The Life Aquatic & Learning to Live with Sadness

The Life Aquatic (2004) | Life aquatic, Steve zissou, Zissou

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is one of my favorite Wes Anderson films. Its plot—combined with its direction, soundtrack, and cast—makes the film stand out against most of the films I’ve watched before. It centers around the themes of familial love as well as sadness, letting go of your past, and looking to the future. 

The story follows Steve Zissou, an oceanographer and filmmaker, on a mission to kill a shark—specifically a “jaguar” shark (which he coined himself)—that ate his best friend and partner, Esteban. He’s pretty washed up, with his funds for his films low—due to how badly his films were doing. He’s out to kill this shark solely for revenge, and he says he’ll do whatever it takes to get justice for his friend. Zissou is accompanied by his friends—the crew of his ship, the Belafonte. There’s one special member, though—and it’s what sets the film into motion. 

Irony, Control, and Distance in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou –  Offscreen

That special member is Ned Plimpton, a polite, young man who came to Zissou during the premiere of his latest film. Ned claims to be Zissou’s son, the child of Catherine Plimpton, a woman Zissou remembered and supposedly had an affair with. At first, Zissou doubts this—because both of them aren’t really sure. It’s only when Ned is invited to stay at Zissou’s island and headquarters, and Zissou wakes him up in the middle of the night to film some “jellyfish” on the shore. Standing there, with his boom microphone—Ned adlibs along with Zissou. Though it’s awkward, Zissou figures out that a narrative between him and Ned could make his next film—and mission—successful. He hires Ned right there, and Ned joins the crew. 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

I won’t be discussing the film in its entirety, but what I found very compelling about the film was how it handled the themes of familial love—specifically paternal love. 

Ned and Steve are awkward together. The two of them tiptoe around the fact that Steve might or might not be his real father. They avoid even breaching the topic. But, when they do, Steve confesses that he never wanted to be a father, right in front of Ned. After that, they don’t talk about their relationship with one another. 

During this, Steve is also still weighed down by the grief of losing his best friend. He’s mourning him, and his anger is what drives him throughout the entire film. Most of the crew is telling him not to do it, not to kill the shark—or that the shark didn’t even exist. Even so, Steve still pushes on—through bad weather, a pirate attack, and even a kidnapping of one of his crew members. They go through a lot, just trying to find this shark. 

The most devastating part of the film happens next. The crew finally gets the shark on their radar, and they realize they’re only a few miles away. A helicopter ride. So, Steve and Ned—a pilot—climb into the Belafonte’s worn out helicopter and fly away. On the ride, Steve and Ned talk about a letter Ned sent to Steve when he was younger. He admired Steve, and admitted that he wanted to be an oceanographer when he grew up. Turns out, Steve had kept the letter all these years, and he pulls it out to show it to Ned. This connection shows that the two of them, especially Steve, care for each other—and that Steve was ready to become a father to Ned. 

YARN | "Thank you for your good work. Sincerely, Ned Plimpton, | The Life  Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) | Video clips by quotes | 00cb57e4 | 紗

But, due to the helicopter being worn down and broken—they end up crashing into the water, just where the shark was. And although Steve is fine, Ned… wasn’t. The most interesting thing about this scene is that it’s framed to look like a shark attack—with Ned hanging onto a floating piece of debris, and red filling the water around them. Almost exactly the way Steve lost Esteban. (It’s later revealed that Steve was infertile. He couldn’t have children.) 

From Failed Parenting to Reunion: Analyzing the Impact of Dysfunctional  Families in Wes Anderson Films | by Joseph Massaro | Medium

Eventually, though, Steve and the crew are able to get into a submarine and see the shark up close. It’s my favorite, and most beautiful part of the film. The shark is swimming around them, glittering and beautiful, capturing the eyes of all the crew members—shocked that the shark was actually real. In the center of the frame is Steve, quietly reflecting on the events that had happened leading up to this moment—the moment where he’s “supposed” to kill the shark. 

Instead, when asked if he still wants to kill the shark—Steve shakes his head, claiming they ran out of dynamite anyway. He tears up, and he asks, “I wonder if he still remembers me.” The whole crew then puts their arms on Steve, holding him as he cries, the shark still circling around. 

The Life Aquatic might not be Wes Anderson's best film. But it is his  greatest. - Vox

I believe that the shark represents sadness. Something that is looming, circling, engulfing us. And when it attacks, there’s no stopping it. Steve has been going through this ever since Esteban died. His sadness and his grief engulfs him, consumes him, to the point where it causes the death of someone else close to him. It’s destructive, not only to others, but to himself. In an effort to find peace, Steve sets out to kill the shark—or, his sadness. He goes through so much, just to get rid of it. 

In the end, when faced with it—when faced with his grief and he’s given the chance to finally kill it, he turns it down. He looks right into its eyes and says, “I wonder if he remembers me.” This is when Steve learns that sadness cannot be killed. It cannot be obliterated. Sadness can only be lived with, and that’s something we need to learn. It’s what comes with life. But what we can do is have others who support us and love us anyway. This is represented by his crew—his family—putting his arms around him and holding him as he cries. Even though his grief was engulfing, drowning him, the people who loved him and who he loved in return—were still there every step of the way. 

Their film ends up getting produced, and receives lots of support. They’ve dedicated it to Ned.

The ending credits of the film leave a bittersweet feeling in your stomach. As the crew is walking down the pier, Buckaroo Banzai credits style, in the background you can see the Belafonte. It’s ready for their new adventure. And there, at the very top—with his signature pilot’s uniform and spyglass, stands Ned—guiding Steve and his crew, onward towards the future. 

