The documentary film Leviathan, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel (Arrête ton cinéma, 2012, 87 min.), begins in cacophonous blackness, metallic yawps charging a darkened screen. Slowly, colors and shapes swim into view: yellow rain gear; a stretch of orange chain; finally, arabesques of green foam churning in the ocean’s black. A chain drags a steel plate out of the swell—an otter board, a plane that holds open a trawl net under tow. Then, activity resolves out of the visual wrack: a man in rain gear leans over the sea, disentangling heavy chains while a gruff voice chants advice and a blue glove gestures demonstratively below.
In eighty-seven minutes of jarring, decentering cinema, Leviathan immerses viewers in the crashing sensorium of the New England fishery. Its action takes place on a stern-rigged trawler out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, dragging for scallops and “groundfish”—cod, hake, and pollock, the bottom-dwelling, schooling species that made Massachusetts a center of the American fishing industry in its heyday. But to describe Leviathan’s site and subject matter in such blandly expository terms is to miss what makes it unique—for the film offers no narration or diegetic information to ground the traces of commercial fishing in a normative interpretive framework. We never learn about the technical specifications of a stern-rigged trawler or see the lives of fishermen situated in the context of coastal New England. In Leviathan, a trawler is not a work-site to be explained or an environmental disaster to be decried, but a buzzing, blooming world emerging at the rheumy membrane where sea meets steel.
And it is a vision of constant, unmitigated brutality. A tide of mucus, seawater, and dead fish washes across the deck, rolling with the waves. Men stand over a plastic box streaming with gore, hacking wings off of skates with shocking efficiency; the wings go into the box, the torn bodies through the scuppers out to sea. Even the ship appears a weapon, its bow a [End Page 479] blunt blade sawing through the swell. Frequently the perspective spins, filling the screen with Leviathan’s leitmotif: flocking, crying gulls constellating the disordered sea. Leviathan practices a kind of sensory ethnography in which the site described belongs not solely to human beings but to the objects that comprise our world—and worlds of their own as well.
Filmmakers Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor present images of commercial fishing in a time when both marine life-forms and marine forms of life face threats on all sides. In 2013 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cut the Massachusetts groundfishing catch by 78 percent of the previous quota for cod, hake, flounder, and other species. In Leviathan, this precarity is explored not polemically or expositionally but materially. We’re told nothing about the community, the context, or the site Leviathan purports to document; the only framing clue comes from the title itself, which perhaps evokes the whaling heritage of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the trawler’s home port. Leviathan’s site is at once unmapped and precisely situated: these waves; these straining men, these fish, glittering and dying in the air. What is the eye that comprehends this brutal, abyssal world? To whom or what does it belong, with a point of view so recklessly other, so relentlessly estranged?
Leviathan owes its textures to the imaging technology that is a subject of the film as well: in particular, the compact, durable GoPro cameras used by skydivers and snowboarders to gather YouTube-ready footage of their adventures. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel attached these devices to fishermen and fishing gear, gathering in nets full of smeared, jittering imagery from a dizzying array of vantage points aboard ship and beyond. The camera travels to the top of the ship’s mast to survey crewmembers toiling on the narrow deck; it accompanies a weary fisherman into the cramped shower at the end of a long watch. Waterproof, the cameras even go down with trawl nets to surface the disorienting, bubble-laced greens and blacks...