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'Leviathan,' I Love You

How did the filmmakers achieve this poetry? Because, if anything, this movie exemplifies the art of poetry without words, the art taking real life and framing it in such a way that it becomes greater than fiction. It holds up a mirror to nature, but...

Image by Courtney Nicholas

On a Tuesday night, the Music Hall theater in Beverly Hills was seemingly empty. I arrived an hour early for the 10 PM screening of Leviathan. I walked in thinking it was a poetic documentary about the lives of deep-sea fishermen.

Before the movie I sat in the lobby and read Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. At some point, a huge crowd of Israeli women filed in and overpowered the Daft Punk emanating from my headphones. Must have been a special screening. It was then I noticed a poster for the LA Jewish Film Festival depicting a bunch of directors’ chairs arranged like the Star of David. Underneath it read a different kind of star.


My companion arrived at ten. We entered the all-but-empty theater and sat in the back because I always sit in the back. The film started with an appropriately weighty epigraph from the Book of Job, something about the "hoary deep." I was already sold.

I’m the biggest Moby Dick fan ever, and here was a movie that relies on biblical-level pretensions while capturing the fishing life with an unblinking gaze. It’s modern-day Melville, at least the nonnarrative chapters that relate the whaling life through nonfictional accounts and facts.

One of the most salient aspects of the film was its camerawork. I haven’t looked into how they filmed it, but it seems as if they attached a bunch of small GoPro cameras to every part of the ship—including the heads of fishermen, the underwater nets, and possibly even seagulls. (My guess is they didn’t actually do this, but it sure seems like it.) It begins in darkness and then gradually transitions into a frenetic exploration of the environment, both above and below the water, and above and below deck. The early shots must have been shot by a camera attached to one of the fishermen, because the frame jolts around with quick, deliberate movements as their nets are pulled aboard.

Then we see the haul. It’s enormous and grotesque and beautiful. And the precision and routinized ease with which the fishermen start arranging and slicing and beheading the fish is mesmerizing. This is a slaughterhouse of the sea, but strangely not as instant-vegetarian-inducing as watching a cattle abattoir or sausage factory in action; it’s less The Jungle and more the mesmeric presentation of Ahab and his mythical crew. Notice the cigarettes. One man lights two at a time and passes one off to his facially scarred friend. They let the things sway and dangle as they slice and rip, slice and rip. They grab the slippery, bugeyed things in the bin, and then slice and chop, and let the heads fall shock-eyed on the deck.


Later we see these large-eyed mothers on the floor of the ship—just the heads—as the sea rages through a gutter hole in the background. We sit with these heads as the boat rocks and shifts in the intense surf and the heads carom about and then sit and stare, a lifeless oracle, somehow easier to look at because it’s a fish’s head, a cat’s plaything. Then they are shifted back through the gutter hole and returned to the wild sea.

Dead fish. More romantic than dead cows. Is that because we’re more desensitized to seeing dead fish? Some restaurants serve them whole, and some “vegetarians” (pescetarians?) are OK with eating fish. Dead fish are somehow not as threatening or disgusting as other dead things that we eat; little swimming bundles of food plucked from the ocean, the unseen vastness. But on witnessing how immense these devices are, these manmade leviathans that pull their prey from the sea by the shipload, one can only wonder: How many more are left? How can it be?

There are some shots (connected to a crane?) that plunge underwater before being pulled high into the air above a flock of seagulls. I mean, WTF? How? How did the film’s makers achieve this poetry? Because, if anything, this movie exemplifies the art of poetry without words, the art of poetry through images, the art taking real life and framing it and juxtaposing it in such a way that it becomes greater than fiction. It holds up a mirror to nature, but this mirror came from a fun house and in its distortions reveals a deeper truth.


My companion said she got seasick from watching all the shaking, sea-rocking stuff. I, on the other hand, want to go back and ride it again. Leviathan is where documentary filmmaking can go if they aspire to art. So many forms are consumed by the television these days, to see a bunch of truckers travel over ice-covered roads or a family of hunters doing their thing and being funny to boot is de rigeur on any given night. But only as a movie—a film—takes the care to do this sort of baby work, the important minutiae. In this case it feels as majestic, or as horrible, as something out of the Bible. A document becomes an epic.

This is life. Man versus nature. Man’s machines. Man’s mastery of the planet. Man’s destruction of the planet. Man’s ushering in of the apocalypse. But it is also beautiful. I used to wonder how the greatness and horror of Moby Dick might ever be recaptured on film or otherwise, chiefly because whaling is now considered among the worst environmental crimes on the planet. Well, here it is: man, mastering the seas and the world, doing horrible things, brave things, impossible things. Because we are man. We need to survive. And conquer.

Photos courtesy of James Franco.


Previously - Gatsby

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