Steve Zissou Saturdays #6: Because He Looks Up to Me

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

A (relatively) short and quiet entry this time around, as our segment here picks up exactly where the last one left off. Jane Winslett-Richardson has been shown to her room, Klaus has been meaninglessly cautioned against trying to sleep with her, and Steve entrusts tonight’s footage of the rubber tide to Vikram, who knows from past experience that he is to “print everything.”

From there, our male Zissous split and pair off: old-hand Steve with his wife, and newcomer Ned with even-newer-comer Jane.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

First we follow Steve and Eleanor through a conversation that only lasts about a minute, but manages to be both tense and desperate at the same time. In a gorgeous piece of blocking — though it’s easy to miss this in favor of listening to what’s being said — the two of them stare off at the docked Belafonte, which is lit beautifully…but ultimately needlessly. None of Team Zissou is aboard the ship, and there are no plans for it to go anywhere. It is illuminated for the sake of being illuminated, and even we in the audience can’t appreciate it very much, as the camera doesn’t bring us anywhere near the boat. It is, instead, a tantalizing glimpse of brilliance — double meaning, there — from which we are kept at bay — there, too.

It reminds me of the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums in which Pagoda informs Royal that Etheline intends to remarry. The blocking in that scene positions Pagoda directly in front of the Statue of Liberty, so that it cannot be seen in the final film at all. There’s an anecdote about filming that scene, which I only remember vaguely, as Anderson was questioned about why he’d bother to film his scene there if he wasn’t going to let the audience see the Statue of Liberty. It’s a valid question, but the answer is obvious to me…just as obvious as the Statue of Liberty was in that scene, without it ever being on camera: it’s an act of directorial negative space. Its absence is what gives it presence.

I’m sure that just about anyone watching that scene would recognize that the Statue of Liberty is supposed to be there. We’ve seen enough films and television shows shot in exactly that place that our minds fill in the missing detail. It’s never on film in The Royal Tenenbaums, and yet there it is.

Here that negative space keeps us distanced from the Belafonte. It’s there, and we can see it, but it’s kept deliberately away from us. Lit up gloriously, another aquatic beacon like Lady Liberty, but beyond our grasp. Our minds must fill in the detail.

Personally I like to think that there was another short circuit on the ship, which turned all the lights out, and failing to fix it everyone just returned to the island to worry about it in the morning. Some time after that, the power snapped back on, and nobody’s on board to see it, or shut it off for the night. But that’s just me.

The above image also mirrors that of Steve gazing out toward his wife — and beyond her his ship — from earlier in the film, after his embarrassment at Loquasto.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

…which makes it all the more resonant when Eleanor leaves him, alone by the window with his ship in the distance. A reversal of the Loquasto scene, in which it was Eleanor who was alone.

She leaves him here — though not for good, that’s still to come — because she finds out that Steve invited Ned to join them on their mission of revenge. I won’t go into it again, because I think I’ve brought it up at least twice, but, again, this casts some confusion on the earlier scene in which Steve and Eleanor discussed Ned’s joining them. What did she mean then? Why was she receptive to it at that time, but not now?

Once again Steve lapses into aquatic cliche when defending his position, tossing off two watery metaphors meant to explain his reasoning. “We’re going to put him on the map.” And “We’re going to throw him a life preserver.” This latter statement is particularly loaded in light of Ned’s eventual demise…and it’s just one node in an entire web of dark foreshadowing, forecasting the young man’s fate.

Eleanor doesn’t engage with this line of reasoning, as she’s certainly been through it before, but she does ask a question that manages to be both fair and loaded at once: when Steve says he believes in Ned, Eleanor asks him, simply, “Why?”

Steve’s answer provides a complete summary of his entire character. It’s self-centered, hopeful, nostalgic, desperate, and hurt. He says, “Because he looks up to me.”

Steve is nothing without adoration. That’s both despicable and heart-breaking. And we’ll leave the good captain here to ponder that dichotomy.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We cut from one Zissou male standing rigid in his company pajamas to the other, standing rigid in his company pajamas. As Steve is feeling abandoned and worthless, Ned is instead optimistic and full of hope. Steve is standing rigid because he’s been wounded — by his own words, tellingly — and Ned is standing rigid because…that’s who he is. With nobody else in the corridor, he still retains proper posture. It’s simply how he was raised…Ned isn’t polite because he wants to be seen as a polite man…he is polite because he is polite. He’s internalized this type of behavior not because he wishes to have good manners, but because this is who he is. And Owen Wilson sells it. Try to find an instance in The Life Aquatic of Wilson slouching or behaving in any kind of physically unbecoming way. I’ll wait. It’s an air-tight performance from an actor who’s far, far from known for any such thing.

Ned is coordinating time off with his employer, Air Kentucky. In fact, before phoning his superior he’s spoken with his colleagues, and worked with them to reorganize the schedule so that the airline will have adequate staffing and complete coverage. That’s just the kind of guy Ned is…he won’t even take personal time without being sure everything will run smoothly for everybody else in his absence.

His boss asks him, though we can’t hear it, something about the voyage he’s about to take. It’s fitting that we don’t hear the question, because Ned’s not quite sure how to answer it. Just like his father before him, his honesty betrays more about his situation than he meant to express: “Well, I just feel I need to see this thing through, sir.”

Ned doesn’t know what’s coming.

He can’t know.

But whatever it is…he needs it.

He believes that this trip, this act of animal revenge, aboard a decaying ship with a financially-troubled captain who is also the father he just met, is something he needs to see through.

Had Ned not been able to arrange coverage with his colleagues, he’d still be alive today.

Had Ned thought twice about any aspect of this trip, or not chosen to finance it himself when Team Zissou went broke, he’d still be alive today.

And the moment he says it, a light is flicked off behind him in the hallway. Another omen unseen.

Ned sacrificed himself…but not for a cause. He sacrificed himself because he needed to know. Whatever it was to know.

And whatever it was he did learn, he took it with him to the bottom of the sea.

It’s a quiet, lost moment in a loud and adventurous film…and it’s one that sticks with me the most.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

One thing I’m not sure I ever noticed before this is that it’s raining in the background. There’s a gentle, soothing, watery tapping just on the edge of the soundtrack, and it sets a fantastic mood.

Of course what Ned hears, just after retiring to his own room, is the sound of classical music and Jane’s voice. He follows it down the hallway, and as he does so does the camera, which gives us a glimpse of a pitch-perfect Zissou Compound detail: the sailor’s knots lampshade in Ned’s room.

Another thing I’ve never noticed before. God I love this film.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

He finds Jane reading to her unborn British child from Swann’s Way, the first volume of either In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past depending upon the translation. Either title would have clear resonance for the eternally backward-facing Steve, though both go unspoken throughout the film. It’s a detail for those who recognize the book (or its text) to pick up on and appreciate for themselves. Like nearly everything else in this film, Anderson refuses to spell it out. To borrow Ned’s phrase, that leaves us pretty strongly adrift in these strange surroundings — just as Ned and Jane are, which I’m sure is deliberate — and it’s up to us to “catch as catch can.”

