The Life Fascistic
Fascist Aesthetics in the Films of Wes Anderson
Well after its release, the jury is still out on Wes Anderson ’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The difficulty lies in the film’s singularity, its giddy ambition that would smash the atoms of its disparate influences to form a new genre.
So far opinion seems split between those who think it Anderson’s best film and those who think it his weakest. The former camp heralds the maturation of the director’s style while the latter laments his radical departure from it. In fact, the film represents both his weakest effort and the maturation of his style. The Life Aquatic is at once a step forward and a step back; it is the realization of a fundamentally regressive aesthetic.
The essence of Anderson’s style consists in rich pageantry countered by detached presentation. It favors wide-angle lenses that capture the whole of the extravagantly decorated mise en scéne in razor sharp focus. Discussion of Anderson’s style frequently centers on his art direction: his carefully restricted palette, his impeccably costumed characters, his rigorously selected props, sets, furnishings, and the piquant density of the coordinated effect. Of course, there is more to the style: the dry wit, the melancholic undertow, the astute cultural, literary, and cinephilic references are all strokes of Anderson’s signature. These formal and tonal aspects are complimented by a set of bittersweet themes: fading glory, doomed romanticism, and unrequited love. But within these lyrical motifs lurk elements of an ethos far more bitter than sweet. These elements, easily lost in the close weave of the style, belie the ostensible charm and good nature of the stories. They carry the invidious undertones of an aesthetic most aptly described as fascistic. This may seem an inappropriate charge against a director widely regarded as the most amiable of his time, a contemporary Renoir or Demy. Still, in the same way that melancholy begirds the sweet humor of his films, a curiously fascist subtext dogs the childlike whimsy of the work.
Let me be clear: I am not calling Anderson a fascist, nor am I calling his work fascist propaganda. I only submit that certain tastes, patterns, and inclinations of his work can be identified with a fascist aesthetic. Susan Sontag posits the notion of fascist aesthetics in her 1974 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” occasioned by the publication of The Last of the Nuba, a collection of photographs by Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Sontag stresses that fascist aesthetics are “hardly confined to works labeled as fascist or produced under fascist governments” (she cites Fantasia, The Gang’s All Here and 2001as examples). Although blurry and porous, there is a distinction between fascist aesthetics and fascist art. All fascist art implies fascist aesthetics, but not all fascist aesthetics imply fascist art. Author Michael Chabon addresses the difference and potentially dangerous confusion between the two categories in his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The novel’s hero, Joe Kavalier, a Jewish comic-book artist, regrets popularizing the superhero during World War II: “[He] was not the only early creator of comic books to perceive the mirror-image of fascism inherent in his anti-fascist superman — Will Eisner, another Jew cartoonist, quite deliberately dressed his Allied-hero Blackhawks in uniforms modeled on the elegant death-head’s garb of the Waffen SS. But Joe was perhaps the first to feel the shame of glorifying, in the name of democracy and freedom, the vengeful brutality of a very strong man ... Now it occurred to Joe to wonder if all they had been doing, all along, was indulging their own worst impulses ... ” Fascist aesthetics, then, can even be brought to bear in anti-fascist art.
While Anderson’s first three films are not political enough to be called “anti-fascist,” they do demonstrate a broad humanism and genuine warmth incompatible with fascist art. Still, to varying degrees, each film contains elements of the fascist aesthetic. The crucial difference between Anderson’s previous films and his latest one lies in their relationship to this aesthetic. Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums offset or subvert their fascist aesthetic through irony. The lack of ironic counterbalance in The Life Aquatic allows Anderson’s fascist aesthetics to mutiny, to take over the film and run it aground.
Fascist art, according to Sontag, “displays a utopian aesthetics — that of physical perfection” and finds expression in a celebration of the primitive and the worship of the powerful. She goes on to elaborate the general criteria of fascist aesthetics:
... a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort ... they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people around an all powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed static, “virile” posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.
The simple presence of these elements, in isolation or combination, does not constitute a fully realized fascist aesthetic. The aesthetic predominates only when these elements work in concert, as they do in The Life Aquatic.
