Review: Red Dwarf X Episode 6: “The Beginning”

I think it says everything about Red Dwarf X that “The Beginning” floats to the top mainly because it wasn’t outright terrible.

In fact, at times, it came pretty close to being good, and it sustained that pretty-close-to-being-good level of quality about as well as “Lemons” did. That’s definitely welcome, as even though Red Dwarf X feels like an enormous misfire to me it’s nice to end on a high note.

Unfortunately that high note really is relative, as “The Beginning” is marred by the same kind of misjudgment that gave us Lister on hold in “Trojan”, Taiwan Tony in “Fathers and Suns” and the crew clowning around to silly music in the aforementioned “Lemons.”

Doug Naylor must not feel like he’s writing comedy unless somebody on set is broadly mugging, speaking with an exaggerated accent, or just generally acting like a desperate circus clown regardless of actual context. Here in “The Beginning” that’s manifested early on with Hoagy the Rouguey, or however that’s meant to be spelled, who is some kind of robot I guess who lives next door to Red Dwarf and gets the crew embroiled in his hair-brained schemes on a regular basis. Again, it sure was nice when being three million years in deep space felt different from living in an apartment building in a bustling city, but what do I know.

Poor Hoagy makes some funny faces and lets his accent drift pointlessly from Super Mario to Dr. Wily as he bothers Lister and then gets embedded in a wall. Why not, right? Lister promises he’ll be back to rescue Hoagy but for the first time all series I’m glad Doug didn’t bother to look over his first draft before shooting the episode, as the fact that we didn’t get a second helping of Hoagy is one of the best things about this one.

We’ve also got some rather atypical scenes in which a group of killer Simulants on a different ship engage in comedy routines separate from the Dwarfers. It’s not often that we see other characters getting their own spotlight, free of intervention from the main characters. In fact, only two examples really occur to me: “Holoship” and “Meltdown.” In the former it was brief and for plot reasons, free of comedy and used for necessary exposition. In the latter it was indeed a comedy routine, but its corniness was offset by the impressive disorientation of having such disparate historical figures bickering as they were.

Here it’s just…filler. It’s like a supporting feature that for some reason keeps interrupting the film you paid to see. The actors aren’t particularly funny, which is fine as they could get away with being simply menacing…but the menace falls through when they’re asked to act like such imbeciles, stabbing themselves on flimsy pretenses and re-enacting the Twentiety-Century Vole sketch from Monty Python.

It’s bad. It’s very, very, obnoxiously bad. It absolutely decimates the pacing, it prevents the episode from being what should have been an effectively claustrophobic experience (Red Dwarf‘s equivalent of “Balance of Terror”), and it populates deep space with yet more side characters that really shouldn’t be getting this many lines.

But…wait. I said I liked this one, right?

Well, I did. The rest of the episode was pretty solid, particularly the Rimmer material. Poor Chris Barrie hasn’t had a real chance to shine all series. Every so often he gets an appropriately Rimmery line he can sink his teeth into, but the rest of the time he’s relegated to broadly shouting sub-par material to an audience that wants to enjoy it so much that they don’t care what he says.

Here he gets to dig more deeply. Rimmer was never one-dimensional…or, rather, he wasn’t one-dimensional for long. There was an element of tragedy behind his needy professionalism, his longing for power, and his steadfast respect for the rules and etiquette of a civilization long dead. Here, for the first time in a long time, we tapped into that tragedy. And it worked.

Rimmer’s material here with his father is everything we should have seen in “Trojan” with his brother. His emotion was real, and as a result Chris Barrie managed to dial back his performance to where it was 20 years ago. He wasn’t an actor dressed again like his most famous character…he was Rimmer. His “fear” speech at the end was a particular highlight, and not only of this episode. It was a particular highlight of this and the three series that preceded Red Dwarf X. It was a lost and damaged man who was trying his hardest, and yet seemingly still destined to fail. It was uplifting and disheartening in equal measure, clever and foolish, sincere and inappropriate. It was good writing.

And there was a lot of good writing here. I don’t know that it balanced out the bad, or what that would even mean, but it sure as heck stood out in a great way. The cockpit and Blue Midget scenes were very reminiscent of series VI, even if it overall seriously paled by comparison. Kryten’s suggestion that they look out the window was immediately the best joke in the series up until that point, and it hearkened back to an era when the comedy was organic…when the characters didn’t have to dance and hump things to get laughs…when the vending machines didn’t hurl racial slurs at us as we walked down the corridors…when the characters carried emotional baggage with them…when the crew felt not like sitcom characters but like lost adventurers trying to find their way home…when the show didn’t coast on the goodwill engendered by putting its actors in front of an audience for the first time in however long and hoping for the best…

…when Red Dwarf was good.

Because Red Dwarf was good. Red Dwarf was great. Red Dwarf was a show that mattered. It didn’t spin its wheels and pad out time with irrelevant slapstick and dead-end subplots. It didn’t take laughter or deep thought for granted. It didn’t struggle so obviously for ideas.

