Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Bill Murray

My alternative canon #9: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

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The Life Aquatic

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. For the rest of the week, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

Over the last twenty years, Bill Murray has been quietly building a body of work that amounts to the most surprising third act of any actor in recent memory. Murray always had a tendency to float through his roles, and one of the pleasures of a movie like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day is the chance it affords to watch him maintain his sardonic equanimity through the strangest of circumstances. Yet it took the combined insights of Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola to realize that there was a darker, more wounded side to his persona. The quintessential Murray character is so detached from his surroundings that it might well lead, after a decade or two of smart remarks, to a graying, wistful cynic bewildered by his own lack of human connection. There had already been hints of a great character actor in the making in the string of small parts that he took starting with Ed Wood and Wild Things, and when combined with this newfound sense of melancholy, it became clear that something special had emerged: a performer whose history as a star could enlarge the emotional scope of a movie in a handful of scenes. (You see a similar phenomenon with Sean Connery in The Untouchables and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which make him seem like the most valuable supporting actor who ever lived.) Murray has filled a corner of most of Anderson’s movies since Rushmore, and in some cases, as in The Darjeeling Limited, it feels as if the director just wanted to have him around on the set—and who could blame him? But it’s only in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou that Murray takes center stage, and the result is both Anderson’s greatest commercial failure and a movie that seems to get richer, funnier, and more moving with time.

The Life Aquatic inspired one of my favorite reviews by the late Roger Ebert, who said: “I can’t recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it.” Earlier, Ebert wrote: “My rational mind informs me that this movie doesn’t work. Yet I hear a subversive whisper: Since it does so many other things, does it have to work, too? Can’t it just exist?” And the fact that it exists at all feels like a weird kind of miracle. It’s a film that seems to have been written and directed by a couple of bright twelve-year-olds, and I mean this as the highest possible praise: few other movies have come so close to putting the inner world of my childhood on film, shot through with veins of something sadder and more regretful. (I’m also inordinately susceptible to the world of Jacques Cousteau, and I wrote an entire novelette, “The Boneless One,” in homage to the fantasy of taking to sea in a research yacht.) But none of it would hold together without Murray at its heart. It takes his air of a man without a country and makes it wonderfully literal, and its star is too wry a performer to allow the story to become overly sentimental or precious: Murray knows that Zissou is kind of an asshole, and the improvised moment when he casually pulls a gun on Cate Blanchett to prove a point provides a necessary grace note to a movie that might otherwise have become insufferably whimsical. Anderson has said that he was inspired to make it by the mental image of the yacht seen in cross section, and it’s undoubtedly a lovely sight. But if the result works at all, it’s because it gives us a glimpse of the inside of Murray as well.

Would you have a drink with this man?

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Bill Murray

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What fictional pop culture figure would you like to go drinking with?”

Protagonists can be a bore. We’ve all been taught that in a good story, the narrative and the hero’s objectives should be inseparable: the conflict should emerge moment to moment from something that the protagonist urgently needs to accomplish, and when his goal has been met—or spectacularly thwarted—the story is over. That’s true enough, and a work that structures itself according to these principles will be infinitely more readable than one that moves aimlessly from one manufactured encounter to another. In practice, though, it often results in leads who are boringly singleminded: when his every action needs to advance the plot, there isn’t enough room for the digressions and loose ends that bring characters to life. That’s why the star of a sitcom or dramatic series is often the least interesting person in sight. Unlike the supporting cast, which has room to go off on tangents, the guy at the center of the show has to strike a constant balance between action, motivation, and relatability, which can drain him of all surprise. A sidekick gets to drift along with the current, and his detours aren’t fatal to the momentum, while the protagonist is under so much narrative pressure that when the story relaxes, he bursts, like a fish brought up from its crevasse to the surface.

As a result, when we think about fictional characters we’d most like to spend time with, we tend to gravitate toward the secondary players. If nothing else, they seem like they’d be willing to sit down and have a drink with us, unlike the protagonist, whose mind would always be skipping ahead to the next plot point. In recent years, television has given us protagonists with the richness and unpredictability of great supporting characters—from Tony Soprano to Don Draper to Walter White—but even they wouldn’t make particularly good drinking companions. Even when a dramatic series allows its protagonist more breathing space, the leads are often burdened with so much backstory that the prospect of hanging out with them seems vaguely exhausting, if not terrifying. We simply know too much about these men and women to relax around them. (This may be why characters in procedurals or more episodic shows, whom we get to know over many years without the cumbersome weight of an overarching story, seem like more fun. I’d love to have a drink with Sherlock Holmes, as long as Watson was there to keep him on his best behavior, and it would be great to kick back with any member of the first two crews of the Enterprise.)

Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye

In film, where the tension between plot and character can be especially crushing, it’s often a particular actor’s magic that gives us the impression that a protagonist would make for an entertaining drinking companion. I’ve never been as big a fan of The Big Lebowski as some of its devotees, but I can see the shaggy appeal of The Dude, who ambles haphazardly through his own movie like an oddball supporting character who managed to wander into the center. Jeff Bridges deserves much of the credit for this, of course, and it’s no surprise that he’s ended up as the icon of a loosely organized cult: we’d all be happier if we and our friends were more like The Dude than, say, Jason Bourne. The Big Lebowski, in turn, is partially an homage to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which benefits in equal measure from Elliot Gould’s presence as Philip Marlowe. It’s possible that the seventies were the golden age of the hangout movie: the rise of independent productions and the auteur director allowed unconventional actors to migrate into leading roles, and if they seem less focused than your standard leading men, it may be because they’re just happy to be there. And we’re happy to be around them.

Sometimes an actor can coast so much on that illusion of affability that the result turns into laziness: I’m not an admirer of Adam Sandler, but he’s clearly a guy that a lot of moviegoers think they’d like as a buddy, which is why his movies have gradually turned into excuses for him to hang out with his friends by the pool. At best, though, an actor’s natural air of ease can become his greatest asset, as long as it’s paired with a director who is committed to using it in interesting ways. Bill Murray has always had a tendency to float through his roles, and one of the great pleasures of a movie like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day is the chance to watch him maintain his sardonic equanimity through the strangest of circumstances. But it wasn’t until Murray fell in with Wes Anderson—and, to a lesser extent, Sofia Coppola—that he found the perfect setting for his gifts. The Murray of Rushmore or The Life Aquatic is, as Pauline Kael said of the late Cary Grant, a peerless creation, and it’s no accident that Anderson so often films him with a beer or a bottle in one hand. (“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go on an overnight drunk, and in ten days I’m going to set out to find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it.“) I’d love to have a drink with Bill Murray. But, failing that, I’ll happily settle for another two hours with Steve Zissou.

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2014 at 10:26 am

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