Hoptellectual: Gender, exploration and David Bowie in Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic”

Much of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic can be summed up in this clip:

As Brian noted in an earlier, far superior Hoptellectual, much of the film revolves around how characters compartmentalize their feelings and eschew honesty and emotion. In the clip above, Steve takes Ned’s revelation like a punch to the jaw. In typical Wes Anderson fashion, the music plays a much more vital role than any dialogue could. After Ned says “I wanted to meet you,” nothing really needs to be said. Cue the Thin White Duke.

In another earlier Hoptellectual I talked about the function of David Bowie’s music in terms of loneliness. Again, Bowie created these stunning narratives of people who travel the galaxy free from convention. Bowie’s music fits so well into Anderson’s film because at their heart the songs deal primarily with exploration of both external and internal unknowns (and oftentimes, unknowables). “Life On Mars,” in this case, is about Steve confronting a whole new life. In this life, he fathers a child and they adventure together. The hole left by Esteban’s death (“He was bitten?” “Eaten!”) finds a temporary stopgap as Ned helps Steve bail out water as quickly as it rises. Is there life on Mars? Well, what relevance does it hold if we forget about the people and the lives that go on here?

Similar to Bowie’s space exploration and gender themes, Zissou’s crew dives into the great unknown in search of fame—and to a lesser extent, they dive to find some purpose for themselves. Though a wetsuit is fundamentally more sexualized than a spacesuit (you can see curves, after all), the gender indifference still stands out even in Zissou’s overwhelmingly male and faux-macho crew. They all try to organize around the alpha-male, but the crew doesn’t really have one. Steve is lost in his own battle. Ned just climbed aboard. Klaus doesn’t really know what’s going on and Pele just wants to play the guitar.

Is it cold out in space David Bowie?

From Pele’s version of “Rock and Roll Suicide” and “Five Years” to Steve’s sort-of triumphant exit at the end of the film to “Queen Bitch,” Bowie’s music furthers this compartmentalization and distances the characters from one another. The music adds to the confusion associated with so many people operating in unnatural ways.

Known for his flamboyant nature, to Bowie there are no rules besides complete and total honesty (“If she can’t do it/Then she can’t do it/She don’t make false claims”). Steve and his crew don’t handle honesty well and we see the two most honest characters, Ned and Jane, attach briefly in the face of ostracism, pretty much out of necessity. The crew of the Belafonte belong together because they all hide vital parts of themselves—stuck in the wetsuit, so to speak. I find the encounter with the jaguar shark to be so touching because everyone gives up the veil for a minute, defecting to the people they were before all the voyages took them so far from shore.

Though not explicitly used on the soundtrack, Bowie’s “Oh, You Pretty Things,” holds a tacit, yet significant link to the film. In an ode to the most beautiful parts of humanity, Bowie croons “We’ve got to make way for the homo superior.” Steve and his band of misfits seem like an unevolved bunch, a group of scraggly miscreants lost at sea and hungry for belonging. Sure, there are eugenic implications to Bowie’s assertion, but it’s also a reminder that evolution continues to occur outside of traditional selective pressures. While at sea, most of the world passed Steve by, and perhaps that’s the hardest thought to handle.

Everyone check for swamp leaches! And get in touch with us on Twitter (@midwestbeer), Facebook or send an email to mwbeercollective@gmail.com.

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