02/09/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Portland Int'l Film Festival Screens Spanish Silent Blancanieves, Man VS. Nature Doc Leviathan

Herewith, notes on the Portland International Film Festival's Grimm (and grimmer) opening-night silent-film Blancanieves, and the edgy, Man VS. Nature doc, Leviathan, plus notes on the recently restored stone-cold classic doc, Cousin Jules.


Verena Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor
2012, France/UK/USA; 87m

Positing cheap consumer video cameras as gadfly, barnacle, shipman's eye-view, eye-of-God, ant's-eye, bird's-eye, fish eye (not fish-eye), on-board its titular subject, Leviathan, a filmed document of life on a commercial fishing vessel delivers a vital sense of the Darwinian, dually via the filming of an animal higher-up in the food chain awesomely rounding up its food supply with extra-natural apparatuses, and also via its depiction of the literal and existential viscosity of a freakish, miraculous, amorally brutal existence, begat from the ocean itself.

Indeed, the opening sequence, filmed at dawn as the ship rushes away from the horizon where daylight is just breaking, is, in its progression from a maelstrom of abstract color and sound, through the slow emergence of the rhythmic, menacing churn of heavy machinery and a scene of frantic collective human endeavor, a kind of encapsulation of our evolutionary trajectory.

What we experience most viscerally (hence, perhaps, the surprising number of walk-outs at the NYFF press screening) by virtue of camera placement, is the near-disorientation engendered by the simultaneous order and chaos of the hauling of nets, the subsequent (when things go well) race against the clock to sort, butcher, store thousands of fish, and the dozens of other constant demands of seafaring labor. "Like a Red Lobster commercial on acid" I wrote in my notebook.

Placing a camera atop each of the crews' helmets gave new meaning to the phrase "Aye-aye captain", and as the nets are hauled in, the ship's overhead light creates an otherworldly event, which in scale (as it were) to the fishes' experiences, might as well be an alien abduction.

The payload is an awesome and grotesque capture: a wondrous, psychedelic mass of teeming life forms, extravagantly stretching a bulbous net to near-bursting, the fishes' eyes popping out of their sockets, their swelling faces squeezed by sheer weight and mass through the net's grid, bulging like kernels of corn on a cob, and subsequently disgorged in a surfeit operand to be marshaled by the seamen.

A shot of a seamen butchering fluke in a Zen-simple three-step choreography of picking up each fish with a grappling hook through the head, machete-slashing its wings, tossing its skull and vertebrae, emerges as a hypnotic mechanical ballet, like a boxer working the bag. A subsequent shot by a camera "buried alive " in a bin being filling with slowly dying life-forms makes for a kind of nature-doc update to the coffin-view scene in Dreyer's Vampyr.

Such scenes of brutal nature, will, for some, inherently restore gravitas to the contemplation of the food that arrives on our plates. This viewer was reminded of why I (after seeing the documentary Nenette, you can read my review HERE) gave up my beloved Bronx Zoo, a meat-based diet, and fishing, which I used to love. Perhaps in life, one should, at least once, directly experience the process of, well, animal slaughter. Eating meat is completely natural, yet, perhaps it should not be automatic -- this is only my inchoate opinion. Others may see this film and appreciate -- as did co-director Verena Pareval -- fish-as-food-supply even more. Neither view is more correct than the other, though the deliberation and arrival at a conscious choice may be an existential responsibility.

also delivers an iconic, in-situ 'Metal video for Mastodon's "Ahab", from their album "Leviathan", by way of a moment of serene, dharmic meditation, as the captain at the wheel stares straight into the horizon, becoming a kind of tribute to all sea captains, and maybe delivering a kind of expository video letter from work, to their kids who miss them during theses long, perilous voyages. Perhaps this is also accomplished in a subsequent scene in which we see the same cat, beyond exhaustion, slowly dozing off in the ship's kitchen, while an episode of "Whale Wars" airs on the TV. The captain finally falls asleep to an aria and the intermittent chatter of television commercials.

