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.
Whimsy? This movie is governed not by whimsy but a sensibility that installed itself in mass culture sometime in the 1990s and remains influential (and under construction) in the present day.
Whimsy is an aesthetic category for cultural artifacts that do not quite conform to, but do not fully violate, the rules of contemporary culture. Whimsy is licensed departure. It makes free with cultural conventions in a way we find charming, funny, winsome and sometimes freeing. Whimsy is chaos on a leash, departure that may not stray.
The Life Aquatic is several things but it is not whimsical. TLA is an affectionate investigation of a beloved form, not a play upon it. To call it whimsey is to miss the point of the exercise.
This is a serious charge. Let me make the argument as precisely as I can.
TLA is the kind of filmmaking that can happen when most of your (age specific) audience understands a good deal of the art and craft of film making.
When the audience is sophisticated in this way, they have a deep affection for genre films. The documentary genre invested here, the one from Wild, Wild World, Jacques Cousteau and Geographical Societies (national or otherwise) was particularly well chosen. It is almost elipsed in practice but still alive in memory.
This trebles the shock of recognition. We know genre. We know this genre. We know these executions of the genre. We are grateful to see the genre again with its charmingly amateur production values, the random color registers, voice-overs that veer between the familiar and authoritative, scientific exposition that must share the stage, Oscar and Felix-ish, with seahunt drama, and, not least, the transparent set ups, do overs, and looped dialogued.
We can’t but relish every appalling second of this undertaking, but we do not patronize it. This is because we grasp what the genre was trying to accomplish, we feel the pain of its contradictions, we admire the sheer perserverence. We may laugh at Wild, Wild World until soda issues from our nostrils, but we do not claim superiority. We know what is happening here, and we respect, even as we find humor in, the undertaking. Whimsy is for children’s books and tourist advertising, and film critics unaccumstomed to the aquatic life…that is to say, those who suffer moments of cultural, not technical, discontinuity, and find themselves, suddenly, out of their depth.
There are deeper pleasures. First, what I like to think of as the good company of bad television, that delicitious sense that we are watching something so fully formed by genre that there are no surprises…except for that one, and that one, and that one. The better we know the form, the quieter and more treasurable are the surprises. ("Oh, look, they used a dissolve.") This is what connoisseurship looks like in a popular culture.
Second, genre film making is deeply reassuring when you are pursued by the furies of skepticism. There is something about knowing a genre inside out that create the illusion that there must be something real and substantial on which we stand. How could we observe in this way were it not for a platform? Naturally, there remains a sneaky voice of skepticism that insists someone finds us as predictable and formulaic as TLA, but as long as there is soda issuing from both nostrils, it doesn’t seem to matter. This Nietzschean peak-a-boo is a great little game, and possibly the real point of the exercise. Now you see it, now soda issues from your nose. This is a much better way of dealing with the furies (call it serial amnesia) than licensed departure because the latter is so darn managed (call it chaos LITE).
But listen, I do not want to suggest that Wes Anderson’s genius may be reduced to the genre of boarding genres and remembering everyone on board. The funniest moment of the film for me was the moment that Zizsou is commenting on the a schematic of the ship and refers to the compartment that contains the scientific equipment. The tone tells us that he has no knowledge of and interest in scientific matters, that he is a tragic figure abandoned (or never taken by) (t)his passion. He is Hemingway, hold the scribbling. Pirates? Perfect!
There are moments when things are played too broadly: as when the crew wears its red toques to a formal event or when the Belafonte’s electrical system keeps shorting out. But otherwise, this film is about loving observation and the great comforts of recognition. Whimsey is in fact the death of this kind of film making. It is too light hearted, too patronizing, much too far away. Whimsey keeps its distance. This filmmaking is much more intimate.
But here’s the really odd thing. The sensibility in question was installed, as I say, in the 1990s, and it was installed largely by the movies of this decade, most of which Mr. Ebert had to have seen. I mean, it wasn’t as if he spend the 90s practicing dentistry. And so you wonder, was this just a bad moment? When you watch hundreds of films a year, you can be forgiven lots of bad moments. Or could this be a cultural version of Christensen’s discontinuous innovation, that moment when culture changes but the critic doesn’t.
Certainly, we could say, "well, Roger is entitled. He has been the patron saint of a better, more interesting, more capable Hollywood." And this is true and he is a man who has singled handedly improved contemporary culture. But I think we also have to note that TLA barely made its budget back, and some of that must be laid at the door of the man who called it whimsy.
The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) asks website visitors to rate films. Here are the ratings by age for TLA. I believe these support the contention that younger viewers are more likely to "get" this film (because they have undergone this fundamental shift in their film-viewing sensibility). (I don’t know how old Mr. Ebert is. Fortysomething?)
AGE RATING (out of 10)
under 18: 8.1