The Life Ironic: The Pricks of Science and Art
By Joshua RoebkeJanuary 2, 2021
One spry evening, one winter past, on a tabby promenade that bisects the University of Texas, I passed a young man whose attire was doubly anachronistic. He was dressed for the Belle Époque, but he had seemingly inherited his dandy costume during the 1970s. He wore a three-piece suit of dark velvet, which he matched with a gingham shirt, acute shoes, and an amoebic tie. His hair was long and straggly, but for an auburn wave that rolled across his head and broke evenly over his ear. His teeth were runny and unfixed, but his scarf was cashmere, swank.
I vaguely remembered having seen this young man before. I had watched him saunter into some bar or repertory theater in Austin, one evening crowned in violet, before we were all distanced by the virus. Yet I could not pin my memory of him to any one place, as I could not slot his wardrobe into any one time. I was distressed by the relativity of my observations. How could I forget such a flâneur, in central Texas?
A few minutes after the young man had vanished, I located him within the inventory of my mind. I did not know him. But I did recall one or two other male students around campus who dressed almost identically. He was not wearing a costume. The young man bore the uniform of a particular kind of film student, a rare creature but one most prominent in its native Austin. He was a devotee of Wesley Wales Anderson.
Tarantino is an insipid schlub. Scorsese is bespectacled but staid. Spielberg is too sedate. Spike Lee is lurid and inimitable. Coppola? Please. Only Wes Anderson’s sartorial affectations inspire young men to emulation. The reason: His style is the accessory to his films.
Wes Anderson and his art are not merely affected, they are hipster and twee as fuck. I am neither the first nor the last person to allege this. I have read more than one scholarly article that has either blamed or credited Anderson for the invention of hipster cinema.
Because, in a Wes Anderson film, the mise-en-scène will always be wantonly fastidious, the cinematography will be aggressively precise, the ensemble cast ridiculously earnest, the hues extravagantly pastel, the plots cloyingly elaborate, the props unduly precious, and the soundtrack will often be late ’60s or early ’70s rock.
For a preening, affluent, bookish, cocksure, emotive, post-pubescent white male with more than a few obsessive compulsions, there are no finer qualities in film. Anderson is, truly, the stuff that white men like.
I should know.
Another young man, a graduate student, in pajamas and a gabardine coat, sitting alone on a lawn chair, dangling a Gauloises between his lips and reading a brittle paperback, on the second-floor balcony of a brutalist apartment complex in blustery Montréal.
EXT. TOWNHOUSE. DAY.
I found the films of Wes Anderson when I most needed to preen. After a gentle nudge, I had fallen out of my PhD in theoretical physics. For the previous year, the Canadian government had indulged me with a stipend that I had done nothing to earn. Instead of calculating the strength of gravity between two membranes in warped extra dimensions, I played the prodigal son. I read novels, mouthed poetry, finger-snapped to jazz, and consumed art. I was a young American in Montréal. I was also the apprentice to my idea of Leonard Cohen, who lived around the corner from me, just two blocks away.
To remain abroad illegally, once my student visa had lapsed, I moved into a room on the third floor of a gray-brick townhouse, on the downslope to the high-rises downtown. I lived with a female weightlifter, a web entrepreneur, and a cocktail waitress. Our apartment had a chandelier, stained glass, wainscoting, 12-foot ceilings, and a dumbwaiter. During that criminal year, I was employed to tutor a foreign royal in mathematics. I dated a Palestinian lesbian, an Iranian divorcée, and a fashion designer from France. I wore punk tees over Oxford shirts beneath jackets of tweed. My friends were communists from Bogotá, gay Jewish men, and the weary children of diplomats. I read Infinite Jest and White Noise. I wrote experimental fiction, longhand, in all-night cafés.
I did not realize just how overdrawn the character was that I had scripted for myself until I spotted his analogue on screen. I admired my reflection in a film by Wes Anderson.
INTERIOR. CINEMA. DARK.
In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a shoddy scientist and washed-up documentarian hustles to finance one final expedition, to revenge the murder of his sidekick by a chimerical shark. Zissou enlists his faithful crew, a pregnant journalist, a half-dozen interns, a bond company stooge, and a charter pilot named Ned, who might be Zissou’s son. The film is perky, melancholy, and absurd. Although it is considered Wes Anderson’s worst film, it is possibly his greatest. For years, I withstood the blazing disbelief of friends and cinephiles whenever I proclaimed Steve Zissou to be the finest onscreen depiction of a scientist. But this character was based on someone real.