Seeing fish being washed, and subsequently, a crew member taking a shower, evoked a sublime (and by "sublime" I mean both meanings: the shape-shifting of a substance -- in this case through natural selection, rather than temperature change -- as well as the awe-inspiring) sense of Man's emergence from a primordial soup, through a process of evolution culminating with his invention of a fishing vessel and stewardship of a planet (and, of course, his invention of the motion-picture camera to document same).

An early blessing for Paravel and Castaing-Taylor came with the loss -- yes, to the sea -- of their expensive cameras, the replacement of which with relatively inexpensive water-proof-cased GoPro consumer cameras resulted in a huge net (as it were) gain for simple filmmaking.

During a longer, unedited sequence, the camera (atop an eight foot long 2x2) dives into the water for stretches during which we see scavenging gulls plunging from the air which is thick with bird-squawks and engine-rattle, and into an underwater sigh of sensory-relief delivered by slo-motion visuals and tapered acoustics, against which inevitably comes the garish contrast of the camera being lifted again out of the water, through the violent, ship-side currents at water's edge, and back into the sky, creating -- as the remaining drops of water on the camera's plastic encasement enhance our visual disorientation, and aviary life turns to marine life, and back again -- a kind of Escher-Morph.

A subsequent scene in which a bird crashes onto the deck of the good ship Leviathan, and, incapacitated, it slides off the fish-blood-soaked deck and back into the ocean, presumably to die, led to a bombardment of questions from the press, about the filmmakers' presumed ambivalence over filming an injured or helpless animal about to drown (as opposed to helping it).

In response to these earnest questions, the directors (who avoid over-explanation of their films) made like Terence Trent D'Arby, declaring their work neither fish nor fowl, as it were. After several more questions, Castaing-Taylor explained that the bird in question was in fact merely dazed and confused, not mortally wounded, and, like the other occasional living, stunned seagulls that temporarily crash onto fishing vessels, it would survive.

I'll note that perhaps, in our concern as viewers, we are answering our own questions about the film's function. One audience member, referencing Nikolaus Geyrhalter's film, Our Daily Bread, asked the duo what they were trying to say about the commercial fishing industry, to which Castaing-Taylor replied:

"Nothing. Were not trying to say anything. One of the things we're trying to do is to make films that don't say anything. To imagine that they're about something that can be expressed in words outside the fabric of the film itself is kind of ludicrous. Because then you wouldn't make the film, you would write it. But fiction, though, in particular narrative films, are [often] reducible to a making a statement about the world, and [thus] non-fiction, documentaries suffer by contrast with this burden that spectators put on it, that filmmakers, the programmers, the viewers place on it, which is, that it's always making a statement about the world, an argument about the world; [that] it's reducible to making a statement about the world, [and this] means that the whole swath, the whole domain of reality, everything that is non-fiction, is divested of its plentitude, its richness, the whole experiential, sensual qualities of being in the world, [just] so that they can be reduced to meaning, so they can be encapsulated in language and prose, [and this] is such a travesty to us ."

If intent is completely absent on the part of Castaing-Taylor and Pareval, there is of course, impetus, in this case a mutuality of post-project blues, and, paternal nostalgia. "I was crying all the time [after completing my last film]. Lucien was similar", is how Paravel characterizes the pre-project emotional waters they were swimming in, adding that the location where they filmed, in addition to being the site which inspired Melville to write Moby Dick, was also a canvas onto which Castaing-Taylor, the son of a naval architect, and Paravel, who as a child would wait for her father, a recreational diver to surface, reflected paternal nostalgia. And thus they went from post-project blues to Le Gran Blue, and in a way, to their childhood.

One hopes that this doesn't become a classic of world cinema, showing us what life was like before the oceans became completely unfit for animal habitation, and cloned, transgenic, recombinant, whatever, fish dinners are prepared by dropping a pellet into a protoplasm-activating solution, then selecting whatever species of fish we wish, after the pellet goes through a series of morphs, in a living menu: one minute for a trout, two for salmon.

