Steve Zissou Saturdays #10: Bon Voyage

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

You know, drilling down into this movie and really picking it apart several minutes at a time reveals to me just how magical it is. Sometimes the closer you examine something you love, the easier it is to spot its flaws. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, though, is a little different. It wears its flaws on its sleeve. You don’t have to dig to find them; they’re all in plain view. (And we’ll be discussing one of them today.)

The deeper I dig, I feel as though I’m only uncovering layers of beauty. As though its cracked, weathered exterior — like everything in Team Zissou’s arsenal, right down to the rickety foosball table we open on Pele and Ogata playing this week — is a design decision, hiding some deeper purpose. Or, at least, some deeper intention.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

The care Anderson put into assembling this world is without equal, something easily measured in terms of the toll it took on the cast. Bill Murray at one point even said that if he didn’t get an Oscar for going through this, he’d kill the director. I’m paraphrasing because it’s been a while since I’ve read the exact quote, but I assure you it’s not off by much. And this comes from Bill Murray, who has likely been Anderson’s longest-standing, highest-profile champion.

For a director who so often flits into comic fantasy, Anderson has an odd (though not unwelcome) obsession with things actually happening. That is to say that he may (in fact, does) employ Hollywood magic to create or enhance certain visuals, but in the larger scheme of things, he wants what he’s filming to be actually happening.

I’ll explain this by using a few examples. In The Darjeeling Limited, he actually rented out a rail line. Every scene in that film that takes place on the train — whether stationary or moving — was indeed shot on an actual train. The purpose? It’s hard to say, because whatever it was, it was in Anderson’s mind, and only he can tell us how successful he was in achieving it. But as easy as it is (and has been for around a century) to fake the motion of a train and to rear-project scenery, Anderson did it the hard way. Or…well…the real way.

There’s even a short scene late in that film that includes passing glimpses of characters in their isolated compartments. It would have been quite easy to stitch it all together in the editing booth, as none of these characters interact. And yet Anderson flew each of the actors, some of whom only appeared in one other scene in the movie, out to India to film them on the actual train. The purpose? Again, only he knows. But the appreciation it stirs in me is one I could not even begin to express.

“Does this look fake?” he seems to ask. And sometimes, even when it does, it isn’t.

Another, much smaller-scale, example came in Moonrise Kingdom. From the dotted-line progression of the main characters over a map to a child being struck by lightning to a climax involving a collapsing church, Anderson played with reality in that film…overtly, unmissably so. And yet when it came time for some Khaki Scout badges to fall into the water, Anderson insisted that they be dropped over and over again until they fell just right. He was informed — and knew — that whatever fall he was looking for could be accomplished easily in the edit suite. But he wanted them to actually drop.

Anderson’s connection to reality, as a director, is one of the most fascinating aspects of his films. And it’s one that I’m not quite sure I fully understand. It’s a richer discussion more than it is a solid conclusion, I think.

Which, let’s be honest, more or less sums up his oeuvre. And I’m very grateful for that.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We pan over to another part of the room where much of the rest of Team Zissou is watching an old documentary of Steve’s. It’s not easy to figure out how long ago this was meant to be, but the hairstyles — and, in Steve’s case, the hair color — are clue enough that we’re supposed to see this as a different era…whatever an actual calendar would have to say about that.

Ned is still bundled up from his dip in the water (sipping a hot beverage in contrast to Klaus’s beer) and there’s something unspeakably sad about these people watching themselves on television in complete silence. Klaus’s “That’s what it used to be like” is heartbreaking when you take into account that, in all aspects other than mood, that’s how it still is.

Steve’s production values haven’t increased at all. His most recent film, as of this scene, is the Jaguar Shark expedition that opened The Life Aquatic. This obviously older film suggests that neither Steve nor his crew have learned anything about how to make a movie. The staged chumminess, the scene of Steve recognizing a “distress bark” that was clearly filmed later, the high-school filmstrip soundtrack…Steve’s gotten older, but he hasn’t gotten any more competent.

What’s even sadder is that there’s no way to know whether Klaus (or anybody else) is remembering this accurately. On the screen, everyone’s laughing and having fun, unwinding and then working together to coordinate a rescue of a wild snow mongoose and her pups. But that’s clearly not how it actually happened. In fact, it’s doubtful that much of this footage is genuine; it’s all marred by the too-deliberate line deliveries and too-perfect framing that scream “reenactment.”

Klaus and the others are reflecting back on happier times. That’s sad enough. But the fact that those happier times may only have existed on film, after significant editing, is sadder still.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Of course, I keep saying “film.” The SEASON 3 caption suggests that this might have been from an otherwise unmentioned Steve Zissou television program. Again, it’s impossible to know for sure. We’re not told, and it’s not completely unlikely that Steve’s films are collected into larger “seasons” based on their subject matter.

It’s also possible that these aren’t actual seasons / episodes in the standard television sense; they could have been shot or edited in this way to serve as educational materials in public schools. (I recall a similar program, The Voyage of the Mimi, from my own grade school days.)

Of course, the real reason I wanted to take a screen grab is to show off these incredible Team Zissou action figures.

I’ve actually discussed this with a friend of mine. Anderson’s characters would make perfect action figures. They each favor a uniform of some kind, they each have their own sets of accoutrements and talismans (talismen?), and even when they’re played by the same actors we’ve seen in other roles, they’re each visually distinct. I’m picturing a line of very lifelike (as Ned might say) McFarlane Toys, but as we see here, these cheap little GI Joe-style figures would be just fine. So fine that I’m getting angry that I don’t already have them…

The arrangement of the figures — as with the arrangement of everything else in the film — is quite deliberate. On the left we have Esteban, Steve, and Klaus. We’ll officially learn the significance of that in the middle of a lightning strike rescue op., but we already know how Klaus views his relationship with Steve, and it’s not much of a logical leap to assume that he feels (felt…) something similar toward Steve’s closest confidant.

On the right we have a grouping of less significance, I think. It’s what Gilligan’s Island might refer to as “the rest.” From left to right, that group contains Ogata, Vikram, Pietro, Pele, and Wolodarsky. Based on this and on what we see in “Trapped in the Ice!”, the makeup of Team Zissou hasn’t changed in some time. (Again, at least an “era” in Zissou time.) Perhaps equivalents of Anne-Marie and the interns came and went, but the core team remained unchanged.

