The Life Ironic: The Pricks of Science and Art

His teeth were runny and unfixed, but his scarf was cashmere, swank. We sold the farm and moved just outside the suburbs of Detroit. For years, I withstood the blazing disbelief of friends and cinephiles whenever I proclaimed Steve Zissou to be the finest onscreen depiction of a scientist. I was still atoning for my sins, still learning how not to be an asshole. And water is the only liquid that expands as it freezes. Yet the artifice is hardly more wild or speculative than it is in Anderson’s other films. Scientists often claim that the impulse to express oneself, which is the impetus behind art, is opposite their yen to know more about the world. Science and art must breed on other peoples’ money. Spike Lee is lurid and inimitable. EXT. I did remember my juvenile boasts that Steve Zissou was the finest depiction of a scientist on film. My friends were communists from Bogotá, gay Jewish men, and the weary children of diplomats. They set a wooden post into each of the holes and unroll a latticework of wire. Yet I could not pin my memory of him to any one place, as I could not slot his wardrobe into any one time. They descend into the darkness and density of the ocean, inside Zissou’s submarine, and gaze in awe upon the fearful creature that had killed Esteban. Zissou plays the white hero, in a speedo and bathrobe. Cross is reading it when Max Fischer introduces himself in Rushmore. A child approaches and sits next to him. He remains, however, a narcissist and an asshole. The Life Aquatic is a lark. The film is Anderson in excess: a science adventure comedy, a kind of 20 Dweebs over the Sea. CUT TO:
Another young man, a graduate student, in pajamas and a gabardine coat, sitting alone on a lawn chair, dangling a Gauloises between his lips and reading a brittle paperback, on the second-floor balcony of a brutalist apartment complex in blustery Montréal. JANUARY 2, 2021

EXTERIOR. On the weekends, they visited their father, Mel, who worked in advertising. He cheats on his wife, belittles his crew, steals from his competitors, pulls a gun on a reporter, and snubs his possible son, despite giving the young man his name. Did I mislead my boss so that I could write my first feature for a magazine? We can distance ourselves from what eats us, surrounded by our family and friends. Anderson populated this world with imaginary beasts — a rhinestone blue fin, a crayon pony fish, sugar crabs — in fantastic locales, as if his Star Wars on the sea. INT. But every journey of discovery is the delusive pursuit of grandeur. DARK. A submarine is a spaceship. Cinema doors open, and excited filmgoers exit. FIELD. My dad had decided to move away for a year, to Dearborn, Michigan, because Ford Motor Company had selected him for managerial training. I vaguely remembered having seen this young man before. The exigencies of funding science and art have wrung all the reverence for the natural world from Steve Zissou. ¤
Joshua Roebke is a writer and a historian of science. DAY. He is planning to exact his scientific revenge with dynamite and document the blast on film. The Life Aquatic, however, is the auteur at his most wistful. EXT. I would bundle up and climb the only tree on the edge of our property, along a state route that eventually met the freeway. To remain abroad illegally, once my student visa had lapsed, I moved into a room on the third floor of a gray-brick townhouse, on the downslope to the high-rises downtown. Taking business courses, he hoped, would be the force that lifted us into the middle class. In truth, the primary themes of The Life Aquatic are daddy issues, fame, and the commoditization of art. In The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a shoddy scientist and washed-up documentarian hustles to finance one final expedition, to revenge the murder of his sidekick by a chimerical shark. OCEAN. BEDROOM. The most conspicuous bigotry is reserved for women. Four inches. Eleanor recites their scientific names. I was also the apprentice to my idea of Leonard Cohen, who lived around the corner from me, just two blocks away. The jaguar shark is a red herring or, perhaps, the fluorescent red snapper that always precede the fictional creature on screen. He then wrote the screenplays to his first three films with Owen Wilson, his former classmate, who had majored in English Literature. “Our cinematic idols were in some ways like surrogate fathers,” Baumbach said. Wes Anderson and his art are not merely affected, they are hipster and twee as fuck. INT. Please. Scorsese is bespectacled but staid. Only Wes Anderson’s sartorial affectations inspire young men to emulation. When she realizes his lie, she kicks him out. When Steve and his crew then break into his rival’s ocean observatory, he excuses the trespass: “It’s a scientific community, man.” But he never contributes to it. I already had a predilection for science. I have a guess. I began drifting away from my father on currents he had never charted. Did my years studying theoretical physics, a bastion of whiteness and ignoble men, enable my misdeeds? Dad always brought gifts to sweeten his absence, even though we could not afford very much while he was going to school. Art and literature and film have long been their handmaidens in injustice and violence. One spry evening, one winter past, on a tabby promenade that bisects the University of Texas, I passed a young man whose attire was doubly anachronistic. I am neither the first nor the last person to allege this. CUT TO:
