Friday, March 26, 2010

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) A Film by Wes Anderson

After countless viewings, Wes Anderson's formally stunning The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a film that maintains its ability to elicit a childlike awe. Decidedly minor and laid-back, it's like an old toy revisited with nostalgic fondness that conserves the sense of spectacular joy it was met with, albeit in a somewhat antique form. My initial encounter with the film was baffling and revelatory; no one was making films as visually self-conscious and unique as this one, not to mention with such a polished strain of dry, dry humor. I was also hugely impressed to see established actors - Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, and Jeff Goldblum - playing characters that were highly idiosyncratic and flawed, unlike anything they had done before, with nary a whiff of professional elitism. Much of this was of course because I had somehow not yet been exposed to the films of Wes Anderson, so what followed was a passionate trek through the entire oeuvre of his young career, discovering gems like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. My softest spot still resides with the underrated The Life Aquatic though, for no film Anderson has made is quite as unremittingly funny and hermetically sealed.

Its subject, the oceanographer-cum-documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), is a charming tribute to renowned underwater scientist Jacques Cousteau. Garbed with Cousteau's trademark light blue shirt and stubby orange hat, he is a peculiar figure, utterly consistent in his ways and doggedly determined to right his wrongs and accomplish his odd goals. Once a prolific, well-respected filmmaking champion, he is now something of an aging master, still regarded relatively highly by his admirers but also held as a pathetic wash-up by an equal portion of critics. His fall from grace is a result of his unchanging nature, sticking by his guns while the world around him evolves. In the opening scene of the film, at a retrospective of his work in a grand theater, his mission becomes evident: he will set out to sea once again with his last scraps of money to make a heartfelt, vengeful documentary about his search for the supposed "jaguar shark" that previously killed his right-hand man, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel). His hope is that the ambitious project, for which he is left with a diminutive crew of six or seven longtime partners and a handful of unpaid interns, will salvage both his career and his troubled marriage to Eleanor Zissou (Anjelica Huston), whose affair with his seafaring rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) provided the two of them a variety of reasons to part ways, not the least of which was Hennessey's ostensible bisexuality.

The echoes of Herman Melville's Moby Dick are never over-pronounced; instead Anderson and screenwriter Noah Baumbach let the film take its own unusual detours, just as the Cousteau references are not acknowledged too explicitly, allowing Zissou to become his own eccentric individual. One of the major elements that makes the screenplay depart from a mere cinematic retelling of the Great American Novel is through the inclusion of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a young, budding sea-explorer and excited member of The Zissou Society (a tight-knit organization used as marketing for the Zissou film franchise) who may or may not be Zissou's estranged son. In a wry joke, he admits to only knowing about his son through an article he read about himself, introducing one of the film's thematic strands of dislodged identity, the way that the knowledge of one's self can drift at sea until something relocates it. Zissou is quite skeptical of fatherhood, leading him to be dismissive when Ned asks him if he can call him "Father", suggesting instead that he use the term "Stevesy". As in all of Anderson's films, the male relationship is something that must always skirt outward emotional involvement, as two clearly sensitive men attempt to project a nonchalant sense of masculinity. Thus Steve and Ned's relationship never really reaches the level of father-son; they are closer to buddies with a generational gap, lending Zissou an inherent air of mentorship even if many times he proves to be the less mature of the two. Impeding their ability to achieve a more familial bond is their romantic battle over the pregnant English journalist that accompanies the crew on their mission, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), whom Ned has clearly won over from the very beginning.

The Life Aquatic progresses like a feather blowing in the wind, in a manner of extreme cool that is so consistent that even discordant action sequences have a detached air to them. This is a quality that has led many to dismiss the film as smug, as if Anderson cares only about his pedantry and not his audience, but it's actually a storytelling rhythm that fits the subject like a glove. Bill Murray has come to be a specialist of disaffected middle-aged men stuck in a vacuous search for love and hope and hindered by their own acquiescence, and Steve Zissou is poised securely in that vein, hardly ever cracking a smile throughout the film. Furthermore, the setting of the open ocean acts as an externalization of his drifting non-presence. Only when he strikes land does it become bracingly clear why he's chosen oceanography as a career; he can't seem to connect with anyone but a few of his own partners, like the childish Klaus (Willem Dafoe) or the faithful Vladimir Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor). Though he seeks order in his small, closed-off world inside the ship - a trait that Anderson illustrates through a magical protracted dolly shot surveying the guts of the boat like a kid reveling over his new doll house - a landlocked life presents a hideous overabundance of order, causing him to grow bitter and dispassionate. The film's opening sequence contains a number of marvelous non-sequiturs that gradually paint a picture of Zissou as a curmudgeonly Larry David-type, yet seemingly without enough energy to fully indulge in his quibbles. First, he signs a long line of movie posters for an elderly fan before telling him to "get lost", then he walks by Ned as he introduces himself, muttering only a drolly hilarious "Ok, man".

Anderson and his regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman capture imagery of delicate whimsy and bizarre elegance, making this the Anderson film with the most exuberant formal pleasures. It's an aesthetic of Kubrickian focus, with a striking color palette containing aqua blues, greens, and yellows as well as the occasional red, and an emphasis on individual figures squashed inside widely crammed frames. The film also mixes together the documentary footage of the Zissou team's experiences, perhaps mindfully incorporating a Cousteau-like style, and kitschy underwater animation provided by Henry Selick (the director of Coraline and James and the Giant Peach). The animated fish help to keep things on a playful level, as if any hint of realism would shatter the carefully mounted milieu and suggest that Zissou's a more serious figure than we perceive him as. Finally, Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh scores the film with an anthemic soft techno tune, complete with thunderous orchestral translations. Oh, and David Bowie is the film's other implicit star, springing to life in Seu Jorge's swooning Portuguese renditions.

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