Central to each of Anderson’s films is a self-elected, charismatic leader. This leader controls his followers by virtue of their blind devotion to his cult of personality. In Bottle Rocket, the wannabe crime boss Dignan persuades his more scrupulous, cautious friends to break the law and risk their lives, purportedly for the sake of an idealized “team,” but actually to satisfy his own romantic whims. Rushmore’s Max Fischer commands an even greater following: a legion of naïve schoolboys to run his errands, take dictation, and obey his frequently petulant direction both on and off the stage. He also manages to take in a wealthy industrialist, Mr. Bloom, to fund his projects and act as his personal messenger. While these two leaders fit the basic profile of petty tyrant, both remain funny and endearing due largely to their terminal romanticism and ineffectuality. Dignan and Max are grandiose visionaries whose zeal for life inspires as much as their absurd posturing amuses.
With The Royal Tenenbaums, the charismatic leader takes on a rougher edge. Royal Tenenbaum, an inveterate liar, cheat, and opportunist, cajoles and manipulates his wronged wife and progeny to his own personal ends. Unlike Dignan and Max, Royal’s schemes are not merely self-destructive; they abuse the people closest to him. This cynicism and recklessness swells to greater heights in the figure of Steve Zissou.
Although the previous leader figures all have their dark side, each was redeemed by his zeal for life, a certain infectious optimism and joyfulness. Zissou, in contrast, is almost totally bitter; he never seems to have any fun. Nor, for that matter, does actor Bill Murray who appears stricken with the same pained, listless mien he wore in the arduous Ghostbusters II. Murray, one of our funniest and most likable leading men, has often played charlatans and scoundrels (Quick Change, Groundhog Day) that manage to win both our laughter and sympathy. Anderson, too, demonstrates a native feel for this sort of delicate characterization in his treatment of Royal Tennenbaum. But in Zissou, the collaborators have given us a rogue who can excite neither our love nor our laughter. Lacking Dignan’s sweetness, Max’s youthful precocity, and Royal’s nagging conscience, Zissou wallows in unleavened nihilism. Like the other negative strains in Anderson’s work, the trend towards glorified self-pity, introduced in the monotonously saturnine figures of Margot and Richie Tenenbaum, flourishes in The Life Aquatic.
The elements of fascist aesthetics more or less latent in the first three films become patent in the fourth. Among them is a preoccupation with martial order, a system of rank and classification, expressed through the mise en scéne, particularly through the uniforms and tokens that litter every frame. Sontag speaks directly to this characteristic: “There is a general fantasy about uniforms. They suggest community, order, identity (through ranks, badges, medals, things which declare who the wearer is and what he has done: his worth is recognized), competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence.” One might argue that if uniforms constitute an element of fascist aesthetics, then many genre films, Westerns, musicals, police, army, and gangster movies, participate in fascist aesthetics. However, uniforms do not necessarily indicate fascist aesthetics. First, for many genre films, uniforms are simply a matter of realism. Second, a uniform often functions as what Thomas Schatz, in his book Hollywood Genres, calls “a generic icon,” which “assumes significance not only through its usage within individual genre films but also as that usage relates to the generic system itself.” Contrarily, in Anderson’s work, uniforms usually seem a matter of choice, pure style. Anderson chooses to use uniforms, just as Max chooses to wear his Rushmore uniform even when summarily expelled.
Uniforms, medals, badges — a cursory inspection of the films will yield any number of these material signifiers: the famous yellow jumpsuits in Bottle Rocket, the Rushmore school uniform, Chas Tenenbaum’s family tracksuits, Royal and Pagoda’s doorman uniforms, the merit medals with which Max and Bloom cement their truce, the engraved Swiss Army knife that Dirk Calloway gives Max, the flag flying over the turret of the Tenenbaum household. Community, order, and identity are not inherently bad. In these films, however, they are always established and normalized by an external, institutional authority. While martial metaphors in the early films are mainly innocuous, universal boyish passions as non-threatening as the Swiss Army, they become sharply literal and sinister in The Life Aquatic. Team Zissou is a proto-military organization complete with official uniforms, vehicles, and weapons. Members devote special attention to rings, flags, and insignias. More significantly, the leader figure now has greater freedom and power than the hapless Dignan and Max or the disgraced Royal. Zissou ranks as captain to an armed crew of followers. At sea, unbound by law, he is absolute dictator.
