Steve Zissou Saturdays #9: A Little Too Much Water

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Last month we left Steve, Ned, and new crewmember Bill Ubell in an elevator, all set to…

…wait. Let me just check the date of that last installment and…



That was fourteen months ago. God, I’m terrible at this series. And I genuinely apologize to anyone following it with interest. That’s frustrating, and there’s no excuse for it. But I do have to mention, before we move on, that something significant happened in that time: The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s a brilliant film, and it may have actually unseated The Life Aquatic as my favorite.

That doesn’t imply that The Life Aquatic has diminished in any way in my eyes…it instead speaks to how strong, affecting, and remarkable The Grand Budapest Hotel is. But we’re not here to talk about that. (Yet.) For now, let’s finally free those three members of Team Zissou from an awkward elevator ride, and plunge ahead into the next section of the film: a montage set to Devo’s “Gut Feeling.”

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

There’s no dialogue in this section until the end, and even though “Gut Feeling” is not an instrumental,* we only hear the intro…cutting out before any of the lyrics kick in.

This is Anderson taking the time to tell his story without words, and while montages are a fairly common way of doing just that, we’ve seen plenty of sequences in his other films — in which dialogue and exposition is replaced by score and a flood of visual details — that let us know that he uses this as a flourish, and not a crutch.

Specifically, see the heartbreaking NOVEMBER sequence from Rushmore, the shaving sequence in The Royal Tenenbaums, and, most overtly, the night the Whitmans spend with their mother in The Darjeeling Limited.

Loaded visual details are layered on fast and thick in this sequence, as we cut immediately from the elevator to a view from the chopper as it approaches the Belafonte. Pele, the safety expert, waves them in, which is a nice touch. Things like that can take an audience member many viewings to even notice, so the fact that Anderson sweats of all of them goes a long way toward making him my favorite director. He makes digging worth it.

From there we get a lovely shot of a small shuttle boat taking the boys back to Pescespada Island. Ogata, it seems, is with the chopper now, but in this case I don’t know if there’s any particular significance to that, and it may just be a way of keeping the Belafonte visually alive while it’s still in frame.

In the image above you can see each of the characters reacting to this early leg of the journey in a way that tells you a lot about their personality. Newcomer Bill is awkward and uneasy, gripping his briefcase and hat (and the side of the boat) tightly against the wind. Ned is excited, facing the breeze head on. Pele, having done this hundreds of times at least, is disinterested. Steve is wearing literal blinders.

So much characterization in a single, silent frame.


Next we see Steve planning something, and speaking to somebody just off camera, whom we don’t see. It could be Jane, as part of the ongoing interview, or it could be one of his own documentarians. However since we see Vikram standing in the background of this very scene, that’s a little less likely.

There’s a lot of detail in this moment as well, including Steve holding a ping-pong paddle (though he isn’t playing…perhaps Jane interrupted a game to ask about the actual voyage?) to his placing a very small Belafonte toy on the map to indicate where they are. (Or, perhaps, where they are going.)

Something excellent revealed itself to me while writing this. He has a paper map spread out on top of a ping-pong table. Right? Yes…but the ping-pong table is itself made of a (much sturdier) map of the world. There’s something massively appealing to me there. Maybe it’s the fact that Team Zissou built their own ping-pong table instead of buying one. Or maybe it’s just the continuous echo of Team Zissou taking for granted what they should be taking seriously.

Either way, I love it. And I feel compelled to mention that ping-pong appears in a few other Anderson films as well. In Bottle Rocket it took the form of a test of character (at least seemingly so), and in The Grand Budapest Hotel the Nazi analogues are seen carrying a table to their room. I feel as though I’m forgetting at least one other appearance; feel free to fill me in on that.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We then see Anne-Marie, doing something I can’t really identify. Any help on this? She seems to be loading something on her lap, and when she’s done she clicks a stopwatch. Once she does we get a great 90-degree pan to Klaus, who is organizing their shooting schedule, but I have absolutely no idea what Anne-Marie is meant to be doing.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

The long plastic strips presumably indicate scenes that need to be filmed. As far as the coloring goes, I’m not sure. It could mean anything, from the time of day that the shot needs to happen to how expensive the shot might get.

This is Team Zissou’s chance to pre-edit, but, in their defense, it’s something that any production unit with even a minor sense of how to make a movie would do. My personal theory is that the colors keep the scenes grouped by location. Being as we’ve already seen Steve discuss the importance of continuity, I don’t think it’s unlikely that he’d have Klaus arrange the shooting schedule so that, say, all of the scenes of the crew at the compound can be shot together, whether or not they will be anywhere near each other in the final film.

There is something to be said for the financial aspect, however, and we’ll get to that in a moment.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We then pan right past Bill’s room, just as Steve himself would if he were making this film, but if we pay attention on the way we can see our bond-company stooge in the act of triple tasking. He’s working figures with his left hand, writing something with his right, and reading (or consulting) something else with his field of vision.

