The Life Ethereal with Steve Zissou

I recently watched Wes Anderson’s film Life Aquatic again, something like an annual ritual for me now.

Every time I watch the climax, my eyes moisten. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray as an Andersonian Cousteau) is surrounded by the people he loves and who love him, straining to see an unimaginably beautiful creature that killed his closest friend at the beginning of the film. Then this “jaguar shark” swims overhead, so close it almost destroys the submarine Steve is piloting. Mourning lost friends and faded youth as he confronts Nature’s terrible beauty, Steve asks, “I wonder if he remembers me.” This line and the ensuing scene may be the highlight of Murray’s increasingly impressive acting career.

It occurs to me that Anderson, however secular his persuasion, has captured beautifully a humanistic version of what C.S. Lewis termed Joy. There is something fundamental about the fragile nature of our encounters with divinity and eternity that seems to me wonderfully expressed in that group of people huddled together in an old submarine.

Beyond my sense that Anderson has captured a vision of Joy, two insights came to me during this last viewing of Life Aquatic. First is the capacity of art to capture something beyond our ordinary capacity to imagine. The superreal visuals, the soft but spunky music, the careful expressions of Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, and Cate Blanchett helped me to see myself and my loved ones in surprising and surprisingly tender ways. Second is the impression I had of Steve Zissou as a modern Joseph Smith. Though he was only 38 (how close that seems to me now) the end of his life was a frightening and overwhelming period for him. Several of his closest advisers had deserted him, combining with his neighbors to clamor for his blood, his wife could not forgive him for polygamy, and his compatriots derided his church as a greed-driven imposture, his followers as emotionally and mentally enfeebled pawns. And yet, and yet, he was reaching out for something numinous, a vision vaster and stronger than any of us, something that ultimately would remember him.


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Joseph would have let the interns have a Glock each.

  2. This is my all-time favorite movie. This summer, I finally got to Scuba diving for the first time (biggest highlight of my life) and the music from this movie (the theme music composed by Mark Mothersbaugh) was going through my head the entire time.

  3. I think a Glock back then was called a “bulldog.” And the interns definitely got bulldogs. (I defer to NRA-types on the names of guns, so don’t get angry if I forgot the name.)

  4. Sam, your thoughtful post brings to mind my favorite statement about Joseph Smith, from Brigham Young:
    “Joseph Smith was a poet, and poets are not like other men, their gaze is deeper, and reaches the roots of the soul; it is like that of the searching eye of angels; they catch the swift thought of God and reveal it to us, even at the risk of forgetting their underclothes and their suspenders.”

  5. wonderful quote, sct.
    was Brigham Joseph’s Clausie?

  6. I’m often intrigued by how we can find truth and beauty in the most unexpected places. Thanks for sharing. I believe President Hinckley’s adage, that “It’s amazing how good people look, when you look for the good in others.” The reverse is also true.

  7. I loved this movie and all the ones like it. I would have never even considered it if someone on the blog hadn’t recommended it.

  8. “The Royal Tenenbaums” by Anderson is a hilarious, moving film about the “hearts turning” of fathers and children toward each other. My emotional reaction to the end of that movie mirrors yours with ‘Life Aquatic.”

  9. Tenenbaums is also magnificent. I agree.

  10. in the life aquatic, the scene is enhanced by the music from Sigur Ros, whose melodies draw the attention to the feelings that Zissou is feeling.

  11. Amen to what has been said. It is an interesting, humorous movie.

  12. The song’s name is Staralfur. It’s not on the soundtrack, sadly, but it’s worth the penny short of a greenback it costs on itunes.