The emphasis on military accoutrement reflects Anderson’s fascination with material objects in general. His decor evinces a collector’s sensibility. Each prop, costume, or furnishing seems diligently considered, hunted down, and arranged to its best advantage for the camera. Frequently, these objects play a key role in the action, taking on a narrative currency. For instance, an exchange of gifts accompanies the obligatory rapprochement scene toward the end of each film: Dignan gives Anthony and Bob belt buckles, Max gives Bloom the medal, Dirk gives Max the knife, Ned presents Zissou with a new flag. Conferred with a special meaning and power, these objects become talismans. Increasingly, Anderson has transferred an excess of meaning to all onscreen objects, in effect fetishizing his décor through morbidly loving attention. He has stated that he seeks to give life to his characters through their costumes and props, to flesh them out through physical indices. Ironically, as his curatorial instincts outstrip his dramatic ones, he succeeds in the exact inverse of his plan. By freighting his characters with accessories and trappings he effects a depersonalizing reversal; objects are exalted into fascinating characters and characters are reduced to boring objects. Again we encounter a propensity of fascist aesthetics: “The turning of people into things.”
The equivalence between objects and characters is first intimated in The Royal Tenenbaums. The montage introducing each child in the family includes insert shots of their possessions: financial magazines, safe-deposit box, ham radio, drum set, models of sets, etc. As if the inserts were not emphasis enough, each object’s importance is underlined by an onscreen title spelling out its name. Anderson assumes that these still-lives, standing in for human behavior, convey a wealth of character information when they are only descriptions of the material items themselves; they have no meaningful bearing on either the characters or the story; they are pure spectacle. This “multiplication and replication of things” that Sontag observes in fascist aesthetics, reaches its zenith in the spectacular cross section view of Team Zissou’s ship, the Belafonte.
The Belafonte is the crown jewel of Anderson’s collection, the biggest toy in the chest, or even the toy chest itself. It may be a cliché of nautical films to discuss the ship as a character in the story, but in this case the shoe fits like an Italian loafer. Since the characters have been demoted to flat velvet backing on which to pin the shiny emblems of their nature, since we are clearly in a world where objects command enough respect to stop the story in its tracks, the Belafonte is really the highest-ranking member of Team Zissou.
With each new film, Anderson has spent an ever-increasing amount of time, attention, and money on his notoriously lavish décor. The iconic value of the art-direction has increased in direct proportion. Indeed, Anderson has always displayed a taste for the iconic, not least in the painted portraits of characters that have become a trademark of his films. Distant or deceased figures are often paid homage through some mediating image or object: Inez’s locket in Bottle Rocket, the library book signed by the late Edward Applebee in Rushmore, Richie’s gallery of Margot portraits in The Royal Tenenbaums, the photo of Zissou’s mentor Lord Mandrake, the Zissou Society photo of its leader striking a grand pose on the Belafonte’s prow. These objects, though often benign, serve as idols, signifiers that threaten to replace the signified.
Sontag identifies the function of idolatry within fascist aesthetics: “The tastes for the monumental and for mass obeisance to the hero are common to both fascist and communist art, reflecting the view of all totalitarian regimes that art has the function of 'immortalizing’ its leaders and doctrines.” Likewise, Anderson’s icons reduce and fix the memory of a powerful figure, codify and contextualize his meaning in an authoritative structure. They also express a strong sense of nostalgia. One of Anderson’s gifts is his very sensual evocation of nostalgia. Nostalgia for childhood, a celebration of this primitive state, is one of the pervasive themes of the films. However, the nostalgia focuses equally on communal institutions: nostalgia for a private school (Rushmore), a once-famous family (Tenenbaums), the glory of a team (Life Aquatic). The reverence for establishment, a childish longing for the security of one’s proscribed role in a hierarchy, conditions the characters’ behavior. Once granted a position or rank in the group, he or she sheds their former self to experience a blissful wholeness at home in the pack.
