Exploring Steve Zissou with Fitzcarraldo

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Wes Anderson is not predictable but he is consistent. You can identify any film of his if you have seen at least Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums. But that is not a flaw, it is vision, it is clarity by voice. The voice is young and you can hear it cracking in his mid-career films.  Not merely from the narrative do I observe this quality, but also from his style and presentation. That very specific style is born from a diverse collision of influences.

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Life Aquatic Sea Vessel Inspired by Cousteau

Northwest Film Center’s month-long presentation of Wes Anderson films and their satellite influences provides viewers a chance to discover what lies behind that unpredictability. The series gives access to a range of films that the average fan might not have considered, some of which are rare. One can learn a great deal about film history with this digest.

The young and fast-growing Director had a unique opportunity riding the coat tails of the above-mentioned hit films. He had not only attracted existing star power but also helped build the career of Owen and Luke Wilson. His films also gave a renaissance to Bill Murray. From this momentum, he made his fourth feature, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). However, not all fans regard it as strong and critics have not pulled back their initial punches either. The film never turned a profit, not even internationally. It cost $50 million to produce, amazingly. Anderson has not seen a budget that tall since.

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Voyage to the Edge of the World promo, featuring sea vessel inspiration

At least two films are directly comparable and they were presented alongside Life Aquatic over two days at Whitsell Auditorium. The first and most obvious is Voyage to the Edge of the World (1976) by Cousteau. The second, more obscure and relative, is Fitzcarraldo by Herzog.

With Cousteau, you have direct influence of costume and aesthetic as the primary source of parody for Life Aquatic. Sub plots are lifted directly from history. Much like the dilemma of Zissou, facing old age and dwindling interest in his adventures, the Cousteau Society faced their final film production after twelve years. They would go on to produce a series of television specials, but leadership was moving over to his next of kin by this time. In Voyage to the Edge of the World, Cousteau loses a close friend and the Chief Mate of Calypso (his sea vessel) to a helicopter accident. Anderson draws direct parallels from these facts as the basis of the parody.

Moreover, the submarine vessel, the hot air balloon, airplane, and famous red skull cap are each borrowed from Cousteau’s repertoire to produce this caricature of the Zissou Society. The advanced technology of the nineteen seventies demonstrated by Cousteau looks antiquated in the 21st Century, providing the basis for his humor and a washed-up version of Cousteau, played by Bill Murray.

Fitzcarraldo (1982) is the far and deeper end of the pool that is Life Aquatic. Werner Herzog is known for exceptionally adventurous filmmaking, as well as his profound relationship with leading actor, Klaus Kinski. Antithetical to Wes and Bill’s relationship of ease and near passivity, Herzog and Klaus were at each other’s throat all the time. Bill so-dry-he-soaks-in-humor Murray is a perfect match for Anderson’s understated absurdism. Klaus crazy-eyes Kinski is perfect for Herzog’s maniacal drama.

When a local tribe involved in the shoot observed their relationship, an offer to put a hit on Kinski was made by the tribesmen. In a sense, Herzog spared his life by demanding an end to such ideas, but he later admitted, “I at once regretted that I had held the Indians back from their purpose.”

Fitzcarraldo is the retold story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an historical rubber baron (Carlos Fitzcarrald) who exploited the local tribe to disassemble, carry, and reassemble a ship carrying rubber over the Mishagua River in the Amazon. In Herzog’s drama, a boat is dragged over the mountain by pully, built on the spot from trees in the environment.

This could be the greatest ecological disaster a film has ever produced. Because that is exactly how the film was made: by actually moving a 350-ton steamboat over the mountain, through a clearing of rainforest in Peru.

Fitzgerald wants nothing more than to make a great deal of money in order to erect his town’s first opera house. He faces opposition from colleagues whom are not cultured beyond the love of money and business. He is something of a laughing stock and business failure, not to mention absolutely strange and naturally eccentric.

The character is electrified by Kinski’s performance as well as Herzog’s near sociopathic zeal for insane filmmaking. Fitzgerald has the love and admiration of a wealthy, beautiful woman bank rolling his plans. Much like Steve Zissou, he is nothing without the women who love him.

No clear line has been drawn between these two films other than a single scene in which the protagonists call on their crew to step forward if they wish to bail on the mission. I could draw some connection between the more nuanced filmic blips of Life Aquatic if I had more time for the article, but we don’t want to make this feel like a ship being hauled over a mountain.

This had been at least my second viewing of Life Aquatic in its entirety, but it was my first view of the Herzog masterpiece as well as any Jacques Cousteau beyond random Youtube clips. A show of about twenty hands had not yet seen Anderson’s flop-not-quite-cult-classic comedy, a bit less than half the audience. This goes to show that there is a semi-cult following as well as lingering interest. But I would go out on a limb to suggest that Fitzcarraldo will ultimately stand against the rapids of time as the more challenging and heroic film. Cousteau is washed up by contemporary documentaries and their updated science.

I grabbed The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey Volume 5 from the library, featuring an exploration of Easter Island, you know, where the megalithic stone heads are. This and other archaelogical wonders are influences for Herzog. He wanted to drag an object equivalent to the same mass that ancient civilizations mysteriously moved using ancient systems, like those heads, stonehenge, and the pyramids.

While some industrial parts were used in the making of Herzog’s film, it still demonstrates that it was possible to move mountains during ancient times. It also proves Cousteau’s observation that exploitation of resources can have devasating effects on a population. Similar to Easter Island, the encroachment of industrial civilization is destroying rainforest at a disasterous rate. If only Steve Zissou could bring about revelations of a similar kind.

By Heather Buchanan

By Heather Buchanan




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