Among the Waves: A Disappearance of Self from a New View of Nature
A camera looks up at the sky. It shows us a group of seagulls following a fishing boat for the detritus left behind. Then, the image topples. Birds are upside down, water rolls above them. None of this is unusual within the context of Leviathan (Castain-Taylor and Paravel, 2012), which says a lot about how well the filmmakers prepare us to see the world reversed. Leviathan was made at the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. It was shot off the coast of New England with GoPro cameras that move inside, around and off the boat, as well as in the air and under the water. These cameras vacillate between being seemingly absent or clearly aggressive, of belonging as much to the sea as to man.
Filmmakers Lucien Castain-Taylor and Verena Paravel both have backgrounds in art and photography. Coming at filmmaking with an arts outlook, they're inclined to veer away from the mainstream and push the limits of the medium. There is no dialogue in the documentary, for instance. This means there is no direct dissemination of information and no clear point of view. The camera work is so close to its subject, in fact, that we conflate it with the sea itself and find ourselves lost among the waves in that way when being lost inspires a sense of wonder.
One of the greatest pleasures of being lost is the disappearance of direction. One can find the pleasures of wandering only when the "right way" is not clear. These pleasures are only possible, of course, if we have the luxury to enjoy them. Leviathan is a luxurious film for this very reason, as it is in no hurry to find the right way and spoil the mood. The image of water upturned and rolling above the birds offers us the opportunity to notice this. It forces us to feel the instinctive thrill of bewilderment.
In addition to the disappearance of direction, Leviathan constantly plays with opposites. It shows us how two opposite poles can coexist without destructing or repelling each other. The poles here – under and over, man and animal, motion and stillness, water and sky – are so fluidly represented that they reside together. These worlds are set so closely beside one another that they are nearly the same thing. This could be the start of a riddle that leads into the absurd; it seems like a paradox ripe for losing ourselves.
The language of paradox could be a type of irony, but the underlying meaning of a paradoxical statement is not one that can be found as easily as in, say, satire or sarcasm, where the ostensible meaning is actually pointing the other direction. The phrase "aren't you clever?" is malicious under such circumstances where meaning moves in a relatively clear path from one thought to the other. The language of paradox in Leviathan is also not a bistable illusion – one of those pictures which looked at one way is a rabbit and another a duck, made popular in the children's book Duck! Rabbit! by Rosenthalt and Lichenheld. The eye cannot see both the duck and rabbit at the same time, so it puts our mind into a high-frequency oscillation between the two worlds.1 Rather than oscillate, paradoxical imagery challenges the viewer to interpret meaning without an object on which to focus, much less two to oscillate between. The world flipped over, as we see in the gif, asks us to follow an impossible occurrence with the acceptance that we have nothing to intellectualise. It provides us with no "ah ha" moment, as in irony, and no fun games, as with the bistable illusion. The only other option is to grapple with a new way of seeing the natural world.
Of course, this new sight is made possible by new tools. Using very small cameras creates a technique that shows us an abundance of vision, so much so that we might wonder if the camera has disappeared. Where has the beholder gone, asks Leviathan? This is the brilliance of this film and of the inverted image in particular, which functions as a metaphor for the fluidity between subject and object. Inversion changes the relationship between perceiver and perceived. If each is no longer separate spatially then how well can sight work to differentiate between the two? We are swallowed up and so is the Other by us while outside and inside fluctuate within the same unit.
Elisa New, a scholar who challenges critical assumptions about the power the perceiver has over the perceived, writes, "Beauty has ontological force: its perception affirms the place experience claims within being."2 New is saying, among other things, that our experience of what we perceive is more solid, if still subjective, than we generally consider it. It comes from us but is also separate from us. What Leviathan offers then, in this engulfing of ourselves within a filmed environment, is both beautiful and grotesque, but it isn't clear at which moments we're supposed to experience either of these. The subjective element is free of the usual manipulations movies use to direct our emotions. Imagine Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) stripped of the war. Still, the music and lighting would affect us. Without music, lacking cinematic lighting and nearly entirely absent of dialogue, Leviathan has a similar effect as that attributed to the Biblical monster that shares its name. This monster can't be known. It is unpredictable. Accounts vary as to who and what the creature is – sometimes a whale or dragon, other times the sea itself. But by all accounts the creature is immense, too big and unwieldy to catch in one sighting. The film too is a monster, of a sort, whose powers to consume us shows us something about the act of being swallowed.
What we're shown or, more accurately, what we yield to, is a spell of the sensuous, which includes everything from the sublime to the terrifying. These perceptions, however they might differ among individuals, take on the weight of transformation when we consider what we've been through – an ordeal that undermines ourselves as the subject, so enveloped we become in the enormous environment the film depicts and specifically within the reversed image of the waves above and ourselves sinking beneath them. Where are we? What is happening? Will anyone find us?