In Wes Anderson’s corpus of work, The Life Aquatic may just be the archetype, the consolidation of style & theme, the compressing of all-things-Wes into one film that overwhelms and confuses the unprepared viewer. It gets less credit than anything else the director has done, and for two main reasons. First, it’s deemed excessive. That’s certainly true and could not be argued – whether it’s “bad” is another question. Second, it came out following The Royal Tenenbaums, which came out after Rushmore, which came out after Bottle Rocket. Rushmore put Wes on the map, so all the film buffs and hipsters who saw it and loved it went and rented Bottle Rocket, which they found lovable and great in its own way but not quite “there” yet. When Tenenbaums came out, everyone else who didn’t see Rushmore either realized this was something great, or they really didn’t get it. Either way, you now had three films from the same director (and co-writer) to give you a good picture of what the major style and themes were, and a sizable crowd of people who thought they were “Wes Anderson” fans. When The Life Aquatic hit theaters, there was a lot of buzz that this was the film Wes had really wanted to make before but didn’t have the budget. Haven’t checked, but if my experience was any indication, the turnout on opening weekend to The Life Aquatic was substantially more than Tenenbaums, which obviously was the most popular film of the first three. People went to see The Life Aquatic expecting to laugh and to feel a connection to the characters like they did in the previous films. Wes’ characters weren’t always easy to love, exactly, but they weren’t very hard to love, either. That changed with this one. Steve Zissou repelled many viewers, perhaps because he was a bit more dirty-old-man than Dignan, Max, or even Royal. You can’t really say that Bill Murray was miscast, because he’s at least as much Wes’ muse as any other actor in his troupe. Add to Steve a supporting cast of characters that somehow seemed very “supporting” (unlike the ensemble of Tenenbaums), and an intense concentration Wes’ themes and style, and you’ve got a theater full of disappointed and rather nauseous viewers.
This nausea is easy to understand. To keep it in terms of “concentration” and budget constraints, imagine being too poor to serve your guests pure orange juice, so you water it down in order to spread it out and at least serve something. As you can afford it more, you water it down less. Then, in one fell swoop, you can afford to serve your guests the real thing. They may not be ready for it, and it may be too strong for them. Something like this happened with the reception of The Life Aquatic, although of course the illustration breaks down at a certain point. Still, Wes’ “authorship,” if it can be put that way, was simply not as strong in Bottle Rocket as it came to be in The Life Aquatic. James L. Brooks’ involvement with getting Bottle Rocket made led to him writing in new parts of the script, cutting parts out, and the like. (The hilarious line about how an “asshole like Bob can have such a great kitchen” – that’s Jim Brooks, not Wes Anderson.) By the time of The Life Aquatic, Wes grew out his hair, dappered himself up, and spent a lot of studio dough to create what probably appeared to be a comedy-action film when in fact it didn’t follow any formula other than Wes’ own. This isn’t to be overly congratulatory to him, since even his critics are quick to point out that it’s his distinctive, repetitive, overdone style that they find so tiresome. No one accuses him of being unoriginal, but of being all too singular, and being stuck in his own rut.
Now, to the themes. Death makes hardly an appearance or even a suggestion in Bottle Rocket. By Rushmore, Max observes to Miss Cross, “So we both have dead people in our families.” No one dies in the film, but everything about the film is dedicated, in word and deed to fallen loved ones. Time is spent at a cemetery, and Max dedicates his magnum opus at the film’s end to his late mother and the late “Edward Appleby, a friend of a friend.” Characters in Tenenbaums make a few visits to a cemetery to visit fallen loved ones – again, a wife and also a wife/mother – until the film’s end when we witness a silent graveside service with only a gun salute. Even Buckley, the dog, dies, and his death presents opportunity for Royal to redeem himself in the eyes of Chas by saving Chas’ two boys from an oncoming car. (Never mind the fact that Royal hilariously endangered these grandsons of his earlier in a montage of running across the street during heavy traffic.) Richie’s suicide attempt is often cited as the most striking and overwhelming scene in the film. The soundtrack of Elliott Smith’s Needle in the Hay turned out to be sadly fitting.