And “The Beginning” reminded me of that time. Not thoroughly, and not consistently, but it got me there. It reminded me of why I’m sticking with this show, and reviewing this show, even when I so clearly don’t enjoy it.

It’s because I love where this show has been. It’s because I can love it again tomorrow. It’s because no matter what else happens, these are still characters that can be redeemed. Just because Rimmer didn’t bat an eye when his brother was shot through the heart in “Trojan” didn’t mean he couldn’t be symbolically shot through his own in “The Beginning.”

One bad episode didn’t undo the possibility of that happening. Four bad episodes didn’t undo the possibility of that happening. Hell, the 23 or so bad episodes since series VI didn’t undo the possibility of that happening, and they never could.

Because these characters are always there, locked, loaded, and ready for the right material.

“The Beginning” might well represent the beginning of such a rediscovery. It’s certainly possible, because when you brush aside the abandoned plot threads and fragmented bad ideas, there’s a great concept there, and a stellar central performance that promises big things.

I know better than to get my hopes up, but it sure would be nice if this show, moving forward, managed to deliver on that promise.

Time will tell. Until then, it was nice to get a glimpse, however fleeting, of a character I once, so long ago, fell in love with.

20 Questions: Andrew Apanov

I’m honored to have the chance to speak here with Andrew Apanov, the brains behind the Dotted Music digital marketing agency. Andrew’s latest — and largest — project is a series of short, documentary-like videos called Stand Above the Noise. It’s this fascinating endeavor that we discuss mostly below, but we also find time to ponder alternate histories, desert island meal allowances, and, of course, the accordion.

1) What, in your opinion, separates Dotted Music from any other digital marketing agency?

I think there are two things to it. The first is how the agency came out and the second is how it is organised.

We didn’t start as a music business entity, or a business at all. And we didn’t create a blog to attract new clients as it usually happens. Instead, the blog has been the core of the brand. I launched Dotted Music with an aim to educate musicians around the world, not having a single idea what it would turn into three years later.

Then I just felt the need to participate in developing music careers on a deeper level, and so the agency and my consulting offers emerged, but education is still our highest priority.

The other thing is our “location independence.” We are all other the world: the company is registered in the States, I’m in Kaliningrad, Russia, just as our designers, my business partner is in Canada, our blog’s editor is between Scotland and Cyprus, marketing managers are in New York City, and so on. Yet, thanks to technology (and I know this sounds banal in 2012), it is possible to do a lot without a centralised physical office.

2) The big project for you right now seems to be your documentary, Stand Above the Noise. Roughly how much time have you invested in the film so far?

This is our biggest educational project by date, just as the most time-consuming one for sure! Well, we started filming it in Kaliningrad in June 2011, and have been conducting interviews in various cities across Europe since then (and continue to do so around each two months). Just to make it clear, it’s not a full-fledged documentary film, but a series of interviews run on our YouTube channel. And although this project is self-funded and we have been on a fairly tight budget, we’ve filmed a couple hundred gigabytes of Full HD footage by now and are not going to stop.

3) You certainly have a knack for great names, between Dotted Music and Stand Above the Noise. What is the story behind each of these names?

Damn, this question made my day. I have been waiting for a compliment on either of those for so long! Yet seriously, it will be difficult to remember how exactly the Dotted Music name came along. I was just looking for something original, and guess the inspiration came from dotted notes in sheet music (reminded me that years ago I actually knew that stuff). Then, I love minimal style pretty much in everything, and a dot& worked perfectly for a simplistic design of the logo and the website. And of course, going further, the music industry is in such a beautifully unstable form right now that naming a blog dedicated to this business “solid music” or something in the vein would be misleading.

Stand Above the Noise is a bit of an “in your face” type of title, but I wanted it to be the statement. Initially, due to my love for rather obscure names, the working title of the documentary was Ear-Pleasing Noise. My designer, who is behind the neat graphics used in the series by the way, told me that it didn’t seem to work that well, and so I started the brainstorming process again. I knew I wanted to keep the “noise” in the title, another friend of mind suggested that “above” or “beyond” could fit the title well and so here we are, with Stand Above The Noise.

4) What do you think was the most eye-opening interview you conducted for Stand Above the Noise?

I can think of few. Last year, when I was working with an artist from France and had to dig into the French music business, I was impressed how fundamentally everything seemed to be organised to support musicians. When I talked to an indie guitarist Chris Martins in Paris though, it turned out that everything was not that shiny for a lot of music acts in the country. A conversation with Corinna Poeszus from Universal Publishing Production in Berlin was also extremely insightful. There I realised the growing potential of music licensing, or B2B approach of selling music as I would call it. And it’s booming right now. Of course there was a lot of other great interviews and I feel that the most insightful ones are yet to happen.