It’s worth talking about what’s commonly perceived here as a continuity error in the film. Ned asks if Jane is reading poetry, and she replies, “No, it’s a six volume novel,” while gesturing at the pile of books beside her. However there are six books on the chair, and the one she’s reading from would make seven.

However while I know Anderson isn’t exempt from human error, I know even more that he, of all people, isn’t likely to be careless when it comes to details of set design. So it’s either a mis-spoken line that wasn’t caught in the edit (In Search of Lost Time is actually a seven volume novel), a mistake on the part of the character (though I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that based on anything else Jane says or does in the film), or simply a marriage on our part of two disparate facts (Jane’s edition of In Search of Lost Time does indeed come in six volumes, which is actually the case when two of the shorter volumes are bound together, and the pile of books next to her are just books…not necessarily the ones to which she is referring). Whatever it is I won’t say that it’s important, but it does seem to distract some other folks that I’ve seen write about the film, so there you go.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Jane is reading the book aloud and playing classical music for her unborn child’s benefit…the same reason she’s giving up cursing and smoking. Unsurprisingly, the conversation turns quickly to the question of whether or not Steve is Ned’s father, but her questioning hits Ned hard, as his answers are tied up in his mother’s recent sickness and suicide. Jane, perceiving this, backs off.

As much similarity as we’ve seen, and will see, between Ned and Steve, this is one often overlooked similarity between Jane and Steve: both of them seek to structure the world in formats with which they are comfortable. For Steve it’s heavily-edited documentary, and for Jane it’s one-on-one interviewing, in which questions are rattled off and answers returned in easily-publishable capsules. In both cases, Ned doesn’t quite fit their expected molds…though Jane, unlike Steve, has the good grace to back off — which then, interestingly, leaves her as the one outside of her element.

A final great — and easily missable — joke here is how quickly Jane has trashed her cabin. She literally just arrived, but bags are half unpacked, laundry is everywhere, and popcorn is scattered all over the bed. It’s an interesting character touch, and lest you think that she was just too tired to get organized on her first night in the compound, a later scene reveals that she’s done the same to her cabin aboard the Belafonte, where she’s been a resident for a much longer period.

It’s a great, minor, charming quirk for a character who seeks very hard to present herself in a particular way. Open the door and peer inside, and you end up seeing something quite different from what she’d like to project.

Perhaps Steve has an illegitimate daughter, too.

Ned asks if he can listen to Jane read, and she offers to catch him up on the story. Ned, still hopeful, says that he’s sure he’ll be able to figure it out.

Once again, Ned has no idea what he’s getting himself into.

Next: It’s the Steve Zissou show.

Steve Zissou Saturdays #5: I Guess We’ll Have to Loop That Line

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Hello again! Returning from our post-holiday break we’re picking up our ongoing examination of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou at exactly the nineteen minute mark. If you’re following along at home you’re…probably a pretty patient human being.

This week’s entry might turn out to be a bit short, as I couldn’t find a particularly convenient breaking point…at least not one that comes in a reasonable amount of time. So our abrupt departure coincides with the abrupt arrival of Jane Winslett-Richardson, another new addition to Team Zissou, albeit one whose fresh perspective isn’t filtered through their celebrated past, like Ned’s. Jane’s perspective on Team Zissou is fixed much more solidly in the disappointing present, giving us our our ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present, if we seek to carry on with our comparison of The Life Aquatic and A Christmas Carol. And, yes, we do.

With Christmas itself so recently behind us, it’s perhaps worth mentioning a couple of other small details as to how this can be read as a Christmas film. It’s something we’ve discussed in general earlier, but the holiday season itself reminded me of two other small things: Steve’s most obvious physical traits — his white beard and red cap — synch up nicely with those of Santa Claus, and his shipmate Klaus — of whom will see a lot more of in this installment — bears the name of that jolly fat man.

Neither of them behave in manners befitting at all of Father Christmas — they’re much more Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, respectively — but much like the Christmas lights at Loquasto, these are small details sprinkled throughout, decorations if you will, that allow us to maintain such a reading. As the film progresses, the parallels will get that much stronger.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We’re not going to talk exclusively about Christmassy coincidence, however, as we have more pressing matters at hand: the death of Steve’s cat Marmalade. What’s really interesting through isn’t what this tells us about Steve or Eleanor, but what we learn — if we pay attention — about Ned. It’s a great credit to Owen Wilson that even when the attention isn’t on him — and as passive and polite as Ned is the attention isn’t frequently on him — he’s still acting. He’s still Ned. He’s still being this character, rather than standing around and waiting for his next line.

Here we have two great little moments that I’m not even sure I noticed before, both of which are silent and neither of which call for any attention from the audience. It’s only when you allow yourself to be detached from the dominating presence of the other Zissous that you notice the smaller things at all.

For starters, when Steve and Ned are walking away from the plane that delivered them to the Zissou Compound on Pescespada Island, Steve walks purposefully ahead toward his sanctuary. Ned lingers just slightly, and then turns around and waves in gratitude at the unnamed pilot. The pilot is unnamed because Steve never cares to share his name, or perhaps even learn it. But Ned is more polite than that. Strictly speaking all Owen Wilson had to do was follow Bill Murray toward the camera, but that small moment says volumes about how deeply he and Anderson understand his character.

The second moment requires us to jump ahead a bit. Steve pours himself and Ned a drink (Campari? Can anyone confirm?). While I could absolutely accept that Steve would carry a bottle of booze around — along with two glasses — I was a bit caught up this time by the fact that Ned would accept a hard drink so early in the morning.

Then, however, Wilson and Anderson demonstrated that they had the same concern. Ned doesn’t take a sip, and as he walks away from Steve he looks back. I always thought this was a glance backward to make sure Steve was okay, and I still believe that’s part of it, but more immediately Ned just wants to make sure Steve isn’t looking as he tosses the contents of his glass into the bushes. He doesn’t drink in the morning, but he’s too polite to refuse. I love Ned.

Rather than say hello, Eleanor greets Steve — and ignores Ned — with a flat, “Your cat’s dead.” It’s impossible to know how much this really affects Steve in itself (he doesn’t seem to have much of an attachment to any of the animals* on Pescespada…a stark contrast to Cody later) but he’s clearly upset by Eleanor’s cold demeanor. He explains that she was “raised by maids,” and that this accounts for her social shortcomings, but that of course doesn’t explain Steve’s. He spends the rest of the scene rolling his eyes whenever Eleanor speaks, not responding verbally, and cruelly pointing out that while her parents have financed several of his films, they’ve financed the worst ones. He then scoffs at the fact that anyone could consider her the brains behind Team Zissou.

Ned, always the gentleman, asks what kind of cat it was. In Steve’s defense, he eventually does answer that it was a tabby**, but his first impulse is to rebuff the man with a curt, “Who gives a shit?” Eleanor was raised by maids…what’s Steve’s excuse? Right now we don’t know…and we won’t find out anything conclusive about his upbringing for the rest of the film. But there’s a bit we’ll be able to infer, later on.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Steve then, listless and disheveled, seems to wander Pescespada on his own. We get only one seconds-long snatch of this, as he extends a fish for an orca who leaps for it. It’s Steve, once again, comforting himself with cliche. As a celebrity oceanographer he’s comfortable only with neutral public perception, and he retreats behind images like this. Images that say and suggest nothing, but fortunately play well with focus groups and reinforce, to him at least, that he is who he thinks he is. We’ll see more of this when we get to Jane’s interview next time.

