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Leviathan | Blu-ray Review

Leviathan Verena Paravel Lucien Castaing-Taylor Blu-rayThis year’s quintessential art doc, Leviathan is the latest feature from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, the duo behind Sweetgrass and the driving force behind Harvard’s experimental Sensory Ethnography Lab. With a myriad of weather-proof digital cameras strapped to a North American trolling ship, the film documents the grotesque nature of commercial fishing with the grainy high-contrast visuals of a shipwrecked acrobat. We slosh about the deck bathed in the blood of countless sea creatures and watch weathered men be pelted by an ever present downpour as hungry gulls flutter against a black sky hoping to score a scrap of remains. This is Deadliest Catch without the embellishments of competition, personality or theme music – a purely guttural experience to be had.

Never before has the objective of the Sensory Ethnography Lab been brought to life with such direct and brutal eloquence as within. Certainly documenting the hard-knock lives of seafarers has been done time and time again, mostly through traditional narrative discourse and character driven plotting, but Castaing-Taylor and Paravel are not interested in pandering to normative expectations. The lab’s website states that it “encourage(s) attention to the many dimensions of life and the world that may only with difficulty be rendered with words alone.” Simultaneously grotesque and mundane, the occupation of those aboard the fishing vessel is not something that can be thoroughly imagined or accurately described, but by employing a set of gritty GoPro cameras that are used to accentuate the torrential conditions they continuously cope with, an aesthetically unique truth is found in the slog of blood and brume.

Even more than the immersive camera placement, Ernst Karel’s interpretive sound design envelops us in an aural environment in which the sea and the sky converge in natural violence. A combination of naturally recorded audio – the callous call of gulls, the ever present hum of submerged propellers, the hacking of blade against flesh – and recreated interpretation surrounds us. It is in the soundscape that we are reminded that this is a commercial industry, man made mechanisms laid constantly as an aural bed. Miles out in the Atlantic, the hum of industry persists among the wind and waves. It rings of the humdrum normalcy of factory work yet when paired with this rain drenched, blood soaked setting the sound lends an ever-present eeriness – a ghostly reminder of the ships dedicated at the film’s close, those that, despite human ingenuity, were swallowed by the savage sea. The thematic juxtaposition is uncanny. Just as Ahab set his will against the untamable wrath of Moby Dick, these fishermen battle the elements on a daily basis to capture and kill creatures from the deep, but their drive is comes from monetary means rather than pure revenge. Though captured via vastly different mediums, the ferocity of nature and man’s constant campaign to harness is felt equally.

Disk Review:

Usually, the high resolution of Blu-ray is used to preserve the fine visual details found on the big screen, but what’s odd and admirable about Cinema Guild’s HD release of Leviathan is that it’s original form was created with GoPro cameras that have very high internal compression, meaning that the image often and unavoidably contains pixelated digital noise and highly contrasted colors. In this rare instance, the film benefits from this with brilliant splashes of texture and blacks that make the ship seem like the sole beacon of light in a dark, bleak world. The film looks just as it did theatrically and it sounds even better. The DTS-HD 5.1 track keeps you engulfed in the sounds of the sea and the hum of the ship for the entirety of the film’s running time with an absolutely astonishing surround mix. The disc ships in a standard Blu-ray vessel, but strangely doesn’t carry the same supplemental heft of most Cinema Guild releases.

Still Life/Nature Morte
A brand new companion short film by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel that is basically a single shot of two crewmen sitting a the same table watching the same TV as the sleepy fellow from the full length. It’s an interesting bit of domestic recreation in the midst of the wild, but it’s also a little boring when extended to half an hour. 28 min

Theatrical Trailer
Featuring more of a narrative preface than is given in the film itself and a condensed kaleidoscope the visual inventiveness contained within, this is a perfect bit of intrigue for those yet to see the film. 2 min

Featuring an eloquently written essay titled “Blood of the Fish, Beauty of the Monster” by Cyril Neyrat, this is nestled within the package.

Final Thoughts:

None of the masterful films produced by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab are what most would deem for the general film goer, despite dealing with subjects that are interesting and familiar. Their mission is to find the artistic in the physical while preserving the uninterrupted culture being harvested. It’s a fascinating pursuit. Leviathan is so far their crowning achievement. A work of visceral visual beauty and subtly layered storytelling, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s film is unquestionably one of the most original pieces of cinema of the year.


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