It's an understatement to say that Leviathan makes Deadliest Catch look like some late-night-cable bass fishing show from 1986, and it's not an overstatement to say that Leviathan is revelatory and revolutionary cinema that points to possibilities never before conceived in the whole history of the medium.The film itself is a very honest reaction to being at high seas. We had a discussion for less than a minute about what to do. The film is a gesture, a physical and emotional reaction to our experience, almost like an epileptic crisis or something—an aesthetic translation of what we have been subjected to.
Offering little in the way of the "information" one expects from a typical documentary, Leviathan submerges us in the world it depicts—not just the human world, but also the world of our machines and the experience of the animals and environment we exploit with them. A documentary without text or context (aside from the titular biblical reference and the comically absurd presence of an extended Chipotle commercial that preceded the screening I attended), with barely any perceptible dialogue, it situates the audience in the eyes of at one moment the fisherman, at the next moment the fish—and in the next shot, the net that ensnares it, and the shot after that, a seagull in the vast flock that trails the fishing boat day and night. This film offers its viewers a god-like perspective, but not in the deistic sense that phrasing usually implies in film criticism. This is rather the perspective of a pantheistic god, a god who exists in everything, manifests in everything, is everything. The man, the fish, the net, the boat, and the gull each resonate it equally. The first sustained shot of a human being is an extreme close-up of a man's eyes, focused, aged and weathered, and this after we have just spent several minutes among the dead and dying fish that have been dropped from the net to the deck of the boat, their own glassy eyes baffled by this alien world. We see the fish and the man as equals, and this does not edify the fish or diminish the man: we see them as equals because in this pantheistic perspective they are both incarnations of the same god, as are we, the viewers.
I'm using religious language to illustrate a point, but in fact, Leviathan is essential not because the non-human perspectives it offers are otherworldly or supernatural, but because they are earth-bound, terrestrial perspectives (the natural and the mechanical) that mostly elude us and that cinema has only rarely and briefly rendered with such vitality, and never with such immediacy. This is not to say that cinema has failed up to now, because this is a film that quite literally could not have been made until very recently. It was shot by a handful of strategically placed GoPro cameras, sometimes intentionally framed and operated, but more often thrown into the midst of key events—on a fisherman's helmet, into the mass of fish or clams on the deck, out to sea with the refuse, into the air with the birds—and left to the will of nature. So there are shots that could be said to have been "composed" by the nets, by the boat, by the ocean currents, or even by the wind.
This is cinema for which the digital revolution was essential, and a film that makes the digital revolution essential in turn, because it proves that digital cinema can generate new visions, new dramas, offer new perspectives that have never been possible in cinema before. It builds on the work of filmmakers who have come before—Frederick Wiseman's documentary ethic, Dziga Vertov's adoration of the mechanical and his radical approach to sound, Maya Deren's foregrounding of time, energy, movement and dynamics, Stan Brakhage's brakhageness—but harnesses their ideas to a unique and ingenious understanding of the possibilities afforded by current technology and opens an entirely new path to a new future of possibilities in the art form.
Raul Ruiz writes in Poetics of Cinema:
Ruiz advocates a kind of film watching that consists of seeing not just the film as it has been rendered, but also as all the other films it could potentially be. He refers to the moment the film takes off in one's mind as the "hypnotic point," because it is the point at which the film has hypnotized you, i.e., put you to sleep, and continues from there into the illimitable world of dreams, and he discourages filmmaking (that of mainstream Hollywood, of central conflict theory, of any kind that eliminates ambiguity) that seeks to prevent the audience from reaching the hypnotic point. By eliminating all context, all information, all the trappings of "plot" and "character," and throwing the viewer from the very beginning into a dark, disorienting, and totally unfamiliar version of what is nonetheless our world, Leviathan is a film that exists only and entirely beyond the hypnotic point that Ruiz talks about. For those viewers who are open to such hypnotic (in Ruiz's terminology, "shamanic") cinema, the experience is nothing short of rapturous.An old Hollywood saying claims that a film is a success when the viewer identifies with the hero: he accomplishes the action, he must finally win. I think that in any film worth seeing you should identify with the film itself, not with one of its characters. You should identify with the objects being manipulated, with the landscapes, with all the characters, though this doubling can never take place until you have reached and gone beyond the hypnotic point. From this moment forth you are in another film. Before the hypnotic point, we are watching a spectacle, a production: the images come to us. Now it appears that the images are taking off from the airport of ourselves, and flying toward the film we are seeing. Suddenly we are all the characters of the film, all the objects, all the scenery. And we experience these invisible connections with just as much intensity as the visible segment.