Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in our Wes Anderson Roundtable.
Loren Greenblatt: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is Wes Anderson’s fourth film, and not his best received. Some might view it as his One From the Heart or New York, New York. It’s heavily stylized and he had more creative freedom, but it wasn’t well liked on its initial release.
Max O’Connell: Well, people think the reviews were worse than they were. They were highly mixed with a lot of disappointment, but it wasn’t seen as a disaster by as many people as the story tends to go.
LG: I can see why this film turned some people off, though. I wasn’t crazy about it on my first viewing (a bad projection didn’t help) but it’s grown immensely for me on repeat viewings. My initial complaints do line up with what the some of the critics said at the time. The film feels very arch and removed, and as stylized as The Royal Tenenbaums was, this is so much more. I can see a lot of people viewing it as hipsterish or ironic: it starts off with a film-within-a-film of oceanographic explorer/filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) brings his latest documentary to a festival, and the credits for the main film appear within the documentary in this 4:3 aspect ratio, with curtains on the side of the screen to emphasize that we’re in a movie. I can see how this turned some people off.
MO: Yes, but it turned off people who were previously fans, too, and of his archness. I wonder if it might be that he has a different screenwriter this time. For his first three films and his first short, Anderson co-wrote it with his longtime friend Owen Wilson. Wilson has the second biggest role in The Life Aquatic, but he was also becoming a more prominent comic actor at this point, and he didn’t have time to work as a co-screenwriter, or so I understand. Anderson instead brought aboard Noah Baumbach, a director who at that point hadn’t worked in seven years. He made a big splash with Kicking and Screaming, followed by a pair of indifferently received comedies (Highball, Mr. Jealousy), and Anderson is the one who brought him back out, first with this, then as producer for Baumbach’s best film, The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach is a much more abrasive collaborator than Wilson.
LG: It’s not like Anderson’s past characters were warm and cuddly, but Steve Zissou is by far his most prickly protagonist. In terms of archness, this is Anderson’s first big attempt at world building and on paper, the 60’s high seas adventure trappings make it look lighter and more rompish than his previous films. He’d get to making lighter films in the future, but here he actually doubles down and presents a world that under all the whimsy is darker and more bitter than anything he’d done until now. We meet Zissou, a washed up Jack Cousteau type who looses his best friend/right hand man Esteban (Seymour Cassel) when he’s eaten by a “Jaguar Shark” who Steve now hopes to track down and kill. Between the stop-motion sea creatures, rival ships and pirates, I don’t think any of us really expected to see this middle-age, hard to like control freak in the lead, even if that type of character is 100% in keeping with both Anderson’s AND Baumbach’s style.
LG: Pretty darn delighted! It’s telling that for Anderson, actual sea life isn’t sufficiently whimsical, so instead he invents sea life in stop motion creatures made by Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline.
MO: The stop-motion is really wonderful. It helps accentuate the fantasy of this world, they remove us from reality, the handmade quality of the whole thing, right down to the sets. They’re very lived in, but they have a dollhouse feel.
LG: He turns the Zissou’s boat, the Belafonte, into an actual diorama. There’s a wonderful scene that’s maybe the most Andersonian scene ever, in which Anderson cuts the boat in half on a set so we can see all of the characters walking through the various rooms and we can see all the gadgets they have.
MO: There’s also a scene later that shows that diorama view where Steve has a fight with Ned (Wilson), the man who’s possibly his son, and there’s a long shot following the two as they argue. As they’re doing it, Steve stops the argument to address whoever he passes, and he’ll either lash out at them or, when he runs into the one intern who didn’t quit, he’ll swing to overwhelming praise and say, “Awesome, you’re getting an ‘A’,” followed by a slap on his injured shoulder. It’s a long take that shows the intricacy of the set, but also how Steve’s moods can swing from one moment to another. And it’s a case where I can’t picture it being done better than the way it was done with those dioramas.
LG: There’s a key moment in the film for me where they’re in Italy, and Steve is completely dominating Ned, the son he never wanted but now needs to micromanage. He changes his name to “Kingsley,” he orders wine for him, and he pushes away any sense of individuality Ned might express. And that’s interesting because he has this sort of Bill Nye/Jacques Cousteau profession where he’s supposed to foster individuality and imagination, but he actually stifles it.
MO: Yes, and Ned is willing to go with it for a while because he’s found a new father figure after having lost a lot personally (his mother killed herself after she found out she had terminal ovarian cancer), but after a while Steve micromanages to the point where he pushes away the one man who’s still on his side. Whenever Ned ad libs on camera, Steve is annoyed. The first time, Steve pretends to like it, and the second time he chastises Ned and demands that next time he whisper his idea in Steve’s ear so he can say it in front of the reporter, Jane (Cate Blanchett). Ned goes with it until it gets to this great scene where they’re underwater in scuba gear, and Ned asks Steve if he can call him dad. Steve quickly suggests a different nickname, “Stevesie.”
