Wednesday, June 28, 2006
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (USA, 2005, Wes Anderson)
Anderson is a substantive feel-good story-teller. His point of view is essentially wholesome and forgiving. All of the foibles and antagonisms are what make the characters interesting and their relations entertaining. But underneath everything is real affection and this gives us a warm feeling inside. Personally, I like it. Call me an old fashioned square but it is a nice change from all the cynicism and irony and crass, abusive rudeness that so often passes for humour. Anderson creates a slightly unreal, phoney, falsely-safe universe in order to show us the basically positive emotions genuinely felt by the characters who express them. A bit silly, the message running through it all is that it is still cool to love other people.
He seems almost dogmatically committed to the love triangle as a catalyst for moving from the first presentation of things to the next, deeper level, ultimately to play its course as merely instrumental. Sexual passion and potentially dangerous eroticism is kept at bay. It's all about sincere attachments and the need to be appreciated for who you are. Whether almost-ready-to-be-a-man in Rushmore or almost-over-the-hill in TLA, romantic assertions are just vehicles for the pursuit of authentic friendship. Given my own age and time of life, I can relate to Steve Zissou more than I can relate to Max Fischer. But I can't honestly say that the middle-aged crisis of the former is more profound than the rite-of-passage crisis of the latter.
You are right that TLA is more ambitious than Rushmore and TRT. Anderson is moving beyond the situation of the school/home town of Rushmore and the domestic sphere of TRT to the wider world of vocational calling, professional status, commercial competition, mistakes made, sacrifices endured and penultimate achievement or masterpiece in one's life's work as well as the misrepresentation of nature in adventure journalism and the symbolic meaning of the sea in cultural forms. I would not want to exaggerate the depth of these themes in TLA but I can see why you called the film Anderson's Moby Dick.
With respect to the last two themes mentioned, I was particularly taken by the use of obviously false - i.e. animated - depictions of the aquatic life. I think this lends itself to a wide range of interpretation. Here's mine. Like the ship-set cut-away Monica so spoiled for me, this animation breaks the frame. I see a couple of contradictory signals. The first is critical of the bogus and exploitative presentation of nature by the likes of Marlin Perkins and so forth, what I have been calling "nature pornography" for years. On the other hand, there is a left-over resonance of a boyhood idolization of nature documentarians like Cousteau and a sincere cinematic respect for the footage they captured. It would have been easy enough to secure the rights to some good solid marine shots, but to use them would have been disrespectful of both the guys who filmed it and the wildlife shown. And this hooks up with the Moby Dick vibe because at the climax of TLA, we must met a leviathan that is larger than life, a "monster" of the imagination that can only appear to us as if by an act of magic. Of course, it validates Zissou professionally, is cathartic for him personally and constitutes the emotional cement for everyone involved. So the creature is about keeping the faith. It has to sparkle and sway like a cartoon Christmas tree in the breath of wonder.
The main weakness of TLA and the reason why it is not as tight as Rushmore and TRT is the action. Anderson doesn't know how to film it. It is vague and distant and doesn't do what action is supposed to do for us viscerally. No doubt, he is not practiced in this area. But the problem comes from a more serious place than technical inexperience. The problem is conceptual. What purpose does the action serve? The most I could say is that it satirizes the nature documentary another notch by transforming it into the action genre. Be this as it may, the comedy falls flat. Especially troubling is the violence that involves death. This may or may not be fertile for laughs but in the case of Anderson's universe, it is out of place and works against everything that grounds his perspective. His characters simply do not travel in those psychological realms, they do not have the required motives. These people hardly have the energy to fuck, forget about fight and kill. Sure, every comedy wants to partake of a little rough housing and slapstick if possible. TLA cannot afford too much of this and it loses its way.
Could the film work without Murray in the lead role? I doubt it. Love him. And like all great funny guys, he's much more than funny.
Anderson as a sorta urbane Frank Capra. I like the notion. Anderson, like Capra, clearly likes people and really believes in them. His characters are messed up, but in somewhat correctable and (more importantly) entirely forgivable ways.
In Anderson's films his characters are all looking to find wholeness and happiness by creating a world that feels like a great big extended family wherein everyone loves and abides by one another. In the first act of his life Max does this at Rushmore, and later more successfully at the public school. Royal tries to pull his family around him as he enters the third act of his life. And Steve Zissou, late in his life's second act, does the same aboard his ship. It's no accident that his (possible) son rounds out the crew. And if you look at the way Anderson works, his films are like extended families. He always works with the same people behind and in front of the camera. There's a real spirit of 60s commune about it all, the world is one big dysfunctional and loving family, and it is clearly one of the things that endears Anderson's films to me. I'm gonna get to hang out with the old gang again. Cool!
Anderson also embraces the theatricality and artifice of life. He is infatuated with the way things look, the way they are constructed and connected.
The show-stopping cut-away of Zissou's ship is the most obvious example of this, but really, look at he way he immaculate way he composes all of his shots, the sophisticated set design, the plethora of period detail littered throughout every scene. It's exhausting and fascinating, a treasure trove of minutea that adds up to something. Not sure what. But something.
Your critique of Anderson's action sequences is pretty accurate. It looks like he has no appetite for this stuff. His camera is most comfortable when set down in one place, recording the people cleverly conversing while moving through his incredible sets. His characters are not action heroes, they are slaves to words, words, words. It is a problem for Zissou because he is Ahab, on an obsessive quest to avenge his friend and resurrect his flagging career. It seems a bit early for Anderson to be lugging such concerns before the camera; after all, he's still young (by my standards) and quite successful, something of a critical darling. Still, I think he does a plausible job of building a 3-dimensional and empathetic character in Zissou, and Murray does all of the heavy work necessary to lift me past any plot contrivances (pirates?) Anderson tosses hin his way. As you say, without Murray, the film's in some trouble. With him, it is, if not a triumph, at the very least joyful and life-affirming. As you also note, Murray is so much more than the sad-faced clown. He's man who carries a knowledge of the way the world is, who is familiar with the way life can cut you down to size, yet who refuses to cave into despair. He's not a dopy, sunny-faced optimist; he's a wary but hopeful realist.
I may not love this film the way I adore Rushmore, but it's still the sorta film that I know I'll be able to return to in years hence and have lovely waves of happiness wash over me. It's all good.