So this past summer I went on vacation with my best friend and our families. Before embarking on our trip, my friend came across these promotional videos for the new Go Pro camera, a camera that basically allows any Joe off the street to become the director of his own movie. We had to have one. So, setting off for a beachside vacation with a Go Pro in our pocket (and on our heads and on a stick and basically wherever else we could stick it) we documented our entire trip. The camera ended up in the ocean, bouncing on six foot waves, for forty minutes as we sloshed around and rammed into each other. It also wound up getting buried in the sand as I videotaped my daughter climbing up a sandy hill for ten minutes. It was attacked by dolphins, wound up in the mouth of an alligator and ended up in my best friend’s pants. Watching back these videos can be exhausting. While they are visually stunning, forty minutes of going in and out of the ocean or ten minutes of barely distinguishable pubic hair can be called ‘artistic’ but can’t really be called entertaining.
The point is that you can hand anyone a Go Pro and they start to think that they are Terrence Malick.
This is kind of the feeling I had while watching ‘Leviathan’, a film I’d been anticipating since early this year when I saw the trailer. Documentaries are a genre that I have vocally had a hard time embracing. Last year the only documentary that I saw was ‘Katy Perry: A Piece of Me’ and the year before that it was only ‘Life in a Day’ (for the gimmick), despite really wanting to see ‘Pina’ (it only played by me for like a week and I missed it). I just don’t gravitate towards them and so I tend to miss them all. I wanted to change all that this year. With so many documentaries garnering critical praise, I decided that I was going to make a conscious effort to see more of them.
I started here.
The first ten minutes or so had me experiencing so many different feelings and emotions. About one minute in, as the screen remained mostly black with just the audible sloshing of water and the brief glimpse of a chain here and there, I was intrigued. Three minutes in, with barely a change in scenery, I was concerned. Five minutes in, as the action become clearer (sort of) and I could see men in slicks, soaked to the bone, yanking at machinery, I was almost convinced that this was going to be a masterpiece. Ten minutes in, when the fish finally fell from their netted imprisonment, I already knew the film’s problem and it is a problem that remained throughout the entirety.
This film really needed a sharper edit.
Telling the story of a North Atlantic commercial fishing boat, ‘Leviathan’ is the anti-documentary. That is what initially drew me to the film. As a man who isn’t always interested in documentaries, to hear that the filmmakers themselves hate documentaries and set out to create a documentary that felt more like a gritty movie made me really excited. Forget the fact that I coined the film ‘Bears on a Boat’ after seeing the trailer (yes, I’m that shallow sometimes), I legitimately wanted to see this for more than the five minute shower scene.
Debate my sexuality all you want; I don’t care.
Upon finishing this film I was left conflicted. There is so much that I actually admire about the direction that these filmmakers took here, but they are the very same things that I would probably change in order to make the film better. It’s a slippery slope from ‘artistic’ to ‘unwatchable’, and while I applaud the idea and the concept (this is so avant-garde in construction), these choices ultimately bring the film down.
With no narration (and really, only a speckle of talking at all, which is barely audible thanks to the white noise emanating from the surroundings), the film feels very cold and detached, which was purposeful and kind of refreshing. That being said, without any sort of conversation between crew or voice over to illuminate us on what it is that we are experiencing, the abrasiveness of the visuals (and they are abrasive) lose some of their poignancy and impact. Watching fisherman desecrate the bodies of stingrays for five minutes is already hard enough to look at, but with no real context it feels like unnecessary brutality. Again, this is probably the whole point and I do admire the ‘idea’, but I would have done it differently. More than the lack of narration though, the film’s biggest hurdle is the lack of edit. Each individual scene is probably two minutes too long. If they had only trimmed these scenes down, the film would have been a 60 minute doc and it would have probably been perfect.
I mean that.
Instead we are left with elongated scenes that don’t change much at all in composition and become repetitive and ultimately burdensome. For a film that is a brisk hour and a half, I felt like I was watching a four hour movie.
And really, don’t watch this hung-over. I almost threw up.
If you are seeking a unique movie experience, this is your ticket. The film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but it is a film that I admired more than I enjoyed, and I really wish that these flaws hadn’t been so present, because they overwhelm the film. I do hope that more people try their hand at this style of filmmaking, because conceptually and visually, the film is not merely compelling but really beautiful, in a disgusting and gritty way. It just feels so raw and honest and brutal. This is a film that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon, and one that I’m sure I’ll continue to mull over.
I may absolutely LOVE this in a week, once I’ve removed myself from the initial experience and given my mind time to soak in the lingering impact.
|My personal favorite visual sequence of the film and one that justified it's longevity...|
Right now, I give this a C+. The film is eligible for the Documentary Oscar this year, but I highly doubt something this experimental is going to strike the fancy of Academy voters. That being said, I can see this landing on a few more highbrow critics ballots this year, since it has that lingering air of ‘the future of filmmaking’ about it, and they like to embrace that from time to time. This really should be a contender for the Sound categories though, since the aural experience here is breathtaking.