26 September 2006

the life aquatic with steve zissou

the Conventional Wisdom regarding wes anderson seems to be that he's not doing so hot. those in the know say "bottle rocket" was a great debut, "Rushmore" was a masterwork, "Royal Tenebaums" was overload, and this...well, that this was just too much. they say he's too mired in the details, too much production design, too idiosyncratic, too interested in the soundtrack, no heart. if he keeps it up, he'll be washed up.

i beg to differ.

the thing of it is, i didn't really like "bottle rocket". there were some cute things in it, but it didn't do much for me. same with "rushmore". i thought talia shire's kid did a good job playing the lead, and i thought bill murray was good as ever, but i didn't connect with the movie all that much. i liked it intellectually, but not emotionally. so i was skeptical about all the wes anderson love.

that all changed with "the royal tenenbaums". here was a movie that was huge, with a prologue that had to establish both a startingly large array of characters and a colorfully alternate version of new york that has never existed. but he also doessomething much trickier: he lends an air of melancholy and failure to every frame, yet doesn't weigh the whole thing down. its hard enough to make a scene move, but to do it under those heavy circumstances (and play it for comedy!) and give the audience emotion -- that's probably the hardest thing you could do as a filmmaker.

so now we come to "the life aquatic". this was to be wes anderson's debutante ball, where he would get a great budget and film in italy and have some action set-pieces and really break out. but you know what? its really more of the same, but on a bigger and deeper scale. and you know what? its fucking great.

for one thing, the movie is fucking funny. i would argue that its as laugh-a-minute as "airplane", except the jokes are bone-dry or are a form of insult, and thus, not laugh-out-loud funny. also, the production design and art direction are fantastic. some would say that's a hindrance, but i think what wes does that is great is he creates these details to form a world slightly off from ours, and therefore emotional moments play better and larger because we are off-balance and can relate to his characters -- they are like us, but not too like us.

but the real reason i like the movie is that it really is about what its like to make a film. forget all the fun sea exploration and all that -- much like "rear window" was about the voyuerism inherent in the act of watching movies, this movie is about the difficulty in the process of making movies. that's why you need to see a diorama-like cross-section of the ship -- its a "behind-the-scenes" view of a set. that's why he's outside smoking a joint during the premier of his movie -- its the process for him, not the result, and the screening is a moot point by the time you're through shooting. that's why there's so much talk during the movie about losing funding for his program. that's why everyone is also doing something. that's why there's a huge cast of characters. that's why there are interns.

and that's why, when they finally go to get the jaguar shark, its bill murray (the surrogate director) at the helm of the ship, with all those players around him. and when they see the shark (the final cut or print of the film), they all congratulate him. "it's beautiful, steve," someone says while they all clasp his shoulder.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree: i don't dig bottle rocket, love rushmore, but my favorite is Royal Tenenbaums

i think The Life Aquatic is totally about movie-making, and for that reason, it seems a little masturbatory. weak on story, but it's enjoyable.

i also read an interview a while back where the writer was talking about how he thought owen wilson was anderson's secret weapon, and how Life Aquatic was the first writing without him--it was a fairly coherent argument, although most of the "evidence" was the Rushmore commentary track--i can't find it at the minute, though

5:25 PM  

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