Steve Zissou: Scientist


Over at the House Next Door, Simon Hsu takes a look at the depiction of Steve Zissou as a scientist.

5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004): The sense of realness and pathos in Wes Anderson’s film is remarkable, despite the fantasy of the world surrounding its characters: Underwater sea labs, headlight-equipped research dolphins, island-hopping gun battles, etc. This feeling of reality is aided by an undeniable Brechtian self-consciousness, opening with shots of a stage presenting “The Life Aquatic Part 1” to an audience in the film’s world, and closing with the twist that we the real-world viewers have been watching “Part 2” all along. Other examples of this reflexivity exist throughout the film, including jump cuts (boxed up sneakers, cut to sneakers in Bill Murray’s hand, cut to Murray doing toe touch exercises in his new kicks), on-camera documentary filming (Owen Wilson, demonstrating inferior boom mic handling skills), and lateral pans of cross sections of the Belafonte curiously similar to those that Godard/Gorin employ in Tout Va Bien, another highly Brechtian film. All of these strategies heighten the awareness of the protagonist scientist’s mission, exemplifying the primary driving force behind the time, blood and sweat spent on doing what it is we do: The search for truth. Despite the film’s surrealist elements, Zissou faces the same challenges a modern scientist does. Brainstorm, Contact, and Hulk are all conscious of sources of scientific funding, the threat of being shut down and the criticism of scientific peers. But I love that, in Anderson’s film, these predicaments build upon the pathos we derive from the character’s relationships with one another. Zissou is driven to beg his estranged wife for money, more readily demonstrates the acceptance of Ned as his son after learning of Ned’s inheritance and prompts Captain Hennessey to reveal his sexuality. At the end of the film, an initially humorous tumble down a staircase turns sorrowful as Zissou admits he is a “washed up old man with no friends, feeling sorry for himself.” Before his poignant confession, he says to his documenting cameraman “We’ll give them the reality this time.” How many films do?

A San Diego-based cineaste, Simon Hsu does research on protein structure at the UCSD School of Medicine. He is published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and looks forward to an upcoming publication in Biochemistry.

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