Pescespada itself is worthy of discussion, too. Its weeds are overgrown, its paint is chipping, animals roam the island at will, and abandoned vehicles litter the grounds. The technology, of course, represents various attempts at bringing the island up to date but never quite getting there, and then only dragging it further back as time marches on. It is, I think, a beautiful and distressing physical expression of Steve’s own mind.

It’s a jumbled and directionless monument to the past — to a time when Steve, or Eleanor’s parents at least, could afford an island for Team Zissou — and its passively crumbling infrastructure mirrors Team Zissou itself. Everything is in disrepair, but at the same time Steve keeps antiquated memorabilia on display, and even keeps a cache of Adidas sneakers from an expired endorsement deal in their original packaging. He fixates on the high times, and genuinely does not see anything else. Perhaps this lack of acknowledgment is deliberate, and he believes, on some level, that if he does not accept the fact that his reality is crumbling, it will not crumble. Whatever it is, we see very clearly at this point something that undermines by design the early conceit of the film: Steve Zissou is not reeling from Esteban’s death; he and his team were lost long before that.

By now we also know why Steve would want — or perhaps need — an island of his own: it’s isolated. He’s a man who is only ever at home on his ship (and sometimes not even then), adrift in the sea and far from the prying, judgmental eyes of people everywhere. It makes perfect sense that the only land which Steve could make his own is also out to sea, accessible only by private appointment.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

At 2:03 the next morning, Ned is awakened by Steve’s voice on the EchoBox, which is another decaying piece of technology that’s hanging above Ned’s bed. He tells Ned to answer him by pushing the red button. Ned mishears it as the white button, and presses it to respond. As far as I can tell, there is no red button on the unit at all, turning the joke toward Steve rather than Ned. Even now, though, I’m not quite sure what Anderson is after here…except perhaps foreshadowing the communication difficulties between the father and son.

In fact, those communication difficulties are manifested again in a technical sense in the very next scene, as Ned improperly holds the boom mic during an impromptu shoot on the beach, rendering the footage at least potentially unusable.

The reason Steve has called Ned out to meet him is that Bobby Ogata, Team Zissou’s frogman, noticed a “rubber tide.” This is a phenomenon that the crew has never encountered on film before, and just like that, in their pajamas and bare feet, Team Zissou is recording a scene for a documentary that doesn’t exist yet.

Without any structure whatsoever, nor any larger film into which Steve could insert such a scene, he’s lost for what to say. He describes briefly the rubber tide, mentions Ogata alerted him to its occurrence, and then turns to the camera to deliver a pathetic shrug, admitting silently that even he isn’t sure this was worth recording.

Of course Ned comes to the rescue by asking a question that, perhaps, Steve as a documentarian should already have thought to answer: what causes the creatures to glow like this? Only with fresh eyes can Ned even see that the most interesting thing about these jellyfish isn’t that they’re washed up ashore, but that they pulse illumination into the night. It’s one of nature’s many wonders that Steve can no longer even recognize.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Steve is impressed by Ned’s simple adlib, and it inspires him to shoot another scene: a simple two-shot of he and Ned. Here, he unleashes a “goddamned tearjerker” when he invites Ned to join Team Zissou.

We’ve already discussed some confusion here. He spoke to Eleanor after Loquasto (and in Ned’s presence) about Ned joining them, and I’m not sure what that meant. It didn’t mean joining Team Zissou proper, as Ned’s not invited until now and initially declines, and it didn’t mean coming to Pescespada Island as that invitation was extended specifically in the section we covered in part 4. There sure is a lot of inviting going on, and I’m personally not convinced even Anderson knows why that is, or what some of it means. It feels like detritus leftover from merging various versions of the script. It doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the film at all, but it does feel interestingly inexplicable.

Ned’s reluctance to join the crew has to do with a lack of experience and knowledge of the field. Steve deflects this question by saying none of them know what they’re doing. Klaus was a bus driver, and Wolodarsky — Team Zissou’s physicist in residence — was a substitute teacher. “We’re a pack of strays,” Steve proclaims proudly, and all at once it’s clear what Team Zissou really is: they’re not a band of people drawn together by their love for the ocean, or film making, or even each other. They are — on Pescespada — an Island of Misfit Toys. They don’t belong anywhere else, and that is the tie that binds: without Team Zissou, where would they be? Where could they be?

The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai starred Jeff Goldblum and ended with the team walk that inspired the final moments of The Life Aquatic; it’s absolutely a film embedded in The Life Aquatic‘s DNA, and it features Team Bonzai, with every member hand-picked by Buckaroo and able to provide some valuable service to the team that no other human being could. Team Zissou is Team Bonzai’s antithesis: Steve doesn’t hand-pick anything. He is found by misfits without any other place to go. Team Zissou is the team you end up on because no other team wanted you.

And he takes them aboard, and gives them an identity, and provides for them as best he can, offering a small-scale social acceptance that they wouldn’t have anywhere else.

He sounds like a really nice guy when you put it that way.

Ned also mentions that he’s “not even that strong a swimmer.” Some more early foreshadowing — in a comic exchange — of Ned’s eventual tragedy.

This invitation offends Klaus, who has been filming the scene but has not seen it fit to inform Steve of the useless boom placement until afterward. We’ll get into Klaus and Ned’s relationship soon enough, so for now let’s just leave them stewing.

What’s more interesting right now is Steve’s seething anger that Klaus stopped rolling before Steve called cut. For Captain Zissou this is about as severe as crimes can get. Steve’s life is one of post-production, of edit-booth sweetening and of looped lines and flattering inserts. Without the camera capturing the moment in the first place, Steve has no hope of immortalizing a better performance, of slaving over detail to get it just right. In short, without the camera, he’s stuck with what actually happens. And that’s not something that makes Steve happy.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Their spat is cut short by the arrival of Jane Winslett-Richardson, the reporter from Oceanographic Explorer who will be writing an article on Steve. Her arrival is heralded by a wave of flashlights shining her way from the team who forgot to pick her up at the airport. (More specifically it was Klaus’s job. It was also Klaus’s job to maintain the helicopter that will end up killing Ned.) It’s also scored by a track called “Zissou Society Blue Star Cadets,” though when we hear another version later in the film it’s referred to as “Ned’s Theme Take 1.”

Ned’s face lights up as much as Jane’s, though in her case it’s due to the flashlights, and the jellyfishes, though in their case it’s the moon’s light bouncing off their outer membranes. Also, Jane informs them, they’re not jellyfish. They’re Vietcong Man-O-Wars***.

Steve tests one with his foot and sure enough she’s right. He makes a note to loop that line in post-production, yet again casting some (admittedly small) doubt on his integrity as a documentarian. This goes to show how unimportant it is for Steve to ever get things right the first time — when you’re used to edit-suite tinkering there’s less of a need to worry about that — and how deluded Team Zissou is about what it is they actually do. More on that, of course, later.

