‘Leviathan’: Color and the Limits of Corporeality

Harvard anthropologists/filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel have taken us to the visual and aural limits of reality. Released earlier this fall, Leviathan tells the story of the fishing industry of New Bedford, Mass. in stunning color and with out of this world sounds. With no narration, interviews or music, it gives viewers the raw impression of both of being aboard the ship, and of being fished out of the sea by a metallic giant.

Castaing-Taylor’s work at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab explores the intersection of aesthetics and ethnography to document and understand our experience of the social and natural world. Leviathan offers viewers not only one such exploration, but also a filmic experience unlike any documentary they’ve ever seen. Shot mostly on small waterproof digital cameras and DSLRs, the film combines images from three major fishing voyages where Castaing-Taylor and Paravel lived alongside fisherman, strapped cameras to everything from machinery, to fishing nets, to the fisherman themselves. Rather than privileging one perspective, or a human perspective, the film moves between beautiful long still shots from the perspective of the fisherman who risk their lives at night to bring in the catch to dynamic torrential shots from the perspective of the boat where cameras dive in and out of the sea. This sense of multiple-embodiment through perspective creates a viewer experience that is totally immersive when combined with minute and almost surreal sounds of water, machine and man struggling against one another.

However, through the colors the film proposes, this corporeal experience seems like what Baudrillard would call hyperreality. Digital color grading, despite the moderation Castaing-Taylor says they exercised in having the film colored, makes the fluorescent colors of nets and machinery, the luminescence of fish blood under harsh deck lighting, the foamy white tips of waves appearing and dissapearing in the distance, and the deep, impossible blue of the sea seem otherworldly. In concert, they seem to establish a reality above the profilmic world of the sea that viewers are plunged into, experience as real in a way that perhaps highlights the sensory aspects of the fishing journey. They make it more intense, faster, more mechanical, at times more boring, at others more bloody. We are overloaded with the pure sensation of color itself as we feel the sea drag us under and spit us out, as we are surrounded with dead fish, as the machinery of the nets pulls us to and fro, and as we wait for our next turn on deck. What is amazing about the experience of Leviathan is its ability to offer us an extremely real experience from a series of impossible positions and in colors that do justice to the otherworldly aesthetics of industry’s terrible dance with nature.

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