LG: And I like that it’s in scuba gear that obscures their faces and lets Wilson express his pain through his voice, his eyes and body language, and then the camera drifts away in a very expressive shot.
MO: You talked about how Steve’s supposed to promote individuality while collecting all of these weird and wonderful misfits on his crew.
LG: That’s right, he doesn’t just do this to Ned, he has an entire crew of people to bully around. The crew of the Belafonte is like this big, dysfunctional version of the Enterprise.
MO: They’re also like a surrogate family that could fall apart at any moment, because they’re working at the whims of a very inconsiderate man. There’s Anne-Marie (Robyn Cohen), the script girl who’s casually topless, which seems to get no attention from anyone.
LG: It is Europe! But what I love about that character is that she’s kind of like the bratty yet very responsible sister, the only one who will tell Steve that his plans are going to get them hurt. Something I noticed is a dichotomy between the old and young in the crew. The young include Anne-Marie and Pelé (Seu Jorge), but then there’s the old, who in the documentary-within-the-film, are given ages that are way off. No way that Klaus (Willem Dafoe), Steve’s eternally loyal German second-in-command, is 45. Nor is the sound guy in his 40s. This is another part of Steve’s control over his world: he’s is living in the past, and not acknowledging their ageing he gets to avoid acknowledging his own. There’s a sense that these guys were once big (this is a world where oceanography and documentaries are big). In the 80s and 90s, they were big enough to have merchandising in the form of Adidas endorsements, action figures and pinball machines. But that’s halted. Steve admits, “I haven’t been at my best this past decade.”
MO: To which his estranged wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) plainly says, “That’s true.” It’s interesting considering Bill Murray’s background: onetime comic megastar who, in the 90s, started appearing in low-rent movies before Wes Anderson revitalized his career.
LG: And it’s easy to be on Eleanor’s side, because as they say, she’s the brains of the outfit. There’s a montage where we see everyone doing their job, and Eleanor’s crossing off things that they have planned that are too impractical, like “Skydiving into a volcano.”
MO: One of the interesting things about this movie is that it’s only Wes Anderson’s fourth movie, when he was in his 30s, yet it’s about middle-aged failure. It’s almost like he’s making a movie about not only what he could turn into, but what he could turn into soon enough following these massive successes.
LG: I don’t know how much he intended it, but there is a very meta angle to that.
MO: Owen Wilson is still there in a major role, but it’s interesting that he’s gone as the co-screenwriter in a film in which a man loses his right-hand man in the beginning. The other interesting thing is that there’s a concern about losing your touch by fakery. Steve is clearly affected by Esteban’s death, but he didn’t capture it on camera, so he restages it. That’s become a regular part of his movies, fakery, but here’s a point where it reaches its most egregious. He knows he doesn’t have it anymore, so he’s just going to fake it. And this is a point in Anderson’s career where some felt that it was a lot of fakery and not enough heart (which is absurd, but whatever).
LG: And there’s a classic Wes Anderson thing of people using fantasy to insulate themselves from the real world. Steve is dealing with tough stuff, so he uses the fact that he’s in a film to shield himself. Any time he starts to feel something, he asks if it’s being caught on film. That, for me, is him pushing away something real. That might have turned people off, too. There is a sense of remove, and Bill Murray’s performance is very minimalistic. At first glance, it seems like he’s not doing much, but he’s actually doing a lot. There are little tonalities that are very important. There’s this one moment near the end where he’s reading a letter he wrote to Ned many years ago, and the way he emphasizes, “I remember your mother…” is very subtle, pointed, and effective.
MO: Not just in emotional ways, because this is one of Anderson’s saddest movies, but Murray is also really funny in this. His timing in this is great. I love in the opening scene where he’s being interviewed by the press about his latest film, and his pauses for every answer are priceless. “What would be the scientific purpose of killing the shark?” (long pause, then very matter of fact) “Revenge.”
LG: I also love the autograph scene, where an older fan has around 20 posters that he wants Steve to sign (based on a real event Anderson saw Murray go through). After so many signatures, he just says, “Just sign the rest yourself.”
MO: To be fair to Steve, at that point, I might lose my patience as well.
LG: Let’s talk about the music. Every Wes Anderson film is somewhat anchored by one particular musician or style: British Invasion in Rushmore, mainly varying kinds of folk for The Royal Tenenbaums, etc. Here, it’s anchored by David Bowie songs, but not just the originals. Seu Jorge’s crew member plays acoustic David Bowie covers in Portuguese, and they’re wonderful. Bowie even prefers some of them to the studio versions.