On the subject of world cinema classics, and by way of a trans-festival digression, I'll note that at the 50th New York Film Festival, where I first saw Leviathan, while many noted the interesting bit of programming in the juxtaposition of The Life of Pi (a film about a man and a man-eating animal aboard a simple ocean craft, photographed with state of the art technology) and Leviathan (a film of animals and animal-eating men aboard a complex vessel, filmed in an extremely simple manner), for me there was also a rich thematic pairing to be found in Leviathan and the late Dominique Benicheti's Cousin Jules, which is a stone-cold-perfect, contemplative film documenting the daily life of a man and a woman, both in their eighties on a small farm.

Like my beloved The Turin Horse (there will be chores, there will be potatoes) but without the artifice, nor the apocalypse, (albeit, all of which, when handled by Tarr are good things), this chronicle of a simpler way of living -- perhaps because the camera simply exists within the time frame, and the location observing -- resonates with the profound, organic, existential beauty of, well, the miracle of daily life and the heroism of work, human endeavor, and of man's vital and primal relationship to land.

I asked former NYFF selection committee chairman Richard Peña, who brought Cousin Jules to the NYFF about the film: "Dominique Benicheti taught filmmaking at Harvard from 1976 - 1978, while I was a teaching fellow there; I always enjoyed talking to him about film. He did a screening of Cousin Jules, which just blew me away. I hadn't spoken to him for many years, but when he died last year I got in touch with a college friend, and asked about showing Cousin Jules. It turned out that there were no copies of the film -- the last one was scrapped in the '90s -- but Dominique, before his death, was already in conversation with a French lab about restoring the film. The lab, Arane, agreed to do the work in tribute to Dominique for a fraction of the true cost, and we were able to raise money from the Gould Foundation."

In late December, I was heartened by an email from Mr. Peña, apprising me of the fact that Cousin Jules had been selected for the Berlin Forum, and it made me hope that Cousin Jules will make the rounds of film festivals in 2013.

Perhaps what is called world cinema can uniquely evoke in us an empathetic deliverance, freed from the limitations of censor, semiotics, agenda, commercialism and a hundred other elements, in this case through the simple observation of the anarcho-individualism and earthbound commitment of a farming couple in France -- or anywhere. I wonder if there could be an international cinema-club of sorts, in which one film travels the world every year, or every month. Or, better yet, perhaps a mass broadcast of a different documentary every month. Much in the same way we're sending images to the heavens to show whoever's out there who we are, perhaps we can gain real respective on what our societies can really mean to each other, through a collective global movie night.

Pablo Berger
2012, Spain, B&W 104m

In my review of The Artist, I noted that it has been said that we Americans love a tragedy with a happy ending, hence the breakout success of that film's A Star Is Born remix-with-a-smiley-face ending. I'm not being a hater here -- I too, enjoyed The Artist.

And of course, in the wake of The Artist, we'll likely see more silent films and happy tragedies, though some silents, like PIFF's opening-night selection Blancanieves, will buck the trend -- and in this case, rightly return the good name of its source material's authors, The Brothers Grimm, to an adjective.

The B&W photography uniquely evokes the temperature of cool cement walls and a hot Spanish sun, and the four generations of Spanish female leads in this film are beautiful. Ángela Molina's stately, stoic matriarch seems to embody the soul and conscience of a nation; Macarena García's bob-cut Blancanieves has the unbelievable, wholesome beauty of a '70s figure skater, or a model in a '70s shampoo commercial; Maribel Verdú, despite her best efforts to be vile, is still a doe-eyed beauty, and the curly-tressed, dark-eyed Macarena García does much with her role as the younger Blancancita, and will proudly carry forth the acting lineage she is a part of.

I'm keeping this review short, so I won't tell you anything about the story other than to say what you already know: "Blancanieves" means "Snow White" -- though, it is perhaps interesting to see this as a parable for a nation's history, and to also wonder if a sequel shouldn't be made. Why not? Everybody loves a good sequel, which in this case, would be true to the book, and the film.


I am typing this
the week after the (apparently expected) decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to curtail the limit of cod per catch, which many fishermen believe will effectively end their commercial fishing businesses.

Fun fact: stay for Leviathan's closing credits: Human, animal life -- even planets and stars are named in Latin.

You can read my review of Lucien Casting Taylor's stone-cold classic western -- and by extension, American documentary HERE

You can read my review of Verena Paravel's stone-cold New York -- and by extension, American documentary, HERE