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Life is but a dream
Steve Zissou shares the rapture of the deep
BY PETER KEOUGH

The life cinematic with Wes Anderson

NEW YORK ó "I find failure more interesting, more appealing than success." So says Wes Anderson, director and co-writer of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, at a press junket for the film at a Lower Manhattan hotel. Itís a surprising sentiment coming from a filmmaker whoís rocketed to success, with ever escalating budgets (from the shoestring Bottle Rocket to the $50 million Life Aquatic), and has a repertory company of A-list actors willing to work for him for peanuts in film after film.

Life Aquatic is the story of an Jacques CousteauĖlike oceanographer who, Anderson points out, is "just a filmmaker" like himself but one who, at midlife, feels washed up and directionless. The film, both forward- and backward-looking, recalls 8-1/2. "Weíre big Fellini fans," says co-writer Noah Baumbach, acknowledging the reference.

But Anderson, whoís just 35 and has just four films under his belt, is not Steve Zissou. Neither is Bill Murray, though Anderson had him in mind for the role back when the actor starred in his 1998 film Rushmore. Anderson, like Sofia Coppola in last yearís Lost in Translation, seems to have tapped into Murray at a midlife-crisis moment.

Actually, Murray says, heís already experienced that moment. "I thought about this a few years ago, like, ĎWell, do I want to be like a big movie star?í And I didnít. I decided I wanted to live my life, and at the same time Iíd take these jobs where you donít necessarily get paid a lot of money but you work with people that are good and you do what you want to do. I figured, ĎYou know, maybe one of these is going to hit one day, and Iíll get whatever I need in terms of being noticed.í And damned if this last movie [Lost in Translation] didnít really do that. I like working that way. I donít like to feel the pressure of having to be the biggest star in the world. I donít want to feel desperate. I donít wanna be a guy in a bar drinking and going, ĎWhere the hell am I gonna go?í Itís okay. Iíve had a great run." He adds, "And if I even changed careers, that would be an adventure too," citing a lifelong desire to write plays.

Anderson is like Zissou in his ability to inspire a camp of followers, actors, and other talented folk whoíll work with him again and again, no matter how bizarre the adventure. "I have a lot of faith in him," Murray says. "Weíve become friends. I donít need a lot of explanation for things, and if I feel I need something explained, I ask. The rehearsal on this movie was we went on a boat from Anzio to Ponza, and he just read the script to me. And I sat there, sunbathing. It was kind of like a fairy tale, kind of like a night-night bedtime story. We didnít even finish the script. When I got there, I just felt like, ĎAh, thatís enough.í "

"We all like to be recognized. And we all like to be appreciated," says Anjelica Huston, whoís on her second Anderson movie (after starring in The Royal Tenenbaums, she plays Eleanor Zissou, Steveís estranged wife and the reputed brains behind his operation). "Once you realize youíre somebodyís taste, you work all the harder for them. I think at this point Iíd do practically anything for Wes. Iíd walk the plank for Wes."

She notes similarities in certain strong-willed directors, from Anderson back to her father, John Huston. "They donít really consort. The great directors that Iíve known always stand a little apart from their casts. Wes is somebody who likes to get in there, heís a social guy, but he takes his time, and heís incredibly well prepared. He also has a very definite idea of what he wants."

Owen Wilson, a regular co-writer and actor in Andersonís films who here plays Steveís son, Ned, says that he often improvises in other directorís films but not Andersonís: "Wes is pretty focused on getting it exactly how he wants it." Murray too is an inveterate ad-libber, but he says, "Itís nice to have a script thatís so well written that I donít have to improvise. I used to have to rewrite whole movies."

Anderson is similarly demanding of his audience, says stop-motion animator Henry Selick, who created the filmís fanciful sea creatures. "He was fine if people knew they werenít real, but he wanted people to desire that they be real. He wants his audience to work a little, to participate, to make something come to life."