A boy is perched in the lowest branches of a buckeye tree, along an undulating sea of corn, peering into the distance through a cheap set of binoculars while chattering over a walkie-talkie. Here, he said, in the flats of northwestern Ohio, water trickles into the soil because there is no slope to descend. CINEMA. When Anderson finally converted his first short story for the screen, with Owen Wilson’s encouragement, he parodied the documentaries of his scientific idols and infused them with the science fiction of his youth. Shots of the ship and its interior are even lifted directly from Cousteau’s books. Women are harder for Zissou to understand than either fish or the sea, yet he does not know them very well, either. They are either queer or people of color. Most nights, he nourishes himself on the hors d’oeuvres and alcohol at magazine parties, mooches off his colleagues and friends. The villains in The Life Aquatic are Zissou’s nemesis, Alistair Hennessey, and a wily band of Filipino pirates. The red knit caps that crown Zissou’s crew are replicas of Cousteau’s. He was dressed for the Belle Époque, but he had seemingly inherited his dandy costume during the 1970s. But not everyone gets to embark on such an adventure. Coppola? The film they scripted together, however, is about an irascible scientist who, as a film director, is so self-absorbed that he is largely indifferent to his wife and crew. At one point, after their roughest day at sea, the crew sits down to a lobster dinner with a jeroboam of Moët & Chandon. I was distressed by the relativity of my observations. Noah Baumbach said that he and Wes Anderson were better trained in inventing the underwater creatures of The Life Aquatic than capturing real ones on film. The reason: His style is the accessory to his films. The ocean is a dark, inhospitable expanse. The final credits even nod to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. The young man secures an unpaid internship in Manhattan. AFTERNOON. I wanted to know as much as my father knew. His remaining purchase on life is to marshal the crew of the Belafonte, his beloved ship, and hunt down the jaguar shark, the creature that ate his namesake, Esteban. MAINDECK. And for those who do, someone else always has to pay. TREE. DAY. Inspiration does not finance a film, and awe does not advance science. The film is perky, melancholy, and absurd. Anderson said that he fantasized another, richer life for himself, in part because he was ashamed of his own. The magazine hires him as an editor, although he longs only to write. The Walt Disney Company produced The Life Aquatic, as it did 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 50 years earlier. He mapped the barren landscapes of Dune and studied the characters, storyboards, and intricate models in The Art of Star Wars. But my parents did not divorce. CUT TO:
Early one spring, at the University of Texas, a graying professor of writing, who is about to become a father, assigns the students in his honors seminar, the Literature of Science, a motion picture rather than a text. DAY. There are artists and directors and writers who reveal the forces roiling within us. I lived with a female weightlifter, a web entrepreneur, and a cocktail waitress. A few minutes after the young man had vanished, I located him within the inventory of my mind. He plotted fantastic stories and directed his friends from behind a Super 8 camera. I did not realize just how overdrawn the character was that I had scripted for myself until I spotted his analogue on screen. CLASSROOM. Every exploration of the unknown is also an ego trip into the self. I wore punk tees over Oxford shirts beneath jackets of tweed. There was no guarantee of a job. EXT. Embedded throughout is the music of the greatest space oddity, Ziggy Stardust himself, David Bowie. INTERIOR. The brief moments in which we see Zissou happy are either when he is with children, observing the world and its magnificent creatures as they do, or with Ned, who is as naïve as a child. The film is a eulogy for childhood heroes and mentors, for earthly wonderment and unblinkered awe. After their friendly caper movie, Bottle Rocket, they wrote Rushmore, crafted as if a play, and The Royal Tenenbaums, narrated as if a novel, in which Wilson portrays an author. And my father did not want to sell the farmstead that he had inherited from his grandfather, so my two siblings and I remained in Ohio with our mom. Sea creatures surprise from all directions, as if hostile ships in space. I studied that cassette, as I did the other Star Wars movies, not for the creatures and the extraordinary worlds, but to learn the technology of light speed. His work remains a documentary of adventure on real seas, a naturalistic account of a counterfeit world, over which Anderson exerts total control. Pelé, the only black character (and only the second in all of Anderson’s films), is singing “Space Oddity” on the job when pirates storm aboard. Did I insist on writing an article that praised famous scientists as womanizers, against the protests of female editors? My dad received a job after his year away. So, during our long winter on the plains, underground reservoirs will rise, pushing the poles upward. Steve Zissou resembles more than one famous scientist and artist whom I have known. They get to earn money realizing their childhood fantasies. One weekend night before bed, I asked him to explain light and its speed. Spielberg is too sedate. After all, Anderson named his production company American Empirical. It is the story of a man elevated above his peers. During the 1970s, growing up in Houston, Texas, Wes Anderson had idolized Jacques Cousteau, the French oceanographer and cinematographer who won a Palme d’Or at Cannes. Because, in a Wes Anderson film, the mise-en-scène will always be wantonly fastidious, the cinematography will be aggressively precise, the ensemble cast ridiculously earnest, the hues extravagantly pastel, the plots cloyingly elaborate, the props unduly precious, and the soundtrack will often be late ’60s or early ’70s rock. But what the audience learns about the tedium of financing Zissou’s film, and the decline of his ambitions, is apropos of the scientific enterprise itself. So, scientists and artists package their inspiration and their awe into products, whether films or technologies or papers or personas, which they can market in support of further endeavors. The young man bore the uniform of a particular kind of film student, a rare creature but one most prominent in its native Austin. LOFT. Its characters are childish but alive. Anderson later admitted that he had developed, as a child, the “impression of Cousteau not just as an oceanographer and this kind of superhero scientist, but also this star.”
