Critical Dialogue: Leviathan
A few years ago, the cinephile social network Criterion Forum hosted a thought-provoking if unresolvable debate over “The Definition of Pure Cinema.” Some posters suggested that medium specificity was the key, that a pure film proved what cinema—and only cinema—could do. Others had a more intuitive take: pure cinema, they suggested, bypasses the intellect altogether in favor of the senses and the heart. All seemed to agree that purity in cinema couldn’t be reduced to a series of specific techniques or specifications, that it was defined, at least in part, by something ineffable and possibly undefinable. For the film critic, this is a tough proposition. Where are we left if the works that most accurately represent our chosen medium can’t be described or addressed in words at all; if the highest compliment we can pay a film is reverent silence?
It’s hard to imagine a definition of pure cinema that wouldn’t include Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s near-wordless exercise in sensory immersion set in and around a commercial fishing vessel off the New Bedford coast. As Chris Chang writes in the Jan/Feb issue of FILM COMMENT, it’s a film that “define[s] the point at which language . . . doesn’t so much fail as reach its limit.” Over the course of 87 minutes we see through a dozen cameras as they’re buffeted by waves, plunged underwater, buried under mounds of dying fish, left bobbing in deep waters, and set on collision courses with seagulls. It’s enough to make us feel like first-time moviegoers: astonished at the cinema’s ability to make us identify with another eye, and then to place that eye in a position we could never occupy ourselves—whether it’s a distant past, an imagined universe, or, in this case, the prow of a ship mid-storm.
There’s no way to accurately describe Leviathan without at the same time trying to approximate how we experience it, subjectively and reflexively. In a review for Reverse Shot, Leo Goldsmith writes that “the shape of the gulls warps and blurs them into ghostly apparitions through the water-spattered lens . . . The horizon suddenly dissolves as the camera becomes unmoored from any grounded perspective, diving underwater or vaulting through the air.” Cinema Scope’s Phil Coldiron, writing one of the earliest reports on the film, called it “a mass of sound and light vibrating in the dark, unknowable beyond the waves in our eyes and our ears.”
Goldsmith seeks out reference points in other films—Snow, Godard, Brakhage, Franju—but also, curiously, in other mediums. What Gilles Deleuze wrote about Francis Bacon, Goldsmith applies to the team behind Leviathan: Bacon had “a will to take his paintings ‘beyond figuration’ [and] beyond representation,” producing work that “acts immediately upon the nervous system.” Goldsmith isn’t the only one to find extra-cinematic touchstones for Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s work: other critics have brought up sources as diverse as Joan Miró’s Constellations and Melville’s Moby-Dick, the latter set partly in Leviathan’s storm-tossed New Bedford seas.
Many of those anonymous Criterion Forum contributors suggested that cinema in its most basic state doesn’t depend on the contingencies of narrative, dialogue, or plot, that its logic is less causal than sensory and emotional. Coldiron implies that this independence from internal narratives allows for another sort of liberation, from narratives of history, culture, time, and place. “What sets Leviathan apart,” he writes, “is its ability to present the world, now, anew; until we’re out from under the weight of all these narratives—which in the digital age only proliferate—it’ll remain just as urgent.”
If there is one thing Paravel and Castaing-Taylor share with Melville, Bacon, and Miro, it’s this partial independence from history, this quality of belonging to a specific historical moment without being bound to it. The concept of pure cinema tends always to be caught up in questions of medium specificity, a confusion that’s led to much definitional nitpicking. Maybe it would be simpler and more just to say that the purest works in any medium are those capable of extricating themselves from the specific context surrounding their production, those that can be appreciated and remembered purely for the ways in which they delight in their medium, stretch it, challenge it, and ultimately embody it.
They’re also the sort of films that inspire critics to follow in their footsteps—to invent new vocabularies equally free from period convention, equally devoid of affect, equally set on mirroring the physical pulse of sensation. That was D.H. Lawrence’s response to Moby-Dick, which he celebrated in a raving, breathless essay:
Melville knew. He knew his race was doomed. His white soul, doomed. His great white epoch doomed. Himself, doomed. The idealist, doomed: The spirit, doomed. The reversion. 'Not so much bound to any haven ahead, as rushing from all havens astern.' That great horror of ours! It is our civilization rushing from all havens astern. The last ghastly hunt. The White Whale.
Lawrence’s prose is alternately exhilarating and dull. When it catches you up in its rhythms it can be revelatory; when it leaves you behind it can look a little silly. It’s a good thing all criticism doesn’t look like this, just as it’s probably a good thing all films don’t feel like Leviathan. Still, there is something to be said in favor of once in a while answering frenzy with frenzy, experimentation with experimentation, ecstasy with ecstasy, and awe with awe.