MO: It’s interesting how he uses Bowie for key emotional scenes. The use of “Life on Mars?” when Steve first meets Ned, and later on the use of Seu Jorge’s version when Ned first realizes how awful Steve can be, it’s a terrific emotional standpoint.
LG: I love the use of the “Space Oddity” countdown by Jorge as a group of pirates arrive on the Belafonte in a really interesting shot as they emerge from the fog. And Anderson does have a proper rock star doing his music. This is the last score Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo did for Anderson, and the best. I hope they’ll work together again today.
MO: Now, what do you think is the major difference between Steve and his rival, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum)? It’s interesting how there’s a bit of an Indiana Jones/Belloq thing, where neither of them are necessarily great guys, but one of them is our guy.
LG: Hennessey is the more successful one. He’s just been made a knight in Portugal! I want to become a knight in Portugal!
MO: Hennessey is much more confident than Steve, but he’s also much slimier. Steve, at least, you know where you stand with him. Goldblum pretends he doesn’t hate you.
LG: He’s also a character who isn’t a complete villain, which is something about Wes Anderson films that I love. No matter what, there’s always a moment of empathy. Even with the Jaguar shark.
MO: Yeah. It’s funny when Hennessey is kidnapped and the pirates sink his ship, but it’s also moving when they do rescue him. He does seem genuinely a little touched that Steve took the time, because he knows Steve doesn’t like him.
LG: Yeah. The pirates killed his crew, and more hurtful to him, made soup out of his research turtles. I don’t know why but the way that line is delivered, it always registers to me like they might as well have been cannibals, The character relationships in this film are very interesting. Klaus, played by Willem Dafoe beautifully against type, is more childish than scary. He’s competing with Ned to have Steve as his father figure, despite the fact that they’re clearly about the same age. And the reporter, Jane, has a difficult thing with Steve, who fancies himself as a bit of a stud and hits on her, but she’s not having it. She’s also pregnant, because she had an affair with her married editor, but she develops a romance with Ned. It’s a weird love triangle, because it’s a father figure/son fighting over the same woman.
MO: There’s a lot of stuff with father figures. Ned has a new father figure for the first time in his life, then finds out that he’s not a very nice man. Steve never wanted to be a father because he hates fathers, which implies something painful in his past. Jane finds a surrogate father for her child in Ned after the real father essentially abandons it. And Klaus sees Steve and Esteban as father figures.
LG: Wes Anderson maintains that he and his parents have wonderful relationships, but it’s much more interesting to write bad dads. There’s actually an ongoing art instillation at Spoke Art in San Francisco covering his work that was even titled “Bad Dads.” It’s a common trope in his work that also links him to Spielberg in a lot of ways.
MO: There’s a good dad in Rushmore in Seymour Cassel’s character, but they’re very rare.
LG: I’d like to believe that’s what his dad is really like. One of the things that still doesn’t 100% work for me is the implication that Steve has faked the death of Esteban, which I think the film plays with a little too long. There are a few moments that imply that Esteban is still alive somewhere.
MO: I didn’t think that. I thought it was more a thing where he’s taking advantage of his friend’s death.
LG: Eleanor says at one point that she doesn’t want be around because one is already dead, and it’s played as if he forgot or doesn't know what she’s talking about.
MO: Yeah, no, I didn’t get that at all. For me, Esteban is conclusively dead throughout, he just restaged it because he didn’t get it on camera and that’s kind of the person he’s become.
LG: It’s one of the lingering things that doesn’t 100% work for me.
MO: There are a few things that don’t work 100% for me. It’s odd, because there aren’t too many scenes that feel like they’re not there for a reason, but this film feels a bit flabbier compared to Anderson’s previous work. It doesn't move quite as well.
LG: For me it moves very well, but I understand, it does stop for whimsy a lot.
MO: An example would be the scene where Steve points out the radios they have in their headsets. It’s a funny bit, but it’s like, “We’re gonna stop now for a joke.”
LG: For me, it’s a transition to another scene, but I understand how you might think that.
MO: It’s an awkward transition for me. There’s a handful of those. And I think Anderson has talked about this, but the shootout with the pirates is not terribly well staged. I feel like he’s trying to go for chaos and clumsiness, but accidentally makes it more trouble than it’s worth.
LG: “John Woo I ain’t,” I believe was his quote. I actually like that scene. There’s a very handmade aspect to it, where it’s a very low-budget film where they’re going to go out and grab some shots, It’s a cute action scene. I also love that Bill Murray uses the unpaid interns for cover.
MO: That is funny, it’s just the directing of that scene is a bit clumsier than it’s supposed to be for me.