Towards the end of Rushmore we learn that Magnus, the school bully, only tormented others to mask the pain of his exclusion from Max’s charmed circle. Max reaches out to the crippled soul by shooting him in his withered ear and offering him a role in his new production. Magnus fumes for a moment before confessing: “I always wanted to be in one of your stupid plays.” It is not that he wants to be friends, he instead wants to play a role in Max’s grand scheme; he wants Max to dominate him. Similarly, The Royal Tenenbaums suggests that Margot and Eli’s common problem, low self-esteem, proceeds from their biological isolation from the Tenenbaum family proper. They are both orphans whose desire to belong draws them together sexually. Eli, although a de facto family member, “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum,” and he seeks official approval by sending his grades to Etheline. This dread of exclusion, this fretful insecurity, belongs to the overarching theme of jealousy running through Anderson’s work.
All the leader figures are acutely needy men. Zissou especially demands absolute allegiance, total surrender to his wishes, however capricious. Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach share a thematic obsession with jealousy, particularly sexual jealousy. Dignan bears a hilariously ill-concealed jealousy of his best friend Anthony’s girlfriend, Inez, who weakens their bond as males and outlaws. Max Fisher’s envy transforms him from romantic schoolboy into an attempted murderer. A tangle of internecine jealousy barbs The Royal Tenenbaums. Baumbach’s first film, Kicking and Screaming, centers on a young writer jealous of his girlfriend’s talent, ambition, and autonomy. His second film is entitled Mr. Jealousy, and the recent The Squid and the Whale explodes with jealous fits of all kinds. Naturally, then, jealousy enjoys a prominent place in The Life Aquatic (note the film’s reference to Proust, the poet of jealousy par excellence). Compared to The Royal Tenenbaums, the triangulations here are less complicated. The hub of jealousy is Ned Plimpton, the newcomer who sheds one uniform, that of Air Kentucky, to don the faded blue jumpsuit of Team Zissou. The first mate, Klaus, resents Ned’s interloping and covets the untouchable father-son bond forged between Ned and Zissou. More centrally, Zissou envies Ned’s sexual relationship with the “embedded” journalist, Jane, whom he has marked for himself. But he is just as jealous of Jane for diverting Ned’s admiration from his own person. Basically, any on-board intimacy threatens Zissou’s leadership. Despite Zissou’s unconcealed male chauvinism (his womanizing, his un-ironic use of the term “dyke,” etc.), the issue at hand is not sex but power.
Sontag comments on the specialized role assigned to the female in fascist aesthetics: “A utopian aesthetics implies an ideal eroticism; sexuality converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers. The fascist ideal is to transform sexual energy into a 'spiritual' force, for the benefit of the community. The erotic (that is, women) is always present as a temptation, with the most admirable response being a heroic repression of the sexual impulse ... Fascist aesthetics is based on the containment of vital forces; movements are confined, held tight, held in.” Idealized eroticism, or sexual denial, is plain in at least two of the earlier films, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. In the former, Max reacts with disgust to the prospect of actual sexual activity on the part of Miss Cross. In the latter, the erotic tension between Richie and Margot never finds its natural release but is sublimated into a romantically chaste longing. Women only serve as a temptation the resistance of which can strengthen the bonds of the group. In Anderson’s world this group is always overwhelmingly male: a brotherhood (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore) a patriarchy (The Royal Tenenbaums) or a combination of the two (The Life Aquatic). Again, this ideal assumes a greater political significance in the most recent film. The only female member of the team is a topless beauty with a nominal, peripheral function. Her real purpose is temptation--to betray the team, to betray Zissou--a temptation to be withstood.
In his book Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum addresses the crucial role that the counterfeit (false histories, science, identities, and motives) played in the rise of National Socialism: “[T]hey were in some way signature crimes, signatures of something essential about Hitler’s psyche, reflecting some truths about his mind and his method.” Rosenbaum’s analysis makes clear that counterfeit activity and fascism are closely, if not insolubly, linked together. The fascist aesthetics of Anderson’s work find expression in this very theme. All the charismatic leader figures in his films have manufactured their own counterfeit identity. Each is something of an imposter, a poseur. Dignan poses as a criminal mastermind, Max poses as an adult, Royal poses as a cancer patient and father, and Zissou poses as a scientist and documentarian. Frequently, this posing is given physical expression in struck poses.
