The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
Directed by Wes Anderson
Screenplay by Anderson and Noah Baumbach
The new film from writer/director Wes Anderson and expands on the quirky, highly personal world-view that informed his earlier pictures, Bottle-Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums. Co-written with Noah Baumbach, the script is a digressive mosaic that pieces the story together almost incidentally, as the focus constantly shifts from events to relationships to circumstances and surroundings.
Anderson's work is strongly reminiscent of that of a number of other ground-breaking directors, including Woody Allen (the introspective insight presented as deadpan comedy), Frederico Fellini ( the interweaving of the surreality of the inner world with "objective" representations of "events"), and Robert Altman (the non-linear presentation of action and story-line that requires the audience to create their own "center" for the film). His work is not so much derivative, as inclusive, learning from the techniques of such distinguished predecessors and building on them.
Anderson is not interested in exploring the neat package of successive events of a typical "plot." His films explore the interaction between events and our human condition - the emotional impact that events have on us, how they change us, and how we create and affect them. To do this he creates a "world" of his own, a reflective, semi-permeable interface between events as observed and as experienced.
In The Life Aquatic he takes this technique to a new level. The enclosed system of the world of Steve Zissou is both highlighted and satirized by the various visual references - from the cutaway version of his ship, the Belafonte, in which some of the action takes place; to the submersible - a literal "bubble" - in which they finally encounter the object of their quest. What becomes clear is Anderson's conviction that it is not the events of our lives, but the people with whom we interact and the relationships we form that are the real substance of our existence.
One sequence that underlines this perception is the final confrontation with the Jaguar Shark, the focus of Zissou's revenge. By transforming the McGuffin around which the whole plot has revolved, Anderson underlines his apparent contention that the "reasons" we give for our actions are meanings that are added on afterwards.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou also explores the confusion between actual experience and fantasy. As he did with the "Serpico; The Musical" sequence in Rushmore, Anderson includes an "action/adventure" subplot here, this time involving pirates and kidnapping. Unlike the staged violence of the Rushmore scene, this one involves some moments that are actually harrowing, but the message is the same (only more so): the line between "real life" and entertainment is dangerously obscure.
The obviously cinematic bravado Zissou displays in his gun battles with the pirates (not to mention his apparent invulnerability to their return-fire) can't be taken literally. It is a movie convention, exploited to create a symbolic analogy for the character's need to stand up for himself, to be fearless. But Anderson is not afraid to blur the lines between the literal and the metaphoric. In fact, his films are very much about the way we all blend events and interpretations in our perception and ordering of our experience.
We collude with Anderson when we suspend our disbelief and accept Zissou's acts of derring-do. But what does it mean to us (and say about us) we may find ourselves asking later, that we surrender our critical faculties in order to be entertained?
These are difficult ideas, not easily expressed in words - which may be why Wes Anderson is making movies instead of writing books. Rather than writing about "the absurd," as the existentialist philosophers did (leaving most of us confused and intimidated) Anderson explores it - not as some theoretical concept, but as the actual stuff of our everyday lives and daydreams. He is probing the nature of consciousness within the context of what he certainly hopes will be "mass entertainment." It is a daunting undertaking (as well as an "absurd" one).
Anderson the director and Anderson the screenwriter (with co-writer Baumbach) work well together on this. The movie is paced in a way that never allows it to become bogged down or to take itself too seriously. It sets up situations that practically cry for a cliched resolution, and then may a sharp turn into something completely different - but even in this it is unpredictable!
Anderson uses the process of making a movie (the narrative arc of the Zissou story, as well as the actual process in which Anderson himself is engaged) to illuminate the interactions of ordinary life. The process of organizing events and personalities into a "movie," he is clearly suggesting, makes us all writer/directors of our own lives. The on-screen-drama, the off-screen-drama, the characterizations and interactions, reflect the conditon and interactions of the characters, the movie-makers and the audience - both actual and fantasized.
This is one of the most difficult films I have ever written about. There is a temptation to avoid the subtle and difficult, and to describe and focus on the obvious and superficial. Although I can't predict how you will respond to what is on the screen, I can say that there is plenty there for you to react to and that a single viewing will probably not be enough.