Until Esteban’s death, of course. Thanks for bringing that up.


After the film, we see that Ogata and Pele have joined the rest of the group in watching their old adventure. They, too, are still and silent. Seeing these happier times — however real or false they may have been — has a sobering effect on the group. Especially when you consider that Klaus must be saying “That’s what it used to be like” for Ned’s benefit. It has to be Ned — with whom he otherwise clashes — because everyone else in that room was there.

The past is comforting to them. It’s where they were happy. Or, at least, they’re willing to believe that. Team Zissou doesn’t sail bravely into new sunsets; it bobs in place, remembering all the films that made it seem like they were going somewhere.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

That moment ends with a nice reprise of what happened in the Explorers Club when people were gossiping about Steve: the camera pans to find him standing there. The blocking is even better this time around, with the Zissou pinball machine right next to him. It’s a relic of his past success, a faint (and fading) glow in a dark room, a reminder of a time before companies started terminating his licensing contracts. An idealized cartoon on its faceplate…a representation of the real thing, frozen in time, not subject to downfall, but also going nowhere.

Seeing Steve standing next to it is a very funny image, though one I can’t say I’ve ever laughed at. It’s a clear reminder of how far he’s fallen. Look at him as he stands in that doorway. Would anybody make a pinball machine to celebrate that man today?

In his action figures and sneakers and pinball machines and goodness knows what else, Steve was pretending to be somebody…but he was only given the opportunity to pretend to be somebody because he was somebody. He did earn his legacy; the problem is that at some undefined point in the past, he became complacent. The legend was built…so what was left to aspire to?

Any number of answers could be valid. But Steve had, and has, none.

Cue a haunting, acoustic, Portuguese version of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

It’s a great performance on its own, but as a cover version of Bowie’s original, I’m not totally convinced. It never “sounded” the same, for lack of a better way to phrase that. It felt much more like a song inspired by “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” than a performance of it. I may be in the minority, however; I once watched the film with a good friend of mine and she recognized the song right away.

Steve says nothing to his teammates (so much for teamsmanship), and walks into the room he shares with Eleanor. He’s beaten, and Eleanor asks (beautifully, perfectly, from down the hallway), “Had Ned’s heart stopped beating before you pulled him out of the water?”

Our hero steps out of frame before she asks, but steps back into frame to repeat the question back for her. He repeats every word of the question, as though looking for even the smallest loophole to get out of this discussion. Eleanor’s very careful — and humorously elaborate — phrasing is very likely due to the fact that Steve’s tried to wriggle out of an awful lot of things in the past.

When he realizes he has nothing left but to answer honestly, we find out that, yes, Ned’s heart had stopped beating. But they “got him started again pretty quickly,” which is the kind of reassurance that only makes the problem more horrifying.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

The conversation continues, but much later, it seems. Eleanor is now in bed, rather than in a chair down the hall. Anderson implies a long, awkward silence without showing us, and I adore that.

She’s thought about what she’s going to say, and what she says is, “Don’t go on this voyage right now, Steve. One of you is already dead, after all.”

Eleanor has picked up on the foreshadowing that Steve — possibly deliberately — is overlooking. On the DVD there’s a deleted scene of Eleanor warning Ned about going on the voyage as well. As our “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” Eleanor has foreknowledge that could change the course of events. Of course, living with Steve as long as she has, “foreknowledge” is less like prediction and more like the simple process of elimination. (No pun intended.)

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

It takes Steve a moment to realize that she’s referring to Esteban, and we have our answer to a question asked much earlier: why isn’t Steve “sitting shivah?” Because he’s already forgotten. And as many times as he’s reminded, he’ll forget again.

Steve doesn’t mourn. As close as we’re told he was to Esteban, he does not acknowledge (or process, or react to) the man’s death. He projects the responsibility onto the Jaguar Shark — and enacts a vague scheme of “revenge” — but forgets Esteban himself.

Steve Zissou is very much the opposite of Chas Tenenbaum in this regard. Whereas the unforeseeable and unpreventable death of someone important to Chas resulted in a heightened, tense, hyper-careful lifestyle, Steve lost his closest friend and crewman to negligence…and would prefer not to think about it. In fact, he gets upset if he is made to think about it, as he is here.

His tremendously dickish, “Thanks for bringing that up,” sets the rightful tone for Eleanor to stub out her cigarette and abandon the team. She is, after all, the only one who seems to be taking the inherent tragedy of Team Zissou seriously, and her words of caution to him represent the best she can do to stop this from happening again.

If she goes unheeded — if her visions of the future are dismissed — then she can serve no purpose. She leaves Team Zissou. And as much as I love Steve…good for her.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

She explains that she doesn’t want to be a part of whatever is going to happen out there, knowing full well that if Steve is the kind of man who will be so dismissive of his own crewman’s death, there’s no chance of this turning out well. As we in the audience know, she’s right.

Steve replies, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. And then we film it. That’s the whole concept.” Wolodarsky adds, “That’s how we’ve always done it.”

But by this point, as we’ve seen and as we’ll see again later, we know that isn’t true. Continuity is slaved over, ADR is frequent. Reenactments and staged scenes are commonplace to the point that we don’t know how much of Steve’s footage (very much unlike Anderson’s) is real. In fact, as Steve pleads with her not to leave, he reveals that she’s the one who would tell him “the Latin names of all the fish.” This makes a certain moment in “Trapped in the Ice!” play differently in retrospect. When Steve is asked what kind of animal they’ve found, the camera doesn’t pan to him; we cut to him. Very likely, he didn’t know. Eleanor telling him was either snipped out, or the scene was reshot later after Steve had the chance to ask.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Eleanor expresses disapproval that Steve took Ned’s money to bankroll this film, and Steve, evading the actual concern, refers to Ned as “an investor…he’s my sidekick.” At no point does he say son, which I think is important. Steve only plays that card when it will do him some good.

Then Steve indicates, just as Eleanor steps out of shot and onto the pier, that the sugar crabs are back. He’s told — again, he doesn’t know — that they’re mating. And this is one of my least favorite moments in the film.