The films often utilize a device that allows the leader to pose for an iconic portrait, for instance, Max posing for the sequence of yearbook photos or Royal posing in a painted portrait. The contrivance recalls Sontag’s description of how the choreography of fascist aesthetics “alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed static, 'virile' posing.” The act and meaning of posing is examined quite explicitly in The Life Aquatic when Jane, crusading opponent of the Zissou myth, reveals herself to be a former Zissou fanatic (even his enemy worships him, as Magnus did Max). She lovingly describes the photograph of Zissou, posed majestically on the Belafonte’s prow, she once idolized as a child. Later, at Ned’s behest, Zissou recreates the pose, his arm outstretched, courageously directing the crew onward into uncharted waters.
Posing also figures into Zissou’s method of filmmaking. In fact, Zissou’s status as filmmaker involves a conflation of the senses of posing. The supposedly documentary reality of his films is blatantly manipulated — posed — by Zissou through careful staging, coaching, and re-shooting. Strikingly, Zissou’s work overlaps in this respect with that of Riefenstahl (who in later life confined her work to underwater nature films). Riefenstahl began her career as an actress and sometimes director in a series of alpine adventure movies embodying proto-Nazi values. Although she later denied it, Riefenstahl’s subsequent documentaries were every bit as fictitious and propagandistic as these early films. Triumph of the Will, for instance, posed as a slice of life in Nazi Germany, but was famously coordinated in concert with Hitler’s design. In addition to being a quack scientist, Zissou, like Riefenstahl, is a counterfeit filmmaker, a cinematic poseur.
Although a preoccupation with fraudulent personalities runs through Anderson’s work, his previous films treat the subject critically. They display a provocative tension between what we might call the mountebank and the true believer. Dignan and Max are mixtures of these two natures, with the latter shinning through in the end. Royal is a mountebank who, if he does not become a true believer, ultimately aspires to be one (he’s a bastard who becomes a son-of-a-bitch). However, Zissou, notwithstanding a few empty gestures to the contrary, remains an incorrigible mountebank throughout The Life Aquatic. As a result of this stasis, the film fails to satisfy as a dramatic narrative. It can only commend itself as a spectacle.
The other films, though they contain spectacular elements, are all in the end dramatic; they involve a transformation. Max’s transformation, in keeping with the traditional Bildungsroman, is uncomplicated: he grows up. Dignan and Royal, while childish to the last, are both men quite settled in their ways. Still, each experiences a hard-won epiphany that, if it does not change his nature, allows him to transcend himself briefly. This is what makes Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums Anderson’s two finest films from a dramatic standpoint. Dignan and Royal each remains true to his nature, part dreamer, part schemer, but their charismatic portraits are balanced by the claims of realism; they are humbled. In particular, Dignan’s larger-than-life personality is grounded in the final scene. Having sacrificed himself, albeit in a self-glorifying way, Dignan lies imprisoned, confronted with the very real impotence of his wonted escapism. When his friends call for a brief visit in the prison yard, Dignan hatches one of his impractical, Tom Sawyer-like plans, this time to mount an escape attempt. His friends, all too ready to believe in Dignan’s overweening ambition, break into a panic until he drops the mask and cracks a sly grin. His joke reveals both a mature self-awareness and a sort of transcendent resignation to his character and situation. This gravity, coming as a surprise in an otherwise light entertainment, makes for an expansively moving ending. Less surprisingly, the emotional realism here finds its echo in a more realistic style, less fussy, less luxurious, less whimsical then the other films. The restricted means of Bottle Rocket keep the hero rooted in a naturalistic world, throwing his hopeless romanticism into poignant relief, and demonstrating the disparity between the utopian and the realistic.