5) Name the one person, living or dead, that you wish you could have interviewed for Stand Above the Noise.

There is a myriad of awesome people in the industry who I would love to (and will! ha) chat with, but besides, it would be interesting to interview those mainstream stars who do fantastic job with engaging audiences of astronomic scales, like Rihanna or Lady Gaga.

6) Describe the evolution of the film. From what I understand, it started off as a much smaller project.

It started as a slightly different project. We wanted to create a documentary film, but the more we worked on it the more I realised it should be more than a film that not too many artists will watch anyway. People don’t have time to watch long videos on YouTube nowadays. Plus, I wanted it to be a long-time project, so a transformation into the interview series was a decision I never regretted about. By the way, we are also airing each new episode live, with my commentary and special invited guests — will see how well it’ll go!

7) You mentioned your wife Katya as being invaluable to the film. With her experience in broadcast journalism, that’s understandable. What do you feel she brought to the project?

She brought the project to life. Although it’s always me setting up and conducting interviews, she’s been directing, filming, and editing everything. Katya has also been helping me with doing the interviews professionally. Another thing is being filmed on camera. I suck at it. And I feel really sorry for my wife who needs to take dozen takes of a one-minute video of me. But I’m improving, promise!

8) Describe what a version of Stand Above the Noise would look like without her involvement.

I must say, this project would never see the light without her involvement.

9) You used to play the accordion. Where would your life be now if you had stuck with that as your primary mode of expression?

Oh my, I have no idea what career I could have as an accordionist, or what a regular accordionist career is at all. The last two times I saw an accordion player on MTV were that Gusttavo Lima live recording and a music video of a Finnish folk hip hop band — and I’m so grateful I am not involved in those anyhow! With all respect to the instrument, of course. I had sincerely enjoyed playing Bach (this is where my love for deep bass was born I guess).

10) What is the seminal accordion recording that should represent the instrument to all of mankind?

Some compositions written for organ sound excellent on accordion, but I won’t name anything specific.

11) You have experience managing acts, which is a far trickier business than many people might realize. What is one band or musician that you feel has been severely mismanaged? How would you have managed them differently?

I’m glad to have this experience, and am even more glad to be able to focus on marketing aspects of artists’ careers instead of managing them. Being an old-fashioned, full-fledged manager is a tough job.

This year we worked with a fantastic UK guitarist and singer-songwriter Dave Sharman, helping him with web presence and designing his new website. He’s been around for over 20 years, but I had never heard about him until early 2012. This is a good example of a very talented musician being mismanaged back in the days, though hopefully everything will be developing way better with the release of his new album.

12) What is your favorite Bob Dylan song?

I would rather name tracks where Bob Dylan’s songs were sampled, since unfortunately I don’t have any favorites among his own.

13) What documentaries — music or otherwise — have influenced your work on Stand Above the Noise?

Surprisingly, the idea of doing our own documentary hit us while watching Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey sometime in 2011. Speaking of more relevant films, PressPausePlay is such a perfectly made one.

14) You have the chance to go back in your life and change one thing. Absolutely anything, but only one thing. What would it be?

I would start my own venture much, much earlier.

15) Apart from yourself and your wife, who do you think had the largest impact on Stand Above the Noise as a finished product?

We are surrounded by a great team of supporters, but I want to highlight what our graphic designer has done, as well as Sam Agini, our blog’s editor who’s been helping with the copy. Artists who have contributed their music (Fanu, PLAYMA just to name a few) to the project deserve a separate mention. We are very grateful to everyone who’s been involved.

16) Do you feel that the increased interest in digital music has changed the focus of fans? Are they more likely to cherrypick individual songs than listen to complete albums, or experience a musician’s entire career as a more long-form journey?

This may sound paradoxical, but although music matters more than ever (you won’t stand above the noise with shitty music, fans will simply not eat it), music becomes just one of many assets defining your success. Albums, singles, streams, free downloads — you mix it all with other content and offerings and you build a strategy, a story behind yourself and your music, and a long-form journey just as you put it. People need way more than just the music these days, they want to be a part of a tribe. They want to hear from a leader of the tribe all the time, and they want to be entertained. Too bad many musicians don’t realise that success comes with a lot more than writing and performing.

17) In one sentence, identify what you feel is the biggest issue in the music industry today. Then, in one more sentence, propose a solution.

The global music industry is too selfish. It needs to better listen to an artist and to the one who rules the market now: a music fan.

18) You traveled to many places to obtain your footage and interviews for Stand Above the Noise. Was there any one moment you had that stands out as bizarre? Describe the strangest experience you had while preparing the film.

The strangest and the most confusing experience we’ve been having so far is microphones not working properly. We’ve tried five by now. In Paris, for example, 80% of interviews were massively corrupted due to the gear issues. You can guess how we felt listening to the recordings back at home.

19) You’re on an island. You have no chance of escape. Would you rather have enough food to fill your belly every day but no music, or just enough food to keep you from starving in addition to a source of music?

