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Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: Wes Anderson’s Cinematography Breakthrough

in Reviews

by Rastislav Domček


Ever since its conception in the early 20th century, film as a story telling medium has gone through constant changes. Filmmakers have always drawn their inspiration from the works of their predecessors, in turn providing inspiration for new generations. When Orson Welles decided to use low camera angles to capture the magnitude of his characters in Citizen Kane in the early 1940s, the world of film did its typical dance of repulsion and adaptation. When Stanley Kubrick introduced the world to his hypnotic masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey in the late 1960s, he guided the sub-genre of ‘little green men’ sci-fi to the brave new world of thought-provoking visual splendour. By the late 1990s, Hollywood was dominated by the high-budget blockbuster mega-film. How do you find success following the likes of Steven Spielberg or James Cameron? The answer is to think outside of the box.Wes Anderson was born in Houston, Texas in 1969. Some thirty years later, he would become one of the major names of the independent filmmaking scene. However, his first film, Bottle Rocket was not a financial success. The box office of 1996 was dominated by films like Independence Day, Twister, Mission: Impossible, and The Rock. There was no room for a quirky crime comedy (and if there had been, it would have been occupied by the Cohen brothers’ Fargo). His 1998 follow-up film, Rushmore, a high-school comedy-drama, shared one important thing with Bottle Rocket. It was Anderson’s second film on which he had worked with his long-time friend, Owen Wilson. Cooperation with more or less stable roster of actors is one of Anderson’s many trademarks. The main character of Rushmore is played by Jason Schwartzman, who would star in at least six more Anderson’s films (including Anderson’s newest film, The French Dispatch). The film also starred Bill Murray who would go on to star in ten of Anderson’s films to date. Rushmore won several awards –Los Angeles Film Critic Association named Anderson the New Generation honouree and Bill Murray Best Supporting Actor. Independent Spirit Awards awarded Anderson for Best Director and Bill Murray for Best Supporting Actor. Murray was also nominated for the same category for the Golden Globes. Despite Rushmore’s success, it was Wes Anderson’s following film, The Royal Tenenbaums, in which Anderson introduced his artistic vision to the world.

Various idiosyncrasies are common in the world of cinematography. Hitchcock’s use of blond actresses in leading roles, Scorsese’s love of voice over, and Tarantino’s ability to pay homage to various films while staying original are just few honourable mentions. For Anderson, it is symmetry. While the eye-pleasing quality of symmetrical shots have been long known to filmmakers, Anderson elevates this technique to new heights. Along with the trademark symmetry (undoubtedly attributed to his cooperation with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman), his use of thought-out colour palettes, peculiar sets, deeply faulted characters, well-chosen musical score, and work with actors (notably blocking) instantly became dead give-aways of a Wes Anderson film. Three years later, Anderson took things to another level. 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson’s fourth film, is hard to describe and easy to undersell. Is it a dark comedy with a selfish man in its centre? Yes. Is it a fun adventure with family dynamics in its heart? Of course. But The Life Aquatic is so much more. Starring memorable actors such as Anderson’s perennial stars Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, as well as big names like Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon (many of whom would later appear in many Anderson’s films – a testament to his captivating scriptwriting), Steve Zissou’s adventures shouldn’t be overshadowed by Anderson’s later films. The film follows the titular Steve Zissou and his oceanic documentary crew (called ‘Team Zissou’ – just a glimpse of Steve’s egocentric nature) as they embark on revenge, confusion, love, and hate filled journey to hunt down and kill a supposed Jaguar Shark – an animal that had killed Zissou’s best friend Esteban during the shoot of his latest documentary feature. As the documentary feature itself was filled mostly with bloody water and Zissou’s screams, it did not reap success. Filled with determination typical for those whose worlds revolve around themselves, Zissou promises to hunt down the shark and kill it on camera. Team Zissou, unhalted by such earthly problems as the lack of funding, or bankruptcy (or pirates and elaborate heists, while we are at it), board Zissou’s boat the Belafonte and set sail. This time, however, the team is not alone. They are joined by Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a naïve war hero claiming to be Steve’s illegitimate son, and Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a pregnant reporter, sent by her magazine to cover Zissou’s hunt. With such a volatile mixture, the story is ripe to explode.

Although one could argue that Anderson’s true success came only after The Life Aquatic (after all, six out of his seven Academy Awards nominations were for post-Zissou films – notably Best Picture nomination for The Grand Budapest Hotel ), the film has merits that make it worthwhile. The film’s bright colour palette, dominated mainly by blues, yellows, and bright red make the whole adventure feel other-worldly. This feeling is complimented by Anderson’s choice of the original soundtrack. The soundtrack consists of David Bowie’s megahits. However, there is a twist. The songs are performed by Seu Jorge and sang in Portuguese. The familiarity of the melodies contrasts with the unfamiliarity of texts, further evoking feelings of some parallel world. On top of all of this, Seu Jorge plays an actual character in the film – a vital part of the Team Zissou, Pelé dos Santos is there to provide music for the documentary. Whenever you hear that strange, yet familiar melody, Jorge is bound to be somewhere in the shot, playing the song on his acoustic guitar. The bright colours, combined with fitting music, and Anderson’s humour create not only a unique world, but a perfect world for character such as Steve Zissou to exist, and function in. 

If, after watching The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, you find yourself wanting more feel good and unique looking adventures, worry not. Wes Anderson’s film catalogue is full of gems, including two spectacular stop-motion animated features, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Isle of Dogs. The nine Anderson’s films should be sufficient while we wait for the director’s film number ten – The French Dispatch, which is coming to Czech cinemas on November 18, 2021. The film’s setting and visual style are reminiscent of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it stars actors such as Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, and others. Combined with Robert D. Yeoman behind camera, pure Anderson script, and musical score created by Alexandre Desplat, The French Dispatch looks (at least on paper) like a sure hit. 

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