During the 1970s, growing up in Houston, Texas, Wes Anderson had idolized Jacques Cousteau, the French oceanographer and cinematographer who won a Palme d’Or at Cannes. Anderson watched dozens of sea adventures starring Cousteau and his zany crew aboard their research vessel, Calypso. Anderson later admitted that he had developed, as a child, the “impression of Cousteau not just as an oceanographer and this kind of superhero scientist, but also this star.”
In the extended Wes Anderson Universe, Cousteau was always the center of the mandala. The three films that Anderson made before The Life Aquatic all alluded to the oceanographer either casually or intimately.
In Rushmore, Cousteau is the catalyst of the plot. A young Max Fischer is reading Cousteau’s Diving for Sunken Treasure in the library of his beloved private school when he notices that someone has copied into the book, in a childish cursive, a quote from the scientist: “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” Fischer traces the scrawl to Ms. Cross, a first-grade teacher, and conspires to build her a marine observatory on a baseball diamond, leading to his expulsion.
The films of Wes Anderson are the cinema of his nostalgia, and Max Fischer is an inflated surrogate for a young Anderson. The Life Aquatic, however, is the auteur at his most wistful. Steve Zissou is a slovenly and depressed Jacques Cousteau, played by Anderson’s other muse, Bill Murray, the deadest panner of all. The film is a eulogy for childhood heroes and mentors, for earthly wonderment and unblinkered awe.
At the start of the The Life Aquatic, Zissou’s mentor is dead, his artistry is depleted, his wife estranged, his films overlooked, his funding gone, and his love for science and the sea ebbing. He remains, however, a narcissist and an asshole. He cheats on his wife, belittles his crew, steals from his competitors, pulls a gun on a reporter, and snubs his possible son, despite giving the young man his name. His remaining purchase on life is to marshal the crew of the Belafonte, his beloved ship, and hunt down the jaguar shark, the creature that ate his namesake, Esteban. He is planning to exact his scientific revenge with dynamite and document the blast on film.
In truth, The Life Aquatic is a farce masquerading as a quest. The jaguar shark is a red herring or, perhaps, the fluorescent red snapper that always precede the fictional creature on screen. The real menace to Zissou is paternity. “I hate fathers,” he says, “and I never wanted to be one.”
Wes Anderson’s parents divorced when he was eight years old. He and his two brothers moved in with their mother, Texas Ann, an archaeologist and real estate agent. On the weekends, they visited their father, Mel, who worked in advertising.
Anderson’s films are about childhoods such as his, but they are also about man-children who lose their sons. Anderson wrote the script to The Life Aquatic with Noah Baumbach, his fellow bard of broken homes. “Our cinematic idols were in some ways like surrogate fathers,” Baumbach said. One year later, he would confront his own sea creatures and loathsome father in a film, The Squid and the Whale.
One fall afternoon in Ohio, during the mid-1980s, not long after the annual harvest, a nine-year-old boy is wearing denim overalls above a flannel shirt while digging holes at the edge of a pasture, alongside his father in similar dress. They set a wooden post into each of the holes and unroll a latticework of wire.
EXT. FIELD. AFTERNOON.
One day when I was a boy, growing up on a farm, I asked my father why we always had to dig the holes for a fence deeper than the height at which the posts would finally rest. My father, who was doing the real labor, stopped his auger, retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his brow. He told me about the hidden vigor in soil and revealed another mystery of the natural world.
Here, he said, in the flats of northwestern Ohio, water trickles into the soil because there is no slope to descend. And water is the only liquid that expands as it freezes. So, during our long winter on the plains, underground reservoirs will rise, pushing the poles upward. I was dubious of my dad’s claim. So, he scoured one of the wooden posts at ground level with his knife.
The following spring, when the ground was yet sodden after the thaw, I plodded out to the pasture and found the designated post. I took out my tape and measured the distance between the ground and the scar. Four inches.
I already had a predilection for science. I wanted to know as much as my father knew. I wanted to understand the invisible forces beneath the surface.
INT. BEDROOM. DAY.
Growing up in tony Houston, attending St. John’s School, the literal setting for Rushmore, Wes Anderson learned how to create a private universe by reading science fiction. He mapped the barren landscapes of Dune and studied the characters, storyboards, and intricate models in The Art of Star Wars. Anderson said that he fantasized another, richer life for himself, in part because he was ashamed of his own. He began to imagine worlds over which he might exact total control. He plotted fantastic stories and directed his friends from behind a Super 8 camera.
Before he became an auteur, however, Anderson had wanted to be an author. At the University of Texas at Austin, he wrote a fanciful short story called “The Jaguar Shark,” about a man, his ex-wife, and a boat. He then wrote the screenplays to his first three films with Owen Wilson, his former classmate, who had majored in English Literature. After their friendly caper movie, Bottle Rocket, they wrote Rushmore, crafted as if a play, and The Royal Tenenbaums, narrated as if a novel, in which Wilson portrays an author. They were literary cineastes.
