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VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY REVIEW Volume 29 Number 2 Fall 2013

kind of role model, highlighting his benevolence and


tranquility despite his long-term incarceration. Even
when individuals acknowledge that Herman has wrongfully committed a crime, they generally describe him as
an exceptionally positive force. Thus, these figures challenge the commonly held notion that solitary confinement contains the worst of the worst.
In the end, neither the project nor Hermans appeals
for release are successful, and we can only speculate
whether Jackie will manage to establish the community
space and Herman will be released from prison. The film
ends after a series of disappointing setbacks, but both
Herman and Jackie appear hopeful that the situation
will improve with time. Ultimately, we are left with an
image of two individuals wrestling with their own
wildly different predicaments while simultaneously collaborating to contest a system they both see as unjust.
Hermans House certainly raises questions concerning the humanity of solitary confinement as a form of
punishmentin part through Jackies fierce criticism of
the practice. However, the film provides little information about the wider prison system; historical, political,
and economic factors that have shaped its current form
are not extensively explored. Further, the politics and
controversy surrounding Hermans own case (such as
his involvement with the Black Panther Party and his
disputed murder of a prison guard) are only briefly
addressed. Instead, the film problematizes solitary confinement by drawing attention to Hermans humanity
and civility. The film does not romanticize Herman, but
it does home in on his positive qualities; he is relentlessly optimistic and a seemingly endless source of
encouragement. In fact, one of the films most powerful
contributions is the way in which it challenges the
commonly held image of the criminal as a kind of
dangerous other (David Garland, The Culture of
Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary
Society, University of Chicago Press, 2001). In an era
when the media often treat prisoners as almost subhuman and one-dimensional, the film tells the story of a
prisoner who is both likeable and complex.
Hermans House would be a valuable resource for
courses on legal anthropology, criminal justice, and
sociology, and social activism. While the film offers
little information about the prison system in the United
States, it would be a useful tool to introduce more
substantive topics about incarceration and race, the
expansion of the prison system, and the tensions that
arise when individuals engage in activism surrounding
these issues. As the film has a heavy emotional impact
and confronts the stereotypical characterization of prisoners, students may be able to discuss the wider implications of the system with fewer preconceived notions.

Leviathan
A film by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Vrna Paravel,
2012, 87 minutes, DCP, 1.85:1, Dolby 5.1. Distributed
by The Cinema Guild, Inc., 115 West 30th Street, Suite
800, New York, NY 10001-4061, http://www
.cinemaguild.com
Hunter Snyder
Yale University
In the second century, Oppian of Corycus wrote in
Halieutica, in the sea, many things are hidden (in
mare multa latent) (Thayer 1928). Despite rich descriptions in literature and film since time immemorial, the
sea remains opaque and of much interest to us as
terrestrial species. Leviathan agitates our understanding,
our ways of seeing, and our intrigue within art, cinema,
and literature concerning how pelagic bodies move.
Trained as anthropologistsan academic title from
which they now seem to rescind in jest (Chang 2013)
filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Vrna Paravel
sail northeasterly out of the worlds former whaling
capital, New Bedford, Massachusetts, to the North Atlantics most fruitful fishing ground. Location and context
are unimportant, however, because Leviathan does not
take place anywhere, apart from somewhere aboard,
overboard, aloft, and below a fishing trawler. Somewhere
between both consciousness and unconscious dreamworlds, sandwiched between the Gulf of Maine and the
North Atlantic Ocean, it is made unassumingly clear
even in the opening of recorded momentsthat whatever we have known of work at sea is partial.
Instead of the discursive clarity (Alvarez 2012)
that the documentary tends toward, Castaing-Taylor and
Paravel align with modes of interpreting beyond seeing
and hearing, to the exhausting/enfeebling/disorienting
opalescence of the sea. Through this negotiation with the
sea, Leviathan elides linear narrative and sequentiality,
sound/picture synchronicity, human characters, and
even the principal recordist as the eventual storyteller.
And a three-act (beginning, middle, and end) structure?
Leviathan isnt concerned with that so much either.
In the opening sequence of shots, the immediate
desperate search begins for something that seems historically familiar to documentary cinema or to the recognizable sea. Maybe a main character, or a location?
Through the motions of what we later find out to be a
stern man (although he and the other seamen will never
become distinctive, admirable, and/or despised characters), weonce audience, now embodied cameragaze
into the digital noise that is purported to be the sea over
Georges Bank before dawn, while an interminable

Film Reviews

177

FIGURE 1. Still from Leviathan. Used with permission from The Cinema Guild.