The sugar crabs themselves have a nice design, and I love that there’s a third role played in the mating ritual. That’s an interesting and welcome flourish. But, beyond that, it’s a bit too pat. Steve is fighting with his wife, he’s told explicitly that they’re witnessing mating, and the female yanks the male’s arm off and leaves.

Anderson is typically above being so overt in his symbolism. It’s really something, I feel, that should have either been cut, or re-staged so that the male-being-left-wounded aspect was portrayed more artfully.

It takes me out of the film in a way that so many other moments of silliness do not. (See the swamp leeches scene later in the film.) Broad comedy isn’t necessarily a bad thing in an otherwise sedate atmosphere, but in this case, I think it becomes too much of a cartoon and works against something Anderson was otherwise doing a great job of establishing cleverly.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Eleanor says goodbye, but Steve doesn’t like that phrase. Steve retreats back into the same comfort zone we encountered in his interview with Jane. Favorite color, blue. Favorite food, sardines. Favorite ways of saying goodbye? Bon voyage.

It may not seem like much of a departure from “goodbye,” but, taken literally, it’s a wish for a “good journey.” Eleanor allows the substitution, and indeed does wish Steve a good journey.

It’s what she wants, which is why she says it.

But she already knows how it will turn out, which is why she won’t be around for it.

Next: The Belafonte at sea.

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.)

Connecting the Dots with Margot Tenenbaum

The Royal Tenenbaums

Well, the holidays have kind of snuck up on me, and because of that (and the fact that I’m traveling) I don’t have a Steve Zissou Saturdays installment ready to go. But I did rewatch The Royal Tenenbaums last night, and I do have something I found really interesting that I hope will make for a decent substitute.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen The Royal Tenenbaums. It has to be at least 30 times, and yet I’m still finding new things, every single time I watch the film. Usually it ends up being something to do with Richie, Chas or Royal, as I end up paying a little more attention to them than I do to the other characters.

This last time, however, I noticed some brilliantly subtle layering in the development of Margot, and that’s what I wanted to share here.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Each of the Tenenbaum children self-destructs in their own time, and in their own way. For Chas, it comes a year before the start of the film, when his wife is killed in a plane crash. For Richie, his meltdown occurs a good way into his professional tennis career, and then, obviously, he hits another low point after discovering Margot’s past.

Margot’s descent into self-destruction begins much, much earlier in her life. A private investigator even assembles a file documenting her descent, and it begins at age 12, with her buying a pack of cigarettes.

Her smoking — and her secrecy about it — is alluded to throughout the film as a pivotal stage in her self-destruction. The fact that it’s the first entry in her dossier would seem to support that, as would the fact that it’s brought up in the opening narration, also identifying it as beginning when she was 12.

However that in itself seems rather small in the face of the romantic, artistic, sexual and even physical self-destruction that follows. In fact, it’s so small that the significance both the film and the characters attach to it qualifies as a joke in itself.

The Royal Tenenbaums

But while it doesn’t appear in the background file montage, we do get a scene in the opening sequence of Margot one year prior: the night of her eleventh birthday.

Chronologically speaking, this is actually the first sign we get of the unraveling to come. Yet despite what the film frames as the most important moment at the party — Royal insulting the play she stages with her two brothers — there’s something else that suggests very directly the deliberate self destruction to come: the play itself.

Of course, we don’t see much of it. In fact, all we see is the curtain call, with the three Tenenbaum children on stage, in costume.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Afterward, during Royal’s dismissal of the play — and his adopted daughter — we see that it was Margot who played the zebra. In the curtain call, and again here when she stands up, we see bullet holes and fake blood on the costume. One of these wounds is directly over the heart — Margot’s heart — which implies strongly that the shooting was fatal.

Margot literally cast herself in her own play as the figure that gets destroyed. But so what, right? As Royal points out — callously — it’s just a bunch of kids in animal costumes. It can’t be worth reading any more deeply into that. Perhaps Margot cast herself as the zebra because it had the most important lines, or was the central character, or to best showcase her talent in front of her family on her birthday.

But, no. Not quite.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Earlier in the opening sequence we see Margot at a typewriter, working on a script. And what’s that on her wallpaper?

The zebras are all around her. Throughout the film we can see them from almost every angle in her room; it’s Margot’s symbol. The zebras surround her and watch over her while she writes, while she reads the works of other successful playwrights, while she dreams, and while she does anything at all. The door to her room is always closed, with many locks and KEEP OUT signs, suggesting that she spends as much time in there, alone, as she possibly can. The zebras are always there.

Therefore it’s impossible that she associates the zebras with either of her brothers, or either of her parents, or with Eli, or with Pagoda, or with anybody else in the world. She is likely, however, to have internalized their presence, and for them to have worked their way into her writing, whether consciously or not.

By writing the zebra as a tragic figure, and then by literally climbing into that role herself, she’s foreshadowed her entire path of self-destruction. She assassinated her own image of the night of her eleventh birthday, and played the role herself.

Royal denouncing her artistic efforts? Buying that pack of cigarettes? No, those weren’t triggers. They were simply manifestations of an unspoken desire to self-destruct that had been part of Margot Tenenbaum all along.

The film makes no overt reference to this. It’s one of many carefully placed breadcrumb trails that Wes Anderson trusts us enough to figure out for ourselves.

I’m still figuring them out, and none of them make me feel like I’m reaching. Everything was always right there, ready to be noticed, and if it took me 30 viewings to find them, that’s okay. Anderson’s films are patient. They wait for you. And when you finally get there, they welcome you home.

Speaking of which, in the image I used to open this article I notice that Margot’s listening to Between the Buttons, which is the Rolling Stones album she puts on when Richie comes home from the hospital later in the film.

Oh, and Royal being the only one to criticize her play here is subverted nicely by the fact that he’s the only one who enjoys her new play at the end of the film. So many layers, so many details, so many connections and mirrors and echoes.

My lord I love this movie.

Steve Zissou Saturdays #8: Let’s Have Some Teamsmanship

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Well, this is supposed to post in a couple of hours, so let’s not dawdle. We’re just over a quarter of the way through the film and things are really happening now, so sit back and enjoy my analysis of the next seventeen seconds of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

The next day begins with Steve using a Polaroid to take a picture of Ned, explaining that they’re used for continuity. Part of me would like to see the Polaroid camera as some more humorously outdated Team Zissou tech, but that’s only true in a photographic sense. Until very recently Polaroids were used for continuity purposes in film and television production. The reason was that picture quality didn’t matter as much as convenience; the photos would not be distributed to the press or used for promotional materials…they were instead retained so that hair and makeup artists could reconstruct a certain look days or weeks later.

