Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

At some point during my most recent viewing of A Zed and Two Noughts, appropriately enough my second viewing, I was struck by the similarities to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. They did not begin with the overbearing title. Instead, the similarities begin with the films' similar representations of a group attempting to come to grips with their grief by documenting the instruments of their grief, in both cases natural although one specifically focused on a particular shark and the other on death itself. I had already noticed certain similarities in style between the two filmmakers before beginning this most recent dip into the two aforementioned films, but this time through the similarities only multiplied. From the heavily stuffed compositions to the deadpan delivery imposed on all the players to the close attention paid to material objects there are a great many similarities. There is no doubt that Anderson has his differences, though, and his influences are not well hidden. I have not noticed any implications of influence by Greenaway in Anderson’s work, but I do notice a similar comedic temperament and approach, and as both craft dense black comedies I feel it is only sensible to place these two films one after another. I’m not supposed to be continuing on about Greenaway here, but since I don’t actually have any rules you’ll have to excuse my indulgence. Or you could stop reading. It’s over now, though, I think.

 ‘A Comedy in Grief’ makes for what is to my mind an unlikely but, in my experience, highly rewarding approach. And why not? If there is any taboo more exhilarating to make a mockery of than the tyrannical grip of mannered sadness following a death I am not aware of it. I think the only understandable reaction to a death is the desire for a spiteful retaliation against those who prevent the departed from arriving at the funeral party in the simple terms of retributive repayment of lost merriment. A cathartic, destructive, and pointless retaliation against that agent, be it man, tree, or cliffside, seems fittingly absurd and enjoyable. Thus, when I heard Bill Murray say the he was out to destroy the shark that ate his friend in a trailer for this film I naturally envisioned something irrepressibly fantastic. The potential for what was surely an inevitable anticlimax was there somewhere, hidden in the shadows, but I, like a grief stricken man, was simply celebrating the possibilities of barbarous sadism. Realizing those possibilities always comes with a hefty load of a letdown, which may be the reason so many (wisely) revel in the approach and in the fiction. Even the fictional realization leaves a bad taste (see the insufferably terrible Inglourious Basterds – or did you love it?), and somehow the anticlimax loses none of its sweetness for me – and I am anything but a sentimentalist. But the journey that is the bulk of the film, the delirious pursuit of that which can never be satisfying, the Sisyphean struggle which gets people to jump aboard illegal suicide missions led by selfish maniacs, is a fertile ground for black comedy. The dead are dead, and everything afterward is the struggles of the living with themselves, struggles which understandably lead to impulses that fly in the face of equally understandable ethical tenets. The gleeful violation of ethical rules by characters within a larger examination of related absurdities – I don’t know that there could be a more clear definition of black comedy drafted. And I drafted it, because I’m that good. Within this definition ripped straight from a brilliant mind there is a table reserved for grief stricken ensembles and/or solitary protagonists, and that is where you will find characters from all films thus far mentioned in this post, even that other one which I found terribly unfunny. (Note: It is actually a terrible definition, one which already excludes black comedy established through cosmic irony, among an endless array of other options.)

My opinion differs as much on that last film mentioned as others’ opinions seem to differ on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and this is an opportunity to briefly surface from the sea of my own opinion and consider the widespread distaste for this film. Opinions vary and change, but I think the most important aspect of forming an opinion is to augment all possibilities for appreciation. It is my aim solely to aid in this process, and thus I will entirely ignore those who have been to this point unable to reap rewards from the film. And with that – I’ll submerge.

