Looking back on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
“…jovial and sardonic at the same time. Bearish character—I mean, he seemed bigger than he really was and he gives this impression of size. He was charismatic and highly opinionated and often full of shit, but you couldn’t really challenge him because he wouldn’t hear it. And you basically accepted him for what he was because he was worth it.” –Robert Evans, on working with Robert Altman
The year is 1980: legendary “antiestablishment” filmmaker Robert Altman has reached an all-time low. His last three films, made for Twentieth Century Fox (with whom he had maintained the longest of his numerous studio relationships), had been flops in the worst sense of the word–critically, commercially, and perhaps even artistically. First came the puzzling dystopian sci-fi endeavor, Quintet, whose inscrutable screenplay was structured entirely around a board game the director had invented; A Perfect Couple followed soon afterwards, a film not without its charms—Paul Dooley is never easy to dislike, and echoes of the picture are palpable in P.T. Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love—but an undoubtedly weak entry in Altman’s multi-storied canon; and then there is HealtH, a remarkably enjoyable return to form whose release was sabotaged by a studio disenfranchised by their hireling’s big talk in proportion to his small box office earnings. It was a position the filmmaker had found himself in many times before (and would find himself in again before his passing away in November of 2006), but the circumstances were especially dire in this instance: at five of the (then) seven major studios, he had officially become persona non grata. It was a stroke of fantastic luck, then, when Paramount’s golden child Robert Evans took one of his renowned gambles and hired Altman to direct a big-budget adaptation of E.C. Segar’s beloved Popeye comic strip. Altman had little left to lose: although 3 Women (1977) is now widely recognized as a masterpiece in its own right, he hadn’t experienced any tangible success since the release of Nashville in 1975. What he still had to his credit, however, was one of the most extraordinary, endearing, and loyal entourages held captive by any director in film history.
Fast forward 24 years: a fairly renowned independent filmmaker from Texas is fresh off of his third and most critically acclaimed film to date, having resulted in his first Academy Award nomination (for original screenwriting) and a cemented relationship with Buena Vista’s Touchstone Pictures. He is granted a budget over twice the size of his preceding picture to realize a most ambitious concept film—a tribute to his childhood hero, Jacques Cousteau, filmed in Rome’s CineCittà studios with a cast of fifteen integral characters. The emerging film, generously titled The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, would result in meager box office earnings, the termination of his Touchstone contract, and the befuddlement of numerous critics and admirers. In retrospect, however, it can be seen not only as an enormously entertaining curiosity: it may also be an (intentional or unintentional) honorary tribute to one of his cinematic forerunners.
Though ostensibly drafted as Cousteau’s stand-in, Steve Zissou bears little in common with his prototype beyond the scuba gear, the boat, and the red cap. An aging womanizer with a fondness for smoking copious quantities of marijuana, Zissou’s character is more credibly read as a doppelgänger for Robert Altman—both veteran filmmakers whose last few projects have fallen short of audience expectations. In a particularly memorable scene, Zissou is interviewed by a reporter named Jane Winslett-Richardson who idolized him as a child; the first question posed: “What happened?” Zissou munches on an apple, arches his eyebrows and counters with, “that’s your first question? I thought this was going to be a puff piece.” I’m reminded of an anecdote dating back to 1976, when film critic Pauline Kael (whose advance write-up in praise of Nashville drew a controversial line in the sand among her fellow critics) interviewed Altman after a screening of Buffalo Bill and the Indians: following her confession to the man she hailed as the cutting-edge American filmmaker that she did not care for his latest offering, he is said to have drunkenly ridiculed her in front of his crew—effectively severing ties with his most ardent supporter in the domestic press. Zissou makes several inebriated faux-pas in front of Winslett-Richardson throughout the film, and her highly mannered acumen bears more than a passing resemblance to Kael’s, but this is a minor coincidence in a movie riddled with allusions to Altman lore.
Let’s jump back to 1980 for a moment. Altman settles upon the remote island of Malta as the prime location for filming Popeye, and acclaimed pop singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson is recruited to compose original songs for the film. Along with Altman’s established crew and the core cast of the film—mostly Altman veterans, with the exception of Robin Williams (making his big-screen debut)—Nilsson joins them on the flight to the Mediterranean island, where a ramshackle recording studio, complete with egg cartons on the walls for insulation, was awaiting his contribution to the project. Those who have seen The Life Aquatic might think of Seu Jorge’s incidental recording of David Bowie songs in Portuguese in a mini-studio aboard Zissou’s boat, the Belafonte (a zoom-in on Jorge recording his version of “Life On Mars” echoes a near-identical shot from the opening credit sequence of Nashville).
As Altman was wont to, the atmosphere prevailing on the Maltese set was one big party, including apartments with kitchens for the entire company, backgammon tournaments, a weekly gazette, movies flown in from the States for weekend screening, the Pickle Family Circus—not to mention the well-publicized abundance of cocaine. Now consider the superfluous add-ons aboard the Belafonte: spa, wine cellar, a state-of-the-art kitchen, dolphins with cameras attached to their foreheads… If he had had the foresight to install such features in his own set, along with the requisite budget to do so, I imagine he would have at least tried. The impressively constructed town of Sweethaven in Popeye and the Belafonte in The Life Aquatic can both be seen as highly detailed microcosms of a filmmaker’s child-like fantasy. Altman’s completed film (which was initially to be helmed by Hal Ashby, another clear precursor to Anderson*) shares quite a few similarities with The Life Aquatic, namely: a maritime subject; a Mediterranean filming location; a son in search of his father; an aquatic monster; a richly textured, mostly made-up environment; a newborn child completing a multi-generational narrative; and characters developed out of caricatures.