The Life Aquatic is arguably even more concerned with death than the previous films. The film begins with a death, ends with a death, and is peppered throughout with little deaths. Esteban’s early demise at sea is the catalyst for Steve’s quest to find and destroy the jaguar shark. Ned’s death toward the end is, along with the Indian boy’s death in The Darjeeling Limited, the rawest death in Wes Anderson’s films. Royal’s death scene is poetic and beautiful, and most of the other deaths don’t occur within the film’s diegetic timeline. (Incidentally, if Ned’s death isn’t a nod to Manuel’s death in Captains Courageous, that’s quite a coincidence.) Earlier in The Life Aquatic, Steve shoots and kills one of the pirates. The crew attempts to hold a burial service for the man with no regard for his actions, though they are interrupted by Hennessey’s ship arriving and toss the body over the other side. (If this act doesn’t remind one of the rat’s death in Fantastic Mr. Fox – “But in the end he’s just another dead rat in a garbage dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant.”) Ned shows up near the beginning to introduce himself to Steve as his possible son and inform Steve that the woman who connects them died. Steve abruptly pauses his conversation with Ned and walks up to the top of the ship to smoke a cigarette. David Bowie explodes onto the soundtrack and we get a tracking shot of Steve’s hike replete with a slow-motion movement as he drops his hand drops down from his face after a hit on the cigarette. This is the death moment of Steve’s former lover. It’s late, since he only just found out, but Anderson’s characters always need a negotiation, a ritual to get them through death. These scenes always include at least some of the following: slow-motion, amplified musical soundtrack, tracking shot, close-up, and an absence of dialogue.
Death becomes more and more a fact of life for Steve, whose child-like nature rebels against it. When he arrives on the island (peninsula?) to meet up with his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston, the mother figure in Wes Anderson films), she informs him callously that his cat died. Steve is clearly upset, just as much that his cat died as at Eleanor’s careless way of telling him about it. Ned asks Steve what kind of cat it was, attempting to initiate an informal memorial. Steve’s bitterness prompts the reply, “Who gives a shit?…I think it was a tabby.” Here Steve corrects himself, momentarily angry at the messenger before giving the message itself its due. More significantly, prior to each screening for Steve’s two-part film shown within The Life Aquatic (and also entitled The Life Aquatic, in case anyone doubts the film’s self-reflexivity), his number one man dies. First it’s Esteban, and his death is featured as the primary event in the film. When part two is screened at the finale, it’s Ned’s death that punctuates the documentary.
The supposed “documentary” nature of Steve’s films gets some direct attention in the film and indirectly relates to the theme of death. During a one-on-one interview below deck of the Belafonte, Jane (Cate Blanchett), the British reporter who accompanies the crew on its voyage, accuses Steve’s film’s of being “fake.” Jane’s first question in the interview so disappoints Steve that his response is, “I thought this was supposed to be a puff piece.” Always the one to take things as personally as possible, Steve responds to the suggestion that his films are fake by pointing his pistol in Jane’s face and asking, “Does this seem fake?” He then asks Jane if it seemed fake when Esteban was eaten by a shark. His response is that of a child; he is oblivious to the possibility that anything in his films is less than completely authentic. The correlation between Steve as a filmmaker and Wes Anderson himself is too obvious to be denied. Anderson’s world is artificial, but only in a strictly superficial sense. That is to say, only the façade is “fake”; the heart of the films is “realist” to the highest degree just like Steve Zissou’s films. Steve’s criticism of Jane the reporter is Anderson’s criticism of the non-discerning critic/viewer: don’t be distracted by the surfaces of things. These films are no more “fake” than a child’s imagination is fake. The substance is fully real if the glossy finish appears disingenuous. And by creating a filmmaking protagonist such as Steve, who is more of a child than most children, Anderson arguably disarms his own critics who have accused him of being “pretentious.”
This is an aside, but the accusation that Anderson’s films are “pretentious” could hardly be more ironic. The suggestion deserves a few responses. First, the idea behind “pretense” is that of “pretending” to be that which one is not. The main characters in Anderson’s films have wild imaginations and try desperately – pretend, even – to be that which they are not naturally gifted to be. Their constant failures at one level brings them back repeatedly to all that they have in life: one another. Dignan stinks at being a crook, but at the end of the film, while basking in a glow that could come from nowhere but his own heart, he tells his friends visiting him at prison, “We did it, though, didn’t we?” His question is rhetorical, the answer in his mind clearly a resounding “Yes!” Second, all of Anderson’s protagonists are nothing more – or less – than children. To accuse Anderson of being pretentious is similar to accusing a child of pretense for constructing a tunnel of cardboard boxes in his garage and proclaiming that he is a spelunker. In the child’s world, he is a spelunker. In Anderson’s world, he’s a film director and nothing more. His characters live out his own fantasies, but they fail time and again. One of Max’s ridiculous plays (which are anything but creative – they all re-stage classic movies) ends with him taking a bow with a bloody nose after getting beaten up by one of his actors. Finally, the “pretense” allegation fails to take into account Anderson’s humor. Comedy hardly takes a break in his films, and when it does it’s brief and for an important reason. Anderson is notorious for his perfectionism in making movies. He takes the films very seriously so that the films don’t take themselves seriously.