The first thing that struck me upon viewing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was the breadth of material covered in the film’s setting. There is an adventure story, a story of a documentary film crew, an obvious but understated parody of Jacques Cousteau, a ‘relationship subplot’ or five, all presented within the relatively stilted style which Anderson has cultivated in all of his films that contrasts sharply with the fluidity of the characters’ emotional changes. The effect seems to heighten the already apparent affectation of the characters’ emotional swings, but I find this effect to be perfectly suited to the staccato rhythm of Anderson’s comedic timing. As opposed to the common snowballing found in screwball comedies Anderson seems to work by injecting a consistent flow of hiccups into the flow of any given sequence which prevents much of anything from happening at all. The construction of the characters as patchworks of readily apparent flaws provides a palette of quirks from which Anderson seems to orchestrate a cacophonous symphony of affectations to create dissonance within the familiar genre structures he works in (and I will point out that my mixed metaphors here are perfectly consistent). This style is readily apparent in all of his films, and yet I don’t recall anyone focusing on this crucial aspect of his comedic approach. Everywhere you look in this film you will find examples of these character-driven interjections into the flow of a given scene. Early on Zissou is interrupted while talking to his wife by a character whose affiliation is a result of his habit of philandering, and even her interruption is interrupted by a reaction to his unwelcome behavior towards her, another reflection of his inability to satisfy those around him. A character enters, interrupts, reflects Zissou’s flaws back at him, and then leaves suddenly, a pattern that recurs. Later in the same opening scene we find Goldblum’s Captain Hennessey causing an interruption, reflecting Zissou’s inferiority back onto him, and summarily disappearing for a good portion of the film. Not long afterward there is an incident where a man shouts insults at Zissou, causes Zissou to abandon his party, and then punches Zissou in the face before fleeing. Zissou can’t make it through a scene without someone drawing out his character flaws, and it becomes apparent that the entire storyline of the film, as complex and layered as it is, serves as a platform upon which Zissou faces the repercussions of the innumerable character flaws he possesses. As such, the film is only superficially an adventure story about an oceanographer with a twisting plot and is really just an elaborate gauntlet that will intermittently pummel Zissou. There is an interesting development in this gross simplification of the story, though, as Zissou is able to come to grips with his faults and begins to create acceptance for himself through his own self awareness. One of the final interruptions Zissou faces to reflect his deficiencies comes from Klaus, expressing the irrelevance he feels as a result of Zissou’s negligence. After this point Zissou begins to reinforce those aspects which help to mask his flaws, later reminding Klaus of his leadership status. This development allows for the first smooth genre sequence in the film, with the staccato comedic timing this time provided by one of the terrorist’s unexpected gunshots. After the successful completion of the rescue mission Steve becomes the reflection of his own deficiencies, forgetting the dog on the beach. Even when the impetus for the film’s comedic rhythm seems completely removed, Anderson simply shifts the expression onto Zissou himself. But that’s not the end, because there is an end which is actually irrelevant to the real storyline of Zissou’s deficiencies, but it does provide an opportunity for Anderson to display the continuation of his rhythm independent of Zissou. Ned’s death is sensibly free from the rhythms conjured up by Zissou’s faults, although the crash itself is perhaps the most intense interruption of flow in the entire film, but the unusually fluid staging of his death frees the emotion from the deliberate inertness created earlier in the film, and feels far more powerful to me due to the contrast. The final meetup with the jaguar shark finds a return of the staccato comedic rhythms, but it seems like Klaus becomes the foil during this scene as opposed to Zissou. When the focus returns to Zissou there is a moment of catharsis after the gauntlet he has run to get to this point, and I think it is quite interesting that the first piece of staccato dialogue that Anderson inserts at this point is a totally out-of-the-blue reflection of the innocent side of Zissou’s character. It is one of the most inert pieces of dialogue in the entire film, to me, but this interruption serves to reestablish the comedic rhythm of the film while also being freed of the established pattern of digging comedy out of Zissou’s faults. The summary of these results seems rather interesting: Anderson crafts a black comedy out of grief which consistently frustrates the conventional plot elements for the sake of a comedic rhythm repeated ad nauseum until the film’s climactic scenes where it is alleviated and suddenly magnified through the use of a different dramatic device which results in moments of both immense tragedy and subsequently a cathartic, life-affirming happy ending which is textured by the employment of the dramatic rhythm of earlier in an alternate, lighter mode. I think it’s a very cleverly constructed film, and while its unusual rhythm frustrates conventional plot based conventions during almost every scene in the film there is a consistent underlying structure which ends up amplifying the effects which the conventional structures are employed to achieve in less creative projects. I think I could be forgiven for using ‘deconstruction’ in this context, but I will simply say that more attention should be paid to the importance and effect of those elements which are so readily apparent and unique to Wes Anderson’s films. He may be onto something – dare I say it? – new. Or at least atypical at the very least. Regardless of that, I think the results are a splendid and hilarious cacophony, and that is my favorite sound!


  1. It’s good to see someone else appreciate this film as much as I do! I hadn’t thought about the specific structural reasons for the strong emotional effect it has on me. So, it’s great to see it broken down like this, especially the way Ned’s death is made to stand out from the rhythm of rest of the film. You make it sound like a piece of music, which is a clever way to describe this dense, intelligent film.

    I’m glad I found your blog!

  2. It is hard to talk about comedy without killing the comedy, but there are a few words that I hear people use - comic timing, hitting beats... beats and timing are the diction of musical theory! It makes sense, then, certainly. In music, too, there are considerations of the audience's feelings, building up into crescendos and flattening out into subtler passages. There is always an element of comedy and music and drama that uses the audience as an instrument, and I think it's interesting how varied the methods of playing with the audience can be - especially when the dramatic and the comedic develops an internal tension all its own. The difficulty in using an audience as an instrument is that some people are violins and some are tubas, which explains the wildly varied reactions. I think I'm some sort of percussive instrument, myself.

    Thanks for commenting!