The acting is excellent. Bill Murray gives a performance here that is as sucessful as - and far more difficult than - his turn in last year's Lost In Translation. Striking the exact right note of conviction and sincerity, even while delivering dialogue that is obviously tongue-in-cheek is a skill that is rare. Murray shows not only that, but a whole range of understated emotional ambiguities that make his character both iconic and specifically human.
He is perfectly cast. The mixture of world-weariness and longing he embodies reflects (as it did in LIT) the consequences of mixing introspective insight and a struggle for personal integrity with cynical realism regarding himself and the world around him - Anderson's encapsulation of the existential anti-hero of the early 21st Century. Anderson reportedly wrote the film with Murray in mind, and it is hard to imagine how anyone else could carry off the mixture of comedy, thoughtfulness and genuine emotion in quite the way he does.
Owen Wilson plays Ned Plimpton - Zissou's putative son from a long-ago liaison - with an effective mixture of innocence and ambivalence. As a repository for all the archetypal conflicts that inhabit Anderson's story - authority and sexual-rivalry conflicts between fathers and sons are among the most distinct - Wilson is a little vague, a characteristic that seems to help his character invite the audience to help him carry the weight. Wilson's off-kilter good looks and aw-shucks persona make him an effective and credible pivot point in the triangle that involves his father and Cate Blanchett's Jane as the object of their simultaneous affections.
Blanchett makes her character, a pregnant journalist who is a former Zissou groupie and still harbors a grudging admiration for her hero, an intriguing mixture of self-absorption and vulnerability. Her concern with "getting the story" reiterates the audience's natural tendency to try to "follow the plot" and make sense of events as they unfold. Her pregnancy itself represents a real, relentless event that makes a both a humorous and an ironic comment on the other "events" that take place.
The ensemble cast of supporting characters wokr well individually and together and are well-used. Angelica Huston, as Zissou's supportive but jaded wife, effectively deflates his self-importance, while adding a note of sincerity to the respect for his integrity and accomplishment. Jeff Goldblum, as Zissou's oily professional and romantic rival, provides a glimpse into the egotistical, materialistic dark side of himself Zissou tries to deny.
Michael Gambon, as Zissou's producer, appears as a fountain of self-aggrandizing and theatrical artificiality, but events make more of him. Bud Cort (of Harold and Maude fame), as a hapless Bonding Company agent with unexpected depths and talents, has one of the film's best lines and underscores the fact that no one is what they seem.
The music is the usual eclectic Anderson Mix, juxtaposing classical music with songs by David Bowie and acoustic versions of those songs (and other Bowie favorites) performed on guitar in Portuguese translation by a singer named Seu Jorge, who plays a member of the crew. The skewed flavor imparted by a Portuguese rendition of "Space Oddity" contributes to the general air of disorienting surrealism that suspends the film somewhere between narrative and myth.
The camera work is very good. There are many very difficult shots in confined spaces that are pulled off without any unnatural sense of intrusion, There is a remarkable crane shot that follows two characters up, down and around through the maze of the cut-away version of the ship. There are underwater sequences and simulated underwater sequences that blend seamlessly.
The CGI effects are applied sparingly and with good effect. There is a saturation to the color in certain scenes that is both a bit surreal and almost an homage to the "super-colors" of the technicolor films of an earlier era. There are animated creatures that - though obviously artificial - generate a sense of wonder at their color, grace and beauty.
As an independent film-maker given successively larger budgets with which to work, Anderson has used the money wisely and well - hiring first-class talent and putting the money on the screen in the form of technical sophistication and expertise without ever letting himself get carried away to do something unnecessary "because we can."
Despite the superficial mainstream appeal of this film, Anderson is still working on the edge. He is taking chances with subject matter and story-telling that no Michael Bay or even Martin Scorese would dare to take - and he is pulling it off. In the bargain he is enlarging cinematic syntax with new and original combinations of techniques that are emerging as a signature style without becoming mannerisms.
This difficult-to-describe film could have been a self-indulgent mish-mash (and there are some who will probably find it to be so). But beneath the surface - to use an appropriate metaphor! - there is a whole world waiting to be discovered.
That's my take on it. What's yours?