Moving Pictures
Apr 15, 2024, 06:29AM

Twenty Years in The Life Aquatic

Revisiting Wes Anderson’s fourth film in the same theater I saw it in on opening day in 2004.

492866034d1b5d39c4b240dc4f90c1f9 1280x720.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

I saw The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou on Christmas Day 2004 at the Charles Theater. Main auditorium, opening day, middle left eight or nine rows back. My family and I were all disappointed, and in the 20 years since, the only thing that stuck was David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” ending the movie. I thought it cut to black and the credits came up when the drums came in, but Billy Murray’s slow motion march towards the sea came back, just as the rest of the film had last Thursday, when I saw The Life Aquatic in the main auditorium at the Charles again, the only place I’ve ever seen this movie.

And now it looks so much better. It feels better, even though this revival screening was DCP. Film screenings, 16mm or 35mm, are exceedingly rare in Baltimore, and It’s only with the return of the Maryland Film Festival next month that the city’s finally getting more work actually shown on film: Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul, Anna Biller’s Viva, and Steve Yeager’s Divine Trash will all screen on 16mm and 35mm. There are probably others; and I hope New/Next Fest has at least one film screening in its second edition this October.

All of this has to do with The Life Aquatic because it came out in 2004, one of the greatest years in American movie history, just before the invasion of digital cameras. There was a misprint on the flyer for the revival series at the Charles, and this, along with Eraserhead, were listed as 35mm screenings. This might be the same print I saw in 2004, I thought. But it was a DCP, digital projection in a room full of young people who think they’re seeing their first 35mm screening—it makes me sad, knowing prints were how everyone saw movies until 2010. Generation Z is the last group to grow up going to the movies for the first time and seeing celluloid; now, despite the fact that it’s a precious commodity and a selling point, people still don’t know what they’re looking at.

Does anything that technical make a difference? At a very subconscious level, of course.

The other thing that I remembered from 2004 was “Starálfur.” That Sigur Rós song was everywhere in 2004: movies, television, commercials, and by the time The Life Aquatic came out in December, the song was beyond burnt out. You could only associate it with the dozen other profound climaxes you’d seen it matched to, along with the cellphones and pretzels and depression medication it sold. But 20 years later, that celestial tinker-toy pattern works, rinsed of cultural context. Bill Murray’s sub approaches the Jaguar Shark that killed his best friend, and the whole crew is dumbstruck by its glory. The camera pushes in on Anjelica Huston: “It really is beautiful.”

I didn’t remember that Owen Wilson played a possible son to Murray, or that he was killed towards the end; I didn’t remembered that the shark killed Murray’s partner, not his dad or his brother. I didn’t remember Noah Baumbach or Willem Dafoe or Cate Blanchett or Bud Cort or the guy from Vanilla Sky. I didn’t remember “Life on Mars.” But I remembered “Queen Bitch.”

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


Register or Login to leave a comment