But Steve Zissou was no Captain Ahab, and the jaguar shark was no white whale. When Anderson finally converted his first short story for the screen, with Owen Wilson’s encouragement, he parodied the documentaries of his scientific idols and infused them with the science fiction of his youth.
The red knit caps that crown Zissou’s crew are replicas of Cousteau’s. Their uniforms, however, are fashioned like those on Star Trek. Zissou’s Belafonte is Cousteau’s Calypso. Shots of the ship and its interior are even lifted directly from Cousteau’s books. But Zissou also commands a submarine that echoes the Nautilus of Jules Verne.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the archetypal scientific romance, opens with the hunt for a phosphorescent creature larger than any known whale. This creature is actually the Nautilus, under the command of Captain Nemo, who is seeking revenge for the death of his family. Once before, Anderson had alluded to the book’s influence — Ms. Cross is reading it when Max Fischer introduces himself in Rushmore.
Wes Anderson does not write genre films; instead, he imposes his twee sensibility across genres. The Life Aquatic is part undersea science fiction, earthy counterpart to our better-known extragalactic tales. A submarine is a spaceship. The ocean is a dark, inhospitable expanse. Sea creatures surprise from all directions, as if hostile ships in space.
The Walt Disney Company produced The Life Aquatic, as it did 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 50 years earlier. The company even gave Anderson the biggest budget of his career, more than $50 million. The film is Anderson in excess: a science adventure comedy, a kind of 20 Dweebs over the Sea.
Anderson populated this world with imaginary beasts — a rhinestone blue fin, a crayon pony fish, sugar crabs — in fantastic locales, as if his Star Wars on the sea. Embedded throughout is the music of the greatest space oddity, Ziggy Stardust himself, David Bowie. The final credits even nod to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
Noah Baumbach said that he and Wes Anderson were better trained in inventing the underwater creatures of The Life Aquatic than capturing real ones on film. Yet the artifice is hardly more wild or speculative than it is in Anderson’s other films. His work remains a documentary of adventure on real seas, a naturalistic account of a counterfeit world, over which Anderson exerts total control. After all, Anderson named his production company American Empirical.
And yet, to render a scientific romance, like those he had admired as a child, and to heighten its nostalgia, Anderson used the same film stock that Cousteau did. He also enlivened his creatures using stop-motion animation, the twitchy illusion that had realized so many fantastic tales when he was young.
A boy is perched in the lowest branches of a buckeye tree, along an undulating sea of corn, peering into the distance through a cheap set of binoculars while chattering over a walkie-talkie.
EXT. TREE. EVENING.
My father also left when I was eight years old. But my parents did not divorce. They did not truly separate. My dad had decided to move away for a year, to Dearborn, Michigan, because Ford Motor Company had selected him for managerial training. Dad was 28 years old, a journeyman electrician and a farm boy who had not attended college. Taking business courses, he hoped, would be the force that lifted us into the middle class.
There was no guarantee of a job. And my father did not want to sell the farmstead that he had inherited from his grandfather, so my two siblings and I remained in Ohio with our mom. Every Friday night, dad would drive three hours, and even longer in the snow, to see us for the weekend. I would bundle up and climb the only tree on the edge of our property, along a state route that eventually met the freeway. I watched for the sodium headlights of his pickup truck, and I radioed updates to my mom and younger sisters.
Dad always brought gifts to sweeten his absence, even though we could not afford very much while he was going to school. The offering that I remember best was the one that I had wanted most, The Return of the Jedi on VHS.
I studied that cassette, as I did the other Star Wars movies, not for the creatures and the extraordinary worlds, but to learn the technology of light speed. I wanted my father to travel home even faster. One weekend night before bed, I asked him to explain light and its speed. He said that no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he wanted to, he could never come home as fast as light. We were all bounded by physical laws greater than our love.
My dad received a job after his year away. We sold the farm and moved just outside the suburbs of Detroit. I was nine years old, but I had already begun to imagine a richer life, beyond the one that he had imagined for us. A life of books and music and films and art. I began drifting away from my father on currents he had never charted. Eventually, he did not know where to rescue me.
EXT. OCEAN. DAY.
The Life Aquatic, as Noah Baumbach once explained, is about his and Wes Anderson’s privilege to make films and craft their own worlds with their plucky bunch of friends. They get to collude for art. They get to earn money realizing their childhood fantasies. The film they scripted together, however, is about an irascible scientist who, as a film director, is so self-absorbed that he is largely indifferent to his wife and crew. It is the story of a man elevated above his peers.