length of chain is taken up upon the net drumitself


with speed holes reminiscent of a film reel (Figure 1).
We make counterclockwise hand gestures to the greenhorn on port. Our faces are shrouded deep inside of the
hoods of our orange spray gear, until somehowamid
electric solenoids and crashing wavesthe first (and
seldom) utterance of dialogue is given up. The greenhorn who is taking out a knot on portlike ushas no
idea what is being said and asked.
In this listening to commands, the similar indistinct
hollering of the opening shots in Sweetgrass (Lucien
Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, 2009) come to mind.
In the mountains of Montana, we squint at a cowboy by
a pasture fence, who calls out a faint yet disquieting
COOM BIDDY! To the sheep, to the greenhorn, and to
us, assigning meaning from foreign sounds to familiar
demands requires considerable cognition. Throughout

Leviathan, Ernst Karels cultivated yet hypercacophonous sound mix demands cognition through the
aural, especially within these moments of utterance,
nearly all of which are curiously incomprehensible.
At sea, orientation is a vital but often turbid state of
awareness. Intermixed with happenings taken by moving
bodies, cameras also make images on abiotic armatures.
Affixed to the mast or a long pole, then dunked overboard, and then back up for air (and when we come up,
I swear I hear the camera inhale), we are now suddenly far
outside of the body. In fact, much of Leviathan takes
place underwater, often without any sense of which way
is up or down. In our search for some orientation, we look
up from underwater at the top of the sea with floodlights
peering into the deep, and also look downupside
downfrom a birds-eye view of the seagulls giving
chase to the floating platform (Figure 2). The foreign

FIGURE 2. Still from Leviathan. Used with permission from The Cinema Guild.

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VISUAL ANTHROPOLOGY REVIEW Volume 29 Number 2 Fall 2013

texture of churned water from under, and the law that


birds above always mark the horizon by flying rightside-up proves precisely that at sea, and in documentary
cinema, orientation is never an absolute.
The back-and-forth from deep inside to high above
and far from a recording hand exhausts us. Fortunately, there are a few shots by tripod, and by the hand
of a filmmaker; these shots stand out strikingly. The
filmic trope of following a subject from behindwhich
is coincidentally common in Foreign Parts (Vrna
Paravel and J. P. Sniadecki, 2010)1also takes place in
the sequence of a Greater Shearwater (Puffinus gravis)
exploring the trawlers deck in a lulled moment. But
unable to take flight, the seabird cannot climb into the
livewell tank where bycatch tosses from fore to aft. And
while we often perceive birds as animals that fly rather
than walk, like the capable biped that it is, the tern
staggers through a scupper in the bulwarks, off the deck,
and into the black.
Despite how complicated Leviathans thick (and
thin) depictions may be, at the core a strange and
unfamiliar banality is also represented. Leviathan prioritizes the monotony of shucking scallops, standing at
the helm and its inherent cognitive fuzziness, the
daylessness of time at sea, and the amplification of the
incessant hum of diesel engines and hydraulic pumps,
which our ears only notice once they have been shut off.
These banal yet sensory depictions make for an internal
emotional reality that takes over the body from the
inside. Inevitably, these are also the moments that are
cut first from contemporary representations of work at
sea. The traditionally vapid is now the exciting, and the
spectacular.
In a break from work, in perhaps the most overtly
political scene, the captain spits into his dip cup while
watching The Discovery Channels Deadliest Catch.
Reacting numbly to the TV program in a shot that feels
like 15 minutes long, he unconsciously falls asleep.
Watching the totality of his dozing offI admitalso
invites my body to shut down, which Castaing-Taylor
later remarked is a quite common reaction at this point in
the movie. Over ten years before Leviathan, Taylor wrote
that long takes, by exhibiting a deficiency of authorial
intelligence . . . reflect an ambiguity that is at the heart of
human experience itself (Castaing-Taylor 1996:86). The
ambiguous scene that follows the captains dozing off is
a dream within the dream, pairing ideally with the
captains own slumber, and perhaps representative of our
own cognitive exhaustion. While many ethnographic
films inevitably sedate, never in my life has a film
consciously exhausted me to such an extent.
Castaing-Taylors emphasis on long takes is crucial
in sedating us such that we can enter the dream that

