The Violence of Sensation
By Leo Goldsmith
Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, U.S., Cinema Guild
Perhaps for the purposes of a quick synopsis or festival-program blurb, you could say that Leviathan is “about” the commercial fishing industry off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts. You could say that it “documents” the perilous experience of crusty, rugged fishermen who labor at the precipice of a roiling, frigid ocean to rip from the depths a catch of cod, halibut, haddock, striped bass, flounder, pollock, and skate (and blue crabs, starfish, sea sponges, and lobsters), while wind, spray, and ravenous gulls and shearwaters and gannets swirl in vortices around their heads. With a description such as this, most would expect something very similar to the last two feature-length films by Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, both filmmakers from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab: Foreign Parts, the immersive urban ethnography of the Queens chop-shop enclave of Willets Point which Paravel made with J.P. Sniadecki in 2010, and Sweetgrass, the panoramic study of Montana shepherds that Castaing-Taylor made with Ilisa Barbash in 2009. Like these earlier films, one might presume that Leviathan offers a similar vision of a little-seen world, a field report of these workers’ environment in all its topographic and ethnographic detail.
In fact, Leviathan is something far more bizarre and disorienting, a project almost entirely disinterested in the naturalistic or anthropological, neither a landscape (or even seascape) documentary, nor an insight into labor and social relations. Instead, Leviathan offers an image of the world as almost something alien. Within it there is a trace of the kind of oceanic surrealism inherited from Jean Painlevé's otherworldly underwater documentaries and subsequently proliferated in everything from underwater-alien films like The Abyss (or the other Leviathan) to Blue Planet to latter-day Werner Herzog. And while there is certainly an extraterrestrial quality to what we see onscreen—mutilated aquatic forms and a cosmic, anti-gravity alteration of perspective—Leviathan is in fact less surreal than hyperreal, flooding the senses, and fashioning an almost nightmarish environment with an assault of digital information.
This is not to say that the film is CG abstraction—far from it. The viscera, scales, and blood of the captured sea-life come violently and directly at us in all their rich, gory detail, but they do so through a process of digitization, through a digital hyperrealism, which allows for a kind of extension of vision and the body, or even vision through the body. There is a paradox in digital cinema characterized by what Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin call its “double logic,” its desire to be both immediate and hypermediated. Digital cinema is thus marked both by the capacity to create new worlds through motion-capture and 3-D rendering, and by its intimacy with the real world, its physical proximity to our bodies and our experience. In the context of nature documentaries, this tension between the transparently real and the heavily mediated is visualized in the extreme verisimilitude of contemporary documentaries like Life or Planet Earth, in which the world is at once fully penetrated by the impartial, scientistic gaze of the camera and yet exquisitely aestheticized for the spectator, with techniques of macrophotography and distance-spanning telephoto lenses, high-speed and time-lapse photography, that suggest an epic rendering of the real—nature in all its high-definition perfection. (On the technology behind the BBC’s groundbreaking work, see Chris Wisniewski’s essay “Natural Wonders.”
Leviathan is probably not a nature documentary, or at least it is a million miles from the extravagant precision of the BBC’s work. Instead, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel take this digital paradox still further, blurring the actual and the artifactual. Rather than advance a claim to techno-objectivity, the camera’s apparently impartial gaze becomes the source of the film’s full distortion of the real. The shape of the gulls warps and blurs them into ghostly apparitions through the water-spattered lens, and the horizon suddenly dissolves as the camera becomes unmoored from any grounded perspective, diving underwater or vaulting through the air, denying any alignment with the cameraman’s eye. The verisimilitude, then, derives not so much from the image as from the film’s cumulative sensory force, through its often-violent confrontation with the elements of wind and water and the matter of flesh and metal. If the content of the images often recalls Franju’s Blood of the Beasts or Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, its radical, vertiginous distortion of all of the forces of the universe—gravity, pressure, the logical coordinates of space—more properly recall Michael Snow’s La Région centrale or indeed Jean-Luc Godard’s own sea voyage into the digitally corroded afterlife of cinema in Film socialisme.
This is not to claim, however, that the camera becomes a “character” in the film, a stalwart protagonist amid the hellishness, carnage, and terror of the environment. The camera—a near-disposable extreme-sports model made by GoPro (of which several were used, and several lost in the drink)—is merely one of a battery of media deployed at the moment of production and afterwards, including the harrowing and rigorously composed 5.1 sound mix of rushing, crunching, squelching, and shrieking by Ernst Karel and Jacob Ribicoff. Leviathan seems at times to be a Vertovian encounter with a fully optical dystopia, but this sense of a unique perspective soon disappears in favor of an experience that’s more bodily than visual. As Paravel has said, during most of the filming it was impossible and even unnecessary to see what was being filmed: the tiny cameras, attached to the end of fourteen-foot two-by-twos, flailed around above the filmmakers’ heads or beneath the waves. Instead, the filmmakers filmed more with the body than with the eye, capturing not so much images as sensations.
In his book on Francis Bacon, Gilles Deleuze saw in the painter a will to take his paintings “beyond figuration,” beyond representation, and toward what he called “sensation.” Bacon’s work, for Deleuze, “acts immediately upon the nervous system,” upon the flesh. Its function lies not in representing the object, but in sustaining a sensation that is more bodily than cerebral, a haptic experience that imparts a tactile capacity to the eye. This is not simply synesthesia, a confusion of the sensory organs, but a radical destabilizaiton of the hierarchy of the senses that forces “sight [to] discover in itself a specific function of touch that is uniquely its own, distinct from its optical function.” For Deleuze, this haptic sense can only be achieved through a kind of violence, a deformation of the senses.
Seen in this light, Leviathan’s crazed, inhuman gaze upon this world becomes a way of capturing this elusive, haptic impression through cinema. Its epigraph, taken from the Book of Job, also invokes the impossibility of capture: “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook/or tie down its tongue with a rope?/Can you put a cord through its nose/or pierce its jaw with a hook?” The sensory plenitude of the real can no more be tamed than Job’s infernal aquatic beast, monstrous and unconquerable in its dimensions.