For Popeye (more so than any other Altman picture, perhaps), the director asked his actors to create mere silhouettes instead of three-dimensional persons; he then proceeded to assign individual quirks to each of the cast members, in order to create his usual retinue of idiosyncratic personae. It is difficult not to draw a comparison here to Anderson’s use of his own actors—a cross of sorts between Antonioni’s “models” and Altman’s carefully crafted neurotics. At their best, Anderson’s films achieve a life of their own through the constraints of their construction: in attempting to predetermine all of the characters’ behaviors and squeeze out every ounce of human indeterminacy, their frail identities are forced to be unveiled from time to time, thus endearing them to the viewer on both an aesthetic (or preconceived) and a human (or spontaneous) level.
The modus operandi of Team Zissou is itself analogous to Altman’s method of moviemaking: “none of us knows what’s going to happen, and then we film it.” Beyond the method and structure, there are the characters—Anjelica Huston a possible stand-in for both Kathryn Altman (reportedly the brains behind many an Altman operation) and Scotty Bushnell (Altman’s longtime executive producer, with whom he had a bad falling-out in the nineties), Owen Wilson as Stephen Altman (who got his start in movies as a production designer on his father’s films), Team Zissou cameraman Vikram Ray as Altman cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, etc… The camaraderie is at its most referential in two scenes showing Team Zissou relaxing together while watching old films—almost as if scripted from a telling of one of Altman’s renowned dailies gatherings.
If The Life Aquatic offers a fantasized glimpse of what working on an Altman film might have been like, it also says quite a bit about the respective personalities of both filmmakers in question. The film finds Anderson at his most self-critical, revealing the failure of his architectural whims to provide shelter from the storms of everyday reality (which he characterizes with despair, loss, and melancholy). He knows this, but he persists on building one alternate reality after another, each as obsessively nuanced as a Faberge egg: it appears to be his primary means for creating order out of life’s rampant disorder. Similarly, Altman/Zissou is aware of his own shortcomings, of his critical failures and ill-fated temper, but he does not change because he cannot change; this is the way he is, and the price he pays for being larger-than-life may be lethal at times, but he wouldn’t deny it for the world—and neither would his teammates.
A prevailing watermark of both directors is their mutual fascination with death-as-necessity; in fact, the distinguishing characteristic of Altman’s best films is the use of a tragic ending to ground the sincerity of his humor. Time after time (in Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, Nashville, 3 Women, A Wedding, Short Cuts, A Prairie Home Companion…) Altman displays an almost compulsive habit of inserting a memento mori before the end credits. Though most of Anderson’s films share a similar affinity for fatality, it is worth noting that only in The Life Aquatic and The Royal Tenenbaums—his other truly Altman-esque ensemble piece—does he employ a death near the conclusion of the film as a perverse variation on the Deus ex Machina device. The death of Ned Plimpton in The Life Aquatic, especially, serves a near-identical purpose to the deaths of fellow nice guy Keith Carradine in Thieves Like Us and McCabe & Mrs. Miller: in all three films, the deaths are seen as an utterly gratuitous means to an unnecessarily tragic end. This is the primary complaint I have heard from other viewers in regards to some of Anderson’s work—that it comes across as meaningless in its melancholy. In defense of both filmmakers, I can only commend the strength of their conviction towards a possibly Freudian impulse.
There are three deaths in The Life Aquatic, all told—two of which occur off-screen: there is the passing of Ned’s mother (and Zissou’s one-time lover), the death of Zissou’s partner Esteban, and finally the death of Ned, who has essentially taken the place of Esteban in Steve’s life. Like Altman, Anderson (and co-writer Noah Baumbach) employ death as a means of emphasizing the messiness of human existence—the seventh seal which no chess player, however skilled (or, in the case of these auteurs, however neurotic), will ever be able to thwart. Especially for Anderson, whose extremely regimented characters present a borderline-autistic inability to emote forthrightly, death is a stand-in for vulnerability; it is his (and everyone’s) true Achilles heel. As Matt Zoller Seitz has aptly pointed out in his writings, the jaguar shark from The Life Aquatic (along with the man-eating tiger in The Darjeeling Limited) is a most succinct distillation of this very concept: Like Team Zissou, packed in an over-capacity yellow submersible at the bottom of the ocean, viewers of these films are invited to visit the lower depths of the human condition and gaze at the grim reaper lurking in the shadows.
In an interview conducted by Seitz for his marvelous book The Wes Anderson Collection, the director explains his admiration for Altman’s working method, also citing its incompatibility with his own way of doing things. One gets the impression that Altman’s way was just too messy for Anderson to take up for himself, and yet the fascination is evident and (as explored in the above paragraphs) tangible in this—possibly my favourite film of his to date. What draws me to the movie time and again is Anderson’s obvious respect for Zissou’s rag-tag work ethic, in light of his own reticence to adopt it. When compared with the anal-retentive Tenenbaum family—whose ongoing efforts at establishing an infallible system of operations to repel emotional trauma only lead to attempted suicide and the death of their fickle patriarch—Team Zissou’s way of doing things yields similar results, but they have much more fun along the way. For the Tenenbaums, life is a chore; for Zissou & co., it’s an adventure. I know which group I would rather belong to, and I get the impression Anderson would make the same selection if he only had the power to shake off his neuroses.
*Bud Cort, who plays the bond stooge in The Life Aquatic, is best known for his work in Harold & Maude (Ashby) and Brewster McCloud (Altman)