It sounds a little silly, but if you have a film in which your character gets into a fight and comes out of it with a black eye and a bandage — not to mention mussed hair — you’d want a Polaroid of him in that condition, and you’d want to keep it handy. After all, films are not shot in sequence, and it might be another month before you shoot the scene that comes next in the film, in which you’ll want the hair, black eye and bandage all in the same places. You might even have to come back later on to remount a scene because it was discovered too late that the footage, for whatever reason, was unusable. That’s where continuity comes in; you need to make sure your scenes flow, and if bandages and hair styles keep jumping around, it’ll shake your audience out of the experience. In fact, it’s fully possible that in 2004, Anderson himself was using Polaroids for continuity reasons while filming The Life Aquatic.

So as long as we see the Polaroid camera as part of Steve’s production equipment rather than oceanographic equipment, it’s at least relatively current.

But, then, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves the question of why Steve is concerned with continuity? Remember, he’s a documentary filmmaker. Or, at least, he’s supposed to be. He’s not staging scenes, he’s not shooting out of sequence (how could he?), and he’s not constructing an ongoing drama. Shortly we will hear Steve explain that “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. And then we film it. That’s the whole concept.”

Yet we’ve already seen (and heard) that this is not true. Steve does demand a certain editorial control over what gets into the film. Whether it’s a looped line, a staged reconstruction, or even just a demand for the largest amount of footage possible, so that he can better shape it to his ends.

There’s something at least slightly dishonest about this, but we’d be fooling ourselves if we believed that documentaries aren’t usually given shape by their directors. Of course they are; that’s what film-making is. What’s strange here, though, is the notion of continuity.

What’s the suggestion there? The suggestion is that Ned is something right now…and he may not be that thing later. This is a photograph…a frozen moment in time. A man in one very specific state. We need the photograph now for continuity, because he may never be that person again.

It would be pretty Andersonian for the whole continuity thing to be an excuse on Steve’s part to get a picture of his son, but knowing what we know about both Steve (who isn’t sentimental about it) and Ned (who would willingly pose for one), that’s not what’s happening here. It’s just Steve Zissou, once again, controlling and giving shape to the world around him through the medium of film.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Steve offers Ned a handgun, which is hilarious to me in at least three ways. First, because Steve Zissou is the kind of guy who won’t even preface the fact that he’s about to hand you a firearm; he simply holds it out and says, “Here.” Second, Steve Zissou is the kid of guy who lets the gun point up while handing it off, instead of safely down and away from anybody. And third, in a moment that’s almost heartbreakingly adorable, Ned reaches for it out of sheer politeness before he even realizes what it is. Bless his heart.

Of course, Steve’s cavalier attitude toward deadly weapons is emblematic of the general Team Zissou approach to firearms: they don’t know what they’re doing. Nobody seems to have been trained in proper handling or safety procedures. They simply wear their guns against their legs, and while we see them use their weapons later, at no point do we get any suggestion that they’re doing anything other than firing and hoping for the best.

These things are played for laughs, but, as we know, it’s this shrugging attitude toward safety that will end up taking the life of the man politely refusing a gun.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Reinforcing this idea of lax gun safety (and safety for himself, and safety for his crew, and safety in general) while further playing it for laughs, Steve calls down to Anne-Marie, his script girl, asking if the interns get glocks. Not only does he not know if his unpaid interns are carrying firearms, but she replies that they all actually share one. Wowsers.

The image we get of Anne-Marie — in addition to being, let’s face it, pretty lovely — is once again evocative of a mermaid. We discussed this during the scene set at Loquasto’s after party, and we see it again now. I understand that this is more of a vague visual suggestion than anything hard and fast, so of course feel free to disagree. I, personally, find it hard to gaze down at Anne-Marie lying down, her hair splayed out behind her, topless, with a green dress, and not see a mermaid sunbathing.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Ned does as he’s told (was there any doubt?) and takes the gun, which causes Steve to smile. Yes, Steve Zissou smiles! I even captured the evidence above.

Ned smiles, too. He’s dressed in the clothes and he’s in possession of correspondence stock that bears the name, but now Ned really is becoming a Zissou, what with him taking the gun and therefore willingly putting himself in danger just because Steve told him to. It’s such a tiny moment, but it’s an impressively dark twist on the paternal bonding experience.

Wolodarsky appears and tells Steve to get on the echo box. He has to slap it to get it working, and the unit swings loosely from its mount. More outdated tech, and another reminder that even the most basic repairs — such as loose mounting screws — go unaddressed.

He learns that he has a call from Oseary Drakoulias, which causes him to break into an immediate sprint. It’s interesting to me just how overtly Anderson reminds us of the importance of film in Steve’s life, yet it only stands out to me when I break down scenes detail for detail. When you just watch the film, so much of this passes by unnoticed. That’s always been the thing about Anderson’s approach to detail and characterization, though: he hides everything in plain sight. It’s why you can watch just about any of his films and laugh the entire time, then rewatch them and be a sobbing mess. The film doesn’t change…we just know what to look for the second time through.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

It’s not good news. Oseary is Steve’s producer, and the deal with Larry Amin for financing has fallen through. Steve’s understandably upset, but his response to Oseary throws wide open another suggestion of a past that we won’t get to explore deeply: “In other words, you fucked us.”

Oseary’s implied homosexuality is what informs the earlier scene in which we met Larry. Oseary may have been angling for funds, but he was also flirting. The suggestion now is that Oseary and Larry have not come to a financial arrangement, whether or not they came to any other kind of arrangement. Oseary could have frightened him off with his advances. Or he could have enjoyed his company and decided not to press the issue. It’s unclear. Steve’s choice of verb, however, is not. He throws it at Oseary because he knows, at least vaguely, what happened. It’s probably happened before. And he know it will hurt the man, which it does, and the conversation immediately becomes a shouting match.

