The Belly of the Beast

Posted by Max Nelson on 10.12.2012

Five years ago, a pair of intrepid Spanish filmmakers struck critical and box-office gold with a horror film shot entirely on a single handheld digital camera, in the first-person, in real time. That film was [Rec]: a revisionist zombie movie that also happened to be an attempt at stretching the horror film to its logical endpoint, in which the cameraman, and by extension the viewer, became the hunted target. What we took for granted in most films—that any given shot would be followed by another—suddenly became an open question, the primary force urging the narrative on. All of a sudden, we were the ones under threat; and like all those under threat, all that mattered to us was the preservation of our own existence. It could end only in death, and the death would, in some sense, be our own.

Leviathan, the latest adventure from sensory-ethnography-extraordinaires Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, and Field Diary, Amos Gitai’s 1982 classic of Israeli political cinema, each subject the camera to a different sort of threat. Our field of vision is assaulted and battered, unmoored from its traditional stance well beyond the reach of the onscreen action. In both films we have the thrill of seeing from a perspective either forbidden or otherwise impossible—in the case of Leviathan, below, above, and around the storm-tossed waters off the New Bedford coast and the fishing vessels that brave them; in that of Field Diary, deep within the occupied West Bank during the early days of the Lebanon War.

Leviathan is the sort of film likely to inspire repeated, stunned cries of “how did they do that?” The answer is ramshackle (it involves a glass case and a few 14-foot wooden poles) and, as such, completely fitting, since at any given moment the film itself seems ready to crack under the strain and vanish along with the vessels listed in the film’s closing dedication, lost forever to the waves. Scratch that “seems”—it is ready to crack, and take us along with it. We plunge with the camera deep under the waves, occasionally peek out to catch the sky swelling with flocks of gulls, then dive back in. We hear the muffled push and pull of the current. Sometimes, as when the water fills with tiny, shimmering aquatic beasts and flowers, Leviathan approaches the stuff of romantic poetry; other times, as in the harrowing, lugubrious final shot, it fills us with a vague and unnamable dread. Bobbing just above the darkening waves and watching the light as it fades into the distance, we can’t help but feel as if we’re being left behind.

The extended opening shots of Field Diary find Gitai and his tiny crew passing through a government checkpoint. Armed soldiers bat the camera out of their way or place their hands over the lens and that feeling of having our field of view open up for a second, only to be narrowed down again to the sliver between two outstretched fingers, isn't too different from earning a brief glimpse of clouds and sky before tumbling back into the New Bedford waves. The memory of that initial assault on the cinematic space that is our field of vision hovers over the rest of Field Diary: we’re clearly not supposed to be here, and the threat of expulsion is never far out of mind. 

In the press conference for Leviathan (see video below), Castaing-Taylor was asked exactly what statement he’d hoped to make about the commercial fishing industry (which Leviathan depicts in every stage, guts and all). “None,” he replied. To say that Leviathan uses sensory immersion as a means to some other definite end would be to miss the point altogether. It’s only, paradoxically, when we fully surrender to the experience of watching and feeling the film—to the exclusion of all other considerations—that we stand the best chance at deriving some higher significance from the ordeal. If there’s any intentionality in Leviathan at all, it is in the creation of an environment in which we find ourselves oppressed, weather-beaten, at times clinging to life—and especially receptive to the grandeur of nature, the mysteries of design, and perhaps (as the opening Job quote would suggest, though the filmmakers would probably just shrug equivocally at the inference) even the presence of God.

Field Diary is a political film in the same sense that Leviathan is a documentary. Gitai is set not on collecting evidence for some predetermined thesis, but on creating the sort of environment in which political strife just happens to come up—not as an “issue” but a fact of life. He’s interested in how it feels to live in an occupied territory, in the experience of being under constant threat, ever roving, never settling down. Much of Field Diary is shot from the windows of a moving car. At one point Gitai turns the camera on a refugee camp, on the smiling face of a young girl as she scampers from one derelict dwelling to the next. At another, he films the aftermath of a break-in carried out against a few young protesters by the police, his camera darting eagerly from overturned shelf to shelf, from shard to shard of broken glass. We feel as if Gitai, and ourselves by extension, could be subjected at any moment to the violence whose wreckage we’re now taking in, and it’s that sense of mounting dread, that constant threat, that makes Field Diary the deepest sort of political expression. The mere creation, proliferation, and consumption of these images is an act of dissent. We watch Leviathan and can’t help but gasp; we watch Field Diary and can’t help but rebel. And we do both, as is due all good cinema, with fear and trembling.

Max Nelson is a member of the NYFF Critics Academy program. You can follow his film journal Double Exposure on Twitter at @2xposure.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan has its sole New York Film Festival screening on October 13 at 6:00pm. Watch full video of our press conference for the film below:

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