Regular Contributor Nigel Watson reviews the Celluloid Sail screening of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, an event presented by Plymouth Arts Centre and Compass Presents in partnership with the BFI and part of the ‘Britain on Film‘ season of archive events, supported by Unlocking Film Heritage awarding funds from The National Lottery.
The tall ship Kaskelot sailed into Sutton Harbour, not loaded with pirates and their cannon and ill-gotten spoils or fishermen with their nets and haul of fish, instead it brought a taste of the sea on film.
Visitors were able to explore the ship and climb down steep steps to its belly to see a selection of short nautical themed films from the British Film Institute archives. They included Walter Booth’s impressive 1910 ‘Aerial Submarine. A Startling Forecast. Piracy in Sea and Air’. The lively story is about two children who are kidnapped by pirates in their aerial submarine who go on to rob an ocean liner. It cleverly uses location shots, staging, animation and editing, which draws on Booth’s skills as a magician and inspired by the ‘trick’ films pioneered by George Melies.
Other films included 1932 vintage home movies of a family playing on a beach, and a news feature from the 1960’s showing holidaymakers playing bingo and enjoying the seaside, whilst the interviewer inadvertently gets his shoes wet on the beach. They all tell a story of our generation-to-generation fascination with the seaside.
The following evening, the main event was the screening of Wes Anderson’s ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ on a screen suspended from the ships rigging. Before that there was an acrobatic performance that began amongst the audience sitting on the harbour and escalated to the heights of the ship’s rigging, with footage of ocean scenes projected behind the performers. Oddly enough they all wore red beanie hats and performed to the music of David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ which does include nautical references to sunken dreams, Rule Britannia and sailors fighting in the dance hall! These elements were obvious to anyone who has already seen this film but to ‘Aquatic’ virgins it seemed a bit puzzling.
An acrobatic performance that began amongst the audience sitting on the harbour and escalated to the heights of the ships rigging
It soon becomes understandable that ‘The Life Aquatic’ has become a cult classic. It has documentary filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) heading Team Zissou on his Jacques Cousteau style adventures in the Mediterranean. At the moment his popularity is at an all-time low and to make things worst his best friend is eaten by a ‘Jaguar shark’. Overcoming all obstacles the self-obsessed Zissou ventures forth on his research ship Belafonte to seek out the Jaguar Shark for his next film.
Zissou is like Captain Ahab in ‘Moby Dick’ who seeks revenge against the whale who bit off his leg. On his mission Zissou encounters Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) who says he is a long-lost son, the pregnant journalist Jane Winslet-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), his ex-wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) and his far richer and more successful nemesis Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum).
The underwater sequences are reminiscent of Disney’s ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ 1971 live action/animation Beautiful Briny Sea musical sequence, and when we are shown Zissou’s ship we are given a cutaway view of it like the film/stage settings from a Booth or Melies production. There are some dramatic fights with kidnapping pirates that are about as realistic as the fights in Booth’s ‘Aerial Submarine’.
‘The Life Aquatic’ is deliberately quirky and deadpan, yet it has the poignant theme of life and death running through it like a stick of rock.
Nigel Watson is a freelance writer living and working in Plymouth.