The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

June 24, 2005 by  
Filed under Film / Television

The best thing—among quite a few good things—about Wes Anderson’s recent movie, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is that it reminds you that art isn’t supposed to be like life. Life is restricted to events that operate by conventional physics and social dynamics, and those are restrictive, time consuming, and well, generally pretty boring. Art, on the other hand, is fluid, free to invent, and happily liberated from functional necessity, be it the requirement that one spend a certain percentage of one’s time straining on the toilet, or putting up with stubborn, self-proud people without the brains god gave geese, and others with more ordnance than ideas. Then there’s the stupid practical problems: in the “real” world, you can’t see through the side of a steel-hulled ship to catch all the fun stuff going on inside.

Art, in other words, is faster—or slower, if that’s what is required—and there’s no need to wait around shuffling feet for something interesting or significant to happen. Art can invent zebra backed crabs, rainbow-coloured sea horses, and Bill Murray playing Jacques Cousteau. Just snap your fingers, or write it into the script.

The Life Aquatic also reminded me of how depressingly rarely today’s films take full advantage of artistic licence—and how much fun it can be when they do, for film-makers and audiences alike.

I don’t know if Wes Anderson is a genius. Probably he isn’t. Judging from his other movies—along with this one—his best claim to genius is an insistence that his actors ought to be having as much fun making the movie as the audience has watching it, which isn’t normally the road to accreditation as a genius, given that having fun was something my mother insisted on even while she was doing the laundry, and nobody called her a genius or even an artist. But it works as both a life strategy and an artistic method, and Anderson is getting more confident about it as a movie-production formula with each film he makes.

It also isn’t clear to me whether this movie belongs to Anderson or to Bill Murray. I suspect it’s a little of both, and that both are about equally responsible for bringing the marvellous cast of actors on board, as it were. Whichever or whatever is responsible for assembling the cast, some of the small roles in this movie are beyond delicious. Owen Wilson, as Zissou’s accidentally-produced, accident-prone but not quite long-lost son Ned Plimpton and Cate Blanchett as a haplessly-straight journalist trying to uncover the logic of a contemporary Ship of Fools are wonderfully played, but Willem Dafoe, as Zissou’s crazed-with-loyalty Teutonic assistant Klaus Daimler, is downright astonishing. Dafoe, who’s made his career chewing on scenery, is so steely in his dedication to underplaying this role that you actually forget he’s Willem Dafoe. The consequence is that he’s outrageously funny where a lessor actor, hamming it up, would have simply been a neutral within this over-the-top cast. So too with Bud Cort and Angelica Huston, who play to the script without detectable self-irony or genuflection. Only Jeff Goldblum, as Zissou’s long-time competitor, Alistair Hennessey, seems to be having too good a time to hold the pose.

Murray’s interpretation of Zissou is characteristically self-ironic and profane, but it’s a style that makes his parody of Cousteau—or rather, the half-environmentalist-half-entertainment demimonde that Cousteau operated in—sharper by sheer contrast. Was this what Cousteau was really like? Probably not, but it’s likely much closer to the world Cousteau lived in than most of us ever dreamed: underfunded, overhyped, inhabited by charlatans and crazily-wounded refugees from ordinary life. Zissou’s world is also a speeded-up, essentialized metaphor for the world everyone now lives in, with implications that are worth taking seriously: that in the nihilism of commercial life, concentration and obsession are the crucial tools, but that these, most of all, need to be willing to take the long route, and recognize a laugh when it’s there, however inappropriate. GreenPeace badly needs a retraining voyage on the Belafonte, along with a list of others too long to name—if only so they can reacquaint themselves with the notion that it’s on those apparent trips to nowhere that the meaningful stuff appears, and that real meaning never appears without the accompanying cage of life’s essential absurdity.

710 words June 24, 2005

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Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.