In the extended Wes Anderson Universe, Cousteau was always the center of the mandala. But when Ned has a good idea in front of his crew, Zissou tells him to relinquish his right to any more so Zissou does not look a fool. Zissou’s Belafonte is Cousteau’s Calypso. I had watched him saunter into some bar or repertory theater in Austin, one evening crowned in violet, before we were all distanced by the virus. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the archetypal scientific romance, opens with the hunt for a phosphorescent creature larger than any known whale. There are also others, like Steve Zissou. The films of Wes Anderson are the cinema of his nostalgia, and Max Fischer is an inflated surrogate for a young Anderson. EVENING. I admired my reflection in a film by Wes Anderson. Or was I emulating Steve Zissou?   Had I internalized the egocentrism of writers and auteurs who imagined characters like him, the reflections of themselves? His hair was long and straggly, but for an auburn wave that rolled across his head and broke evenly over his ear. I wrote experimental fiction, longhand, in all-night cafés. Steve admits, finally, that he has been a showboat and a prick. Anderson’s films are about childhoods such as his, but they are also about man-children who lose their sons. I did not know him. Yes. A life of books and music and films and art. The others, Bobby Ogata and Pelé dos Santos, are passive witnesses, as is Vikram Ray, the silent cameraman. Although it is considered Wes Anderson’s worst film, it is possibly his greatest. He is not only self-obsessed, he is casually racist, homophobic, and misogynist. They get to collude for art. Steve Zissou is a slovenly and depressed Jacques Cousteau, played by Anderson’s other muse, Bill Murray, the deadest panner of all. He is no longer wonderstruck about the sea and its creatures; he is no longer naïve about filmmaking and how to succeed. According to Anderson’s giggly commentary, we see her boobs to know “it’s not all science” happening on board. This creature is actually the Nautilus, under the command of Captain Nemo, who is seeking revenge for the death of his family. My father also left when I was eight years old. Growing up in tony Houston, attending St. He was not wearing a costume. But he needlessly murders Filipino pirates, to the song “Search and Destroy,” before the rest leave with his bond company stooge and a safe. She appears topless in all but a few scenes. He invites his family and friends, and even his nemesis, to complete their quest. Every Friday night, dad would drive three hours, and even longer in the snow, to see us for the weekend. EXT. Zissou calls his estranged wife, Eleanor, a rich bitch. I had not seen the film since the days when I had lived in Brooklyn, when I was still striving to become a writer. DAY. The real menace to Zissou is paternity. One year later, he would confront his own sea creatures and loathsome father in a film, The Squid and the Whale. He also enlivened his creatures using stop-motion animation, the twitchy illusion that had realized so many fantastic tales when he was young. He was a devotee of Wesley Wales Anderson. When he describes his own laboratory aboard the Belafonte, he merely says: “Here’s where we do all our different science projects and experiments and so on.” Much like a principal investigator in a real scientific lab, he is divorced from the actual science. His father, not understanding but realizing how he lives, offers him a credit card with a low limit so he will not end up on the street. Our apartment had a chandelier, stained glass, wainscoting, 12-foot ceilings, and a dumbwaiter. He spends his days pursuing funds to make films, the vehicles of his fame. For a preening, affluent, bookish, cocksure, emotive, post-pubescent white male with more than a few obsessive compulsions, there are no finer qualities in film. But I did recall one or two other male students around campus who dressed almost identically. Anderson watched dozens of sea adventures starring Cousteau and his zany crew aboard their research vessel, Calypso. Wes Anderson does not write genre films; instead, he imposes his twee sensibility across genres. CUT TO:
A young man unloads his most valuable possessions, some weighty textbooks and punk LPs, packs a bag and buys a train ticket for New York. By coincidence, I assigned The Life Aquatic to my students one month before my first child was born. Anderson is, truly, the stuff that white men like. Sakowitz insists that they navigate around unprotected waters rather than take the shortcut through, leading to their capture. There are people who marvel at the natural world, who labor to reveal its mysteries so the rest of us might marvel at them, too. They were literary cineastes. Anderson wrote the script to The Life Aquatic with Noah Baumbach, his fellow bard of broken homes. The Life Aquatic is part undersea science fiction, earthy counterpart to our better-known extragalactic tales. And yet, to render a