So, assuming that reviews would be raving about Wes Anderson’s latest film, I was on the verge of not posting anything when doing a little research I found to my surprise that writers across all (web-posted) media almost unanimously cracked down on the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, highlighting ‘unconvincing pirate attacks and animated sea creatures’ (Rolling Stone); Wes Anderson’s “precious”-ness (was that somewhere in the studio press release? Cited in multiple reviews including Entertainment Weekly and Slate); “mawkish”-ness (Slate); lack of narrative continuity (again, singling out the pirate attack: see the New York Daily News); and stifled character development (Village Voice), among other points.
All of which suggests the alarming literal-mindedness with which respected, or at least authoritative, reviewers in the American media establishment view cinema, if not life. Suggesting, further, the residual and overpowering morality (the Darwinian-ascetic drive to perfection) that informs prevailing continental aesthetics. While Anderson’s neo-cinephile appeal can indeed quaff irritatingly “precious” or gimmicky or baroque, taken on it’s own, Life Aquatic achieves a lightness uncommon in current American film. Its humor is restrained, subtle, and reflective (what many reviewers term quasi-pejoratively as “deadpan”)—full of quirky details, such as the much maligned pirate sequence: bravo to Wes Anderson for finding a way to work Tagalog (the language spoken by most Filipinos, the ethnicity of the movie’s pirate crew) into a 50-million dollar English-language production! And incorporating a sophisticated use of musical overlay to redirect dramatic tension into a marvelous concatenation of twitchy retro-chic techno-synth non-sequitor.
the spurious part,
Movies, even Wes Anderson movies, need be neither brilliant nor profound, and it’s debatable whether Wes Anderson has yet achieved such a movie himself. Nor does a movie’s significance have to rest in the realm of gut-gratifying metaphor that so many reviewers seem to crave. The Life Aquatic lolls in those always escaping half-stops between statement and meaning that constitute irony, yes, but this does not make it heavy-handedly ironic. How about playful? Enjoyable? Seductive? Indeed, the film’s initial surface artifice inevitably leads the viewer into darkly fulfilling desolate spaces—a torched boat, an abandoned island resort, oceanic abysses.
And perhaps the long-standing tyranny of “character development” as critical hammer is also indebted to an all-too facile embrace of psychology as interpretive crutch, assuming that even in intimate interaction two people can ever explain each other’s actions? Or that in any community (ensemble) all personalities can be accounted for?
Regardless of how I felt critically, what has impressed me about the two Wes Anderson movies I have seen, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic, is that the director seems to have a preternatural understanding of the Japanese aesthetic of “mono no aware,” which can be understood as “the evanescence of things,” or “the evanescence of beauty,” or “the pathos inherent in evanescent beauty.” In Japanese material culture, for example, the mono no aware aesthetic has contributed to a taste for “the quirky,” or “the imperfect,” “the asymmetrical,” “the scarred,” and the grotesque as propagated most infamously by current figurehead artist Takashi Murakami’s theory of superflat. And in literary culture, the mono no aware aesthetic has manifested itself in countless celebrations and inversions of interrupted love and longing: the play between love/emotion, beauty, and death.
It’s kind of interesting and refreshing to find this expressed in Anderson’s work, as characters, in between wisecracks, confront the sudden loss of something they hold dear. And if viewed through the sympathetic lens of mono no aware, many of Anderson’s uneven edges become understandable or endearing. In a way the he might even be working towards the Neosincerity that fellow 3quarkser Morgan Meis has already been noted for in this same blogspace. All this to say, Speak up for a practicing director who has a good eye for twisted melodrama in the face of boorish boors.