My answer will be rational: it depends on what music I would have to listen and for how long I would be doomed to stay on the freaking island. If the music is bad I would agree to starve with less food just to not listen to it, and if the “vacation” wouldn’t be too long — it is useful to let ears rest a bit and enjoy the sounds of the nature. Or maybe I would stick to more food anyway, rather inventing my own music instruments and organising raving events for the most biased audience ever (me).

20) What’s next for Dotted Music?

We’ve got a lot in the works for this and next year! Watch out for the Stand Above The Noise series, new affordable marketing products for musicians, new services, and of course lots of new free content. We will release a social media iPhone app soon…yes, you hear it first!

BONUS: Say anything to my readers that you haven’t gotten the chance to say above!

If you are an artist, stick to your art no matter what you read on the interwebs. There is only one way to become successful at what you do — and it’s never to stop or give up.

Thanks again to Andrew for taking the time. It’s been an honor and I look forward to the series!

Reader Mail: Ken Huber is Right, In a Manner of Speaking

It’s election day here in America, so make sure you get out and vote. It’s important. I learned that the hard way, since the first election I was old enough to vote in was Bush vs. Gore and I did not cast a ballot, assuming democracy would sort itself out. We all saw how well that went, so I won’t be missing any — admittedly small — opportunity to shape this country’s future again.

Anyway, some of you may have seen this before as it’s certainly nothing new, but it’s been circulating again in light of election season and, at last, I’ve felt compelled to respond to this thing.

It’s ostensibly a letter to the editor by one Ken Huber, but I’m not entirely convinced it was ever published anywhere. Regardless, I think it pretty accurately reflects a certain type of mindset, even if the particular words don’t belong to the person to whom it’s attributed. And it’s a dangerous mindset. A rotten one. I thought I would take a moment to reply.

The text is viewable in the image above…if there are any errors in the transcription below they are not deliberate…feel free to let me know and I will correct them.

Editor, Has America become the land of special interest and home of the double standard?

Remember these words, as Huber frames “special interest” and “double standard” as bad things — rightly so — when he opens the letter, but then spends the rest of his time arguing in their favor.

Lets see: if we lie to the Congress, it’s a felony and if the Congress lies to us its just politics;

It should indeed be a crime to lie “to the Congress.” I genuinely can’t imagine a situation in which lying to the government should be excusable, so I don’t know why it’s a bad thing that those found guilty of bearing false testimony in a court of law should be punished for it.

Also, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anybody say “It’s just politics” when a congressman is caught in a lie. Depending upon the severity of the lie sometimes one’s own party members will attempt to spin it in a less damaging way, but did anybody anywhere brush off the mistruths of Rod Blagojevich, Anthony Weiner or Todd Akin by saying “That’s just politics?”

We have a free press, and we take our congressmen to task for what they say and do, on both sides of the divide. Neither party gets a free ride…at the very least, they get called on it by the other party…one of the relatively few — but pretty clear — benefits of partisanship.

if we dislike a black person, we’re racist and if a black person dislikes whites, its their 1st Amendment right;

We’re still toward the front end of Huber’s second sentence and already he’s arguing overtly for a right to hate. That sure didn’t take long.

Read again what he wrote here, and then consider this alternative: “Why is it that I am always kind and friendly to my black neighbors, but I don’t feel the same courtesy in return?”

Same core wish — for a two-way sense of fairness — but the way in which it’s expressed says worlds about what we wish to do with that fairness. Huber doesn’t want to love his brother or be loved by his brother. He sees that his brother dislikes him and so he’d like the right to dislike him back.

Which is odd, because he does already have that right. Yes, if we dislike a black person because they are black, that is racist…however we have the right to dislike them for whatever intolerant reason we choose. We can’t openly discriminate against them, we can’t commit crimes against them, and we can’t enslave them, but last I checked there were plenty of racist morons roaming the street, longing for the glory days of the universal oppression of everyone who wasn’t them. Here, Huber would like us to think that he is oppressed, because we’ve robbed him of his right to oppress others. And that’s damned disgusting.

Also, it’s pretty funny that he thinks black people get an easier ride with the law than whites. That’s an ignorance so active it must hurt.

the government spends millions to rehabilitate criminals and they do almost nothing for the victims;

I still don’t know what he’s arguing for here. “Do something for the victims” is pretty clearly what he’s trying to say, but what is “something?” And “victims” of what? Both of those things need to be defined because there’s way too much room for interpretation there.

And isn’t the rehabilitation of criminals “something?” If it gets them off the streets and prevents them from committing crimes, then that’s “something” the government is doing for all potential “victims.”