follows the captains dozing, but does it have to be to


the blabbering narration of Mike Rowe? As a film laden
with thoughtful, yet unclear and understated depictions,
this moments diegesis is offensively literal. Instead of
continuing to produce multiple readings in the bizarre
confluences of image and sound, this is where Leviathan
becomes bossyan instance where Taylor momentarily agrees with P.T.W. Baxters thoughts of film as
imposing itself through the temporary suspension of
disbelief (Castaing-Taylor 1996:72, 75; see esp. 77). In
Sweetgrass, a similar externalized emotional reality is
broadcasted overtly on top of a mountain, by a shepherd crying to his mother about how onerous his work
is. Are the filmmakers making a direct critique on ill
representations of work in popular media? Maybe, but
in doing so, they are also marking the bossy ontologies
of spoken and said communication, and these modes
inherent inabilities to proffer the same multiple readings
that the profilmic generates. In hearing the tiresome
narration of Rowe, the ontology of the verbal acts as a
foil to the rest of the films sensual and immersive
modes of communicating.
Leviathan collapses the distance between the
recorded and the recorder. In addition to red fish flesh,
and a warm orange shower inside the belly of the vessel,
this collapse of authorial control thrusts us violently
into a visceral corporeality of living bodies. As anthropologist Chip Sullivan reminds us plainly, in order to
make an image come alive, one must be totally within it
(2008:132). Leviathans living bodies are constituted in
the anthropomorphic ship, the bodies of water (both the
sea and bodies of sloshing deck water), and most
actively in the bodies of the fisherman. At the same
time, this embodied cinema is enthrallingly
defamiliarizing, with feelings previously manifested in
Foreign Parts, when a car is shaken off its chassis by
forklift at close range, or in Sweetgrass, when hearing a
cowboy cawing across an expansive valley.
More than two decades before Leviathan, in a discourse of sensory ethnography and experimental ethnography labs, visual anthropologist Marcus Banks
boldly declared that one of the main problems [of using
ethnographic film as a medium of communication] is that
anthropologists simply do not take film seriously (Banks
1988:2). Twenty years after Bankss sobering critique,
Leviathanas a vessel, a maritime mythical creature, and
as a filmis enigmatic beyond representing the turbidity
of pelagic emplacement. Leviathan also represents critical experimentation within documentary cinema and
tangentially within the ethnographic method.
In 1996, far in the wake of the Writing Culture
(Clifford and Marcus 1986) critiques, amid much
discourse regarding how ethnographic film is compared

Film Reviews

with text, Taylor Maurice Blochs claim that ethnographic film speaks for itself [like a text can] is wrong.
Instead, Taylor asks, But what if ethnographic film
does not speak at all? What if film does not say, but
shows? What if film does not just describe, but depicts?
In Leviathan, the only explicit saying comes after the
film has ended, in a list of Leviathans cast in binomial
nomenclature, and a shortlist of ships lost at sea. This
movement of limited explicitness is also seen in the end
credits of Sweetgrass and Foreign Parts, not as a trope,
but originating from a school of knowledge that shapes
this new discourse of ethnography and documentary
cinema. For those concerned with phenomenology, the
anthropology of work, sensory ethnography, and/or the
tradition and transgressions of ethnographic film,
Leviathan is compulsory viewing. In Leviathans
showing and limited saying, the argumentation of film
as logically inferior to that of text is swallowed whole
by more feral bodies. Perhaps it is Leviathans recording
of the illogicality of life itself that allows this filmic sea
creature to slip away.

Note
1

Filmmakers Paravel, Sniadecki, Barbash, and CastaingTaylor have produced their films under the auspices of
Harvards Sensory Ethnography Lab. See Nakamuras
Making Sense of Sensory Ethnography: The Sensual and
the Multisensory in American Anthropologist, vol. 115, no.
1, pp. 132144, or McDonalds American Ethnographic
Film and Personal Documentary (University of California
Press, 2013) for comprehensive details on SEL at Harvard.

179

References
Alvarez, Patricia
2012 Interview with Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki.
FieldsightsVisual and New Media Review, Cultural
Anthropology Online, December 17. http://
production.culanth.org/fieldsights/33-interview
-with-verena-paravel-and-j-p-sniadecki, accessed
April 17, 2013.
Banks, Marcus
1988 The Non-Transparency of Ethnographic Film.
Anthropology Today 4(5):23.
Castaing-Taylor, Lucien
1996 Iconophobia. Transition 69:6488.
Castaing-Taylor, Lucien, and Ilisa Barbash, dirs.
2009 Sweetgrass. The Cinema Guild. New York.
Chang, Dustin
2013 Interview: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Vrna
Paravel on LEVIATHAN and the Possibilities of
Cinema. International Interviews, February 26.
http://twitchfilm.com/2013/02/lucien-castaing
-taylor-verena-paravel-interview.html,
accessed
April 17, 2013.
Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus
1986 Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Paravel, Vrna, and J. P. Sniadecki, dirs.
2010 Foreign Parts. Kino Lorber. New York.
Sullivan, Chip
2008 Telling Untold Stories. In Drawing/Thinking. Marc
Treib, ed. Pp. 122135 London: Routledge.
Thayer, Bill, trans.
1928 Oppian - Halieutica, Book 1. Oppian, Halieutica or
Fishing. Vol. 1. Pp. 201281 Cambridge, MA: Loeb
Classical Library.