This is Cinema, or The Image Unmoored in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Spatial orientation in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (and the life aquatic) comes from what Deleuze and Guattari call a “chancy formation of a domain.” Team Zissou is a territorializing assemblage that actively seeks chance. With red hats, speedos, and Glocks strapped to their legs, they announce themselves—post their placards, Deleuze and Guattari would say. This territory is not grounded in the known—none of them are experts. The public may keep looking for the brains behind the operation but this brain is a multiplicity, a network of amateurs, ever-moving, anchoring temporarily here and there. But the Team never looks very comfortable on land. This territory is aquatic: it drifts with the tides, currents, with the multiple flows of events—pirates, zebra sharks, pilfering as the need arises, riding the waves.
The territory opens itself to the risks of its own dissolution, from within as well as from without. The cash may dry up, the audience may turn away, mutiny lurks. Steve Zissou has trouble maintaining his own poise amidst these drifts. But what is it that threatens Team Zissou? Why has the money dried up and the audience turned away? What is it that Steve has presumably lost? It’s that he is not within an eddy of spectacular events. One great risk of a territory unmoored, of a territory fed by chance, is that sometimes not very much happens. As Steve declares, running to the ship, "Nobody knows what's gonna happen and then we film it. That's the whole concept." Only a certain chaos-–and not any chaos–can keep this territory from dissolving.
The film is itself a territorializing operation that occurs at the site of the image. This image is not anchored to a storyline, to characters, to anything outside what we see and feel. The film opens on a stage but not any stage. It’s a baroque event ripe with the signs of a certain culture: we should be seeing an opera. But the film rolls, framed by the velvet folds of the curtain and, lo and behold, we see images that should be in our living rooms, running on PBS—an educational film. This is indeed an education, an introduction to new categories, new ways of going: this is an education in aqueous viewing. Here, the distinction between art and science gives way. This is a gay science, where discovery and presentation walk hand in hand. Every time Team Zissou dives and discovers, we next see them in the cutting room of the on-board studio. Knowledge and the reel are inseparable in this watery world. It's all reel and the reel is drifting.
The image remains unmoored as we leave the screening within our screening and are introduced to the various characters. Rather than encountering signs that announce who everyone is—the zany one, the smart one, the mean one—we learn only as much as the image will tell. Who are these people? How do they relate to each other? Their relations are the images. Steve tells us that Hennessey is his nemesis. But his delivery is so deadpan that no tension is created, that the very status of “nemesis” is up for grabs. A relationship exists but it will not follow any familiar trajectory. In their last exchange, Hennessey pulls Steve aside after learning that Steve stole his equipment. We assume he’ll be angry. But that’s not what transpires: he pulls Steve aside, commiserates, hugs him. Not one word uttered in this movie can be predicted. Relationships are murky, fuzzy. They emerge at the site of the image; we see the relations. The backstory will not suffice. There are no types as even the Bond Company Stooge sticks his neck out, eluding the one type the film flaunts.
The film opens on a stage and never leaves it. Whatever held the distinction between acting and reality, between the artificial and the real, has given way—if there ever was such a distinction. There is no on-camera and off-camera; the camera is always rolling just as the projector’s always playing. The ship exists as much on a set as it does on the water. When Steve and his faux-son, Ned, talk for the first time, they step towards the camera and as they talk the image bobs up and down with the swell of the waves. When they crash, blood gets on the lens. The camera does not capture what happens; it’s always on. The film is the life aquatic, a liquid life where orientation and fixed distinctions are hard to come by. There’s no outside the frame. And what makes orientation even harder is that, like Steve, we can’t breathe underwater—however much we’d like to.
There is a thread of accusation that Team Zissou fakes their stunts. But neither Steve Zissou nor the film itself is able to take the accusation seriously. The one so-called real thing—the natural underwater life—is already fake, and conspicuously so! The very question of what’s real and what’s artificial vanishes in an impossibly swift woosh, a vanishing so fast it happens before we come to it. When the journalist provokes Steve by suggesting that Steve killed his friend, Estaban, it’s in order to get a picture!
It’s all a current of images. Father and son are not linked by blood or by love but by the image. What does Ned know of Steve? Only his image. And what of Ned and his sincerity? His accent and his outfit are straight out of Gone with the Wind: his impossibly Southern aristocrat is as real as the fish in the film. It’s not that he fakes his accent; it’s that there’s no real. He is always already an image.
The film flirts with story—revenge, father-son, husband-wife, love story, the rise of a fallen star. But none of these will suffice. It's as if the narrative trajectories can't find their legs in this liquid world and, as the water permeates, as the tides rise and fall, the certain direction of the storylines is sent astray. Every narrative track drifts: Ned is not Steve’s son and dies anyway, ending any love story that may also have been brewing; the shark is never killed or even engaged—it’s viewed. And while Steve’s star does rise again, we know he is an adventurer and he is just as likely to fall as he is to rise. In the life aquatic, what do such orientations as up and down even mean? All narrative possibilities are adrift, unmoored from any prescribed path. As Steve says at the film’s close, “This is an adventure.” The film is the forging of propriety on the fly, emerging at the site of the image itself then giving way to something else: a flow. The relationships happen as the images happen. Narrative is neither subverted nor determinative; it is a possibility amongst possibilities, a trajectory that may emerge but as the tide rises and falls and currents shift all trajectories founder, meander, find themselves somewhere new.
There are no fathers here. As Zissou tells Ned, "I hate fathers and I never want to be one." We never see or hear the father of Jane Winslett-Richardson’s child-to-be. In fact, she proclaims that she needs to find a baby for this father. When Klaus Daimler tells Steve that he’s always thought of him as a father, Steve tells Klaus he’s always thought of him as a brother. Anyway, Steve shoots blanks—probably from living over half his life under water! The life aquatic will not allow for a patriarchy, even with a man at the helm. When the jaguar shark is finally found and Steve comes running into the room to rile the troops, no one even bats an eye. The film never comes to a point, to a phallocentric climax. It can’t: there's no firm ground on which to stand. The image is unmoored and we're right on the edge, not knowing what comes next. This life is adrift.