Jane claims that she won’t even ask what they’re all doing out there in their matching pajamas, which is a bit of a throwaway line until we cut back to Steve and Klaus and see, funnily enough, that their pajamas don’t actually match. Klaus’s stripes are wider, though the intention (on the part of Team Zissou) was clearly to standardize them. It’s another example of mismatch in place of true uniformity. “Close enough” might as well be the motto carved into the Team Zissou crest.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Klaus, Steve and Ned show Jane to her room, and we’re introduced to three things about her: firstly, she’s pregnant. Secondly and thirdly are things that she’s doing to prepare for having a child: she says “effing” instead of “fucking” to get out of the habit of cursing, and she chews bubble gum, likely to get out of the habit of smoking. The father, as you might imagine, will become a conversation point in the near future, and we’ll see plenty of echoes of Steve and Ned there as well.

They discuss, again, the possibility that Ned might be Steve’s son — she’s dubious — and Steve makes his intentions known to Klaus with a loaded, “Not this one.”

We’ve seen how Steve’s romantic advances have paid off in the past, but we’ve also seen how Steve likes to sweeten his memories after the fact. If you think he’s learned from anything in that regard, you haven’t been paying much attention.

* There’s a nice little deleted scene on the DVD that shows that Steve keeps a penguin on the island as well. Ned asks Eleanor about it, and she replies ominously that he should not join Steve on his journey. In lesser hands it would have been clumsy foreshadowing, but here, in this film, with that character, it feels correct…especially as she seems to be the only one still aware of what happened to Esteban. Of course the scene was deleted and might not be worth saying much else about, but I found it interesting, and it makes it even more clear why she will soon storm off in the night, leaving Team Zissou to its self-imposed tragedies.

** Garfield is also a tabby, and the live-action film that starred Bill Murray as that orange cat was released the same year as The Life Aquatic. I’m willing to believe this is coincidental, but it certainly is an interesting fact.

*** They also visually call to mind the landing lights at an airport. It reminds me of Rushmore, and the times Anderson used visual cues there to suggest that characters arrived by air, even though they didn’t. It’s a director having fun with images and expectation, and it’s that kind of easily missable humor that Anderson does best.

Steve Zissou Saturdays #4: A Great Deal of Pain

In this section we (and Ned) get not one but two introductions to the current state of Team Zissou, one of which is an elaborately staged — literally, as well as figuratively — tour curated by Steve himself. The other, of course, is one over which he cannot exert such control. As a result we end up with two important perspectives regarding our hero: how he looks to himself, and how he looks to others.

By complete coincidence, I’m currently reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for the first time, and as I write this entry Captain Nemo has just finished giving his own new intake — one of which, amusingly, is also named Ned — a tour of the Nautilus. Whether Steve’s tour of the Belafonte is a deliberate comical undermining of that classic scene is beside the point; either way it serves as a humorous echo of that deeper, more knowledgeable and overall more impressive explanation of the wondrous workings of the vessel around them.

Both Nemo and Steve are willful isolates, and both of them use their ships not primarily to explore the world but to hide from it. But whereas Nemo is prideful and passively enthusiastic about his private accomplishments, Steve can no longer muster up excitement, not even for probably-his-son, and he handwaves equally both any impressive equipment aboard the ship and the state of its disrepair.

Unsurprisingly at this point he also dotes more on his production equipment than his scientific instruments, but even that seems to have lost its luster for him. After all, he has a crew to handle that stuff, and can afford to — interestingly — cameo in his own tour of the ship, fishing idly and remaining totally unengaged with even his own words.

But first, some fantastic film making from Anderson here needs to be addressed. We cut immediately from a quiet, naturalistic scene aboard the dark Belafonte to this clearly artificial and colorful sequence in which Steve Zissou addresses the camera — or is that Ned? More on that shortly… — holding the same model of the ship we saw on his desk earlier, in the film he debuted at Loquasto.

Behind him is an enormous mural of this same ship, and that mural is then backlit, revealing the inner rooms and workings of the Belafonte, and then rises to reveal that those inner rooms and workings are a life-sized, brilliantly constructed dollhouse of a set. The fact that this opaque mural and tellingly exposed set overlap so perfectly that the illusion goes almost unnoticed during the reveal is fantastic.

It can take several viewings to realize what even happened, but once you see it the logistics involved with pulling off a moment like that — physically, without the aid of CGI — will never escape your mind. It’s still, to my mind, Anderson’s most impressive shot, making it his low-key, sombre equivalent of the crop duster swooping down on Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Hitchcock liked to have people being chased…Anderson liked to have people retreating. Both directors lay the artistic groundwork at each of these poles that others could only hope to one day approach.

We get a brief mention of the Belafonte‘s origin (it was a long-range sub hunter during World War II) and how much Steve paid for it ($900,000), but we still don’t have any insight into why he wanted a boat or to become an oceanographer (or documentarian) to begin with. Steve sounds bored, as though he’s more of a tour guide than a team leader and he’s given this superficial spiel dozens of times to increasingly restless school children.

The music here is a reversal of melody from Mark Mothersbaugh’s own “Scrapping and Yelling” theme from The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s reworked slightly, of course, but its origin is clear, and there’s a great feature on the Life Aquatic DVD that has Mothersbaugh playing them side by side. (I can recreate it for you, if you simply click here and then here.)

There’s not much I can do with that information in terms of finding unique insight, but I do think it’s a fun detail, made all the more impressive by the fact that a reversal of Mothersbaugh’s melodies can be just as beautiful as his original compositions. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, losing Mothersbaugh, however it happened, was a genuine blow to Anderson’s films.

We then get a still shot of a framed photograph of Lord Mandrake, who Steve says was his mentor. Steve also says that he’s dead now, and we hear the same sound we’ll later hear when Ned mistakes a sludge tanker for some singing jack-whales.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and one it’s impossible to notice the first time through…you need the later point of comparison to understand. The laughter of life, and the deep bellow of death. Ned confuses the two, but what we see here is that it’s not really confusion at all; each applies to all of us equally. First one, and then the other. Both are true. Lord Mandrake is posing for a photograph in his prime, Lord Mandrake is a lost and distant memory. They apply to him equally, and they apply equally to Ned, whose own sludge tanker is somewhere out there already, calling him home.

From the picture of Lord Mandrake the room-by-room tour begins, and in the first room we see that very same picture of Mandrake on the wall. Did you notice that before now? I sure didn’t…it’s just one reason I’m glad I’m doing this series. There’s so much detail layered gorgeously into the film that I might never catch it all if I watched it a thousand more times.

The fact that the same photo is on the wall makes it feel as though Steve is walking Ned through these scenes, pointing things out as he goes. And yet he isn’t. As mentioned earlier, we later see him fishing, apart from and disinterested in his own narration.

This is one of Anderson’s tricks in The Life Aquatic, with which he blurs the line between the film being fiction, and events within the film being fiction. Here the set is clearly false and Steve is addressing the camera, which would seem to suggest that this has been staged for our benefit, rather than for the benefit of any characters in the film. Yet later on Ned and Steve will walk through this very same — and still obviously false — set having an argument, meaning it is real within their world. The subject of the argument? Well, among other things, fiction vs. reality.