scientific romance, like those he had admired as a child, and to heighten its nostalgia, Anderson used the same film stock that Cousteau did. I read Infinite Jest and White Noise. Its knowing absurdity is amusing. The Life Aquatic ignores iniquities and inequities, as all Anderson’s films do, and this impoverishes the art. The offering that I remember best was the one that I had wanted most, The Return of the Jedi on VHS. I was dubious of my dad’s claim. But he has been so profligate abroad that he does not have enough money to rent an apartment in the desirable boroughs. Its unrealism is constrained but strangely beautiful. INT. Tarantino is an insipid schlub. I wanted my father to travel home even faster. I no longer emulated Steve, but I saw my reflection in him again. Zissou later calls dibs on the pregnant journalist when she appears alone in the middle of the night. He has no furniture, so he sleeps on an uneven floor next to a stack of galleys that he stole from work. I was 40 years old and about to have a child, rescued if not redeemed by a brilliant woman who loved me. In truth, The Life Aquatic is a farce masquerading as a quest. Cross, a first-grade teacher, and conspires to build her a marine observatory on a baseball diamond, leading to his expulsion. I found the films of Wes Anderson when I most needed to preen. Before he became an auteur, however, Anderson had wanted to be an author. So, he scoured one of the wooden posts at ground level with his knife. He sleeps with another woman to have a place to stay. We may excuse Anderson’s work as farce, and absolve him and his characters, but that is how all wretched men are redeemed. At the University of Texas at Austin, he wrote a fanciful short story called “The Jaguar Shark,” about a man, his ex-wife, and a boat. But this character was based on someone real. EXT. Exploration, historically, was a means of exploitation. He and his two brothers moved in with their mother, Texas Ann, an archaeologist and real estate agent. Did I move to a historically black neighborhood and cross the street, rather than introduce myself, whenever I saw its rightful inhabitants? It is Ned who compels him to investigate a sunken ship, and it is Ned who adlibs in his film. But at the end of the film, Zissou sits alone, next to an award on a red carpet, outside the premiere of his film. How could I forget such a flâneur, in central Texas? He began to imagine worlds over which he might exact total control. The following spring, when the ground was yet sodden after the thaw, I plodded out to the pasture and found the designated post. I have read more than one scholarly article that has either blamed or credited Anderson for the invention of hipster cinema. In Montréal, he had worn his tweed jacket and punk T-shirt to an interview with a megalomaniac, a former scientist who had founded a magazine with other people’s money. He is disaffected. Did I trample other peoples’ ideas in pitch meetings to advance my own career? Zissou enlists his faithful crew, a pregnant journalist, a half-dozen interns, a bond company stooge, and a charter pilot named Ned, who might be Zissou’s son. After a gentle nudge, I had fallen out of my PhD in theoretical physics. For the previous year, the Canadian government had indulged me with a stipend that I had done nothing to earn. Winslett-Richardson corrects his identification of an electric jelly fish. And then, not long after that rewatch, I saw a dapper young man, a devotee of Wes Anderson, walking on campus. But Steve Zissou was no Captain Ahab, and the jaguar shark was no white whale. Ned dies in the arms of Steve Zissou in the bloody sea. CAMPUS. I watched for the sodium headlights of his pickup truck, and I radioed updates to my mom and younger sisters. But other than the neglected lab, the Belafonte is equipped with a world-class sauna and a kitchen “which contains probably some of the most technologically advanced equipment on the ship.” There is a sound studio and a cutting room. He now wants to be a writer, to invent his own worlds. During that criminal year, I was employed to tutor a foreign royal in mathematics. I should know. The only female member of his crew, other than an unspeaking Swedish masseuse, is the script girl, Anne-Marie Sakowitz. I was nine years old, but I had already begun to imagine a richer life, beyond the one that he had imagined for us. TOWNHOUSE. It is the most violent scene in all of Wes Anderson’s films, and the pirates are the only characters who die on screen. Did living in New York City while striving to become a writer, aping David Foster Wallace and other chauvinists, make me so entitled? A young Max Fischer is reading Cousteau’s Diving for Sunken Treasure in the library of his beloved private school when he notices that someone has copied into the book, in a childish cursive, a quote from the scientist: “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” Fischer traces the scrawl to Ms. We were all bounded by physical laws greater than