“Writing is to language as taxidermy is to a duck.”
– Tim Terhaar
“DARK DARK DARK DARK FISH FISH FISH BLOOD BLOOD WATER FISH STARFISH WATER WATER WATER FISH BLOOD TATTOO FISH BLOOD WATER CIGARETTE MAUVE TEAK FLESH METAL WATER BLOOD BLOOD FISH SEAGULL WATER DEATH DEATH DEATH FLESH DARK”
It’s both simple and accurate to describe Leviathan, the new film from the directors of the meditative sheepherder documentary Sweetgrass, as a series of technical innovations and fulfilled theoretical goals. It’s 12 tiny GoPro cameras thrown into the bowels of a fishing vessel off the coast of Massachusetts, their reins handed over to varying combinations of fisherman, cameramen, chum buckets, rain, wind, rain, wind. It’s shitty, peaked-out audio taken from these tiny cameras and blown up into a ludicrously detailed 5.1 surround sound mix. It’s many, many images of death. It’s the coterie of the sea creatures dutifully listed by their Latin names and thanked one by one in the credits, most summarily executed. It’s another entry in the reemergent and burgeoning trend of documentaries without dialogue or narration. It’s a “sensory ethnography,” the directors proclaim, and they’re spot-on. It is exactly what it purports to be.
Leviathan is the cinema of immediacy. Images hit the screen with the force of bricks, albeit sometimes bricks emerging from impenetrable darkness, often gut-wrenching and occasionally shockingly beautiful. The film is an evocation of place through crystalline fragments, except that the word “evocation” is absurd for something so direct, bypassing metaphor and allusion and proceeding directly to the raw power of images: the camera sliding around untethered on a metal floor slick with blood, bumping into fish heads and receding, a large man’s tattooed shoulder moving in and out of focus, too close to the GoPro camera’s miniature wide angle lens, a repeated motion moving from a sea full of blood to a sky full of birds, in and out, the shot achieving a strange complacence in its methodical passage from gore to the sublime and back and back and back.
Forgoing narrative for oppressive immersion, the furtive and uncertain progress of cameras provides what drama there is; in the absence of character and narrative, Leviathan places its full weight on the raw power of images and their unfolding, building to an overpowering sense of place and mechanics. It’s not that we’re wondering what “happens” next: we’re anxious about what will appear. A documentary in the strictest sense, Leviathan’s single-minded focus on the power of its tiny digital cameras to record existence (and their inability to do much else) brings the practical, moment-to-moment functioning of biology and technology to the foreground, leaving little else.
There’s real terror here (what is going to die next?) but also expectation of the sort one finds in masochistic situations. The film’s fleeting moments of aesthetic beauty cannot be discounted, rising out of filth with astonishing clarity, and subsumed again by endless waves of marine blood, mirrored by the roiling intensity of the surround mix. It’s fitting that the film takes its graphic design cues from black metal, and it’s probably no coincidence that it’s the genre of choice on the crew’s radio. Leviathan’s simultaneous infatuation with the visceral and the coldly theatrical matches the precision and grandiosity of its singularly affective vision. Perhaps one of the bluntest films ever made, its images convey a gut-level reaction and little more. Theory exits the picture, ethics exit the picture, and the digital recordings, in their methodical or shuddering progression, remain.