Anderson is very clearly toying with our preconceived notions about how films work, here taking his most overtly artificial construction and letting it stand on its own, then later integrating that into the larger world and insisting that it’s real. It lends that later moment a bizarre sense of importance and weight, and raises for us larger questions about the world we’re watching, just as Ned has questions about his own world raised for him. Extra-cinematic tonal resonance.

It’s a pretty great film. Have I said that already?

The only thing we hear about in the first room is the picture of Lord Mandrake, so Steve brings us immediately on to the sauna. The imperfect blue tiling suggests a lack of uniformity — or clarity of vision? — that we’ll see elsewhere on the Belafonte and Pescespada Island…the sense that things have been cobbled together at various points in the team’s history, with little or no attention paid to cohesiveness. It’s a sharp contrast to what we’ll see later with Operation Hennessey.

Very oddly, Steve mentions that he keeps a Swedish masseuse on staff, yet we never see her again in the film. She’s here on camera now, so either she leaves Team Zissou before we actually set sail, or Steve is lying in order to make the ship sound more luxurious than it really is, and her physical appearance here is just another example of why we can’t trust what we see.

It’s also possible that Steve is “reading” from outdated Team Zissou promotional literature, which would also likely have the condensed information about the Belafonte‘s history and wouldn’t have room to get more deeply into it. In other words, Steve’s sales pitch is outdated, and he’s detached enough from reality that he doesn’t even realize it.

We then move on to a room — unidentified — in which Steve claims he does his science projects and experiments and so on. The fact that he can’t identify what they are or where he is says something…the fact that this room is the only one that goes totally unstaffed says even more.

Again we get a shot glimpse of the technology behind Team Zissou, with outdated computers lining one wall. As mentioned in a previous entry, this is all detail that, in another film, could be used to orient us to the time period in which our adventure takes place. In The Life Aquatic, however, it’s used to highlight just how far behind the times Team Zissou is, and that’s something else we’ll have confirmed when we make it to Hennessey’s sealab.

Also note the chemicals bubbling over with nobody in attendance. More ammunition for Team Zissou’s criminal negligence suit against their captain.

We then move on to the kitchen, which contains probably the most technologically advanced equipment on the ship. Vladimir Wolodarsky, the team’s physicist (though we’ll later learn that his experience is limited to the fact that he was a substitute teacher), frosts a birthday cake instead of working in the lab we just saw. We also get an idea of just how much wine Steve needs to feel at home. It’s money that could have been spent stocking — and updating — the lab below.

The research library was assembled by Eleanor, who is the only member of Team Zissou we’ll meet on this tour to keep her back to the camera, perfectly in keeping with the woman who, in our last entry, occupied herself in a roomful of colleagues by playing Solitaire.

Steve gives special notice to his complete first-edition set of The Life Aquatic Companion Series. I can’t be alone in wanting those, but there’s something quite sad about Steve treasuring books that he ostensibly wrote himself. Of course, since we’ll later catch him consulting the volume on Trawlers, Junks and Dinghies in order to identify a far-off ship, I doubt he had much of a hand at all in preparing them.

Also of note is the volume on The Arctic Night-Lights, which is a phenomenon we’ll encounter later in the film, with another nod to Lord Mandrake.

On a personal note, I genuinely wish I could read Tragedy of the Red Octopus. That looks like a good’un.

The only room in which actual work gets done is the editing suite, which Steve mentions exists so they can cut together footage on the fly. We also, however, see cameraman Vikram Ray being instructed on how to deliver an ADR line…keep this in mind, as we hear many times about how Team Zissou simply films what’s really happening, yet we keep catching glimpses of second takes and details being touched up or otherwise altered after the fact. With our fiction vs. reality theme already strongly in mind, it’s going to be important to keep an eye out for that.

Also I do want to say that this scene would be a great time to write a small piece about each member of Steve Zissou’s crew, and I fully intended to do so, but this is already turning out to be a pretty long entry so I’ll have to get to that later.

The observation bubble, which Steve with an uncharacteristic flavor of pride mentions he thought up in a dream, is in use by Bobby Ogata, the team’s frogman. Humorously he’s actually watching another diver* frolicking with a pair of albino dolphins that swim with the ship.

True to its nocturnal origins, the observation bubble is lined with blankets and pillows. In fact, it seems almost designed not for observation, but for returning to that “dream.” It’s cozy, dark, and requires one to lie down. Sleep, or at least relaxation, is strongly suggested as its main intent, and certainly a man whose star has fallen quite as much as Steve’s had would take any opportunity he had to recapture a dream…however hazy it might be by this point.

The engine room is glossed over, as is the fact that the unpaid interns are responsible for repairing it. Steve mentions that he can’t afford to fix the bearing cases. Nor can he afford to fix the ship’s electrical problems. Nor can he afford to finance his own films anymore. Money is another film-long theme, with Steve keen to brush it aside quickly — which both he and the camera do here — as though his problems will solve themselves in time.

We’ll see how well that works out for him.

We end the tour on deck, with Steve briefly identifying his submarine, in which the film’s climax will take place, and helicopter, whose disrepair will ultimately kill the man he is currently speaking to.

The submarine is appropriately named Deep Search, with its previous monicker Jacqueline crossed out above it. (I guess Steve can’t afford yellow paint, either.) Ned’s voice asks what happened to Jacqueline, and Steve replies that she didn’t really love him. The submarine was named after a woman in Steve’s life who is no longer in the picture, and we’ll discuss the payoff the name-change later on, when Steve shows off his similarly altered tattoo.

So that’s Eleanor, Mandeeza, Catherine Plimpton and now Jacqueline, and we’re only sixteen minutes into the film. We’ll shortly learn about a 15 year old girl Steve hit on at a French disco. Captain Zissou’s had a busy love life, and, it’s important to note, none of it actually lasts.

It’s also worth noting that Jacqueline is the feminine form of Jacques, as in Jacques Cousteau, an obvious influence for Steve both in and outside of the reality of the film.

Darkness falls on Steve’s fantasy tour — at precisely the moment Steve acknowledges a darkness of his own — and we find ourselves back in reality. We are at the Explorers Club, and in sharp contrast to the Team Zissou uniform Steve was wearing in the previous scene, we see that he’s actually still wearing his suit from last night, wrinkled and disheveled with an undone bowtie around his neck, making it clear that he never changed out of it when he went to bed. Ned, on the other hand, is neatly pressed and presentable. It’s obvious that one of them sees this experience as more of an honor than the other.

Ned also respectfully removes his hat when indoors. Steve, unsurprisingly by this point, does not.

Both men find themselves staring at paintings of their father figures, another passive mirroring that I think reinforces the idea that they are, in fact, father and son. Steve stares at a painting of Lord Mandrake, and Ned lingers on a painting of Steve, which he calls “very lifelike,” despite the fact that the graceful demeanor of the man in the painting is nothing at all like the unwound and directionless man beside him.

When Ned says it’s “very lifelike,” it means two things: it’s life-like, in the sense that it’s like the real thing but perhaps not quite accurate, and also that it’s true to his image of Steve, the one he grew up with, the one he watched on television and read about in books and wrote letters to. The real Steve has yet to supplant this ideal in Ned’s mind, however clear the disparity might be to us.