our love. I dated a Palestinian lesbian, an Iranian divorcée, and a fashion designer from France. Although he is a fictional character, it is hard not to associate these traits with the artists and scientists who inspired him, and with the writers who created him. His first book, a social and cultural history of particle physics, is forthcoming. Scientists want for self-recognition as much as anyone else. In The Life Aquatic, the white members of Zissou’s crew, the second and third in command, routinely joke with him. Dad was 28 years old, a journeyman electrician and a farm boy who had not attended college. They did not truly separate. They are not, however, innocent. He said that no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he wanted to, he could never come home as fast as light. The Life Aquatic, as Noah Baumbach once explained, is about his and Wes Anderson’s privilege to make films and craft their own worlds with their plucky bunch of friends. So, once he arrives, he calls on a young woman who will let him stay in her nook of a brownstone, because he has professed his need for her and has promised to feed her cat. Zissou says: “This is an adventure.” He lifts the boy onto his shoulders and exits to “Queen Bitch.”
When I rewatched The Life Aquatic for class, I was too easily moved by this redemption. Steve Zissou exploits his possible son, Ned, to underwrite his documentary of revenge and resuscitate his career. Eventually, he did not know where to rescue me. They capture the jaguar shark on film, as Sigur Rós intones, and they let the beast live. Their uniforms, however, are fashioned like those on Star Trek. Did I invent a backstory so that no one would suspect me a yokel from Ohio? He wore a three-piece suit of dark velvet, which he matched with a gingham shirt, acute shoes, and an amoebic tie. Instead of calculating the strength of gravity between two membranes in warped extra dimensions, I played the prodigal son. Once before, Anderson had alluded to the book’s influence — Ms. Passion compels both scientists and artists, but alone it cannot sustain them. After she rejects his kiss, he calls her a fake and a bull dyke and a slut. The company even gave Anderson the biggest budget of his career, more than $50 million. There are scientists such as Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, and Carl Sagan whose words and films and ideas uplift us. DAY. After a month, he earns just enough money for a room in an illegal loft, in a pre-gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn. This is an adventure. CUT TO:
One fall afternoon in Ohio, during the mid-1980s, not long after the annual harvest, a nine-year-old boy is wearing denim overalls above a flannel shirt while digging holes at the edge of a pasture, alongside his father in similar dress. Jane Winslett-Richardson, the journalist who is writing a profile of Steve, and whose outfits are modeled after Jane Goodall’s, writes in her diary: “The Zissou of my childhood represents all the dreams I have come to regret.” Art and money and fame have made him a miserable showman. One day when I was a boy, growing up on a farm, I asked my father why we always had to dig the holes for a fence deeper than the height at which the posts would finally rest. “I hate fathers,” he says, “and I never wanted to be one.”
Wes Anderson’s parents divorced when he was eight years old. But Zissou also commands a submarine that echoes the Nautilus of Jules Verne. DUSK. NIGHT. I read novels, mouthed poetry, finger-snapped to jazz, and consumed art. Did I exploit two women so that I could have a place to live in New York City? It was the revelation of natural riches, the appropriation of indigenous knowledge, the aggrandizement of European men, the sponsorship of murder. I did not remember that its primary theme was fatherhood and art. I took out my tape and measured the distance between the ground and the scar. At the start of the The Life Aquatic, Zissou’s mentor is dead, his artistry is depleted, his wife estranged, his films overlooked, his funding gone, and his love for science and the sea ebbing. Steve gives the boy Ned’s junior membership ring from the Zissou Society. I was a young American in Montréal. John’s School, the literal setting for Rushmore, Wes Anderson learned how to create a private universe by reading science fiction. In Rushmore, Cousteau is the catalyst of the plot. Zissou’s worst conflict with Hennessey, his white male competitor, is when Zissou calls him a “fa**ot” and a “closet queer.” People of color get much worse. And I thought again of Steve’s final words. My father, who was doing the real labor, stopped his auger, retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his brow. I wanted to understand the invisible forces beneath the surface. He told me about the hidden vigor in soil and revealed another mystery of the natural world. The three films that Anderson made before The Life Aquatic all alluded to the oceanographer either casually or intimately.