Pretty impressive. And I also like the detail that Bill sits his coffee (or tea) in a saucer. I think we can safely say he’s the only member of Team Zissou — temporary or not — who does that.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We keep panning past Wolodarsky in the recording booth, listening to one of his compositions and conducting along. The hand-lettered DO NOT ENTER – – RECORDING sign is pretty lovely, as in order to see it you’d have to be looking at the very window that gives you a very clear view of that happening. It’s also nice that Wolodarsky wrote in two short dashes instead of one longer one. A very Anderson touch.

A lot of pictures on the wall pass by during this sequence, but I can’t make many of them out. On the left in the grab above we have one of Steve above one of Ogata, but beyond that I’m lost. Regardless of who is in which picture where, however, it’s another pretty obvious way that Steve surrounds himself with his past.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Further down the hallway we pass Vikram and Pele color-balancing a camera. Not much to say about this except that having Pele hold it (instead of, say, propping it up against a wall or hanging it somewhere) says a lot about Team Zissou’s interest in efficiency. (As well as Anderson’s dedication to world building. This is one continuous shot, remember, which means he needed his entire cast on set for this. Not a cheap proposition.)

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Then we pass Pietro in the shower room (which is fitting, as he’s Zissou’s soundman and showers have famously good acoustics), but I can’t tell what he’s up to. He seems to be listening to something, but he’s also toying with what looks like a hamburger bun. It’s fully possible he just ducked in there to have some privacy while he eats his lunch, but I can’t tell for sure.

Just outside that room, Eleanor is reviewing some potential ideas for stunt work. She crosses off SKYDIVE INTO VOLCANO, and I get the sense this is more due to financial restriction that safety concern, especially with Bill crunching numbers right up the hall.

It’s also interesting that Steve keeps this STUNT WORK corkboard in common space, as though everyone is welcome to contribute ideas as they think them up. And that may well be the case. If some member of Team Zissou wants to skydive into a volcano, why not give them the chance to request it?

Furthermore, all of this pre-planning (especially in terms of what should otherwise be unexpected “stunts” required of the crew) casts further doubt on Steve’s insistence that all they do is film what happens.

For the record, some other ideas on the board include BOTTLE-SHOOTING, CLIFF-JUMPING, and one that looks like ZODIAC SPEED-RAMP OVER ROCKS. No idea what that last one means, but being as Eleanor crossed that one off, too, I don’t think that matters. (Still, if you know what it is, speak up!)

Needless to say, this stuff is all in a day’s work for a team of oceanographers…

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Then we glance outside, where the interns are jogging in place. In the background one of them, seemingly with an injured knee, has ice applied to his leg. But more interesting is what happens in the foreground.

Steve enters stage left, and walks across to stage right. As he does so, one of the interns (whom we will later learn is named Nico) stumbles and falls.

I heard or read somewhere that this was unplanned; the actor (Matthew Gray Gubler) actually just fell, and that take made it into the film. I’m glad it did, though, because it makes for an interesting suggestion that Steve and Ned are indeed related.

See the very next shot:

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Ned passes by Ogata, and offers him a drink. This causes Ogata to lose the ball he was playing.

In this shot and the one that immediately preceded it (which was a continuous take, remember), we have some neat, silent symmetry: a crewman is doing just fine on his own, a Zissou enters the frame, and the crewman — by sheer virtue of the Zissou’s appearance — stumbles.

Like father, like son.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We then leave the compound for a quick moment back on shore, where Pele and Wolodarsky are testing out the dynamite Steve successfully negotiated out of Oseary.

It’s a silly little moment, but one I love, simply due to its unexpectedness and its humorous framing.

They aren’t doing anything significant, but remember that every stick of dynamite that the team uses contributes to the fact that there’s none left by the end of the film.

This I find interesting because it leaves the climax somewhat open-ended. While Steve doesn’t follow through on his promise to “fight” the Jaguar Shark, we can’t be entirely sure of why. Did he change his mind, or was he just out of dynamite? If Anderson didn’t have the character confirm that they had no more explosives, the answer would have clearly been the former.

I still believe the answer to be the former…but I like the fact that being out of dynamite makes it just a little less clear.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Then we have Team Zissou running along the beach. In Steve’s case he’s biking, but since I’ve never biked on the beach I don’t know if this is an example of Steve taking it easy. I feel like that’s the intention, but at the same time I’d have to imagine that riding a bike through loose sand is pretty damned tough. Anyone out there know?

Speaking of a million questions I’m asking readers instead of answering for them, Anne-Marie is jogging topless. That’s not surprising for two reasons: everyone is topless, and she’s usually topless anyway. But at the same time…wouldn’t it hurt to jog without any kind of support for the breasts? I’ve always assumed that’s why sports bras existed. But never having needed one I can’t really confirm.

It’s less a question about the character than about the actress. If that’s as uncomfortable as I imagine it to be, I feel bad for Robyn Cohen.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Ned breaks formation to go talk to Jane. Ned, being Ned, continues to jog in place as he does so, which is such a perfect little character detail.

He gives her a sand dollar he found, and we’ll see that again later. For now it’s the sort of thing a little boy (ahem) would give to his mother (ahem ahem), and we’ll leave it at that.

Steve wheels over, and though we don’t hear him it’s clear that he tells Ned to get going. Considering what follows, this is the first time that Steve scolds Ned right before physical tragedy strikes the boy.