What’s also worth noting is that it was Steve himself who was rude to Larry earlier on, refusing to see him as worth his time unless he had the kind of money needed to mount the next film. Oseary may have erred on the other side, looking past the money to see too much of Larry Amin.

Either way, regardless of who fucked whom, the money isn’t coming.

I also like the placement of the Belafonte model here…sitting in the window, overlooking the water, so that it could just about be mistaken for the actual ship out at sea. There’s also another set of The Life Aquatic Companion Series on the shelves, and words cannot express how much I wish those were real. If I could own any prop from the film, it would probably be one of those books.*

Ned interrupts — of course politely — and says that he just inherited $275,000. He’s not sure that that amount would make any difference, but when you’re flat broke (as Steve seems to be, though we later find out this is not true) it makes a massive difference. Oseary seems unable to decide whether or not Ned is being sarcastic, and that’s another instance of something tragic being played for a laugh. After all, we know how this story ends: Ned is bankrolling his untimely death.

He believes he’s helping his father. All he’s really doing is investing $275,000 in his own funeral service.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Steve and Ned take off for Oseary Drakoulias Productions. There’s more looming tragedy here being played as comedy; the foreshadowing is really being layered on thick…and yet, once again, if you don’t know what to look for it just glides on by. In this case it’s Steve asking Ned if he can fly a helicopter. Ned replies that he has, in a way that makes it clear he really shouldn’t, and he’s “certainly not licensed in any way, shape or form.”

Steve responds by handing him the keys and saying, “Great. Let’s go.”

Think about that. Not even within the context of what happens later in the film (though that by no means can be far from your mind). Just think about what’s happening here. Handing the keys to an aircraft to somebody who isn’t licensed to operate it. Telling him to take you up into the sky and fly somewhere he’s never been.

Can you imagine anything more dangerous than that? It’s a joke here, as was Steve’s handling of the gun. In each case, the joke is on Ned. There’s only one possible punchline, and it’s a tough one to swallow.

Later in the film, Anne-Marie (in what, if I remember correctly, is her final line) sums up her views on Steve thusly: “We’re being led on an illegal suicide mission by a selfish maniac.” And you know what? You could look up any word in that sentence, and you’d find that she’s not exaggerating. The script girl chose her words carefully, and she’s absolutely correct. Here, on a smaller scale, Steve is doing the same thing by forcing a gun and a helicopter on a man who isn’t trained to use them, and then demanding that he does.

Steve’s pretty clearly a terrible father, and a lousy captain. He’s (at least currently) an inept and destitute filmmaker. He’s a cheating husband, a demanding employer, and a bad friend. And you know what? We haven’t seen anything yet.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Some perfect, gentle foreshadowing in this screen grab, as Klaus watches Ned and Steve depart. He’s shielding his eyes from the sun, but the gesture mirrors his final salute to Ned, when the helicopter takes off for a second and final time in the film.

Yet another thing I’ve never noticed before writing this series. I cannot express how much I love this movie.

Enough foreshadowing yet? I hope not, because Steve and Ned hear some nasty grinding as the helicopter soars, and Steve reveals that he has no idea when it was last serviced. Klaus is supposed to check it every six months…then again, Klaus was supposed to pick Jane up at the airport. He’s not the most reliable crewman, and this specific lack of attention to his duties will ultimately result in Ned’s death.

As much as Steve might believe his “pack of strays” mentality to staffing his ship is a good thing — as might we; it’s a Wes Anderson film, after all — we’re surrounded by evidence that it’s not. Machines are failing, equipment stays broken, and job duties remain unfulfilled. Steve’s legacy is falling apart around him both because of his own lack carelessness, and the inherent carelessness that he finds and fosters in others.

Ned is Steve’s legacy personified. We’re reminded now of how that turns out.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

In Oseary’s office, we get another nice look at the difference between Steve and Ned. While Ned stands with his hands behind his back, refusing to even approach the desk until he’s invited to sit down, Steve is behind the desk leafing through one of Oseary’s files. (Possibly one on himself.) So much in this movie just happens, and Anderson trusts us to find it eventually. He draws undue attention to literally nothing, which is almost ironic since The Life Aquatic is easily the film of his with the most visual spectacle.

The wire transfer came through successfully from Kentucky, and Ned is finally invited to sit down. There are a few “hooks on it,” however (another nice aquatic choice of words), and Oseary outlines them. While he does, we get a good view of Noah Baumbach as Philip. Baumbach co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Anderson, as well as Fantastic Mr. Fox, which means he bookends the quality spectrum for Anderson’s films as far as I’m concerned. He’s also a great director in his own right**, though I probably wouldn’t put him on quite the same plane.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

The bank apparently wants a drug test for everyone on the crew. Steve looks a bit shifty, but isn’t particularly concerned about this. His ire is quietly raised, however, when Oseary also mentions that “a stooge from the bond company” will be coming along to keep them on budget. Oseary wisely cuts off any protest from Steve by telling him outright that “there’s not a damn thing you can do about that.”

The major revelation here, however, is that Steve must legally swear not to kill the Jaguar Shark. As he already announced to an assembly at Loquasto, this mission is purely one of revenge, so forbidding Steve to kill it goes clearly against his intentions. Ever the gentleman, however, Steve meets Oseary halfway: “I’m going to fight it, but I’ll let it live.” He then immediately inquires about the dynamite he requested, just in case you were willing to believe that Ahab just wants to smack Moby-Dick around a little bit.

Another interesting point comes up here: Oseary tells him he can’t kill the Jaguar Shark, “or whatever it is, if it actually exists.” Granted, Steve is already dreaming up a response that will get him off the hook, but this isn’t the first time that somebody’s questioned the existence of the Jaguar Shark. And, as before, Steve doesn’t pursue the issue.

I find this incredibly fascinating. Put yourself in Steve’s shoes. You go out diving with a friend, a very close friend, and you see that friend get devoured by some monstrous sea creature. When you come to shore and tell everyone what happened, they make comments to the passive effect that you made it up. That there was no creature.

What would your response be? Your friend is dead. You didn’t kill him. Some unknown beast did. You’d make that very clear. You might not be able to tell them what it was, but you saw it happen. You’d plead with them to believe you.