Perhaps he wants free health care for victims of crimes. Well, good news for him: President Obama’s been pushing for that free health care for a while now, while the folks Huber keeps voting into office prevent him from getting it passed. Nice job, Ken.

in public schools you can teach that homosexuality is OK, but you better not use the word God in the process;

I’m unaware of any school, public or otherwise, that explicitly teaches that homosexuality is okay. More accurately they’re just not allowed to teach that it’s a Bad Thing. And why anyone would want to use the word “God” in the process of teaching the complete awesomeness of gayness is beyond me.

you can kill an unborn child, but it is wrong to execute a mass murderer;

37 states practice capital punishment currently, and the most recent Gallup poll on the subject (2011) found that 61% of Americans were in favor of executing those found guilty of murder, with only 35% opposing it. That’s a clear majority, and it’s also the lowest level of support ever found by the Gallup poll…it’s usually even higher. So I’m not sure where Huber gets the idea that America feels it’s wrong to execute a mass murderer, and he’s pretty clearly using that only as a counterpoint for his stance on abortion which, as we all know, is mandatory in all cases of pregnancy now.

we don’t burn books in America, we now rewrite them;

Citation — and significant clarification — needed.

we got rid of communist and socialist threats by renaming them progressive;

First of all, please stop lumping Communism and Socialism together. Second of all…what?

we are unable to close our border with Mexico, but have no problem protecting the 38th parallel in Korea;

We have significant problems with Korea, Ken. Far morseo than we have with Mexico. Of course, they’re also completely different problems and one might say it’s impossible to compare the two without looking foolish for doing so.

if you protest against President Obama’s policies you’re a terrorist, but if you burned an American flag or George Bush in effigy it was your 1st Amendment right.

A revisiting of Huber’s earlier black/white rant, this time naming particular individuals.

First of all, give me an example of one person who’s protested against President Obama and, due to that fact, has been tried as a terrorist. Just one, since this seems to happen all the time. That shouldn’t be so hard.

Heck, just look at Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck…those guys protest Obama on a daily basis, so I have to assume they’ve each been labelled terrorists and punished to the fullest extent of…

…oh, wait. No, they’re still around, and still given a platform with which to spout their anti-Obama beliefs. So where did we get this idea again?

And, yes, it is within your rights to burn someone in effigy. That’s why it’s allowed…because you’re burning someone in effigy. It’s the difference between a political statement and an attempt at assassination. Nobody’s going to jail for it, whether it’s Obama, Bush, or Harry Potter you’re burning.

You can have pornography on TV or the internet, but you better not put a nativity scene in a public park during Christmas;

What correlation is there at all between these two things? Television and the internet are both private venues for information retrieval. If someone chooses to view pornography, that’s within their rights. Why wouldn’t it be? People can choose what to view in both cases. If they want to see the pornography they can and if they don’t wish to see it they can avoid it.

A public park however is…well, public. Which is to say it is not something people should have to avoid, nor should any one person or group of people decide which religion is endorsed by it. (Also pornography, last I checked, is not a religion, so maybe, just maybe, this isn’t the comparison he should be trying to make.)

Somehow I don’t think Huber would be in favor of a giant, mechanical Mohammed being installed in a public park, so why would he be in support of a nativity? Easy…because that reflects his special interest. And his double standard means he’s perfectly fine relegating the beliefs and feelings of others to the sidelines in favor of his.

we have eliminated all criminals in America, they are now called sick people;

I thought we were rehabilitating criminals?

Who knows. Maybe in the time between writing that observation and this one America happened to eliminate all criminals and he just didn’t have time to delete that before mailing it to the editor.

We do indeed refer to criminals as “sick” very often. And they very often are sick. I’m unaware of anyone who’s stopped referring to them as criminals, however.

we can use a human fetus for medical research, but it is wrong to use an animal.

We can use an animal fetus for medical research as well. And we use animals at all stages of development for medical research. We can’t use living human beings of any age for medical research unless they personally consent, and even then there are far more stringent guidelines for testing on humans than there are for testing on animals.

We take money from those who work hard for it and give it to those who don’t want to work;

There are those who don’t want to work, and some of them do indeed defraud government welfare programs. There are also many more who can’t work, or can’t find work, whose families are sustained by temporary government assistance.

The fact that there are those who abuse a system does not suggest that the system itself is a problem.

we all support the Constitution, but only when it supports our political ideology;

I agree with this, Ken. In fact, I’d raise your letter high as proof of that very fact.

we still have freedom of speech, but only if we are being politically correct;

Your letter is not “politically correct” in the slightest, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Yet it’s also not been censored. You’ve proven yourself conclusively wrong by simply making that observation.

parenting has been replaced with Ritalin and video games; the land of opportunity is now the land of hand outs;

Nothing much to say here. The hand-outs bit is dealt with above, and I don’t know why he wants the government to enforce standards of parenting. Wouldn’t that be more in line with the imaginary Big Brother government controllapalooza he’s raging against above?

the similarity between Hurricane Katrina and the gulf oil spill is that neither president did anything to help.