If, as Sontag maintains, fascist dramaturgy celebrates “the rebirth of the body and of the community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader,” Bottle Rocket swerves away in the end from its already reduced fascist aesthetic. The team, far from reborn, is torn asunder, its leader brought low. Though Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums both hinge upon the dissolution and reunification of family structures, a “rebirth of the community,” the communities affirmed are decidedly more democratic than Team Zissou. In The Life Aquatic, while there is no real dissolution of the communal structure, community is constantly reborn through reaffirmation. The only dissentors aboard the ship are females who are either won over, subsumed into the group, or dispatched from it in short order. Hence, there is only a reaffirmation of the team’s inviolable unity. This is markedly different from the Tenenbaum family drama which was complicated and enriched by the patriarch’s reluctance to lead.
Royal Tenenbaum is something of an anarchist. When Royal shoots young Chas in the hand during a family BB gun war, Chas protests, “But you’re on my team!” Royal answers, chuckling merrily, “There are no teams!” Royal is only compelled by circumstance, tricked by fate, into returning to his throne. And even then his family won’t acknowledge his authority. Only when he proves that he can lead with humility and wisdom is he reinstalled as the family’s honored patriarch. In contrast, no crewmember ever truly questions either Zissou’s selfish motives or his reckless methods. The only independent voice, the only voice of reason and courage, is the topless chick. She calls Zissou out for what he is, a narcissistic tyrant playing with human lives. In return she is summarily banished from the film. (It’s as if, in Red River, John Wayne were to shoot Montgomery Clift for mouthing off and push the herd on to Missouri). The rest of the team follows Steve at their peril, even accompanying him on the final leg of his personal revenge fantasy. When Zissou goes to confront the gigantic Jaguar Shark, the beast that has already killed one friend, he takes along a cramped antique submarine full of his nearest and dearest (the poor maintenance of the team’s vehicles has already been proven in the deadly helicopter crash). Arguably, this is just an excuse to get the whole cast in one place for a big finish (the first of four), but it defies all logic and emotional realism.
As the Jaguar Shark finally appears, a mysterious calm falls over the sub. The actual content of the scene is muddled: Zissou doesn’t say or do anything. Indeed, the sheer immensity of the shark seems to preclude even an attempt on its life. Presumably overwhelmed in equal measure with the shark’s beauty and his own self-pity, Zissou’s will to avenge is somehow sublimated. This suggests John Ford’s The Searchers, in which another bitter avenger, Ethan Edwards, suddenly calls off his hunt for blood. However, Edwards responds actively to his epiphany, rescuing the niece he had sought to kill. Zissou merely sits and stares mistily, like a melancholy statue. Suddenly, the members of his team each lay a hand on their hero, as if he is an idol they rub for its blessing, as if they are mourning disciples jockeying to touch their mullah’s casket, as if to transfer their collective energy and will to their needy leader. The worship of Zissou supplants the dramatic function of inward change. Submissive leader-worship is the transformative agent; the product is spectacle. As Sontag asserts, the telos of fascist drama is not to purge our emotions through pity and fear, but rather to affirm, to celebrate, to worship power. Fascist pageants are “ ... about the vertigo before power ... epics of achieved community, in which everyday reality is transcended through ecstatic self-control and submission; they are about the triumph of power.” Zissou may mediate this amoral, primal power, but it is represented by the Jaguar Shark, before which even Zissou must bow. In the Jaguar Shark, violence and beauty are conjoined, the exoticism of death is fetishized, and we glimpse, once again, the fascist aesthetic which “glorifies surrender ... exalts mindlessness ... glamorizes death.”
In Esteban’s death scene, Zissou surfaces in the bloody waters with “crazy eyes,” a fictional condition which is caused by precipitous ascent from great depths, like the bends. But in Zissou’s spiraling “crazy eyes” it is tempting to see a different cause, a hypnotic fascination with the deadly shark. In fact, we might begin to question the truth of Zissou’s stated aim to avenge his friend: What really motivates Zissou? A possible clue comes in the final line of the film. Sitting disconsolately on the red carpet outside his film premiere, Zissou finds comfort in the company of a small boy. After gifting the lad his trademark ring, an official token of membership in his society, Zissou proclaims: “This is an adventure.” Not a trial, not a testing and transforming of character — that would be a quest — but rather an adventure, a risk taken for its own sake, regardless of the consequence it may have on others.