This is why Ned functions as Steve’s Ghost of Christmas Past. He remembers Steve as he once was…in his prime, in his youth, in his glory. He brings with him visions of happier times, of success and adoration.

When Eleanor asks Steve later why he wants Ned to join the crew, Steve replies, “Because he looks up to me.” This implies, I think correctly, that nobody else does. Ned is a precious resource, and Steve cannot afford to lose that. He’s his last tie — a living tie — to the past…to a seed sown when he was at his best.

It’s his last chance to harvest something he can be proud of, and it’s why he so immediately becomes concerned with Ned and Jane mingling, as Jane is his Ghost of Christmas Present, and the last thing he needs is his idealistic past being tarnished by an intrusion from present-day disappointment.

Also, Steve’s red cap and white beard make him look kinda like Santa. Happy December, everybody!

We then pass a model of Operation Hennessey’s sleeker, cleaner ship, and arrive at a painting of Steve’s nemesis. We don’t learn much about Captain Hennessey here that we didn’t know, but it’s interesting to note that we will later see this man dressed in the same way and draped across the same couch, as though this painting really did capture him for who he is. While we see Steve in his diving gear later as well, we never see him in such a calm, easy state of mind. It shows how much he’s drifted, perhaps, from when it was painted, and may indicate why he’s so uncomfortable looking at that reflected echo of his old self.

Steve then discusses with Ned the possibility of a name change: Ned Plimpton, if he would like, can change his name to Ned Zissou. Unless he also wants to change his first name to Kingsley, which is what Steve would have chosen for him.

As we’ve seen earlier in Steve’s introduction to himself and his ship, and in other cases as well, Captain Zissou needs to be in control. Here, on the first morning after meeting his son, he’s already assuming that control. While the name change begins as a suggestion, and Steve seems to accept Ned’s polite refusal, it later becomes forced on the boy, when the correspondence stock arrives we see that Steve made it out to Kingsley Zissou. Our good captain also demands that the waiter pour the wine for him to sample, as Ned “doesn’t know anything about wine.”

We’ll get into Steve’s insistent need for control later, but for now I want to draw attention to an interesting jump cut here. We go from the waiter pouring wine to Steve downing a glass, with a few seconds of footage snipped out.

I don’t know what to call these cuts, but I love them, and Anderson’s used them a few other times. In The Royal Tenenbaums we cut from Royal insisting to see Richie in the hospital to turning around and leaving because the porter has turned up to throw him out. In The Darjeeling Limited we cut from Peter producing a painkiller to slamming it back immediately. And later in this very film we’ll cut from Ned taking the hand of a fallen Steve to Steve being instantly back on his feet.

I like these. By trimming just a second or two of dead space Anderson creates an impact for moments that might not seem as urgent otherwise.

Steve then overhears some other members of the club discussing his failures, and this is the second introduction to Team Zissou for Ned…and also the one Steve doesn’t have control over. This is his present seeping into and poisoning his past, and he doesn’t like it. For now Ned has the strength to overcome these influences, and even to fight back against them, but as the film progresses and Steve dismantles piece by piece all of the respect the boy still has for him, Ned will become aware of the reality at play here, and cease to see Steve as an idol.

I also want to talk a bit, perhaps oddly, about the astronaut in the background here. Or, rather, the astronaut is reminding me to talk about The Life Aquatic as a work of passive science fiction. Perhaps I’ll be able to say more about that in a future piece, but I find it interesting that Anderson seems to conjure up images of outer space when building out his movie about aquatic exploration.

After all, his choices of Bowie songs lean heavily toward science-fiction conceits: “Starman,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Life on Mars?” and, of course, “Space Oddity.” We also have “30 Century Man” by Scott Walker used at a pivotal point on the soundtrack, and now the astronaut here is given an association with oceanographic explorers. Deep space and the deep sea…aliens and mythical sea creatures…above and below. Each unknowable and treacherous in its own way, each requiring safety gear and breathing apparatae, each, essentially, an escape from our own element.

It’s interesting.

This is the first time Steve responds to a criticism about his wardrobe by removing the object being ridiculed. Here, it is his earring. Later it will be his red cap, after Jane refers to it as “contrived.” Public perception of his persona is of paramount importance for Steve, but rather than live up to his image, he’s sought instead to shut it out and isolate from it. The moment outside words reach his ears — whether following the debut of his latest film, here in the Explorers Club, or later in an article about himself, it cuts to the quick. Steve doesn’t know how to handle criticism…he only knows how to hide from it.

As before, Steve’s response to this criticism is to flee to safety. After Loquasto, he fled to his ship. Now he will flee to his compound on Pescespada Island, and he wants Ned to come along. After all, Ned just picked him up when he was feeling down…but perhaps more importantly, Ned took his side. Steve threw something away, and Ned picked it up for him. Steve fell apart, and Ned put him back together.

That’s exactly what Steve wants for Team Zissou.

However, this leads to I think a pretty valid question. Earlier, we arrived midway through a conversation between Steve and Eleanor. Steve was making a case for Ned joining them, which Eleanor ultimately accepted.

But in what sense were they discussing Ned joining them? Here Steve invites him to Pescespada Island for the first time, and there are some logistics to work out suggesting that the topic has not been raised before. And later Eleanor tries to dissuade Steve from letting Ned come aboard for their next journey.

So what, exactly, were Steve and Eleanor talking about earlier?

It’s just one question that remains unanswered as Steve acts on yet another opportunity to isolate from the cruel people who speak honestly about the things he’s actually said and done. Only this time he’s taking something with him: physical proof that at one time, he created somebody — biologically or otherwise — who could look up to him.

What’s more, Ned speaking about the mother he lost overlaps with Steve speaking about his dead best friend. Each of them have an opening in their lives. For better or for worse, they choose to fill it with each other.

Next: A God damned tearjerker.

* Another thing I only noticed while putting this essay together: every current member of Team Zissou is accounted for during the ship’s tour, and each of them are clearly visible going about their duties. So who is this helmeted diver? By process of elimination, it’s Esteban. This is something I was only able to determine after the scene ended, and once you realize this is an unspoken cameo by Steve’s departed friend — swimming silently in the water that is now his grave — it’s actually a quite chilling touch. It also, of course, speaks once more to this “footage” being outdated. Better days. Only slightly, but already behind him…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Let Steve tell you about his boat.

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

Steve Zissou Saturdays #2: Right on the Edge

Note: This entry was published in an earlier form as a standalone Anatomy of a Scene feature here. It has been reworked slightly for this series.

Celebrity oceanographer / documentarian Steve Zissou has just premiered his latest and most tragic film to an audience that responds with a distinct lack of interest. Steve emerges from a post-screening Q&A session that has gone no better, and that’s where today’s scene begins. We’re still in the process of setting the film into motion and already we see Anderson — and Mothersbaugh, and Murray — at their indirect best, and absolute strongest. Every line and detail hearkens forward to what’s to come, turning this routine meet-and-green into a brilliantly constructed overture. And yet, viewed out of context, it functions perfectly well as a piece of work unto itself, standing alone as a series of emotional triggers for one man who is having a terrible night…and being forced to suffer in public.