A bit reductionist here, but honestly that’s pretty fair. I will say, however, that there’s a difference between not helping actual human beings who are being displaced and dying, and not helping a body of water that’s seeing substantial environmental impact. Certainly a humanitarian like Huber — who just moments ago was preaching how much more important human life is than animal life — would see that.

Also, hindsight really works against this one, as Obama’s currently dealing with the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy…and he’s dealing with them in an active way that Bush did not do with Katrina. Comparing apples to apples, we have a clear winner here.

And how do we handle a major crisis today? The government appoints a committee to determine who’s at fault, then threatens them, passes a law, raises our taxes; tells us the problem is solved so they can get back to their reelection campaign.

Apparently determining who is at fault before dishing out punishment is a Bad Thing to Huber. So is passing a law to prevent it from happening again, and asking citizens to chip in so that this new law protecting them from a “major crisis” occurring again can actually be enforced.

What has happened to the land of the free and home of the brave?

You demonstrated that neither of those things has gone anywhere simply by complaining that they’re long gone. You’re brave and free enough to write what you feel, and newspapers are brave and free enough to print it, and everyone else is brave and free enough to respond to it as they see fit. Congratulations, Ken…your imaginary nightmare land never existed.

– Ken Huber, Tawas City

So why get out and vote?

Because this man is unquestionably turning up to the polls.

Do your part, America.

Steve Zissou Saturdays #3: A Very Special Opportunity for All of Us

We are now introduced — though not immediately — to the other driving narrative here in The Life Aquatic. Up to this point, the film has been suggesting that our story will be one of revenge, with Steve seeking out and destroying the monster that ate his friend. And just in case we’ve forgotten this, Captain Zissou gets a big, dramatic moment in which he declares his intent to his crew…just before we see those intentions derailed by the arrival of probably-his-son, Ned.

This is a Wes Anderson film, however, so when a lost and confused son meets at last with his distant father, we know that that’s going to take narrative precedence over anything we might have seen already. Sure enough, it’s the relationship between Steve and Ned that drives the film, pulls us forward, and provides the characters with their real journey.

The scene opens with a small after-after-party aboard the Belafonte. As we’ve discussed previously, this is at last a chance for Steve to exercise some all-important control over his night, as he is in charge of the guest list and even has his staff shuttling guests to and from the ship in dinghies. It’s an isolated party for an isolated man, and he’s using the water as a buffer between himself and the world he does not care to understand. They say that no man is an island, but Steve Zissou seems to aim to be the first.

The after-after-party seems to run smoothly enough, and it gives us a lovely glimpse into the baseline operational structure of Team Zissou: Pelé performs music from the sidelines as Renzo the soundman records him, youthful Ogata and Anne-Marie socialize with guests, interns man the bar and serve appetizers, and Steve shuts himself — yet another level of isolation — in the cabin, away from anything that might be going on outside, even when it’s a party in his honor.

We’ll be discussing the individual members of Team Zissou more in the next section, but it’s enough to point out now that the serious electrical faults of the Belafonte are currently being repaired by Steve’s camera man and an intern whose name he doesn’t know.

Pelé’s song here serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone for the rest of his music in the film. By opening the scene on a long establishing shot of the Belafonte, Anderson gives us very little to focus on apart from what we’re hearing, which happens to be the instantly (and universally) recognizable intro to “Ziggy Stardust.”

The song itself isn’t particularly appropriate to the event or even the film itself — apart from some thematic science-fiction resonance that we may discuss later on — but it’s important that we hear this one first, simply because it’s recognizable. It’s a rare thing indeed to find an “obscure” Bowie song in Pelé’s repertoire, but the acoustic arrangements and Portuguese lyrics will render many of them unrecognizable (or at least less-easily recognizable) to anything other than the biggest fans of that androgynous icon.

So we get “Ziggy Stardust,” a song well known by anyone who’s ever turned on the radio, with one of the most distinctive opening riffs in rock history. The audience is now in the mind for Bowie, and it will make it that much easier to pick up on the vague, later echoes of “Rebel Rebel” or “Rock N Roll Suicide.”

Steve’s isolation is interrupted by Oseary, who delivers the ominous news that Larry Amin will have to consider the profitability of Steve’s next film before he decides to bankroll it. It says a lot that a benign and rational consideration of such a thing could be seen as ominous to Team Zissou, and Oseary confirms that it’s been nine years since Steve’s last “hit documentary.” One gets the feeling that by the lowered standards and ambitions of Zissou and his crew that “hit” is a relative term indeed, and might as well be replaced with the word “profitable.”

Here we also see a bit more of life aboard the ship. Klaus’s nephew Werner is the only one at all still enraptured by the magic of what these explorer / documentarians do, and he toys excitedly with some unseen creature that’s kept in an aquarium. Everybody else simply waits for the night to be over, whiling away the evening so that they can return to their almost perversely mundane “adventures.”