LG: I kind of felt it was going for clumsy.
MO: It is, but the execution is off.
LG: The weird moment where they pause for the Northern Lights does bother me.
MO:…yeah, I don’t know what that’s there for.
LG: Neither do I. Maybe a sense that the tide has turned and nature is with us?
MO: Hmm. Maybe.
LG: It’s also one of his most overtly New Wave films There’s oodles of jump cuts, the bright, saturated colors denote this as a “movie-movie” in a very New Wave way and when Ned dies at the end, there’s flashes of red and white frames that feel straight out of a late 60s Godard film.
MO: Not just that, but it’s at a point where Steve has come to terms with being a bad father and is trying to rectify that. It comes through on the raid in the pirates’ compound, and he tells Klaus how much he means to him, and he apologizes to Ned. Ned has become a full member of Team Zissou, and he’s extended the olive branch to Klaus, effectively becoming a surrogate brother. So much of this film is about not taking for granted the things that really matter, because they could be gone at any point, and Steve connects with Ned just as he loses him. There’s this great montage of Ned’s life flashing before his eyes as he dies in the helicopter crash. And that scene is shocking, but it’s not out of nowhere, because they do mention how the helicopter wasn’t in great shape earlier.
LG: And there’s a running gag with Klaus where he’s supposed to be the guy who fixes things but never does, and just as Klaus becomes friends with Ned, he loses him because he didn’t fix the thing. There’s two things I thought about in that scene. First, there’s a moment where Jane sends him a letter to Ned’s bunk before he leaves, and for me, I feel like that’s a marriage proposal, or an invitation to be the father to her child.
MO: Oh, you know what, that sounds about right. And this is the death that Steve doesn’t exploit, and he puts it in his film respectably, and he’s changed at a terrible cost. It’s brought back emotional honesty in his work.
LG: And I love the ending, the happy 80s Buckaroo Banzai homage where, out of the ashes, a new crew has emerged to go on new, presumably happier adventures together.
MO: Here’s the thing: we talk about all of the great David Bowie songs in this, including “Queen Bitch” over the end credits with the Buckaroo Banzai homage, but my favorite use of music in this film isn’t a Bowie song. It’s the use of the Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside” during Ned’s funeral. That’s a moment that’s almost as moving as “The Fairest of the Seasons” for me.
LG: That one gets me every time. There’s a really interesting touch in that ending, though, where as they’re walking to “Queen Bitch,” as they finally board the ship, Ned, despite being dead, is on top of the ship as a spirit of Team Zissou. That’s a very unusual, borderline surrealistic touch. You might not notice it the first time.
MO: I didn’t notice it until this time. That’s stuck in right at the end there. I love how accepting this film is. Even Bud Cort, the prototypical Wes Anderson character in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, plays a bond company stooge who’s in Steve’s corner, not just a bond company stooge. “No bond company stooge would stick his neck out like that.” And everyone who’s still alive is accepted into this big family when they finally see the jaguar shark. It’s wonderful how he uses that great anamorphic framing in a small space there to get it more intimate, to use density to imply togetherness.
LG: I know when he was making the film, he wasn’t always very clear what that jaguar shark scene meant to him. I think, it is a very interesting scene. A lot of people put Moby Dick stuff on it, because of surface comparisons, but that never really held a lot of water for me.
MO: I think it is there, in that it’s a revenge story where our Ahab realizes, as Matt Zoller Seitz suggested, killing his friend was “nothing personal.” Death comes for us.
LG: I don’t think of it as “nothing personal,” I think of it as Steve staring death in the face and seeing it as something big and awe-inspiring, which is kind of what he probably got into this business for in the first place. The world is so big, and beautiful and strange and more fascinating than we think.
MO: And uncontrollable. He’s tried to control nature in his documentaries, and now he’s accepted that he can’t, and here comes the most moving moment he’ll ever be able to capture. He’s encountered this thing that’s responsible for the death of one friend and tangentially responsible for the death of his son, since they died while searching for it, and he’s able to just let it wash over him.
LG: He lost his spiritual brother and spiritual son.
MO: It’s maybe not the cleanest thing Anderson has ever done –
LG: I don’t think it needs to be. Sometimes it’s better to be messy.
MO: Sometimes it’s messy to a fault, but it’s also messy to wonderful degrees, and it’s one of his most thematically interesting and adventurous films, which is why I’m glad it has found a cult following in the years since. Its most passionate defenders stuck by it.
LG: It’s one that’s gotten better on repeat viewings. All the stuff that bothered me fell away, and all of the stuff I was missing popped up. It’s an A- for me.
MO: It’s struck me as much richer on each repeat viewing. It’s an A- (87) for me, too.
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