Steve, however, doesn’t do this. People question the existence of the shark, and he shrugs. That’s incredible to me, and I’m not quite sure how to interpret it. Is it because Steve sees the world through a lens, and because he dropped the camera and there’s no footage he can’t be sure that it ever did happen? He saw it happening, but he didn’t capture it happening; that’s a significant difference for Steve Zissou. That’s the difference between fantasy and reality.

Or is it more like what Jane suggested in our last segment? Does this also seem fake? This would square very nicely with the answer Steve gave Captain Hennessey when the topic was breached at Loquasto: “I don’t want to give away the ending.”

Either way, however, Esteban is dead. There was blood in the water. Steve surfaced with hydrogen psychosis.

Did the shark kill Esteban? We learn later that it at least exists, but for now the possibility that that’s not what happened is an intriguing one. Especially since it’s not the shark that kills Ned…it’s Steve, in pursuit of the shark. Another important distinction.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Oseary is off to Zurich, but before he leaves he introduces Steve to the bond company stooge, Bill Ubell. There’s one of those tiny cuts for time that Anderson employs with such tantalizing infrequency: Oseary steps out of his office and into the hallway, then we cut to him stepping out of the hallway and into the lobby area. We lose maybe five steps, and the camera comes along with us so that it feels like a continuous shot, without actually being one. I love this.

Bill Ubell stands, and there’s another lovely, understated moment when Bill glances down at Steve’s hand as though he expects he’ll be able to shake it. Steve’s hand just hangs there. We’re far enough back that we might not notice it. Anderson’s trusting us a lot with this film.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Steve’s distrust of Bill (played by Bud Cort, of Harold and Maude fame) is palpable, and Anderson does a great job of making us complicit in it. He dresses Bill in muted earth-tones, at clear odds with the bright blues and reds of the Team Zissou uniforms. He’s made to look like an interloper not only aboard the ship, but within the film. We even see the three of them squeezed into a tiny elevator, illustrating physically Steve’s inner discomfort at having to share space with the man.

Zissou outright says to Bill that he hopes he’s not going to bust their chops. Bill asks him why he would do that, and Steve responds that he’s a bond company stooge.

Bill replies, “Well, I’m also a human being.” Steve’s uniformly judgmental outlook softens, as should ours. We saw him through Zissou’s eyes, and as funny as the line is, we should also feel at least a little bit ashamed for drawing certain conclusions from Bill’s appearance. His glasses, his bald spot, his cleanly pressed wardrobe. We thought we knew what was stepping into the elevator with Steve, and we were wrong. Anderson took movie wardrobe shorthand and used it against us. We’ve been trained to see one thing, and he reveals to us another. It’s one of the more obvious slights of hand that he pulls in this film, but by no means is it the only one.

That Steve apologizes for feeling exactly what we felt is probably due to his riding high. He’s in a good mood. He has money again. He’s going to do his movie. Philip is getting him dynamite. He’s feeling good, and Devo’s rollicking “Gut Feeling” wells up on the soundtrack…but we’ll talk about that next time.

We end this recap on Steve inviting Ned and Bill to share a cheer with him, in the name of teamsmanship. What a fantastic invented word, by the way. It’s Steve expressing something that he doesn’t otherwise have a word for. It’s not friendship, it’s not companionship, and it’s not even a relationship. It’s teamsmanship. The state of being a teamsman.

That speaks volumes to me about Team Zissou. It’s not about bringing any expertise to the mission, it’s not about being a capable leader, and it’s not even about doing your job. It’s about being part of a team. That, in itself, is its own reward…at least in Steve’s mind. It’s why his interns are unpaid. (That, and the fact that he doesn’t have any money.) Being aboard the Belafonte is a privilege, and one that should be celebrated.

And so we celebrate, because the Belafonte has just found the final major addition to its crew, and everything is going to be just fine for everyone.

Next: Ned drinks a little too much water.

* Christmas is coming, guys…

** His films The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg are the ones I’d recommend. But be warned: both of them will probably make you ashamed to be alive.

Steve Zissou Saturdays #7: Does This Seem Fake?

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

And so, just to continue the tradition of everything I’ve ever promised about Steve Zissou Saturdays being a lie, disregard what I said a few posts ago about the series returning in November. It actually returned in October. I am the master of suspense.

And before we get to the analysis, don’t forget to read this and vote on whatever television show you’d like me to review in its entirety next. Even if you’re reading this like 20 years in the future. I assure you, I’ll still be reviewing crappy TV somewhere.

For any newcomers to this blog who don’t remember this series, the first Saturday of every month will see me working through the entirety of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, examining every scene, in sequence, all the way through the film. So far I’ve covered about a half-hour’s worth. We’ll be at this for a while.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

The scene opens on what is most likely Jane’s first full day in the Zissou Compound, and — very interestingly — each scene that we’re going to cover, leading right up through nightfall, consists of one-on-one interactions. While Anderson has a massive cast at his disposal, he’s content to stick them off in the periphery while a small number of individuals get to know each other one at a time.

I find this interesting. In fact, the pattern began the previous night, which we covered last time, with a scene between Steve and Eleanor, followed by one between Ned and Jane. This time we get Steve and Jane, Ned and Klaus, and then Steve and Ned. In each case it’s one of the male Zissous, and it all culminates at nightfall with a dialogue between both of them.

It’s structured enough to be pretty clearly deliberate, and I love the way Steve and Ned are introduced but then spend so long orbiting around each other, and I especially love the fact that it barely registers. It doesn’t feel like Steve and Ned go an entire day without interacting directly, but there you go. And when we finally do get to their discussion, it becomes clear why Steve might not want to approach Ned head-on, and why he’d prefer instead to keep him as a comforting presence nearby rather than any kind of direct equal.

We open with a short, comic moment that sees Steve unpacking a box of Zissou-branded sneakers. While it’s not explicitly mentioned, the tell-tale three-stripe design gives the company away as Adidas.

Once we see these shoes in close up it’s impossible not to notice that everyone on Team Zissou wears them. As we see, Steve’s in possession of large numbers of unsold product. Adidas terminated his sponsorship, and Steve — always quick to surround himself with reminders of better days — probably bought up a good deal of the remaining stock. They’re now in storage somewhere in the compound, keeping Team Zissou in comfortable — but diminishing — footwear. They’re available…but once again for a limited time only.

