Lary Wallace at Faster Times with an insightful reading of Sea King, August 2, 2010

On the DVD commentary track to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)—that large-canvas parody of not just the films, but really the whole damn life, of Jacques Cousteau—director Wes Anderson and his co-writer, Noah Baumbach, discuss having been advised by Peter Bogdanovich on one particular moment in the film. He’d told them that it was a bad move, that scene where the son dies in the helicopter accident—it’s too abrupt, too joltingly out-of-synch with the rest of the movie’s mood. His criticisms, apparently, tended toward the aesthetic, but given the tragedy that Bogdanovich had experienced in his own long life, it’s likely that he also saw the sheer gratuitousness of the scene, and its harshness, and wondered what in the world these callow young protégés of his could have possibly been thinking.

Jacques Cousteau’s son Philippe, of course, died in a similar though not identical accident, but most of the other parallels between Zissou’s life and Cousteau’s are more lighthearted and parody-ready: there’s the early, idealistic documentaries followed later by films not as well received, and which sometimes have to tamper with reality to achieve their effects; there’s that old warhorse of a vessel repaired and refurbished, made seaworthy over and over again (Cousteau called his the Calypso; Zissou’s is the Belafonte); there’s a bizarre, screwed-up family comprised of so many loose and unconventional parts, it’s scarcely possible to believe it all (this may be one reason why Anderson actually decided to mute, rather than exaggerate, the strangeness involved here); and, of course—how would one fail to mention?—there’s the red knit caps that the crew all wears.

Those are just the obvious, protruding parallels, and one of the pleasures of always reading about Jacques Cousteau is finding some of the smaller, buried, less conspicuous ones. Those pleasures are there for the taking in Brad Matsen’sThe Sea King, amazingly one of the only full-length biographies ever written about Cousteau, a man who through his films was able to create an awareness of, and a concern for, the ecology—an awareness and a concern which, if all too prevalent today, was not nearly apparent enough in the 1950s, when Cousteau was making his first documentaries, or even in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when he was making his most popular ones.

Matsen’s book was written, proofed, and published well before the BP-sponsored oil leak from out of the Gulf Coast, but you can imagine what kind of sport he would have had, had he written later, with the knowledge that BP actually rescued Cousteau’s career—which is to say that it rescued the cause of environmentalism itself—at a crucial moment near its very beginning. Cousteau hadn’t even made his first film yet—hadn’t even made The Silent World (1956)—and although his book of that title was phenomenally successful, with almost a half-million copies in print, all the money accrued from that endeavor was earmarked for the conduction of his research, and it looked like he might have to close down his operation altogether for a lack of funds. This is the same research that had allowed Cousteau to conceive of and then develop the Aqua-Lung, a truly revolutionary technology that allowed deep divers to avoid narcosis by breathing air and helium, for extended periods and in lieu of nitrogen.

BP wanted to exploit this technology in its quest to prospect for ever more oil, all the oil that the seas might conceivably conceal, and they put up real money to Cousteau and his divers to board the Calypso and explore with them the Persian Gulf. Cousteau was enterprising enough to bring his cameras along, and that’s part of how he got The Silent World on film. The movie won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, and it enjoyed a tremendous success by every other measure possible. Cousteau was on his way to making the string of set-piece television series for PBS that would make him an icon. That’s never the end of any story, of course, and by the 1980s, his moment seemingly behind him, Cousteau was once again desperately in search of cash. John Denver, who had already made his song “Calypso” in homage to Cousteau’s craft, now introduced Jacque’s son Jean-Michel to his buddy Ted Turner, who was more than happy to put some piece of his billions toward whatever endeavor Cousteau may have planned for himself next.

And so the Cousteau’s Society bobbed and buoyed and stayed afloat still. Recently, it had been $5 million in debt, and now it was flush. For Cousteau to have managed the fiscal health of his enterprise the way he did, while all the time conducting research, shooting and editing film, dealing with television producers and film distributors, keeping his employees satisfied, then maintaining not one but two families (keeping the first unaware of the second) must have required all the concentrated energies of a highly disciplined man. To call this a talent for multitasking is to impugn its immensity and extent.

But when his first wife died and he married the other woman—with whom he already had two children—on the very anniversary of Phlippe’s death, his first-born son was none too pleased. Jean-Michel, in his repulsion, refused to have anything to do with either Jacques or Francine, and the feeling was mutual. It was about this time—fittingly, symbolically—that the Calypso finally broke down, seemingly for good. Anderson in The Life Aquatic fetishizes the ship and its functions by showing a cross-section of theBelafonte and then providing a tour of all its many neat-o compartments; Matsen does something similar for the Calypso, and it’s easy to see why the crew would have been so loathe to let go of her:

On deck, Cousteau had installed a crow’s nest on a square aluminum scaffolding in front of the wheelhouse, which gave an observer an additional 20 feet of elevation. It had a full set of steering and power controls, and also held the radar and radio antennas at the highest point on the ship. Aft of the deckhouse was a towering wench for retrieving sample cables, dredges, and baskets of artifacts on archeological expeditions, and a light davit for launching and recovering dive tenders, compression chambers, and other equipment. On the top deck, behind the wheelhouse, was another davit for lowering and lifting an auxiliary motor launch.

The next deck up was given over to the galley, a dining salon with banquettes around a single table that could seat most of the crew of twenty-two at the same time, a double cabin for Jacques and Simone Cousteau, Cousteau’s office, six two-berth cabins, toilets and showers, and a wine cellar. A shelter deck ran on the port and starboard sides from just under the wheelhouse to the open diving deck, onto which the staterooms in the middle of the ship opened directly through separate doors. The navigation bridge, chart room, a four-berth cabin, and the captain’s cabin topped the ship, behind which was a streamlined funnel. On the funnel were painted the green silhouettes of a swimming sea nymph and adolphin. First sketched by painter Luc-Marie Bayl on a bar napkin, Cousteau and Simone chose it to be the insignia of the Calypso and French Oceanographic Expeditions.

After Jacques died, Francine was left in charge of all Cousteau operations, and what’s more, she even sued Jean-Michel over use of the name. (Jacques, when he was still alive, had also prevented Jean-Michel from using the name, on a Fiji Islands resort.) In all the documentaries he currently makes, for National Geographic, Jean-Michel has agreed to use only his full name in the titles. One of those documentaries is to be about the BP oil disaster. Meanwhile, the Calypso is being summoned from the dead; it’s currently in the shipyards being refurbished. It will sail again on the 100-year anniversary of Cousteau’s birth.

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1 Response to “Lary Wallace at Faster Times with an insightful reading of Sea King, August 2, 2010”


  1. 1 Alberto Gaffi February 28, 2011 at 11:43 am

    We are really interested to translate in italian your marvellous book The Sea King, please contact us alberto@gaffi.it


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