The fish slide around the deck, mouths gaping, eyes about to pop. The POV dips from blurry water to above the surface, and every time we rise the screech of gulls hovering above the sea is more voluminous, a bigger shock. A thick, golden chain pierces the infinite darkness. Skates are elevated, their wings hacked off with a machete, their bodies discarded. Heaving nets give birth to a haul of sea life in an extended plop. Sea spray glistens against the night. A yellow light offsets the blue-black sky and highlights the chunky, red blood, and it's hard to recall a time when the primary color palette has seemed more menacing.
These are a few of the images in Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's horrific new documentary Leviathan, which focuses on life and especially death on a commercial fishing boat off the coast of New Bedford, Mass. Somewhere between the non-narrative documentary work of Frederick Wiseman, the artful experimentation of Stan Brakhage, and Deadliest Catch, the 87-minute Leviathan presents a borderline-abstract stream of imagery that is free of voiceover, narrative and emotionally manipulative musical cues.
Leviathan is meant to be felt, and what it feels like is a difficult movie about difficult work. It is appropriately chaotic, given its exploration of unpredictable, sea-based elements and it is infused with what feels like mundaneness from the perspective of an ADD-culture addict. It is not exactly enjoyable, but it's rarely less than admirable.
"People think most of the time that because it's not a film that's falling into the typical, conventional narrative genre that it would be more difficult to access, but on the contrary, we're trying to revive some emotional sensation that comes before it can even be turned into something more semiotic," Paravel told me a few weeks ago in the Midtown Manhattan office of the company that is distributing her film, Cinema Guild. "If people accept losing not only their bearings, if they accept being overwhelmed by feelings, it should be actually an imperative for film just to place you back into the experience, into the real."
Leviathan is not only about getting into the real, but turning away from the fake. Castaing-Taylor, who also heads Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, described to me the inherent media-critical nature of his work, whose body also includes the acclaimed 2009 sheep-herding portrait, Sweetgrass.
"I hate most documentaries," he said. "The moment I feel like I'm being told what to think about something, I feel that I want to resist the authority of the documentarian. We're more interested in making films that are more open-ended, that ask the spectators to make their own conclusions. We're always implicitly, if not explicitly, fighting against how bad documentary is. Documentary claims to have this privileged purchase on a truthful version of reality – it's not fiction, this is the real – but most documentaries' representation of the real is so attenuated and so discourse-based and language-based. We lie and we mystify ourselves with words. Words can only take us so far. I think we want to get to a much more embodied, a much more corporeal representation of reality that's almost a presentation of reality. Reality that transcends our representation, so it's not reducible to a set of statements of what commercial fishing's about."
The irreducible quality of Leviathan is enough to drive people crazy. So far, the reviews have been mostly positive, but the negative ones tend to hit the same beat: There is no point here.
"How many points are there?" wondered Castaing-Taylor, motioning to the body of right angles that framed the skyscrapers surrounding us. "What does it mean to reduce something to a point? The best fiction films are never reducible to a point. Nobody asks them to be. They transcend points. But with documentaries, it's like, ‘What is the point? What is it saying?'"
"In a way, it's actually very sad because people expect the authority of the filmmaker to give them something to think or something to feel," added Paravel. "The moment when you give them freedom, you give them power to feel and think and experience something, some people are lost."
To be fair, even the most open-minded viewer could get lost in Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's depths. Assembling footage from cameras strewn about the boat – in their hands, attached to fishermen, dropped in the middle of a haul, attached to rod bobbing in and out of the water – the sequences sometimes go on for what feel like indeterminable amounts of time. The film ends with about five minutes of white bubbles in the black ocean. I wondered if there was a greater sense of logic or if Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's shots go on as long as they do because of artistic intuition.
"Logic is superficial and the gut is deep," is how Castaing-Taylor explained it. "When [Paravel] films, she films from the gut. She doesn't trust her eyes and that's why there's this incredible sense of fear and loathing and uncanniness. It's much more profound if you can't always articulate what your intentions are rather than having a set of logical propositions about the proper way to film and the proper way to cut."
"Sometimes we had these very clear discussions about the structure and something more conceptual about how much do we give about the fisherman, how much do we give to all the elements that are part of this symphony of the sea," said Paravel. "These are more conceptual things, but obviously the moment when you know it's working is because it resonates with the experience you had [as a filmmaker]."
Within the gut-driven assembly of their chaos, Castaing-Taylor copped to one element of direct messaging within Leviathan: The exaggerated, almost comically gothic font on the poster that's also used in the film's credits.
"It could be the moment where we can be seen as editorializing or winking," he said. "The soundtrack of the film, the aesthetic of the film is a kind of goth, heavy metal kind of thing. This is the one way in which we're acknowledging that."
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel told me that playing to an imaginary audience is low on their priority list – "We make films not for ourselves, but we make films that work for ourselves," is how Castaing-Taylor put it – but at the same time, he says he does strive to make films that accurately represent their subjects. To that end, I wondered if the fisherman who populate the screen saw this vérité art-film rendering of their lives and what they thought.
"I think they feel this moment of self-recognition: ‘This is our world and you caught it. Will this be of interest to anybody else?'" Castaing-Taylor said. "They're very much a scapegoated, marginalized subculture. They feel criminalized and detested by environmentalists and the government, which is trying to regulate them out of any livelihood at all. They're always worried about any media portraits of them. They might ask, ‘What is the value of this?' It's not a political puff piece that will change the fishing commissions' quotas tomorrow. But I think they also feel it's an heirloom for their families. The captain said to me, ‘Can you hurry up and finish? I want to show this to my father before he dies.' A generation ago, back to the beginning of time, all the fisherman wanted was for their kids to go into fishing. Now they just want to get the kids out. They know there's nothing left. It kills your body and there's no money in it. So this is some record of the end of the line for posterity."
Now there's a good, tangible point. It's but one in a sea of them.