I love the way The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou begins, and I really love the way Roger Ebert's review of it begins. The film begins with an announcer speaking Italian, with no subtitles. He introduces a documentary with Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-esque explorer and documentarian played by Bill Murray. The movie separates us from the action by putting this initial footage on a narrower screen framed by curtains. We see the audience watching the footage. Within the footage, we see the film crew, a camera, the boom mic. (Plus the undersea life is blatantly fake--part of the whimsy of the film, not the documentary within the film.) And this is a Wes Anderson film, inherently artificial, deliberately stylized, and explicitly distancing itself stylistically from the usual film. Roger's review begins like this:
My rational mind informs me that this movie doesn't work. Yet I hear a subversive whisper: Since it does so many other things, does it have to work, too? Can't it just exist? "Terminal whimsy," I called it on the TV show. Yes, but isn't that better than half-hearted whimsy, or no whimsy at all? Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is the damnedest film. I can't recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it.
This coming week, I will be watching Groundhog Day yet again. I will (probably) be watching the four existing Sharknado films, and I will definitely, one week from tonight, be watching the fifth Sharknado (and likely livetweeting as I have previous years). Except...
playfully quaint or fanciful behavior or humor...
Something the Sharknados are not--playfully quaint, I mean. Playful sure. But far from quaint. They try too hard to be bad. A low budget film can be entertaining in its cheapness, to be sure. But, a deliberately poorly put together film will remain a poorly put together film. But, the deliberately artificial nature of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou--like the full(-ish)-size model of the Belafonte, missing its fourth wall(s) for an impossible, but brilliant, cutaway--is something far more interesting.
I must come back to Scott McCloud--as I have before as recently as Day 1064--and that thing about more abstract faces giving the audience an in, an in to empathize, to sympathize, to fantasize, to be with the character or to imagine we might be the character. The unreal nature of so much of a Wes Anderson film does that sort of thing as well. For example, Zissou could have been gifted a real fish in that plastic bag early in the film, but the visual of that "crayon ponyfish" draws you into the fantasy. Anderson's tendency to frame subjects in the center of the screen instead of following the rule of thirds (though he sometimes does follow that rule) also allows you to be drawn in. The film becomes, instead of, well, a film, something else. It draws attention to its own existence, challenging you to remain inside the fantasy but with an effort. Roger says, "The colors are like the pastels produced by colored pencils, and kind of beautiful... The action goes through the motions of slapstick at the velocity of dirge." The colors, so much brighter at times than they should be if any of this were real and that slow and occasionally thoughtful slapstick combine to make something obviously and quite explicitly fake. Again, challenging us to remain drawn. The personal nature of the story, if you are pulled in, should hold you. Zissou has lost his partner and is seeking revenge on the possibly nonexistent Jaguar Shark--that is the plot. Meanwhile, Steve's possible illegitimate son comes on the trip and their relationship grounds that plot. It also allows for a strange exploration of melancholy, of emotional entropy, and of a reconnection with the world and with life. It's like a mediation on depression coupled with an entirely joyful adventure in fantasy and, well, whimsy.
Christopher Kelly at Texas Monthly complains about Anderson's "sterile affectation--a vision of the world as an elaborate dollhouse, populated not by characters but by ambulance figurines" and further complains about Anderson's preoccupation with "wide-angle shots with the characters centered perfectly in the frame; hyper-detailed, self-consciously artificial sets [and] a seventies-era Tupperware color scheme." Anderson's films are not for everyone. Hell, I appreciate them and rather love a few of them, but I've got to be in the right mood for one.
But, consider this sequence:
Kingsley/Ned (Owen Wilson) and Jane (Cate Blanchett) have just kissed. Steve sees them stripping through an interior porthole, except, what he is actually seeing is footage of them shot through an exterior porthole by one of the camera dolphins that travel with the ship. The screen showing that footage is visible through the interior porthole, and of course we are watching this action on the movie (or tv) screen. Anderson actively pushes us away from the action. Or at least invites us to distance ourselves. But, if we resist, if we stay in, stay with these strange but amusing characters and these outlandish sets and setpieces, we will be rewarded.
Or we will run from the film quite early, or avoid it altogether. And, that's okay too.