Klaus and Wolodarsky play backgammon, and Eleanor, quite tellingly, engages herself in a game of solitaire. Nobody offers to show the child around the ship, and it’s his responsibility to occupy himself blandly, as the adults are doing. If the actual film Steve premiered tonight didn’t sap any excitement that Werner might have had at meeting Steve, seeing his team hiding from their own prior glories and shruggingly postponing an electrical catastrophe certainly will.

Speaking of which, the potential of a ship-wide electrical failure when they could be anywhere at sea, under any circumstances, says a lot about the danger this crew is in, operating under a disinterested captain like Steve. The blackouts are played as a sort of rolling punctuation to important moments in the film we’re watching, but they’re also a harbinger of danger to come. See too Steve resuscitating a nearly-drowned Ned. What’s played for laughs up front can result in real and irreversible loss down the line.

Steve pushes Oseary to push Amin, and when he does not get what he wants he declares again his intentions to avenge Esteban, and storms out of the cabin. This is where he meets Ned.

Firstly, and interestingly, Ned addresses Steve as “Captain Zissou.” There’s no much we can say about this now, but it’s worth keeping in mind that to everybody else, including his own crew, he’s just “Steve.” This is a term of respect Steve has likely not heard for a long time.

Ned introduces himself, and Steve is immediately — and visibly — thrown off guard. He recognizes the name of Ned’s mother, and freezes. How much Steve actually knew about Ned prior to this moment is a subject of much contradiction over the course of the film, and even, in fact, in this very exchange. Steve’s “I’ve heard of you” suggests a belief on his part that Ned may actually be his son, but his “She never contacted me” seems to leave him — at least in terms of his own conscience — clear of responsibility. It’s his selfish, yet personally justifiable, way of having maintained a distance for this boy’s entire life. The responsibility for contact was Catherine’s, not Steve’s, and since there was no contact, Ned wasn’t Steve’s problem.

But his “I’ve heard of you” tells a different kind of story. One of unconscious drift, perhaps. One of a man who drinks and smokes and pops pills to force things out of his mind, but can never quite forget them. He doesn’t recognize Ned when he first meets him not because he’s never thought about him (as evidenced by the fact that he kept young Ned’s letter), but because the reality does not overlap with whatever phantom child Steve might have imagined to himself. It’s safe to say that whatever Steve pictured, it wasn’t a 30-year-old co-pilot.

Reality intrudes. Esteban was eaten. Steve’s films no longer make money. Reality intrudes.

Owen Wilson’s accent here rings somewhat false, and yet his earnest gentleness keeps it from veering into Foghorn Leghorn territory. It’s no more real than the sea creatures we’ve discussed…exaggerations and caricatures of the world we know. We need them to be exaggerated so that we — no matter who we are — can stand apart from them. The sea creatures can’t be familiar to any oceanographers in the audience, and Ned can’t be familiar to any native Kentuckians. This is a world Anderson created, and we are all observers. We are all at a distance. We’re not allowed to get too close.

Ned’s mother’s death is a sustainment of an echo that runs through many of Anderson’s films: Max Fischer’s mother, Royal Tenenbaum’s mother, Ari and Uzi Tenenbaum’s mother, the Whitman patriarch, Sam Shakusky’s parents…even the comparatively light Fantastic Mr. Fox toys with the idea of losing a parent. In the case of Max, he also lost his mother to cancer, and cancer is what Royal pretends to be killing him. Another character in that film, Henry Sherman, lost his own wife to cancer. Cancer, being both an unforeseeable intrusion of reality and something that kills quietly from within, fits perfectly into Anderson’s narrative wheelhouse.

Leaving nothing to chance at this point in his life — and this evening — Steve outright asks Ned, “You’re supposed to be my son, right?” He’s ensuring that they’re on the same page, and Ned’s answer is that he isn’t sure…but he did want to meet Steve. Just in case.

It’s a brilliant dance of emotional distancing. Ned is meeting both his father and his hero for the first time, and Steve is uniquely equipped to disappoint in both capacities. Neither takes the initiative to close the gap — though we do have to give Ned credit for coming all this way “just in case,” which is something Klaus calls him on later — and Steve’s just-out-of-frame handshake is a masterstroke of social desperation. Steve is meeting his son for the first time, and like Gabriel Conroy offering money to the maid he’s offended, knows not what to do but knows he must do something.

Steve excuses himself and we see the first of two long, emotionally-charged strolls he takes in the film to the accompaniment of a David Bowie song. This is Bowie’s original version of “Life on Mars?” here, though Pelé will also sing it later.

Taking both performances of “Life on Mars?” in tandem, and considering their contexts, they reveal a subtle and somewhat crude joke. Both times we hear “Life on Mars?” it is during a conversation between two characters about whether or not Steve could have fathered Ned. The first time it’s between Steve and Ned themselves, and the next time it’s between Eleanor and Jane. When Bowie asks about life on Mars, he’s wondering about the possibility of finding living organisms in a lifeless sphere. When Steve’s paternity is in question, they wonder about the possibility of finding sperm in his lifeless testicles. It’s a crude grounding of scientific wonder, but it’s hardly devoid of magic or majesty.