Rabbit trail over. The foreign woman is here in The Life Aquatic, as she is in all of Anderson’s films. Quick rundown: in Bottle Rocket, there’s Inez, Anthony’s Hispanic love interest who can’t speak English through most of the film. Any other women in the film? Really, only the blonde sorority sister at Bob’s house who is defined by idiocy of the most painful sort. Already in the first film, we know that Anderson has nothing against women, just typical American ones. In Rushmore there’s Miss Cross, who is British. Margaret Yang becomes Max’s friend/girlfriend by the end. She’s American, to be sure, but not your standard white-girl American. When the idea of the “foreign woman” is taken beyond ethnic connotations to include the definition of “distance,” we can begin to include almost all the rest of Anderson’s female characters. So in Rushmore, Max’s mother would qualify, having died while Max was only seven years old. Herman Blume’s wife gets little attention in the film, since she is in the process of suing Herman for divorce. In Tenenbaums, Chas’ wife has died a year before the film’s narrative begins. Royal visits his mother’s grave a couple times, emphasizing distance via death. Margot Tenenbaum, as Royal often points out, is adopted. Then there’s Etheline, who probably comes closest in Anderson’s films to breaking the mold of the foreign woman. Still, if one considers the film as primarily occurring from Royal’s point of view, then Etheline is the estranged wife. Skipping ahead, Peter in The Darjeeling Limited is married to a British woman. Jack’s love interest is defined by her distance from him, and the Indian woman he meets on the train is…Indian. Above all in the film, the mother of the brothers (Anjelica Huston, in her third consecutive Anderson film as a maternal figure) has left her family and her world for missionary work in India. When the boys finally catch up to her, she flees from them. (For the sake of space, Fantastic Mr. Fox will be omitted here, although the pattern persists there.)
So in The Life Aquatic, Jane is a British reporter and Eleanor again becomes an estranged wife. (In fact, she’s an estranged wife twice over, having been married to Alistair before Steve.) Steve’s former lover, who is also Ned’s mother, died prior to the film’s beginning. The only female crew member, Anne-Marie, plays an odd and decidedly distant character by being almost perpetually topless. Her casual undress keeps her separated from the male crew members in nearly every shot of her. Whether this continuous theme of the distant woman pierces into (or stems from) the psychology of Wes Anderson’s own experience is hard to say, but it certainly confirms that his movies are male movies. They are not misogynistic; rather, they reflect a loss of the maternal repeatedly. Rushmore, Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, and The Darjeeling Limited all are heavily concerned with the absence of the mother and the attempt to replace her with a maternal or romantic figure. Ned’s fascination with Jane revolves in part around her pregnancy. Assuming the validity of the Oedipus complex, Ned’s romance with the pregnant Jane and fist fight with Steve (his potential father) embody the archetypal male character in Wes Anderson’s films.
That’s a little too cynical, however; or at least too cynical for Anderson. Though conflict exists between father-figures and son-figures, it’s only to build narrative tension leading up to a final (re)connection. Mr. Henry in Bottle Rocket notwithstanding, Rushmore, Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, and Fantastic Mr. Fox all end with a sort of resolution to the father-son problems presented in them. (The early death of the father in The Darjeeling Limited makes that film a necessary exception.) It’s just before Ned’s death that he and Steve discuss their first correspondence years earlier. As if to make up for lost time, this memory they share, and the mementos they kept ever since, connect them and compensate for years of lost connection. Ned dies, but Klaus’ nephew Werner steps in as a substitute for the son-figure for Steve. Steve’s acceptance of Werner (placing him on his shoulders while descending the steps) may be symbolism just as overt but just as powerful as the end loss of baggage concluding The Darjeeling Limited.
This has become quite fractured due to the bit-by-bit writing of these paragraphs. For now, this’ll do. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: an excuse to ramble about themes prevalent in all of Wes Anderson’s films.