Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 30, 2012 4:04 am 
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Into the net

From a Locarno debut, this grueling but beautiful documentary film by Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass) about fishing on a big vessel with giant nets. The filmmakers had lost all their equipment and went back with tiny non-pro digital waterproof cameras and used them for fly-on-the-wall (or on the wave) shots that sometimes give the fish-eye view. Oppressive loud noise from engines and machines (and weather and water) both overwhelm and calm, as violence in Hollywood movies, now so familiar, can sometimes put one to sleep. There is a sense of a vast process going on over which nobody has very much control. Who are the fishermen and who or what is being caught? The small cameras produce raw, sometimes slightly fuzzy images and when the colors of the fish go garish -- ther is a lot of glossy white and a lot of red -- the paintings of Chaim Soutine and Oskar Kokoschka come to mind. It's that kind of lush beauty-in-ugliness photography. Seeing the film at Toronto, Mike D'Angelo in one of his puzzlingly-precise instant Twitter reviews gave it a (for him) very high score of 73, and commented only: "Still wish human beings were kept strictly on the periphery. Purely abstract imagery astounding." This is true, but he might consider that we as viewers are in fact "kept strictly on the periphery." It's just like watching as a child taken aboard for the day and not allowed to do or understand anything. No explanations. And no likelihood of mainstream interest. Another utterly justifiable festival film choice and one that keeps the New York Film Festival honest, eclectic, and still edgy and fresh. But there is not much to say because the honest reaction is to be left speechless.

If you do go on to question and discuss, up comes the issue of the politics of such a film. Are the fishermen and the industry being unjudgmentally embraced, or brutally caricatured? Or do the filmmakers really know? As the Variety review points out, in the first twenty-five minutes it's very hard even for the viewer to know what he or she is looking at. It's just confusing, loud, elemental, and scary, and that's surely intentional. This could be the novice or visitor's initial bafflement, or it could be the captured fish's helplessness. We as viewers are rendered as passive as the catch. The fishing trawler near New Bedford, Massachusetts is going to be followed "without any context or commentary." But it is not going to be made pretty (except for a few shots of seagulls flying across a pale sky, which it seems many have chosen, misleadingly, as an emblematic images of the film).

The cameras are used roughly, strapped to the fishermen's arms, set on a floor jammed with dying fish, floating on or stuck under water. And fish are gathered and sloshed around en masse, confusingly. It is often hard to recognize that they even are fish or what fish or what parts of them are in view. In a way this is a film about the gathering and preparing of food for humans. That's what's essentially going on. One thinks of another New York Film Festival film from 2005, Nikoilaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread. That documentary too is wordless, with no explanation, except for some data at the end. But it's a comprehensive survey of various food factories in Germany, coldly, cleanly, and elegantly filmed. It's an alienating film, with a kind of smugness about it. Leviathon is the opposite in every way. It might make people angry too, but for sure it's not smug. There's a kind of mute passion in it.

But the British-born Castaing-Taylor, a Harvard ethnographer and filmmaker, may simply be trying to reflect the messiness of life. That's what he told the New York Times in an August 2012 interview: “If life is messy and unpredictable, and documentary is a reflection of life, should it not be digressive and open-ended too?” Castaing-Taylor's e Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard was responsible for both Sweet Grass (NYFF 2009) and the new film. Sweetgrass, with its vast open landscapes and grazing sheep and long silences, provides an utter contrast to the clangorous, wet, noisy, in-your-face Leviathon. And as Sweetgrass benefitted from special long-distance remote sound recording, Leviathon profits from its tiny portable waterproof cameras that seem able to wedge their way into anything. Castaing-Taylor and his partners are committed to tempering intense ethnographic research with post-shoot aesthetic reconsiderations. He eschews the information-heavy, didactic bent of most documentaries in favor of something completely different. And we do get tired sometimes of films that read like Power Point lectures. Much as we like being provided with memorizable and digestible information, the world is a very indigestible and confusing place, and enlightenment may best begin from the kind of sensory overload and challenging cinematic experience Leviathon provides.

Castaing-Taylor's collaborator this time, Véréna Paravel, worked with J. P. Sniadecki on the Iron Triangle doceuentary, Foreign Parts, shown as a Special Event in the 2010 New York Film Festival (I watched it with pleasure but did not review it).

As mentioned Leviathon debuted at Locarno and was shown at Toronto. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, September 2012. It was shown right after Life of Pi at the press and industry screenings. One was a little waterlogged by the time they were over.

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