Steve Zissou » BAMF Style

– Claire C.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is available for checkout as a DVD or Blu-Ray at the Mission Viejo Library.

Twelfth Night and Gender Identity

Audra McDonald, Anne Hathaway, and Raúl Esparza pose as Olivia, Viola, and Duke Orsino in Shakespeare in the Park’s Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is my personal favorite Shakespeare play. I read it for class in the 10th grade. At first, I approached this play cautiously. I have never read, listened to, or watched a Shakespeare play in my life—but I presumed that the language would be difficult, and the topics uninteresting to me.

And wow, was I wrong.

As we read along, I found myself completely invested in Viola’s story—the way she turns herself into ‘Cesario’ to navigate high society, how she manages to get a Countess to fall in love with her, and how she manages to fool Duke Orsino into thinking she was a man. I was interested in the way she navigated her relationship with not only Olivia and Orsino, but with her gender, as well.

The reason why I became absolutely obsessed with this play was because how it tackled gender and sexual identity, though maybe not completely outright, but it’s there! You just have to read closely, and watch closely.

Tamara Lawrance and Oliver Chris pose as Cesario and Orsino, in the National Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night.

Viola dressing as a man, and turning herself into ‘Cesario,’ addresses gender fluidity in such an amazing way—and brings up so many possibilities for newer adaptations of Twelfth Night and so many more possibilities for actors playing Viola. In Shakespeare’s time, for example, all roles in his plays were played by men. So, in turn, Viola was played by a man, playing a woman, who was trying to pass as a man. A bit confusing, isn’t it?

This shows that… does gender actually matter in Twelfth Night? What is gender actually? A person’s gender identity is what that person makes of it, and Twelfth Night showcased this perfectly. People fall for Viola, and people fall for Cesario—no matter the gender, Viola’s self is what wins people over. Even in the end, Orsino tells Cesario (technically still Cesario), that, once he gets his old clothes—he can be Viola once more. It’s almost as if gender is something you can put on, then take back off again, a perfect explanation of gender fluidity.

“I am all the daughters of my father’s house, And all the brothers too—and yet I know not.”

Act II, Scene 4

As I discussed before, Viola’s gender fluidity allows for so many newer adaptation of Twelfth Night. A particular favorite of mine is Shakespeare in Clark’s Park’s production Twelfth Night, which, in the end, had Viola renaming themself to Vi, and forgoing gendered terms, possibly being nonbinary.

Johnny Flynn and Mark Rylance as Viola and Olivia. This is a more traditional take on Twelfth Night, as this production at The Globe had an all-male cast, just as Shakespeare did.

Taking these age-old plays and turning them into something relatable, modern, completely realistic in this day and age is extremely important. It’s how you get younger generations to read and analyze these works of literature and interpret them for themselves. Relating to Viola’s journey of self-discovery is exactly how I felt myself so connected to this play. Though, obviously, it is not a completely perfect dissertation on gender and identity, but I believe it made leaps, especially during Shakespeare’s time. People conflicts with identity, sexuality, and gender, didn’t just start in modern times. It has been happening for a very long time, it’s only recently we’ve been able to give these labels names.

Twelfth Night explores these themes in a great way, and relating to the characters makes this play so much more meaningful.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”

The Waves, by Virginia Woolf, tells the story of six people growing up—Bernard, Louis, Neville, Susan, Jinny, and Rhoda—and how they mourn their friend, Percival. Each of them all have very distinct personalities. Bernard loves words, Louis is insecure with his place in the world, Neville desires order, Susan adores nature, Jinny values her physicality, and Rhoda is very dream-like, an introvert.

The most interesting thing about The Waves is that it’s separated into nine sections, each section starts with the time of the day, and each section is about them in each stage of life. Virginia Woolf doesn’t follow a typical narrative. Instead, she opts for the characters to tell their most inner thoughts and feelings—similar to a monologue. Here is a section from the novel:

“”I see a ring,” said Bernard, “hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.”

When greeted with the beginning of the narration, it really surprised me. I have never read a book like this before, and I’ve never read anything by Virginia Woolf. Trying to get used to the style of writing—which was prose-heavy, was difficult for me, as someone who’s never read this style before. It got easier as I read along, though, and got invested into the story. I remember getting into a flow, then I finally understood their personalities and motives. Going on Sparknotes a few times didn’t hurt, either.

Aside from that struggle, I loved this book. Although it was something very different for me, I think I want to read more books like this one. I truly felt as if I was growing up with the six friends, watching them as they went from childhood all the way to the end of their lives. I found myself relating to Neville, a man who preferred order—who later became a successful poet. This book had many sections that really resonated with me, and I will be reading it again in the future, for further understanding.

If you enjoy prose-heavy books, or books filled with lots of imagery and poetry, The Waves is perfect for you. It was a very beautiful read, and even if you’ve never read a book like this before—I’m sure it will still be very enjoyable.

The Waves has also been turned into The Waves in Quarantine, a theatrical experiment in six movements. It has been shown by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre—created by Raúl Esparza and Lisa Peterson.

Lastly, here’s my favorite section of the novel, spoken by Bernard. Enjoy reading!

“…And while you gesticulate, with your cloak, your cane, I am trying to expose a secret told to nobody yet; I am asking you (as I stand with my back to you) to take my life in your hands and tell me whether I am doomed always to cause repulsion in those I love?”

-Claire C.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.