It’s also impossible not to notice that Ned* gladly replaces his black dress shoes with a pair of these sneakers, just as he will eventually replace his Air Kentucky garb with a Team Zissou speed suit. Piece by piece, he’s becoming a Zissou…which begins here as he literally puts himself in his father’s shoes, and is then made very evident by the scene coming up in which he receives his correspondence stock.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Jane’s presence — and the presence of her tape recorder — at this unboxing suggests it was part of the interview that spurred Jane’s visit to Pescespada Island in the first place, and our next scene confirms it: Steve and Jane are in a lab, where the interview becomes much more formalized.

Formalized, and stylized. Anderson here uses an interesting visual effect** that warps the image outward from its subject. Whether that’s a visual manifestation of Steve’s off-putting nature or simply a directorial flourish to add some visual flair to an otherwise static scene, I’m not sure, but it’s the same for the shots of Jane we get here as well.

It’s here that we learn how willfully detached from reality Steve Zissou really is. With his last film a failure (by no means his first), his finances a mess and his equipment in shambles, he still expects that Jane is assembling a “puff piece.” A softball, celebratory, promotional article for Grand Adventurer Steve Zissou. This is why he showed off so cartoonishly with his sneakers and bit swaggeringly into that apple. The moment Jane asks her first real question, his confidence falls, and so does his willingness to proceed.

She asks him what he thinks went wrong. To us in the audience, and to Jane, this is a totally fair question. After all, this is probably something we’d like to hear at this point in the film. We’ve heard about his success, and we’ve seen evidence of his success, but what we see now, here, today, is totally different.

We like Steve. Jane may not. But either way, we all want to know what happened.

Steve, however, bristles at the mere suggestion that anything has changed. He’s willfully convinced that it hasn’t, and also that Jane is out of line to mention any such thing.

The interview continues, but Steve’s defeated, as evidenced by his setting down the apple, never to be finished.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

This actually — though I’m sure not deliberately — reminds me of one of my favorite small moments in The Royal Tenenbaums, when Murray’s character finds out that Margot isn’t coming home. He raises a cookie to his mouth, holds it there…and then just sets it down.

There’s something inherently fatalistic about watching somebody decide not to eat.

Steve suggests that they start out with some “stock dialogue,” and even provides a few questions and answers for her. “Favorite color, blue. Favorite food, sardines.”

It’s all part of Steve’s desire to inhabit an image. An image — like the famous photograph of him pointing into the distance — endures. Man, eventually, fails. Steve doesn’t want to be a man. He doesn’t want to grow, and learn, and least of all does he want to change. He just wants to be his own image…and the last thing he wants to hear is that he’s further tarnishing his own legend every day that he’s alive. Somebody in a healthier state of mind might take that as a wake-up call and make an effort to live up to his own name again. Steve, on the other hand, just wishes to retreat, to hide behind cliche, and to bar the door against intrusion.

As we’ve discussed before, both Steve and Jane seek to structure the world in ways that make them comfortable. For Steve it’s shielding himself behind the image he’s constructed, and for Jane it’s breaking complicated situations down into a rigid set of questions and answers. Last night Ned punctured Jane’s structure, and today Jane is puncturing Steve’s.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

When she asks instead about what Steve thinks of his most recent film, our hero realizes there’s no hope for the interview. He turns the question back on her, and she responds that she felt that aspects of it seemed slightly fake.

Steve asks Wolodarsky to leave, and he does…taking the cat with him. Wolodarsky tells Steve to take five, but he mutters it as he’s already leaving. He knows — correctly — that Steve won’t listen. He’s been through this before. He knows it’s a losing battle.

It’s here that two very, very interesting things happen. The most memorable, perhaps, is captured in the screen grab that opens this article: Steve Zissou, who can’t fathom why anyone might feel that he isn’t the great man he once was, points a loaded handgun at a pregnant woman.

I’m not sure there’s anything I could add to what should already be coming to mind when you think about it yourself.

The other thing is that Anderson is directly calling attention to artificiality. The sea creatures that we see throughout the film are not designed with any eye toward looking realistic, and Steve himself seems to inhabit a fantasy land in which the crumbling empire that we see is a healthy and thriving one when he looks at it.

But beyond that, Anderson asks us a few times throughout the course of the film to consider reality…and, each time, he undercuts it himself. Steve’s “Does this seem fake?” speech takes place while an orca does tricks in the background. The framing of the scene keeps the killer whale fixed right in the center, where we can’t miss it, performing for us. While Steve is posing the very question of whether or not this seems fake, the movie itself positively wants us to scream “Yes! It does!”

Later in the film Steve and Ned discuss the reality of their situation while they walk through the obviously fake Belafonte set. When these characters want to convince us that they’re real, they unintentionally betray the fact that they’re not. It’s all just an image they’re trying to inhabit.

Steve also, as we’ve mentioned before, asks if it looked fake when his friend was bitten in half in front of him. Of course, Jane couldn’t possibly know…there was no footage of that moment; Steve dropped the camera. I’m not sure what to make of this. It could just be Steve getting wrapped up on his question without thinking too hard about what he’s asking, it could be Steve confusing reality (in which he did see that happen) with the film (in which nobody could see it) which in turn speaks to the greater difficulties Steve has with this throughout The Life Aquatic, or it could just be Steve playing an aggressive sympathy card, whether or not it makes logical sense.

Any other thoughts? I, for whatever reason, find this to be one of the more interesting questions in the entire film.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Steve pulling out his gun frazzles Jane enough that she actually uses profanity, and then hits Steve with another belt of reality: the article was her idea. Nobody else at Oceanographic Explorer cared enough about him to want to cover it.

He correctly guesses, however, that she’s “taking something out” on him, and once again her Q&A structure fails her. She switches off her tape recorder…but then says nothing. She’s afraid that it might catch something beyond words, and she knows that it’s something she won’t want to face later. So she switches the recording device off…exactly what Steve — who loves recording devices because they allow him to re-shape what they’ve captured to better suit his expectations — chided Klaus for doing in the last installment.

We’ll get a sense of what, exactly, is eating Jane later on, but for now it’s worth reflecting on something we didn’t cover last time around: Steve may be an obvious father figure for Ned, but something that’s not as immediately obvious is that Jane serves as his mother figure. Things get muddy a bit — or outright weird — when you consider that their courtship is not entirely chaste, but it’s important to keep in mind anyway. Ned’s lost a mother, and Jane’s about to give birth. He needs a mother, and she’s about to have a son.

