Film festivals thrive on variety. But with all of the films on the docket at this year’s New York Film Festival, some are bound to be more closely aligned than others. Such is the case with a particularly fascinating pair of documentaries: “Room 237” and “Leviathan.” Both films are interesting by themselves, but side-by-side they are much more notable — total creative opposites within a single sub-genre. More importantly, both represent major shifts in the style of documentary filmmaking.
“Room 237” is a documentary about Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and the hidden meanings and conspiracy theories that surround it. It consists almost entirely of lengthy excerpts from five different interviews done by director Rodney Ascher, each focusing on an individual conspiracy theory and its theorist. The theories are as fascinating as they are bizarre, including allusions to Native American massacres and the Holocaust, the idea that the film was meant to be watched backwards, and the insistence that it is evidence that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing for the United States government.
“Leviathan” is a different kind of experimental documentary, one of the strangest I have ever seen. I don’t know if there has ever been a feature film quite like it, and that is probably why it has been getting so much critical acclaim. I can’t say that I enjoyed this film about the North Atlantic fishing industry, but it represents something new and different from a purely technical standpoint, which makes it worth talking about.
Both films feature unusual presentations and non-narrative structures. In “Room 237,” one interview rambles right into the next, with no clear-cut connections between them. More confusingly, the film never shows any of the interviewees. All five of them are introduced by onscreen title card when they first speak, but those names are quickly forgotten. Without any visual cues from one to the next, there’s no way to connect a name to a voice to an idea, which makes Ascher’s focus seem haphazard and his subject unclear.
“Leviathan,” on the other hand, doesn’t really have subjects at all. There are various fishermen around the boat, but they’re just there, experiencing the same things the audience is seeing. “Room 237” lives and dies by its dialogue, but “Leviathan” functions on its ambience. Of the few hundred words of dialogue in the film, maybe ten percent are intelligible over the din of wind and waves. “Leviathan”‘s shifts around the boats seem arbitrary. Although there is a somewhat logical progression of documented events in parts of the film, there’s never a identifiable reason for cuts. They just happen — eventually.
“Room 237″‘s decision not to show its interviewees on camera is part of a larger stylistic choice not to show anything outside the world of old movies. Instead, it overlays the interviewees’ babble with film clips, primarily from “The Shining,” but occasionally from other films as well. Sometimes an interviewee will mention a specific shot and “Room 237” will play the shot, sometimes it’s a less direct connection. It’s a different style for a film with a potential theatrical release, but it still seems very familiar. After I left the theater I realized why: “Room 237” is essentially a feature-length YouTube video.
There are videos like “Room 237” all over the internet. Some are 8 minutes long; some are 80, but they have the same basic visual language: juxtaposing words and images to get a point across rather than using visuals of the speakers themselves. There is one major difference between “Room 237” and the YouTube films it bears so much resemblance to, though, and that has to do with the filmmaker’s absence.
Usually, the editor of a YouTube video narrates their creation as he or she tries to convince the viewer of some main idea; that’s not case with “Room 237.” Rodney Ascher has essentially no presence in the film. Even so, his biases still show through — as in his use of cleverly placed quips from film clips to comment on the interviews (“That’s crazy talk!” one actor says after a particularly ridiculous theory).
Objectivity is not necessarily something that documentarians need to incorporate into their films, nor is it necessary for a good documentary, but having the filmmakers entirely out of sight and out of mind generally makes me think that there might be less manipulation going on. Perhaps that’s just me being naïve, though, and that idea is certainly outside the scope of this article.
The question of “Leviathan”‘s objectivity is more interesting to consider. The film consists exclusively of painfully long takes, most of which focus on some bloody aspect of the fishing process: chopping off manta rays’ fins, beheading fish, or kicking the discarded guts overboard. There are rare moments where there is no death onscreen, but many of them don’t feature any actual fishermen. Having never been on a fishing boat before, it’s difficult to say whether or not the entire day is made up of the mass slaughtering of fish. According to “Leviathan,” the answer is yes.
Even without dialogue, narration, or any kind of context, this impression could still be seen as subjective. It may appear to be a presentation of things as they exist with no commentary, but the filmmakers chose what made the final cut. Without that context, it’s impossible to know how they feel about what they’re showing. If they are, for example, members of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, an organization that is “dedicated exclusively to conserving ocean fish,” that would be a good thing to know. It’s not clear from “Leviathan” itself why it exists or what its directors’ intentions were. The filming style may give a sense of objectivity, but its content does not.
Both “Room 237” and “Leviathan” benefit greatly from 21st Century technology. “Room 237″‘s audio quality is adequate at best, and at least one of the five voices is electronically garbled due to what sounds like phone (or perhaps Skype) interference, and irritating yet impressive sign of how things have changed. With each passing year, more and more people have access to the digital resources necessary to make a film like this. With an idea and a bit of drive, anybody could make a film like “Room 237.” A cursory glance at YouTube shows that people already do.
“Leviathan” evokes YouTube videos in a different way. The film was shot with tiny wearable/mountable cameras capable of surviving extreme conditions. “Leviathan” takes full advantage of this remarkable technology, with cameras perched in all kinds of precarious positions around, outside, and even beneath the boat. This makes the first 10-15 seconds of every new shot interesting, because, at least for the first two-thirds of the film, they tend to show something new and different.
But at some point this technique begins to seem more like a marketing stunt than anything done for artistic reasons, like an elaborate ad for camera manufacturer GoPro. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of YouTube videos showing off the capabilities of these cameras as people jump from planes or dive with sharks. In a theater, “Leviathan” seems comparatively larger and more intense, but it functions more effectively as a reminder of the technology’s use than as a film in and of itself.
Filmmaking has changed a lot in recent years, and both “Room 237” and “Leviathan” are prime examples. Without easily accessible digital versions of movies and relatively affordable editing software, “Room 237” could not have had its narrated clips presentation. Without the advent of weatherproof digital cameras, “Leviathan” couldn’t exist at all. Hopefully others will look at movies like these and try to learn from them. They both contain lessons, good and bad, that could and should be taken note of by future filmmakers, documentary or otherwise.
Alec Kubas-Meyer has a tendency to watch movies that most people will probably never see, which makes him very sad. He is currently an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence college and an Associate Editor for Flixist. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.