ó Gary Susman

Wes Anderson has cut all contact with the world as we know it, and not a moment too soon. At a time when bio-pics and documentaries dominate the screen, at least one filmmaker remains in touch with the notion that movies can be a waking dream. (Not a nightmare, which is David Lynchís department.) And after all, itís Christmas, dammit. We need an escape, if only to the playful depths of a determinedly gentle subconscious.

In its subtle violations of the laws of physics and logic, its abrupt close-ups of surreal details, its fusion of elements of fear and desire, The Life Aquatic blithely imitates many of the mechanics of dreaming. Like dreams, too, it confronts the anxieties of mortality and of unfulfilled, and fulfilled, desire. But as an added bonus, this is a shared dream, "with" and not "of" Steve Zissou, a team effort and experience, much like the cinema itself.

And if there was any doubt about the artifice, the film opens with a proscenium, a curtain rising, and a screening of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Itís "Adventure No. 12: ĎThe Jaguar Sharkí (Part One)," and the somewhat crapulous Jacques Cousteau figure of Zissou (Bill Murray, taking it up a notch after Lost in Translation) introduces the crew of his oceanographic vessel the Belafonte: Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), the shipís engineer and a co-dependent adorer of Steve; Eleanor Zissou (Anjelica Huston), Steveís Olympian wife and the brains behind the operation; Pelé des Santos (Seu Jorge), safety expert and performer of the bossa nova versions of the David Bowie songs that make up much of the filmís soundtrack; and Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel), chief diver and Steveís oldest colleague.

"Adventure No. 12" ends when Esteban gets eaten by a mythic "Jaguar Shark," whereupon the lights come up and Zissou faces the less than overwhelmed audience that remains. In truth, his work is more along the lines of Spinal Tap than the standard documentary, a fact he seems unaware of. ("Why are they laughing?" he asks.) A young man in a silly uniform (Owen Wilson) asks him whatís next. Steve replies that he plans to hunt down the shark that ate his friend and kill it, "perhaps with dynamite."

This Melvillean task is complicated by another primal issue; the person who asked is Ned Plimpton, and he might be Steveís son from a liaison three decades before. Issues of future revenge and past responsibilities aside, there are material problems troubling Zissouís waters. Slick rival Alistair Hennessy (Jeff Goldblum), whoís also Eleanorís former spouse, has drained all the grant money, and the team seems left high and dry for funding for "Part Two" of "Adventure No. 12." Ned, however, has a serendipitous hefty inheritance, and heís promptly enlisted as co-investor and crew member. The arrival of journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) to write an article on Steve raises the hope of renewed publicity; pregnant and mateless, Jane brings her own problems and possibilities. The Belafonte is under way, bearing some heavy emotional and thematic cargo.

Few directors could sustain such a load with the grace, wit, and spontaneity of Anderson. Weird non sequiturs, brilliant bons mots, and bizarre flora and fauna buoy the narrative, as does Andersonís tone of high-spirited but grave playfulness. To create such imaginary aquatic life as "Sugar Crabs," the "Rat Tail Envelope Fish" and the Jaguar Shark itself, Anderson turned to old fashioned "stop-action" animation rather than CGI, employing the same techniques Georges Méliès used in Le voyage dans la lune and evoking the same wonder. His sets, too, establish a feeling of enclosure against the wild, an air of adventure mixed with security. Zissouís home base of Pescespada Island, his Buster Keatonish Belafonte, and his yellow submarine the Deep Search constitute a Neverland with submersibles.

As the grizzled Peter Pan, Murray puts in his most understated and complex performance; heís by turns pathetic, obnoxious, and scintillating. Heís the best person to share this Life with, its moments of magic and weirdness and occasional nausea. Maybe the defining image in the film is Steve holding up above the fray a champagne glass containing a tiny, multi-colored "Crayon Pony-Fish," a figment of the imagination, and therefore fragile and precious.


Issue Date: December 24 - 30, 2004
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