In his biography Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Alan Bullock characterizes the Fuhrer’s essential nature as that of a “mountebank-adventurer,” a reckless gambler enthralled by the exercise of power, willing to drag his people into the maw of destruction for the sheer thrill of it all (The documentary The Architecture of Doom qualifies this notion, claiming that the thrill Hitler sought was primarily aesthetic). This is the impression left by Zissou’s final line, and perhaps it is his sole realization. Until this moment, he has had to clothe his naked ambition, his aspiration to power, in counterfeit motives. Now he sees his real nature clearly and accepts it with open arms.
All this may seem a mite hysterical to readers who regard the film as light entertainment. Unfortunately, we cannot excuse the film’s excess by dismissing it as the airy license of fantasy. Part of what has endeared Anderson to critics is the “emotional reality” of the characters in his fantastic world. Moreover, the insinuation of fascist aesthetics into light entertainment makes their unmasking critical. Sontag warns that the fascist aesthetic cannot be fully divorced from its ideological content, its anti-humanist implications. The danger lies in the fact that for some audiences the fascist aesthetic is “no more than a variant of camp.” She explains, in reference to Riefenstahl, that “the ironies of Pop sophistication make for a way of looking at [her] work in which not only its formal beauty but its political fervor are viewed as a form of aesthetic excess. And alongside this detached appreciation ... is a response whether conscious or unconscious, to the subject itself, which gives her work its power.” The threat of this disinterested gaze applies to Anderson’s films in like fashion. We cannot exempt his work from it broader aesthetic and cultural context. As Sontag exhorts: “Without historical perspective such connoisseurship prepares the way for a curiously absentminded acceptance of propaganda of all sorts of destructive feelings — feelings whose implications people are refusing to take seriously”
So, why are liberal, humanist audiences content to let Zissou lead them on his adventure? Especially at this point in history is it really advisable to project positive images of a smug, unapologetic leader who flouts international law, dragging a body of credulous followers on a doomed quest for revenge? Doesn’t the film’s fetishism embody the rampant consumerism and decadent materialism, the objectification that threatens to supplant our national character? The answer to all these questions may lie in one consideration: taste. Anderson’s discriminating aesthetic sensibility finds such sympathy with his audience that both parties have come to ape the aristocratic class he portrays by subscribing to its article of faith that good taste can redeem every sin. Had Zissou been less fashionable, had his on-board minstrel played Nugent instead of Bowie covers, had he not drunk Campari and smoked good herb but had instead chased shots of Apple Pucker with cans of Coors Light, may not audiences have objected to the film’s shameless hero-worship and unsettling militarism?
In any utopian aesthetics, all subjects are glorified; all subjects can exert a hypnotic power, and beauty covers a multitude of sins. After all, the devotion to a cult of beauty in the SS was meant to varnish the group’s ugly designs. This attempt to conceal makes Zissou even more of an imposter when, at the end of the film, he hoists the little boy onto his shoulders and strides triumphantly away, leading a uniformed phalanx of his disciples through salvos of flashbulbs. It doesn’t help that the little boy, German and wearing traditional lederhosen, looks like the poster child for another elect society of passionate kids, the Hitlerjugend, but the fascist lie is plain in the act alone. The sentimentality of such public grandstanding, such brazen posing, smacks loudly of the cynical politician’s ploy of kissing a child for the cameras. The film seems to be straining for a bittersweet, spine-tingling, semi-tragic affirmation of life, but the effect is disquieting, if not disgusting.
Though in the earlier films, Anderson may have handled fascist themes in a more ironic fashion, he has altogether lost his grip with The Life Aquatic. Of all his films it is the most ironic in tone, but the least ironic in content. Unlike his earlier work, the form — aesthetic and dramatic — has no distance from its subject and theme. This is most explicit in Zissou’s capacity as a director. Anderson’s filmmaking has inspired a sort of sycophancy that raises a burning question: To what degree is Zissou a stand-in for Anderson? This might have been the key to the film’s meaning, its redemption, an opportunity to interrogate the nature of filmmaking, of manipulation, of pretending, but alas it is not seized. As the credits roll, Zissou’s leadership is commemorated by yet another parade: He trolls for uniformly garbed followers along a wharf, drawing them magnetically in his wake, their numbers ever swelling, on his march to nowhere.