Leviathan opens with a passage from the Book of Job, an Old Testament chronicle of the suffering endured by the titular everyman, who’s tumultuous relationship with his faith is documented in roughly 39 chapters of poetic inquiry. Concerning Job’s allegorical inquisition into the relationship between human nature and that of our earthly environs, Chapter 41 of the Book of Job provides a metaphysical foundation for the latest documentary from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, who’s cinema division has given us some of the most impressive recent work in the field of nonfiction cinema, including Castaing-Taylor’s own Sweetgrass and Véréna Paravel’s Foreign Parts. These two luminaries collaborated on Leviathan, a staggering anthropological account of an industrial fishing vessel off the New Bedford coast of Massachusetts, where an untold number of ships have gone missing over the years as crews tend to a seemingly mundane vocation. Yet their workaday grind is anything but routine, and the results of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s fearless documentation of the enterprise is the heart-stopping cinematic analogue to the crew’s real-world peril.
Véréna Paravel (#1–10 of 3)
I woke up at 4 a.m. on Thursday to take two flights to St. Louis and then drive two hours to Columbia, Missouri for the eighth True/False Film Festival. This is my third visit to True/False as part of a growing contingent of Mainers (and Maine sympathizers from both coasts) who planted a flag in Columbia five years ago. Aptly described as the “platonic ideal of a college town” by ’09 House correspondent Vadim Rizov, downtown Columbia, on this weekend, seems to exist as a factory which serves exclusively to produce volunteers (600 - 700 this year) for this enchanting documentary film festival.
Columbia, just slightly overwhelmed by True/False’s growing audience (on Sunday afternoon, the downtown trash cans are overflowing with sleeved coffee cups), is immensely welcoming and charming, its amusing incongruities (restaurants closed for church on Sunday; dirt-cheap cigarettes) reminding you what part of the country you’re in, even as you attend a devolving series of late-night afterparties and catch sights like a ukulele-playing busker performing an earnest version of Pulp’s “Common People.” Columbia’s good spirit infects its visitors: both spectators, who eagerly introduce themselves to anyone standing alone (or, in my case, cheerfully inquiring about why I’m writing in a notebook during a screening), and filmmakers, none of whom are hosting premieres or competing for awards or distribution, and who therefore treat this annual journey as something like to a vacation.
Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki’s new documentary Foreign Parts, like Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass, carries within itself a stirring vibrancy and yet unfolds with patience and an unfettered trajectory, like a lovely and detailed visual elegy. Where Barbash and Castaing-Taylor took the iconic vision of cowboys driving a sea of bleating sheep through the hills of Montana as a reflection of an evaporating, essentially American landscape and workforce, Paravel and Sniadecki opt for the more direct image of the shanty town of auto repair shops that has thrived in Willets Point, Queens for years and is now being cleared by developers. The fact that these shops stands in the shadows of Citi Field adds quite the exclamation point.