We open on a vast and relatively empty hall, where Antonia Cook (played by the late Isabella Blow) is standing stock-still and dead center, waiting for Steve to come through the door so that she can compliment him on his film — which we can pretty safely assume she wasn’t in the room to see. She’s more interested in positioning herself to flank a celebrity than she is in actually watching the films that make him a celebrity in the first place. It’s a sort of half-aware posturing, an appreciation of fame without consideration for actual merit, that Steve himself suffers from as well.

In the background we can also see the old man who will later ask Steve for his autograph; he can actually be glimpsed several times throughout this sequence before he gets his moment, suggesting that Steve has overlooked him, and, indeed, overlooks as many people as he can afford to, preferring isolation even during this grand event. When the old man eventually does get his chance, he needs to be introduced by Vladimir Wolodarsky, Team Zissou’s physicist / original score composer. As we’ll see later in the film, it really is up to Team Zissou to keep their captain grounded, and rooted to the world beneath him…if not exactly to reality.

The name “Loquasto International Film Festival” is loaded, making oblique reference to Santo Loquasto, a famous production designer who worked on more than 60 Broadway shows, as well as many Woody Allen films — netting him several Academy Awards for his work with that great director. In short, it’s a film festival named for a production designer rather than a director, a writer, or an actor. It passively highlights the importance of design, of construction, of careful assembly…over, say, quality. That’s Steve Zissou’s world in a nutshell.

After Antonia, Steve meets with Oseary Drakoulias, head of the financially-questionable production company that publishes his films. Oseary is speaking with Larry Amin, ostensibly casually, but as Steve correctly intuits, Oseary is both flirting with Amin and angling for money. In more controlled circumstances, Steve might shake hands and move along, but after having to field questions about his closest friend’s death he’s not interested in glad-handing. Oseary immediately berates Steve for his insensitive — though accurate — response to the situation, and this berating doesn’t seem to affect Steve at all. He’s feeling as low as he’s ever been, with Esteban’s death just the latest addition to a massive stack of tragedies he’s never gotten around to dealing with.

We should take a moment to talk about the score before we get too far ahead, and feel free to listen to it in isolation from the scene. It’s a genuine Mothersbaugh masterpiece, holding true to its main theme but allowing itself to drift away periodically, before a crash of strings to pulls it back down to Earth. This piece of music is similar in that regard to Mothersbaugh’s “Sonata for Cello & Piano in F Minor” from The Royal Tenenbaums, and this scene serves a similar purpose to that one in Anderson’s previous film as well. Both scenes show us where the characters are now, in present day, plying us with the basic information we’ll need in order to interpret everything that comes next.

I’d argue that both this scene and this piece of music represent a step forward in artistic merit, however, as the earlier scene relied on narrator Alec Baldwin to keep us focused and attentive to the right details, whereas this scene dumps us disoriented into the great hall, just as Steve is dumped, and requires us to make our way, without assistance, through the onslaught of characters, dynamics, and emotions on display. The score, likewise, has a more organic momentum to its digressions than “Sonata,” what with its abrupt drum solos and reggae breaks.

Steve’s next stop is a photo op with his “nemesis,” Alistair Hennessey (played with gleeful condescension by Jeff Goldblum). Hennessey is, as the film will both now and later prove, exactly what Steve is not: collected, well organized, efficient, and flush with cash. He also used to be married to Eleanor Zissou, Steve’s wife. We see the differences immediately upon Hennessey’s arrival in this scene: he’s smiling, he’s shaking hands, and he’s thronged by reporters. He’s in his element — unlike Steve, who is quite clearly a fish out of water…so to speak… — and this is what he lives for. He’s also — it’s important to note — clutching an award.

He makes friendly overtures toward Steve — even though they’re at least passively adversarial. He repeatedly opens the door to conversation and attempts to engage Steve while the cameras flash all around them, but Steve won’t so much as look at him or smile for the photographers. In fact, Steve doesn’t smile once throughout this entire long scene, slipping instead to varying depths of desperation and dissatisfaction. And that’s the difference between Steve and Hennessey: Hennessey is satisfied with who — and where — he is. He can afford to humorously prod Steve about his film, both because he’s happy with who he is, and because he knows Steve is not. These are two old hands in the same industry, but Steve won’t even give Hennessey a straight answer when he asks the simple — and valid — question of whether or not the jaguar shark even exists.

It’s also worth drawing attention to the Christmas decorations, which sporadically populate the hall. While The Life Aquatic contains no explicit references to Christmas, it does, in several ways, have Christmas in its blood. For starters, it was released in theaters on Christmas Day in 2004. It stars Bill Murray, who can number among his most famous films Scrooged, which is a humorous adaptation of A Christmas Carol. The Life Aquatic also deliberately echoes one of the most famous images in A Christmas Carol by ending the film with Steve hoisting Klaus’s nephew onto his shoulders like Tiny Tim. In fact, the entire sequence at the Loquasto International Film Festival functions in a thematically similar way to the first phase of Scrooge’s rehabilitation: uncomfortable — and unwilling — exposure to the ghosts of the past. In fact, we’ll be returning to this theme of The Life Aquatic functioning as an oblique adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but for now Steve has more pressing matters to attend to.

Next we meet Steve’s wife, Eleanor Zissou. As we’ll learn shortly, she is “the brains behind Team Zissou.” This is important to note, because it explains why he remains in a relationship with her. The two have a mutual dislike for each other that is only infrequently overcome by whatever tenderness survives between them, but she has the money that Steve needs to keep shooting, as well as knowing “the Latin names of all the fish and everything.”

It’s less clear why Eleanor stays with him, though. Steve is quick to point out that Hennessey isn’t much of a threat to their marriage as, in spite of his history with Eleanor, his homosexual tendencies keep him otherwise engaged. Beyond that, though, there’s less incentive for Eleanor to stay married to Steve than for Steve to stay married to Eleanor.

Once Eleanor steps away, Steve is approached by a woman — in attire suitable for a mermaid — who wishes to say hello. Steve leans in to kiss her, but she does not want to be touched by him. (It’s pretty easy to insert the word “anymore” here.) When Eleanor returns he attempts to introduce them, but Eleanor cuts him off by asking if he really wants to put her through this, resulting in both women leaving him in separate directions. Steve, alone, pops a pill.

It’s a loaded moment in many ways, and while we never see the woman again, Steve’s womanizing is absolutely to the fore several times in the future. Here it threatens his relationship with his wife, and before long it will threaten his relationship with his son.

As with everybody tonight, Steve is being exceptionally candid, confessing to Eleanor that he’s “right on the edge,” and that he doesn’t know what comes next. When both women abandon him and he swallows a pill, it’s clear that he does, in fact, know what comes next…he just really wishes he didn’t.

When I said earlier that Steve doesn’t smile in this scene, I was incorrect. I should have said that present-day Steve doesn’t smile in this scene, as we do see some archival footage of an early interview on the film festival’s monitors, presenting a blonde and happier Steve from better times.

The interviewer, Antonio Monda (an interestingly similar name to Antonia Cook’s), asks what Steve is to Team Zissou. Steve chuckles, but is clearly enough at a loss for a reply. Esteban places a hand on him and says, “He’s the Zissou.”

