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Cinema Signal: A green light with special interest for seagoers and seafood lovers. MOBILE: |
. "Leviathan"

I'm as much an ocean lover as the next human fish. And, as a scuba diver/seafood-gourmand who has worked a few days on a small commercial fishing boat out of San Diego, California -- laying and hauling nets, baiting hooks and fileting fish by the hundreds -- I can attest to the physicality of the work aboard a boat that operates on the commercial level. Fact is, those few days were the hardest I've ever worked in order to meet the expectations of a skipper.

While I appreciate this recall of those days, I do have a minor problem with this footage overkill produced by documentarians Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel who, with twelve watertight cameras, zoned in on the catch and the crew of a trawler in the Moby Dick waters off New Bedford, on the Massachusetts coast.

The nighttime parts of the expedition are lit by nothing more than the ship's lights, making for extremes of stark contrast, often -- very often -- denying us enough detail for orientation. The lack of a narrative to aid our understanding of what we're seeing is a time-honored tradition in the world of documentaries. But, as cameras are immersed into the sea and the wake of the boat, then into the catch itself as hundreds of sea creatures come spewing from the nets and inundating us to a total blackout, is taking it as far as pure environmental impression-making will go.

The sounds are a cacophany of chains winding around hydraulic and mechanical winches, the low but muscular grumble of the boat's engines, the splash of the water against the sides of the boat, the whine of the screws making a wake as they push the boat forward, the sporadic dialogue of men barking instructions, silently fileting fish or knifing scallops out of their shells. I haven't felt this drenched in seawater since my last scuba dive.

The camera catches a spooky flying armada shadowing the ship -- white winged creatures against a pitch black sky at night, flapping grey forms by day. Their screeches tell us how excited they are at the opportunity of an easy meal of cast-off fish heads and entrails. For the sea gulls, it's party time!

The filmmakers, looking for every possible angle to capture the fullest extent of this ocean enterprise, place their cameras everywhere. One camera slips through the catch to capture extreme close-up views as fish and fish parts slosh into the catch bin. We see the crew members sorting them by type for storage below decks. Unwanted sea life, like the sting rays that made their way into the nets, are unceremoniouly slit in thirds or just jettisoned through the scuppers and back to sea.

The cameras gradually focus on the men themselves as they demonstrate their expertise at the jobs they've done for most of their lives. Near the end, we watch one of them as he sits at a table at the end of his shift and tries to concentrate on a fishing show on TV, sipping from a cup. You can see what his life is devoted to. Is it a job... or a calling? But, after a day's work, he struggles to keep his eyes open.

If you'd like to get a glimpse of what the work and mechanics of commercial fishing is like from the dry comfort of your living room, you should be interested in the experience this film provides. Few are likely to be inspired to go to sea aboard a factory boat and join these hard, laconic men as they help to stock the fish at your grocer and the seafood menus of our restaurants. On the other hand, if it does, make sure you've got the muscle, the steadiness and the perseverance to do it.

As for the "minor problem" I referred to, it may be less a matter of pasting so much footage together for a theatre-length release and more a matter of overkill for the format. "Leviathan" as a one-hour TV special by severing a lot of the repetition and sequence lengths would be adequate. Still [full disclosure], I give it a green light because of the visceral attachment I have with the subject.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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