In truth, the primary themes of The Life Aquatic are daddy issues, fame, and the commoditization of art. Steve Zissou exploits his possible son, Ned, to underwrite his documentary of revenge and resuscitate his career. But what the audience learns about the tedium of financing Zissou’s film, and the decline of his ambitions, is apropos of the scientific enterprise itself.
Scientists often claim that the impulse to express oneself, which is the impetus behind art, is opposite their yen to know more about the world. But every journey of discovery is the delusive pursuit of grandeur. Every exploration of the unknown is also an ego trip into the self. Scientists want for self-recognition as much as anyone else.
Passion compels both scientists and artists, but alone it cannot sustain them. Inspiration does not finance a film, and awe does not advance science. Science and art must breed on other peoples’ money. So, scientists and artists package their inspiration and their awe into products, whether films or technologies or papers or personas, which they can market in support of further endeavors.
The exigencies of funding science and art have wrung all the reverence for the natural world from Steve Zissou. He is no longer wonderstruck about the sea and its creatures; he is no longer naïve about filmmaking and how to succeed. He is disaffected.
It is Ned who compels him to investigate a sunken ship, and it is Ned who adlibs in his film. But when Ned has a good idea in front of his crew, Zissou tells him to relinquish his right to any more so Zissou does not look a fool.
When Steve and his crew then break into his rival’s ocean observatory, he excuses the trespass: “It’s a scientific community, man.” But he never contributes to it. When he describes his own laboratory aboard the Belafonte, he merely says: “Here’s where we do all our different science projects and experiments and so on.” Much like a principal investigator in a real scientific lab, he is divorced from the actual science. He spends his days pursuing funds to make films, the vehicles of his fame.
But other than the neglected lab, the Belafonte is equipped with a world-class sauna and a kitchen “which contains probably some of the most technologically advanced equipment on the ship.” There is a sound studio and a cutting room. At one point, after their roughest day at sea, the crew sits down to a lobster dinner with a jeroboam of Moët & Chandon.
Jane Winslett-Richardson, the journalist who is writing a profile of Steve, and whose outfits are modeled after Jane Goodall’s, writes in her diary: “The Zissou of my childhood represents all the dreams I have come to regret.” Art and money and fame have made him a miserable showman. The brief moments in which we see Zissou happy are either when he is with children, observing the world and its magnificent creatures as they do, or with Ned, who is as naïve as a child.
A young man unloads his most valuable possessions, some weighty textbooks and punk LPs, packs a bag and buys a train ticket for New York. In Montréal, he had worn his tweed jacket and punk T-shirt to an interview with a megalomaniac, a former scientist who had founded a magazine with other people’s money. The young man secures an unpaid internship in Manhattan. He now wants to be a writer, to invent his own worlds. But he has been so profligate abroad that he does not have enough money to rent an apartment in the desirable boroughs.
So, once he arrives, he calls on a young woman who will let him stay in her nook of a brownstone, because he has professed his need for her and has promised to feed her cat. When she realizes his lie, she kicks him out. He sleeps with another woman to have a place to stay. Most nights, he nourishes himself on the hors d’oeuvres and alcohol at magazine parties, mooches off his colleagues and friends. The magazine hires him as an editor, although he longs only to write. After a month, he earns just enough money for a room in an illegal loft, in a pre-gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn. He has no furniture, so he sleeps on an uneven floor next to a stack of galleys that he stole from work. His father, not understanding but realizing how he lives, offers him a credit card with a low limit so he will not end up on the street.
INT. LOFT. NIGHT.
Did I exploit two women so that I could have a place to live in New York City? Did I move to a historically black neighborhood and cross the street, rather than introduce myself, whenever I saw its rightful inhabitants? Did I mislead my boss so that I could write my first feature for a magazine? Did I invent a backstory so that no one would suspect me a yokel from Ohio? Did I trample other peoples’ ideas in pitch meetings to advance my own career? Did I insist on writing an article that praised famous scientists as womanizers, against the protests of female editors?
Did my years studying theoretical physics, a bastion of whiteness and ignoble men, enable my misdeeds? Did living in New York City while striving to become a writer, aping David Foster Wallace and other chauvinists, make me so entitled? Or was I emulating Steve Zissou? Had I internalized the egocentrism of writers and auteurs who imagined characters like him, the reflections of themselves?
I have a guess.
EXT. MAINDECK. DAY.
Steve Zissou resembles more than one famous scientist and artist whom I have known. He is not only self-obsessed, he is casually racist, homophobic, and misogynist. Although he is a fictional character, it is hard not to associate these traits with the artists and scientists who inspired him, and with the writers who created him.
