Hello again! Returning from our post-holiday break we’re picking up our ongoing examination of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou at exactly the nineteen minute mark. If you’re following along at home you’re…probably a pretty patient human being.
This week’s entry might turn out to be a bit short, as I couldn’t find a particularly convenient breaking point…at least not one that comes in a reasonable amount of time. So our abrupt departure coincides with the abrupt arrival of Jane Winslett-Richardson, another new addition to Team Zissou, albeit one whose fresh perspective isn’t filtered through their celebrated past, like Ned’s. Jane’s perspective on Team Zissou is fixed much more solidly in the disappointing present, giving us our our ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present, if we seek to carry on with our comparison of The Life Aquatic and A Christmas Carol. And, yes, we do.
With Christmas itself so recently behind us, it’s perhaps worth mentioning a couple of other small details as to how this can be read as a Christmas film. It’s something we’ve discussed in general earlier, but the holiday season itself reminded me of two other small things: Steve’s most obvious physical traits — his white beard and red cap — synch up nicely with those of Santa Claus, and his shipmate Klaus — of whom will see a lot more of in this installment — bears the name of that jolly fat man.
Neither of them behave in manners befitting at all of Father Christmas — they’re much more Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, respectively — but much like the Christmas lights at Loquasto, these are small details sprinkled throughout, decorations if you will, that allow us to maintain such a reading. As the film progresses, the parallels will get that much stronger.
We’re not going to talk exclusively about Christmassy coincidence, however, as we have more pressing matters at hand: the death of Steve’s cat Marmalade. What’s really interesting through isn’t what this tells us about Steve or Eleanor, but what we learn — if we pay attention — about Ned. It’s a great credit to Owen Wilson that even when the attention isn’t on him — and as passive and polite as Ned is the attention isn’t frequently on him — he’s still acting. He’s still Ned. He’s still being this character, rather than standing around and waiting for his next line.
Here we have two great little moments that I’m not even sure I noticed before, both of which are silent and neither of which call for any attention from the audience. It’s only when you allow yourself to be detached from the dominating presence of the other Zissous that you notice the smaller things at all.
For starters, when Steve and Ned are walking away from the plane that delivered them to the Zissou Compound on Pescespada Island, Steve walks purposefully ahead toward his sanctuary. Ned lingers just slightly, and then turns around and waves in gratitude at the unnamed pilot. The pilot is unnamed because Steve never cares to share his name, or perhaps even learn it. But Ned is more polite than that. Strictly speaking all Owen Wilson had to do was follow Bill Murray toward the camera, but that small moment says volumes about how deeply he and Anderson understand his character.
The second moment requires us to jump ahead a bit. Steve pours himself and Ned a drink (Campari? Can anyone confirm?). While I could absolutely accept that Steve would carry a bottle of booze around — along with two glasses — I was a bit caught up this time by the fact that Ned would accept a hard drink so early in the morning.
Then, however, Wilson and Anderson demonstrated that they had the same concern. Ned doesn’t take a sip, and as he walks away from Steve he looks back. I always thought this was a glance backward to make sure Steve was okay, and I still believe that’s part of it, but more immediately Ned just wants to make sure Steve isn’t looking as he tosses the contents of his glass into the bushes. He doesn’t drink in the morning, but he’s too polite to refuse. I love Ned.
Rather than say hello, Eleanor greets Steve — and ignores Ned — with a flat, “Your cat’s dead.” It’s impossible to know how much this really affects Steve in itself (he doesn’t seem to have much of an attachment to any of the animals* on Pescespada…a stark contrast to Cody later) but he’s clearly upset by Eleanor’s cold demeanor. He explains that she was “raised by maids,” and that this accounts for her social shortcomings, but that of course doesn’t explain Steve’s. He spends the rest of the scene rolling his eyes whenever Eleanor speaks, not responding verbally, and cruelly pointing out that while her parents have financed several of his films, they’ve financed the worst ones. He then scoffs at the fact that anyone could consider her the brains behind Team Zissou.
Ned, always the gentleman, asks what kind of cat it was. In Steve’s defense, he eventually does answer that it was a tabby**, but his first impulse is to rebuff the man with a curt, “Who gives a shit?” Eleanor was raised by maids…what’s Steve’s excuse? Right now we don’t know…and we won’t find out anything conclusive about his upbringing for the rest of the film. But there’s a bit we’ll be able to infer, later on.
Steve then, listless and disheveled, seems to wander Pescespada on his own. We get only one seconds-long snatch of this, as he extends a fish for an orca who leaps for it. It’s Steve, once again, comforting himself with cliche. As a celebrity oceanographer he’s comfortable only with neutral public perception, and he retreats behind images like this. Images that say and suggest nothing, but fortunately play well with focus groups and reinforce, to him at least, that he is who he thinks he is. We’ll see more of this when we get to Jane’s interview next time.
