THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU: Wes Anderson, Juvenile Delinquent

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – 2004 – dir. Wes Anderson

Among the star indie directors that emerged in the 1990s, Wes Anderson probably has the most consistent and recognizable style. A comprehensive exegesis of his tics would take all day, so I’m just going to focus on a single film that I happen to love and defend a specific theory on it: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou was actually directed by a child.

For starters, the movie is in that genre so preferred by children, adventure. Zissou, a Jacques-Cousteau type played by Bill Murray, is taking his ship and crew to find the outsized shark that ate his best friend on their last voyage. Shortly in, we see that characterization in The Life Aquatic also suggests a kid’s approach. Critics have pointed out that Anderson’s adults are often immature, and Zissou fits this pattern, tossing out homophobic slurs and calling dibs on the pregnant woman who has joined the expedition. His purpose in finding the shark is nothing as stuffy as scientific interest, only a fantasy of revenge. We can estimate Steve Zissou’s emotional age, in other words, at about 14.

It’s not only the petty jealousy and anger that work to make Anderson’s characters juvenile. Their big issues, in The Life Aquatic and elsewhere, include wistful romances and tortured parent-child relationships; you’ll notice that these are the same difficulties consuming high schoolers. Beyond this, though, there’s the acting. Anderson’s players are above all emotively muted. Characters are rarely hysterical, tearful, or visibly angry — when the bile comes out, it’s in the form of asides delivered cold — and their responses rarely match the significance of events and revelations. This happens to be Bill Murray’s style anyhow, but it’s not like Anderson makes anybody else expressive, either. If a pre-adolescent made a film about adults, it’s easy to think it would be filled with grown-ups making only the slightest change in affect from scene to scene, guided by a filmmaker with no personal experience in complex emotions or their artful depiction.

You might be thinking that The Life Aquatic sounds awful, but I should reiterate that in actuality it’s captivating and wonderful. Anderson’s mannered ways are refreshing for being unique, and the low-key acting rewards you for paying attention to drama that doesn’t beat you over the head. (I’ve often thought, contrary to many, that the best films only work with the sound on.) We don’t think J.D. Salinger is inept for using a teenager’s voice to narrate The Catcher in the Rye, and Wes Anderson is as deft as the celebrated author.

Anyway, on to the mise-en-scene. Another hallmark of Anderson’s films is his love of the material world, usually in the form of kitschy gadgets, outfits, accoutrements, and lairs riddled with same. These bits of culture are never contemporary and scramble our sense of the films’ settings and time periods, refusing to indicate exactly what era they are set in, much like the fairy tales traditionally consumed by you-know-who. Moreover, this physical stuff is significant for itself, and not solely because, as Forrest Wickman points out, “Anderson’s films are littered with children’s adventure toys: walkie talkies, BB guns, binoculars.” These bits of production design assume importance by their very peculiarity, and Anderson has chosen them for our visual delight, sometimes going so far as to point the camera on the inanimate and pretty with no other motive than delectation, as he does in The Life Aquatic with slow pans over letters from and to Zissou. It’s probably less than coincidence that toys, costumes, and pillow forts are of inordinate value to children just as much as the tools, uniforms, and vehicles of The Life Aquatic are integral to its look and feel.

As part of the mise-en-scene package formed by Anderson’s singular sensibility, the spaces of The Life Aquatic are, likewise, affectionately elaborate. Zissou’s ship could be the diagram of a fourth grader with the implicit mandate of cramming in as much as possible, including the more unlikely facilities of a library, a recording studio, and a sauna. Anderson’s camera shows off Zissou’s boat by panning through a giant cutaway version of the ship complete with oblivious crew members; others have noted the similarity here to a doll house. Maybe it’s only because of the countless drawings of mountain fortresses that I drafted in my day, but this cutaway business more or less screams childish imagination to me. It certainly doesn’t hurt my theory that Anderson portrays marine life with cuts to what is obviously claymation. “Realism schmealism,” says the kid directing the movie.

Finally, I’ll add that even the camera does things that seem to come from this youthful perspective. Anderson uses an overwhelming number of views that are parallel or perpendicular to the wall or ceiling, and low- or high-angle shots are rare, except if you count Anderson’s signature overheads, which still maintain a right-angled vision. You can practically see these compositions as drawn by youngsters who don’t know any better than to create pictures with that same presentational effect. Again, lest you think I’m denigrating Anderson, I should mention that I love these shots for their formal daring and beauty.

The sum of these parts is that Anderson’s style, like any child’s, is felt. Sometimes it’s more obvious, such as with the boat cutaway, which is awfully close to holding up a sign that says, “Hey there, look at the jokey, self-conscious manner by which this ship is presented.” But more generally, this director just doesn’t seem interested in using any of the conventions that aim for what we think of as “naturalistic” filmmaking. To tick off the points: the fanciful costuming, the cinematography of 90-degree angles, the flat acting, the worship of campy objects and sets. It all adds up, at least for me, in a way that draws attention to the artificiality of the film. “Artificial” as in literally made by hand, with the stamp of its creator in full view and distracting us from taking the work as a simple, unadorned window onto its world. I don’t think it’s hard to argue, if you agree with the above, that the effect alienates us from the dramatic vein insofar as we’re reminded that we’re watching a bunch of people in front of a camera.

(I’m sketching what I hope is a common sense outline of a profound issue in art. I can’t do it justice here, but I can offer this funny apropos quote from co-writer Noah Baumbach’s commentary on the Criterion Collection DVD: “I referred to the movie to somebody at a party, I think after a few drinks, as ‘Godardian,’ and was laughed at, and I probably shouldn’t be saying that again, but I actually think it’s true.”)

It’s probably surprising, then, that The Life Aquatic is moving where it’s supposed to be. Anderson’s characters are more compelling for being unrefined and immature, and his doomed romantics and unrepentant pricks are a refreshing change of subject from the mainstream fare of 30-something yuppies muddling through contrived dating complications. People are less intractably weird than Anderson would have them be, but Steve Zissou’s shift from being insufferable to being only mildly unsympathetic is more in line with real life, and so more compelling, than almost anything Hollywood offers.

So what are we, the audience, supposed to do with this movie? Is this thing arty and self-mocking, making us too aware of its youthful auteur to care about its contents, or is the film an intimate portrait of dysfunction ultimately redeemed? The Life Aquatic doesn’t smooth out these two tonal registers into a easy blend. If you show up the awkwardness of filmic storytelling one moment, it’s hard to get viewers involved in the melodrama the next. From this dynamic, a whole new question presents itself, namely, whether we can accept and even be moved when these two ideas are forced together in a single film. That film is basically demanding that we appreciate the movie in two contradictory modes, both detached and engaged.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I love contradictions.

Repertory Series: Kurosawa in History • SEVEN SAMURAI • Friday 11/23 & Saturday 11/24
Brandon Irvine Written by: