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Monday, 16 December 2013

Man with a mermaid on his arm

This is a review of Leviathan (2012)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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16 December

This is a review of Leviathan (2012)

Thanks to going into Screen 3 (which was the right screen for this evening), I missed Leviathan (2012) at Cambridge Film Festival 2013, but what a treat to catch up with it, once I realized how to watch it ! - the film is like Samsara (2011), in that it is 'about' process, not about particulars.

Afterwards, a woman was complaining to the man with her that there had been no interaction (on camera) with the crew, but he said that he liked that. I agree with him, because that was not its purpose, and it was concerning itself more abstractly with motion, rhythms (which animate the mermaid of this posting's title), action... (Another male separately described the film as 'sensory', although, as I shall go on to say, I think that the sound part is more of a construction.)

The confusion at the beginning - what are we seeing, what is the off-screen voice saying, what is the man with the yellow chain trying to do ? - tends to make one feel that it is necessary to concentrate hard to work out what is happening with these men on a vessel at sea, catching fish (and other seafood). Actually, the opposite is the best approach, to treat this as a symphony of images against a sound-scape (whose artificiality becomes more and more evident*), because the more that one tries to interpret, the less that one sees. It seems better to let the documentary, and what it is showing at any one time, to come to the viewer, which certainly works with Samsara.

With this approach, the water, the sky, the interface between them, and the patterns, and the effects of the surface seen from below, all speak for themselves - when the one man with a hook holds up a ray for the other man to put one into its wings and cut them, watching this for what it is misses the fact that it is a repetition, a rhythmic restatement over time.

If we jump ahead to what the men in a line are doing, we miss them moving back and forth as (which is what they are actually doing, but we cannot yet properly see) they open scallop-shells, we will see the man's arm, and not the mermaid moving with and through him as he works : later, the scallops will be shown us, en masse, being stirred around to get coated and (we may infer) added back to the shell for display / packaging, and, in the meantime, we can just go with the currents of the task, part of what happens at sea on a craft such as this.

Likewise the bird that wants to get beyond the wooden barrier that presumably separates it from where the fish are (it apparently does not think to flap its way over and grab a fish in passing), where, if we watch what it does, there are cycles of effort, until it gives up - or the fish-head lying on the deck near an aperture, which, with the addition of other fish-parts that come into shot, gets knocked into the water, and we wait with this view until it happens again with another fish-head.

Some may not find that profound, and may expect something to tell them what they are seeing, but it chimes in with the Biblical theme, with The Book of Ecclesiastes saying that there is nothing new under the sun (and all, of course, are under the sun, with a time for living, and a time for dying).

The film puts the crew, the fish and other sea-life, the birds on a level - sustained, sometimes very close, observations of a man at the wheel, another operating hoists (with the effect visible by reflection in the screen in front of him), of the men sorting the fish according to whether they can keep them at all, or they need to be in this category to be deheaded and gutted, all of this fits them into the world where the gulls and other birds follow the vessel for what is thrown back as scrap (and the men do what they do not because they love processing fish, but so that the owners will pay them).

With what I call a sound-scape (I did not notice a credit for a sound recordist, so, when the two guys are cutting off the rays' wings, that is presumably foley, though that is not overtly credited either), we seem to dive in and out of the sea, and we hear sounds that are less like the expected sounds of a ship under motive power : none of it is actually music as such, but it is, when not directly mimetic of what we expect to see (we hardly hear the clear sound of sea-gulls, but we see dozens, even - somehow - from above), evocative, and almost has a life of its own :

We are told (by the IMDb entry) that Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel are the directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, editors, and, with Ernst Karel, in the sound department. Karel is credited with editing and mixing sound (captured by the cinematographers ?), but also with sound composition.

As for the old-script typeface** used for a prefatory display of three verses from The Book of Job, which talk about Leviathan, this - if it matters - must be a matter for the viewer as to what it means, but it does not seem unreasonable for the green-hulled vessel that we see cutting with its prow through the ocean is the Leviathan here.

(No, no ship of that name was credited at the end, although the film was dedicated to the crew of a list of other ships, lost off the New Bedford coast, and, whimsically, thanks were given for the assistance of Puffinus gravus (and many another Latin name) alongside the likes of Steve the Greek.)


* I chatted briefly afterwards with a fellow reviewer of films, and floated (pun intended !) the possibility that, when one of the crew is shown seemingly watching t.v. (and nothing much moves but his eyes), the voice-over of a t.v. documentary (complete with adverts) about an unhappy crew, working at sea, may not actually have been the programme that the man was fighting sleep to watch. He is going to check.

** Reminiscent of the Gothic script of the inter-titles of Nosferatu (1922) ?

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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