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Great Movie Moments #5: Introducing the Belafonte in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004)

September 13, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Features with 0 Comments
My regular look at the moments (scenes, characters, shots, whatever) that define why I love watching movies.  For the full series to date, click here.
Wes Anderson gets a lot of stick for his ornately whimsical schtick, but for me his sheer joy in filmmaking breaks through the fussy contrivance of his style in ways more apparently direct and emotional directors have never managed.
This scene from The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is a case in point, as Zissou (the mighty Bill Murray) introduces his boat, the Belafonte.  Rather than the usual tactic of breaking the tour down through editing, or rigging up a Steadicam to take us up and down decks in first-person POV, Anderson does something typically Anderson-esque.  To wit: he gives us the Belafonte in cross-section, and glides from room to room to give us a sideways-on view of its myriad hidey-holes.
It should be the height of pretension: a post-modern, self-referential nod and wink that we’re watching a movie.  Showing the boat like this is little more than showing of a) the craftsmanship of the set and b) the claustrophobic, minute detail of Anderson’s imagination.  Who else would even think to set aside screen time to show us a massage parlour below decks?
But you know what?  I love this scene on so many levels.  The Life Aquatic is one of the more unlikely entrants into one of my favourite genres – the film about filmmaking – and Anderson skirts the usual cliches of prima-donna actors and on-set catastrophes by having Zissou make documentaries.  That allows the film to concentrate on the process of being in a crew (doubly so here) and living in its strange bubble, where leisure time inevitably has to be captured in fleeting moments between professional matters.  The Brechtian artifice of the cross-section pulls these strands together in a remarkably succinct and witty way.
But beyond thematic unity, I love it because it’s one of the most palpably exciting pieces of scene-setting I’ve ever watched.  Anderson’s view of filmmaking (part-hippie commune, part-bonkers adventure) speaks to me in a way that no other director has ever tapped.  When people accuse Anderson of being distant and ironic and obsessed with his own cleverness, ever since I saw this scene my response has been: “Yeah, but I still want to join Team Zissou.” Because it looks like the most fun anybody has ever had on-screen.

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