It’s exactly the kind of response that could be interpreted either way, but from Esteban, Steve hears it as a compliment. What is Steve? Esteban’s reply could suggest either that he’s everything to the team — in fact, is the team — or that he’s nothing but a name. Steve interprets it — correctly, I feel — as meaning the former. From Hennessey, it would have been the latter.

But there is no more Esteban. He’s been taken from this world and from Team Zissou by the jaguar shark and Steve’s negligence, and Steve it’s Hennessey who’s here instead. So what, now, is Steve? It’s a question our central character is going to have a lot of trouble answering over the course of them film, and it’s one to which he will go to great lengths in order avoid answering at all.

He reaches out to Esteban and a tiny spark flashes at his fingertip. Bright, urgent…and then gone. A metaphor for both Esteban himself, and also Steve’s celebrity.

Next we meet Klaus (Willem Dafoe), who introduces Steve to his nephew. His nephew has a gift for Steve…a crayon ponyfish. It’s unlikely to be anything Steve hasn’t seen before, and it’s less likely to be anything particularly impressive — the plastic bag suggesting that Werner saved his allowance and purchased it from a pet store — but it’s a tangible reminder of Steve’s youthful ambitions. It’s an image out of his own past, an infatuation with the sea and with those who explore it. Every creature is magical, if you view it through the right lens, which in this case is the innocence of youth.

This is why Anderson created all of his sea creatures from scratch, using stop motion rather than actual, living beings. Everything is invented, and therefore everything is new to us. They need to be, so that they can stand out as magical, and not mundane. Steve’s tired and careless approach to the wondrous worlds that unfold regularly around him is a symptom of a professional and personal malaise…not any shortness of majesty in those worlds themselves. Fresh eyes like Werner’s — and implicitly ours — can still see that. Steve’s eyes are tired, but we see a flash, ever so fleeting, of admiration for the boy who admires him in return…a memory of a simpler time, when Steve really cared about what he was doing.

This is also the first time we see Steve interact with other members of Team Zissou, who, as we saw earlier in the film, don’t particularly have much experience with the sea. Their titles are telling…Steve lists camera men, sound men and script girls, but his crew is tellingly free of oceanographers and marine biologists. Instead, Steve surrounds himself with a crew that can insulate him, artificially, from the world around him. Rather than exploring and discovering the unknown, Steve prefers a life determined by scripts, lighting levels, and carefully managed interactions. He’s comfortable only when he doesn’t have to deal with the unforeseen, but it didn’t used to be this way.

This lack of comfort is on display when he’s finally confronted by the old man in pajamas, who has come to the film festival with a stack of posters advertising Steve’s previous movies. He seeks out an autograph and at first Steve is willing to comply.

Eventually, however, Steve tells him to leave. There are too many posters to sign, and this affects Steve in precisely the opposite way that his encounter with Werner affected him moments before. (“I could go either way” is a very telling line…and, in fact, he ends up going both ways. First one, and then the other.) Here, Steve is confronted with evidence of his past. Not an idealistic reminder as he saw in Werner, but a physical, unchangeable record of what he’s actually done. The films advertised on these posters don’t strike one as being particularly good, as some of them have only the most tenuous connections to the sea at all. The old man may be a genuine fan, or he might just be a collector. Either way, he’s handed Steve a record of his professional — and progressing — degradation, and then asked him to account for every one.

It’s a disappointment that frustrates Steve and brings him immediately back down from the relative high of Werner’s gift. Meanwhile, we can imagine Klaus being particularly happy that things went so well with Steve and his nephew. As morbid as it might seem, Klaus is clearly expecting a battlefield promotion. Esteban is dead, and that’s tragic…but it also leaves a vacancy for Steve’s right hand man. Klaus has been a long-suffering and fragile member of Team Zissou, who thought of both Steve and Esteban as fathers to him. This next voyage will be his chance to step up and impress his father figure…unfortunately, this next voyage will also feature the return of Steve’s prodigal — if not necessarily actual — son Ned, which relegates Klaus again to the sidelines, and sinks him immediately into the depths of aggressive misery.

For now, however, Klaus can look forward to the future…as Steve seeks desperately to isolate himself from the past.

As Steve’s long, dark, wine and cheese party of the soul winds down, he finds a welcome quiet moment as he gazes longingly in Eleanor’s direction. Of course, he’s also gazing off at the Belafonte, his ship, where his life has structure, if not necessarily meaning. It’s a place where he can be safe (where, indeed, he employs a Safety Expert)…it’s the ability to set sail, and leave everything — absolutely everything — in the world behind.

For Anderson, it’s no coincidence that Eleanor is in that shot as well. After all, she’s what keeps Team Zissou afloat. He needs her, whether or not he likes her. In a remarkable bit of restrained cinematography, we linger for a short while on this view, and then return to a very long shot of Steve, silent and unmoving. He ends up being either too intimidated or too disinterested — or both — to approach his wife and speak to her, so he settles instead for raising his hand in a brief, motionless wave.

It’s impossible not to see this as also being the universal gesture for “stop.”

There’s a beautiful swell in Mothersbaugh’s score, and Steve comes back to Earth.

Steve’s night isn’t over yet, however, as there’s one last obstacle between him and the yearned-for safety of his boat: the crowd. Steve has no interest in any of them, any moreso than he had in the old man earlier, but one person gets his attention by suggesting loudly that Steve should be in mourning for Esteban…and then asking who he intends to kill in part two.

This is Steve’s collapse, as the weight of the evening and every conflicting emotion he’s had all night surge to his head, and he attacks the man physically.

It’s interesting that Steve doesn’t snap until after the man takes his picture (an aural “snap” itself), thus recording, yet again, another failure of Steve’s. As a celebrity, Steve must cope with his mistakes in public. He’s recognizable and famous, and as such doesn’t have the luxury of coming to terms with his shortcomings and failures in solitude.

Fascinatingly, in Rushmore Bill Murray’s character also seeks refuge beneath the waterline. It’s a chance to separate, a chance to be of the world and yet also free from it. Here he must face his failings head-on, and he responds to them by lashing out.

We also see Team Zissou come to his aid not by stopping Steve or pulling him out of the fray, but by hopping the barricade and assaulting the heckler themselves. They serve as a wall — in this case literally — between Steve and the consequences of his actions. Their job is to keep their captain safe — physically, mentally, emotionally, howsoever necessary at any given time — which is why he has come to rely on them more than he’d ever be able to rely on a group of competent oceanographers.

In the scuffle, the bag containing Steve’s crayon ponyfish is ruptured. While Steve would have no trouble replacing it and indeed sees more remarkable things daily, he takes a champagne glass from another partygoer and rescues the ponyfish with it, hoisting it above his head like a banner as he walks away.

But it’s not just the ponyfish he rescued — as Steve’s made clearly known, he’s not sentimental enough about sea-life to keep from killing it for personal reasons — it’s Werner’s idealism. It’s youth. It’s a message from the past, one of many he received tonight but the only one he can bear to hold onto. It’s a reminder maybe not of what Steve Zissou is but at least of why Steve Zissou is.

It’s also a small creature. Like Werner. And like Steve was once, too. It’s a creature unable to survive in the environment around him, which requires itself to be kept safe and secure until it can return to its home in the sea. Steve understands.

Next: A strange visitor.