Steve returns and apologizes for his behavior — frame that moment, because it isn’t likely to happen again — and is approached by a much happier, and presumably drunker, Oseary. He has good news for Steve, as he spoke with Si Pearlman (whose surname is another passive reference to the undersea world), the editor of Oceanographic Explorer magazine.

Later we will see — in one of this film’s rare static insert shots — that Captain Hennessey has already been featured on the cover of this magazine, and this is Steve’s chance to regain, however briefly, the same level of exposure. A moment ago, in the cabin, Steve would have had something to say to this. Now, having encountered Ned, he ignores it — along with Oseary’s request to be nice to the magazine’s reporter — in order to introduce “probably [his] son.” Oseary, through untold years of experience working with Steve, has probably taken to handling all of his unexpected and inexplicable meetings with a bright, and hollow, “How delightful!” as he does here.

It’s the first of two back-to-back introductory embarrassments for Ned.

The next is a very brief scene when his backstory is explained to Eleanor by Steve, while Eleanor has no idea that he’s standing right beside her. It’s a brilliantly comic moment and it makes glorious use of Anderson’s signature blocking, as the entire joke is there in the frame but isn’t revealed until Steve’s final line. Eleanor also has a fantastic internal moment when she juggles disgust for Steve’s behavior here with a polite greeting to Ned.

As with Oseary, we get the feeling Eleanor has been through something similar many times before, and is used to being forced into conflicting emotions by her husband. In public, she must handle them both. In private, her options expand a bit, and we’ll see the result of that before the Belafonte officially sets sail.

In the background Pelé performs “Oh! You Pretty Things” which is barely audible and arguably unrecognizable without the complete soundtrack version. He also played a song during Steve and Ned’s meeting that I still can’t make out, which suggests that Anderson chartered a little too much material from Seu Jorge, and then was unable to find a natural home for every track. Rather than leave much of it on the cutting room floor (though some tracks certainly were), we hear Pelé tunes in strange places like this, wedged between grander moments, and relegated to an almost inaudible background. It’s sloppy soundtracking, but a natural extension of the stylistic musical collision we discussed in the first post of this series.*

We end with a short exchange between Ned and Steve standing above the action on the Belafonte. I’m not sure what this part of the ship is called, but it’s the same part that a ghostly figure of Ned is standing upon at the end of the film…which we’ll likely discuss more then, of course. (In the meantime please let me know what this is called, so I don’t have to sound so danged stupid all the time.)

Steve offers marijuana to Ned, who refuses, and lights a pipe instead. Similar, and yet different. We’ll see more of this distanced similarity between the two as the film progresses.

Ned reveals that he’s been a member of the Zissou Society since he was 11, and Steve feigns surprise. As we’ll see later, Steve already knows this (confirmed by the letter of Ned’s that he kept), and Ned already knows that he knows (confirmed by Catherine Plimpton before she died). Here they are feeling each other out…each gauging what the other knows, what the other will admit to knowing, and how far the other might go to conceal what he knows.

The fact that Ned was once a young fan of Steve’s (from his glory days, as according to Oseary Steve’s films became unprofitable around the time Ned was 21, meaning Ned had a full decade of enjoying Team Zissou output in its prime) sets him up as a reassuring whisper from Steve’s past…a past that grows more distant by the day. We’ll talk about this more when we meet Jane, who functions as an unwelcome reflection of Steve’s present. (Both of which, and more, feed into last time‘s discussion of The Life Aquatic as A Christmas Carol. More on that to come, surely.)

Ned reveals also that he’s currently a pilot (well, co-pilot) for Air Kentucky, which gives Steve another — and always welcome — chance to posture when he dismissed Kentucky as “landlocked.”

It’s the chance for Steve to play a part…a caricature of oceanographic explorers that you might encounter on Saturday mornings, perhaps one paying a visit to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

It’s not real…it’s an act. It’s a purposeful embodiment of what people expect to see and hear, so that they won’t feel inclined to dig any deeper. This will resurface again in his first interview with Jane. Favorite color, blue. Favorite food, sardines. Kentucky, landlocked.

But Jane digs deeper. And in her presence, so does Ned.

Steve talks Eleanor into letting Ned come along because it will be a very special opportunity for all of them. What he doesn’t know is that the opportunity is deep inside himself, and not deep within the sea that surrounds them.

Next: Let Steve tell you about his boat.

* Oh, and on the subject of music, the version of “Life on Mars?” that plays here has an extended piano introduction, and it’s genuinely an improvement on an already gorgeous song. Does anybody know where this comes from? Was the intro recorded and appended by somebody working on the film, or does it come from Bowie’s own rarities or outtakes somewhere? In case you can’t tell I’m asking because I WANT IT.

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