Pescespada itself is worthy of discussion, too. Its weeds are overgrown, its paint is chipping, animals roam the island at will, and abandoned vehicles litter the grounds. The technology, of course, represents various attempts at bringing the island up to date but never quite getting there, and then only dragging it further back as time marches on. It is, I think, a beautiful and distressing physical expression of Steve’s own mind.
It’s a jumbled and directionless monument to the past — to a time when Steve, or Eleanor’s parents at least, could afford an island for Team Zissou — and its passively crumbling infrastructure mirrors Team Zissou itself. Everything is in disrepair, but at the same time Steve keeps antiquated memorabilia on display, and even keeps a cache of Adidas sneakers from an expired endorsement deal in their original packaging. He fixates on the high times, and genuinely does not see anything else. Perhaps this lack of acknowledgment is deliberate, and he believes, on some level, that if he does not accept the fact that his reality is crumbling, it will not crumble. Whatever it is, we see very clearly at this point something that undermines by design the early conceit of the film: Steve Zissou is not reeling from Esteban’s death; he and his team were lost long before that.
By now we also know why Steve would want — or perhaps need — an island of his own: it’s isolated. He’s a man who is only ever at home on his ship (and sometimes not even then), adrift in the sea and far from the prying, judgmental eyes of people everywhere. It makes perfect sense that the only land which Steve could make his own is also out to sea, accessible only by private appointment.
At 2:03 the next morning, Ned is awakened by Steve’s voice on the EchoBox, which is another decaying piece of technology that’s hanging above Ned’s bed. He tells Ned to answer him by pushing the red button. Ned mishears it as the white button, and presses it to respond. As far as I can tell, there is no red button on the unit at all, turning the joke toward Steve rather than Ned. Even now, though, I’m not quite sure what Anderson is after here…except perhaps foreshadowing the communication difficulties between the father and son.
In fact, those communication difficulties are manifested again in a technical sense in the very next scene, as Ned improperly holds the boom mic during an impromptu shoot on the beach, rendering the footage at least potentially unusable.
The reason Steve has called Ned out to meet him is that Bobby Ogata, Team Zissou’s frogman, noticed a “rubber tide.” This is a phenomenon that the crew has never encountered on film before, and just like that, in their pajamas and bare feet, Team Zissou is recording a scene for a documentary that doesn’t exist yet.
Without any structure whatsoever, nor any larger film into which Steve could insert such a scene, he’s lost for what to say. He describes briefly the rubber tide, mentions Ogata alerted him to its occurrence, and then turns to the camera to deliver a pathetic shrug, admitting silently that even he isn’t sure this was worth recording.
Of course Ned comes to the rescue by asking a question that, perhaps, Steve as a documentarian should already have thought to answer: what causes the creatures to glow like this? Only with fresh eyes can Ned even see that the most interesting thing about these jellyfish isn’t that they’re washed up ashore, but that they pulse illumination into the night. It’s one of nature’s many wonders that Steve can no longer even recognize.
Steve is impressed by Ned’s simple adlib, and it inspires him to shoot another scene: a simple two-shot of he and Ned. Here, he unleashes a “goddamned tearjerker” when he invites Ned to join Team Zissou.
We’ve already discussed some confusion here. He spoke to Eleanor after Loquasto (and in Ned’s presence) about Ned joining them, and I’m not sure what that meant. It didn’t mean joining Team Zissou proper, as Ned’s not invited until now and initially declines, and it didn’t mean coming to Pescespada Island as that invitation was extended specifically in the section we covered in part 4. There sure is a lot of inviting going on, and I’m personally not convinced even Anderson knows why that is, or what some of it means. It feels like detritus leftover from merging various versions of the script. It doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the film at all, but it does feel interestingly inexplicable.
Ned’s reluctance to join the crew has to do with a lack of experience and knowledge of the field. Steve deflects this question by saying none of them know what they’re doing. Klaus was a bus driver, and Wolodarsky — Team Zissou’s physicist in residence — was a substitute teacher. “We’re a pack of strays,” Steve proclaims proudly, and all at once it’s clear what Team Zissou really is: they’re not a band of people drawn together by their love for the ocean, or film making, or even each other. They are — on Pescespada — an Island of Misfit Toys. They don’t belong anywhere else, and that is the tie that binds: without Team Zissou, where would they be? Where could they be?