As the movie progresses we’ll discuss this more, I’m sure, but it’s probably good to think ahead a bit to the end of the film, when Jane’s newborn is seen wearing Ned’s cap. It’s important because Steve doesn’t just captain a crew of misfits…he reigns as Papa Steve to an eminently fucked up family.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

This is emphasized in the next scene, which segues from Jane’s sarcastic “I’m sure you’ll make a terrific father,” into a scene of his two sons bickering.

Of course, they’re not quite sons. Ned “probably” is, and Klaus just looks up to Steve (and formerly Esteban) as a father. But it’s clear what Klaus feels is happening here; the prodigal son has returned, and Klaus’s role as the favorite (whether or not he actually is) is at stake.

Something similar happened in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and father-envy is by no means a rare thing in Anderson’s work. Here it’s particularly interesting, because Ned may well actually be Steve’s progeny, and there’s no chance Klaus is. Yet Klaus was here from the beginning. He’s seen Steve through his worst times, and he’s stood beside him in his darkest hours. Ned — whether or not he contains any actual Zissou blood — is the interloper here; not Klaus. Klaus has earned his rightful place…Ned just wandered in.

It has to be doubly painful for Klaus — which gives his otherwise comic character a strong through-line of tragedy — because on their last voyage he lost one of his father figures, and on this one, he already suspects, he’s losing the other. Klaus goes from having two fathers to having none. Ned is just another Jaguar Shark.

Even Klaus’ disparaging nickname for Ned (“Sonny”) is as heartbreakingly telling as it is rude.

There’s another minor detail here that I’ve never noticed before doing this series; during this conversation, Ned is holding two garbage bags. Earlier in the day, we saw him sweeping up behind Jane and Steve while they dug out the Zissou sneakers. This suggests that Ned has been cleaning up all day. That’s what Steve does with the son he’s never seen before; he has him clean up the compound! He doesn’t spend quality time with him, and he barely gives him a tour. Instead he gets a broom and some empty trash bags.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Klaus chastises the newcomer with a slap, and a reminder that “It’s the Steve Zissou Show. Not the Ned Show.”

Ned threatens him, but no further action is taken. At least, not yet. Ned isn’t yet at the point that he’ll pay physical interference back in kind, but he will be. The first seed of it is planted here.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

After a long day of cleaning Steve’s things, Ned returns to his room to clean his own things. And after a long day of not-bonding with his son, Steve enters the room and immediately tells Ned that they need to watch themselves around “this Jane character.”

None of this is about their relationship, which — one might think — should be at the forefront of both men’s minds. Instead, as usual, it’s about Steve, and his perceived sleights. In Steve’s mind, his problems are everybody’s problems.

Additionally, Steve is proactively explaining away Jane’s lack of sexual interest in him by referring to her as a bull-dyke. When Ned questions this due to her pregnancy, Steve replies with a masterfully cruel — and totally unfounded — dismissal: “Bull-dykes can get pregnant.”

Steve manages to be both correct, and a massive dick.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Our hero gets up to leave without any words of comfort, support or acknowledgement for his son, but Ned calls him back. He asks how long Steve has known about him, and Steve says that he’s known for about five years, and that he read it in an article about himself.***

Like Steve dropping the camera, this is later contradicted. However, in this case, we know which statement is false: it’s this one. Steve’s always known about Ned. We even find out why Steve never attempted to contact Ned: it’s because he hates fathers, and he never wanted to be one.

What a massively encompassing statement “I hate fathers” is. It seems to scream so loudly for closer examination…for a followup question. For a Jane Winslett-Richardson style “So what happened?”

But we know how that goes.

Once again, we see where we are. We are given a tantalizing suggestion of a past. But we are not allowed to go further. We’ve seen what happens when we try. Steve will be evasive. He will be condescending. And if that fails, he will pull a gun and then describe that as only trying to defend himself.

The past is under tight guard. Whatever Steve went through with his father, it’s enough to put him off fathers for good. Deep Search is the name of Steve’s sub, but he won’t allow it to be ours.

Steve’s departure thus leaves behind some pretty dark clouds, but he returns with good news: Ned’s correspondence stock has arrived:

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Step by step, Ned’s becoming a Zissou…and Steve is asserting the same control over him that he attempts to assert over everybody else. Jane resists…but Steve knows that Ned will not. It’s part of why he likes him. In spite of everything and anything, Steve figures, Ned will continue to look up to him.

Once again, Ned is too gentle to return a slap in the face.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Pele plays “Lady Stardust” to score a short scene of Jane on the phone, mirroring the one with Ned last night. Like Ned, she is attempting to sort out some business at home. In the absence of another party, however, she’s lost. While leaving a message she can’t rely on her standard questions and answers…and she flails, vacillating between depression, hopefulness, playfulness, and meandering sentences she can’t resolve.

She ends the phone call with a dark, oblique reference to abortion which, coming on the heels of Steve’s recent comments to Ned sounds even worse than it might otherwise. Lots of absent fathers…lots of lost sons. And we still haven’t left shore.

Next: Steve’s going to fight it, but he’ll let it live.

* Jane, by contrast, retains her black Chuck Taylors, and does not wear the Zissou sneakers. I’m not sure if this suggests that Steve never offered her a pair, or that he did offer her a pair and she refused. Either, I think, is a fair reading, and it leads to some great mirror imagery later on: looking down from the hot air balloon, we see Steve’s feet and Jane’s feet, in their separate, particular footwear. It’s no coincidence that this scene involves some verbal conflict between them. Then, later, we look down from the chopper to see Steve’s feet and Ned’s feet…wearing the exact same sneakers, after a moment of father-son bonding.

** I know the type of lens that causes this effect has a name. Someone smarter than me, please pipe up in the comments.

*** “It was in the paper. I assume they check their facts.” I just wanted to quote that. Because it’s such a perfect, distant, unconvincing, fragile line that could only work this well in a Wes Anderson film. I positively adore that moment, and the only reason I didn’t mention it above is that…well…what could I possibly say that wouldn’t detract from it?