It’s not the last, however. Something similar happens when the ship is taken by pirates, and then, of course, we have their scene just before that final ride in the helicopter.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

For now, though, Ned’s tragedy is a minor one. (Relatively minor, anyway; we do learn later that his heart stopped beating.) He is prepping for the journey in the dive pool. Pele is swimming in the background, Pietro is casually observing and enjoying the sun. Ogata, the frogman, is presumably training Ned, but he bites into a banana as soon as the boy goes under, unaware of what’s about to happen.

Ned told Steve earlier that he wasn’t a strong swimmer, and we see now that he wasn’t exaggerating. This is another ill omen for Ned, considering that he’s about spend an extended period at sea.

This isn’t something I think we can blame on Ogata or Pele; these are people who have been diving for years. It’s second nature to them, and I don’t think they really believed that Ned could be in need of that much attention.

It’s routine. It’s nothing to worry about.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

…until, suddenly, it is.

One thing that I think is worth noting is that whenever I watch this film with somebody — starting way back when it was in theaters, and continuing up through a few weeks ago when my girlfriend saw it for the first time — they laugh at this moment.

What’s funny about it?

Well, if you know what’s coming, nothing.

But if you don’t, it’s not so much that it’s funny as the fact that it has the cadence of a joke. Anderson pushes his camera in on Ned, who falls backward into the pool and disappears. “Gut Feeling” reaches its climax on the soundtrack, and then…cut. Ned is prostrate. He’s being given CPR. No music.

Expectations are subverted so quickly that it feels like a visual punchline, even though what we’ve seen is a man almost drown.

Of course, at this point in the film we don’t know all of the rules for what we’re seeing. We don’t know if this is a silly comedy in which all of the characters are safe, or a film in which the time left to them is determined by the choices they make. Watching this movie a second time makes this scene a little harder to get through, but the first time it gets a big laugh. I’m sure I laughed, too.

Anderson’s using our willingness to engage with him playfully against us. We’ve just finished a nice little montage with silly music and funny visuals, so we’re primed to laugh. When we suddenly cut from one thing to another, we expect that it must be a punchline, and so we treat it as one.

But it wasn’t. It was a man nearly dying. It’s a bait and switch handled so effortlessly that it takes us another minute after the cut to realize that we’ve been tricked.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Once Ned is resuscitated, Vikram reaches into shot with a light meter. Steve confirms with him that he’s capturing this on film. Pietro has vanished as well, presumably because he’s also off-camera, handling the sound for the scene.

All of that happens, it has to be noted, before any of them know if Ned is going to be okay. Team Zissou correctly assumes that getting the shot will be more important to Steve than anything that happens in it. Just as when Esteban was eaten, Steve’s first concern is the camera.

This is the “relationship subplot” Steve talks about later in the film. You know. The one in which his son almost dies and he expresses open concern about the moment is being recorded properly. Touching, isn’t it?

Steve also refers to the incident as Ned drinking “a little too much water,” which is the kind of euphemism that someone might actually use in such a situation — particularly after the speaker knows the victim will be okay — but for Steve it’s just one of many examples of his disregarding the actual and avoidable danger in which he places his crew.

Omen after omen after omen. We see them where Team Zissou does not. And though we’ve yet to take to the sea, we have enough darkness cast over Ned’s fate that we know he won’t be coming back.

Next: Even in the most challenging circumstances, the members of Team Zissou find ways to keep morale high.

* …and man was I disappointed to learn this. Not being familiar with Devo, I didn’t realize that this fantastic piece wasn’t written for the film specifically. Hearing the full version on the soundtrack album was a nasty surprise, because the huffing way in which the lyrics are delivered undercut the rollicking majesty of what I heard in the film. Or so I thought then. As of now I appreciate the song, but at the time the unedited track was a rude awakening. (For the sake of contrast, I’ll say right now that I had no such disappointment hearing the full version of “Staralfur,” which to this day chokes me up.)

3 thoughts on “Steve Zissou Saturdays #9: A Little Too Much Water”

  1. Thanks for doing this great series. I am really enjoying it. Life Aquatic is one of those films that you either love or hate. Just reading the IMDB user reviews is hilarious, they alternate between “10/10 one of my favorite movies!” to “1/10 this is the worst movie i’ve ever seen in my life!”. A lot of people just don’t “get it” so I tyhink it’s really worthwhile what you are doing in this series.

    As for,”ZODIAC SPEED-RAMP OVER ROCKS” – a zodiac is an inflatable speedboat, so i guess they were planning to jump the speedboat over some rocks, kind of like Free Willie escaping.

    1. AWESOME. Thank you for letting me know that!

      That’s a perfect example (and I know there are and will be more) of gaps in my knowledge leaving me confused. Please, by all means, fill them in whenever possible!

  2. I just saw a screening of The Life Aquatic tonight. It’s Feb 29, 2020, but this is the second time I’ve seen the movie– I first saw it in the theater when it came out.

    Anyway, Anne-Marie was loading film pack into the Polaroid Spectra camera with the red button. After you put the film cartridge into the camera it spits out the dark card from the top of the pack.

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