The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai starred Jeff Goldblum and ended with the team walk that inspired the final moments of The Life Aquatic; it’s absolutely a film embedded in The Life Aquatic‘s DNA, and it features Team Bonzai, with every member hand-picked by Buckaroo and able to provide some valuable service to the team that no other human being could. Team Zissou is Team Bonzai’s antithesis: Steve doesn’t hand-pick anything. He is found by misfits without any other place to go. Team Zissou is the team you end up on because no other team wanted you.
And he takes them aboard, and gives them an identity, and provides for them as best he can, offering a small-scale social acceptance that they wouldn’t have anywhere else.
He sounds like a really nice guy when you put it that way.
Ned also mentions that he’s “not even that strong a swimmer.” Some more early foreshadowing — in a comic exchange — of Ned’s eventual tragedy.
This invitation offends Klaus, who has been filming the scene but has not seen it fit to inform Steve of the useless boom placement until afterward. We’ll get into Klaus and Ned’s relationship soon enough, so for now let’s just leave them stewing.
What’s more interesting right now is Steve’s seething anger that Klaus stopped rolling before Steve called cut. For Captain Zissou this is about as severe as crimes can get. Steve’s life is one of post-production, of edit-booth sweetening and of looped lines and flattering inserts. Without the camera capturing the moment in the first place, Steve has no hope of immortalizing a better performance, of slaving over detail to get it just right. In short, without the camera, he’s stuck with what actually happens. And that’s not something that makes Steve happy.
Their spat is cut short by the arrival of Jane Winslett-Richardson, the reporter from Oceanographic Explorer who will be writing an article on Steve. Her arrival is heralded by a wave of flashlights shining her way from the team who forgot to pick her up at the airport. (More specifically it was Klaus’s job. It was also Klaus’s job to maintain the helicopter that will end up killing Ned.) It’s also scored by a track called “Zissou Society Blue Star Cadets,” though when we hear another version later in the film it’s referred to as “Ned’s Theme Take 1.”
Ned’s face lights up as much as Jane’s, though in her case it’s due to the flashlights, and the jellyfishes, though in their case it’s the moon’s light bouncing off their outer membranes. Also, Jane informs them, they’re not jellyfish. They’re Vietcong Man-O-Wars***.
Steve tests one with his foot and sure enough she’s right. He makes a note to loop that line in post-production, yet again casting some (admittedly small) doubt on his integrity as a documentarian. This goes to show how unimportant it is for Steve to ever get things right the first time — when you’re used to edit-suite tinkering there’s less of a need to worry about that — and how deluded Team Zissou is about what it is they actually do. More on that, of course, later.
Jane claims that she won’t even ask what they’re all doing out there in their matching pajamas, which is a bit of a throwaway line until we cut back to Steve and Klaus and see, funnily enough, that their pajamas don’t actually match. Klaus’s stripes are wider, though the intention (on the part of Team Zissou) was clearly to standardize them. It’s another example of mismatch in place of true uniformity. “Close enough” might as well be the motto carved into the Team Zissou crest.
Klaus, Steve and Ned show Jane to her room, and we’re introduced to three things about her: firstly, she’s pregnant. Secondly and thirdly are things that she’s doing to prepare for having a child: she says “effing” instead of “fucking” to get out of the habit of cursing, and she chews bubble gum, likely to get out of the habit of smoking. The father, as you might imagine, will become a conversation point in the near future, and we’ll see plenty of echoes of Steve and Ned there as well.
They discuss, again, the possibility that Ned might be Steve’s son — she’s dubious — and Steve makes his intentions known to Klaus with a loaded, “Not this one.”
We’ve seen how Steve’s romantic advances have paid off in the past, but we’ve also seen how Steve likes to sweeten his memories after the fact. If you think he’s learned from anything in that regard, you haven’t been paying much attention.
* There’s a nice little deleted scene on the DVD that shows that Steve keeps a penguin on the island as well. Ned asks Eleanor about it, and she replies ominously that he should not join Steve on his journey. In lesser hands it would have been clumsy foreshadowing, but here, in this film, with that character, it feels correct…especially as she seems to be the only one still aware of what happened to Esteban. Of course the scene was deleted and might not be worth saying much else about, but I found it interesting, and it makes it even more clear why she will soon storm off in the night, leaving Team Zissou to its self-imposed tragedies.
** Garfield is also a tabby, and the live-action film that starred Bill Murray as that orange cat was released the same year as The Life Aquatic. I’m willing to believe this is coincidental, but it certainly is an interesting fact.
*** They also visually call to mind the landing lights at an airport. It reminds me of Rushmore, and the times Anderson used visual cues there to suggest that characters arrived by air, even though they didn’t. It’s a director having fun with images and expectation, and it’s that kind of easily missable humor that Anderson does best.