In The Life Aquatic, the white members of Zissou’s crew, the second and third in command, routinely joke with him. The others, Bobby Ogata and Pelé dos Santos, are passive witnesses, as is Vikram Ray, the silent cameraman.
The villains in The Life Aquatic are Zissou’s nemesis, Alistair Hennessey, and a wily band of Filipino pirates. They are either queer or people of color. Zissou’s worst conflict with Hennessey, his white male competitor, is when Zissou calls him a “fa**ot” and a “closet queer.” People of color get much worse.
Pelé, the only black character (and only the second in all of Anderson’s films), is singing "Space Oddity" on the job when pirates storm aboard. Zissou plays the white hero, in a speedo and bathrobe. But he needlessly murders Filipino pirates, to the song “Search and Destroy,” before the rest leave with his bond company stooge and a safe. It is the most violent scene in all of Wes Anderson’s films, and the pirates are the only characters who die on screen.
The most conspicuous bigotry is reserved for women. Zissou calls his estranged wife, Eleanor, a rich bitch. The only female member of his crew, other than an unspeaking Swedish masseuse, is the script girl, Anne-Marie Sakowitz. She appears topless in all but a few scenes. According to Anderson’s giggly commentary, we see her boobs to know “it’s not all science” happening on board. Zissou later calls dibs on the pregnant journalist when she appears alone in the middle of the night. After she rejects his kiss, he calls her a fake and a bull dyke and a slut. Women are harder for Zissou to understand than either fish or the sea, yet he does not know them very well, either. Eleanor recites their scientific names. Winslett-Richardson corrects his identification of an electric jelly fish. Sakowitz insists that they navigate around unprotected waters rather than take the shortcut through, leading to their capture.
Early one spring, at the University of Texas, a graying professor of writing, who is about to become a father, assigns the students in his honors seminar, the Literature of Science, a motion picture rather than a text.
INT. CLASSROOM. DAY.
By coincidence, I assigned The Life Aquatic to my students one month before my first child was born. I had not seen the film since the days when I had lived in Brooklyn, when I was still striving to become a writer. I did not remember that its primary theme was fatherhood and art. I did remember my juvenile boasts that Steve Zissou was the finest depiction of a scientist on film.
The Life Aquatic is a lark. Its knowing absurdity is amusing. Its unrealism is constrained but strangely beautiful. Its characters are childish but alive. They are not, however, innocent.
There are people who marvel at the natural world, who labor to reveal its mysteries so the rest of us might marvel at them, too. There are artists and directors and writers who reveal the forces roiling within us. There are scientists such as Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, and Carl Sagan whose words and films and ideas uplift us.
There are also others, like Steve Zissou. Exploration, historically, was a means of exploitation. It was the revelation of natural riches, the appropriation of indigenous knowledge, the aggrandizement of European men, the sponsorship of murder. Art and literature and film have long been their handmaidens in injustice and violence.
The Life Aquatic ignores iniquities and inequities, as all Anderson’s films do, and this impoverishes the art. We may excuse Anderson’s work as farce, and absolve him and his characters, but that is how all wretched men are redeemed.
Ned dies in the arms of Steve Zissou in the bloody sea. Steve admits, finally, that he has been a showboat and a prick. He invites his family and friends, and even his nemesis, to complete their quest. They descend into the darkness and density of the ocean, inside Zissou’s submarine, and gaze in awe upon the fearful creature that had killed Esteban. They capture the jaguar shark on film, as Sigur Rós intones, and they let the beast live.
We can distance ourselves from what eats us, surrounded by our family and friends. But at the end of the film, Zissou sits alone, next to an award on a red carpet, outside the premiere of his film. A child approaches and sits next to him. Steve gives the boy Ned’s junior membership ring from the Zissou Society. Cinema doors open, and excited filmgoers exit. Zissou says: “This is an adventure.” He lifts the boy onto his shoulders and exits to “Queen Bitch.”
When I rewatched The Life Aquatic for class, I was too easily moved by this redemption. I no longer emulated Steve, but I saw my reflection in him again. I was 40 years old and about to have a child, rescued if not redeemed by a brilliant woman who loved me. I was still atoning for my sins, still learning how not to be an asshole.
And then, not long after that rewatch, I saw a dapper young man, a devotee of Wes Anderson, walking on campus. And I thought again of Steve’s final words.
This is an adventure.
But not everyone gets to embark on such an adventure. And for those who do, someone else always has to pay.
Joshua Roebke is a writer and a historian of science. His first book, a social and cultural history of particle physics, is forthcoming.
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