual and auditory matter, which the filmmakers collect and organize in an unclassifiable symphonic poem, somewhere between highbrow musique concrète and a hardcore punk outburst for the masses. While Leviathan is a monument to the twentieth century, it is not built of marble, but of the very stuff the world is made of.
"Old World": one could easily retort that the "Old World" is far from gone and that the era in question is ours. But that is exactly the anthropological and political lesson delivered by Leviathan: that the twentieth century survives into the twenty-first century and that yesterday's heroes are also today's, though the dominant imagery relegates them to the margins of the visible world. That suffering continues to be endured and that workers are still exploited at the risk of their lives, not only in the factories of Apple's subcontractors in Asia, but on rusty boats trawling for fish and crustaceans off Melville and Ahab's New England coastlines.
From Döblin to Fassbinder, from Eisenstein to Franju, the slaughterhouse was one of the aesthetic and political topoi of the twentieth century, as well as one of its most powerful metaphors, both before and after World War II. A metaphor for the factory, the capitalist exploitation and butchery of the Great War, then of the industrial extermination of a part of humanity. An heir to Le sang des bêtes, Leviathan repeats its double lesson.
On the one hand, the metaphor has lost none of its power, for industrial death has never stopped affecting dehumanized man and anthropomorphized beast. Leviathan's credits randomly mix the names of human and marine animals-producers and products, victims and executioners. The film pays specific attention to waste, to what falls to the floor before being taken back by the sea, fish heads or beer cans sliding on deck.
On the other hand, despite today's great audiovisual porridge and the normalization of spectacular atrocity, cinema can still become a shield of Perseus, as Siegfried Kracauer wrote about Franju's film and the images recorded when the Nazi camps were liberated: a technical detour to face the unbearable, to look petrifying horror in the face and thus overcome it. This is the need met by the sophisticated technical device conceived by the filmmakers: to domesticate the monster, to hold a broken, composed mirror to the Leviathan's formless face.
Leviathan, "the only appropriate title," according to Véréna Paravel. A title and a name as old as the world, condensing western history. First, Leviathan is a sea monster of undefined shape referred to in the Bible (Isaiah, Psalms, Book of Job). A metaphor for a cataclysm, a catastrophe that turns the world order upside down, it is represented in the Middle Ages as the gate of hell, a gaping mouth that swallows souls. In modern times, the term takes on a political connotation. It is the title of Thomas Hobbes' great political treatise, the introduction of which is quoted by Melville at the beginning of Moby Dick: "By Art is created that great Leviathan called a Common-wealth, or State, (in Latin, Civitas) which is but an Artificial Man." Hobbes's metaphor soon became a literary commonplace. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo describes the Paris sewers as "Leviathan's intestine." The film merges these various eras and meanings, the political and the mythological-religious, into a unique experience: an essay on modern capitalism crushing workers and threatening their livelihood, a voyage to the ends of the world, into the hell of archaic fears. The montage of sound and image produces a fluid and continuous matter, converting the fishing expedition at the ocean's surface into a blind plunge into the beast. The editing constantly attacks the border between life and death, the organic and the machinic. The killing of animals (can you see life extinguished in the eye of a fish?); the transformation of the off-screen sound of chains into cries of pain. The visual and sound magma eventually embodies Hugo's metaphor: one travels through this film as through the guts of a monster, bright wet flesh of innards and the rumbling of digestive noises.
The directors simultaneously play with boundaries, limits, and their abolition. Spatial boundaries, limits between the elements: between water and air, surface and the deep. At times the camera-which we perceive is attached to the end of a pole-constantly plunges and reemerges with the movement of the sea: once thrown off the boat and underwater, the waste from the day's catch becomes pictorial matter, composing abstract tableaux, red and white trails streaking the darkness. Sometimes space loses its grip, the sky and the sea trade places. In these infernal visions of a world turned upside down, seagulls fly on their back.
Some will say: aestheticizing pain, immoral search for beauty on the backs of laborers etc. It's always the same people: puritanical guardians of the documentary temple, fundamentalist priests of the religion of the real who disguise their more or less conscious hatred of art with an immaculate political virtue. Before thinking better of it, they cried foul at the sight of Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room: "Rembrandt among the poor, how horrible…" But we've known since at least Pierrot le fou that blood is also red. Unlike the Pontius Pilates of today, the makers of Leviathan do not wash their hands of this paint. On the contrary, they have constructed their film in the heart of this ambivalence, which is no less than the modern avatar of the immemorial drama of beauty and death. They have edited it in such a way to avoid any cosmetic drift and to never seal the flesh of the perceptible in a tableau offered only for aesthetic delectation. The concretions of fish piled in the nets initially appear to be strange sculptures brought back from the depths of time. When the net is loosened, the form comes apart in a viscous swarm of animals promised to the knife. If the filmmakers delay the sight of a human face, it is to reestablish its power of appearance, a tragic counterpoint to the dehumanization of industrial death and its mechanized gestures. When toward its end the film leaves man to follow birds, it does not escape far from the terrible drama, but lets it resonate in the emptiness and silence of a frighteningly indifferent and infinite space-time.
According to Adorno, the essay is a heretical form in that it aims to reunite what western doxa has always separated: science and poetry. Lucien Castaing-Taylor is the director of Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, Véréna Paravel is an anthropologist. Sailing on a small fishing boat for an ordinary fishing expedition, they came back with the most literally extraordinary audiovisual poem we've seen in…ages. Ethnographic investigation, technical innovation, formal research, cosmic poem, contemporary adventure ballasted by a vast cinematic, literary, and mythological heritage: combining these heterogeneous aspects in a perceptible experience, Leviathan packs the punch of the essay film.
The essay is intrinsically and indisputably subjective. Any essay expresses the experience of a subject engaged in the world. Who is Leviathan's subject? To say "the filmmakers" would be to overlook the singularity of their gesture, which consists in sharing their authority with the movement and matter of the world in which they are engaged. Let us return to the film's first words, the epigraph from the Book of Job that appears before the first streaks of color disturb the darkness. "He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment. He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary." That says it all: the Leviathan is a monster and a poet, a monstrous artist, an alchemist of horror and beauty, of darkness and light. This film is his self-portrait.