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Mmm, infinity, and I don’t know what else.


Asteroid City


Credit to Wes Anderson, he has zero interest in hearkening to any of the voices claiming they used to like his movies but stopped a while back, since he’s become a parody of himself and just too enamoured of his own quirky, stylised, empty schtick. If only he could make a movie with real emotion in it. Or something similar. My criticism of Asteroid City would be the same one, near enough, as I had of The French Dispatch. That the vignette format, without either the boisterous comic momentum of The Grand Budapest Hotel or – yes – the (lyrical) emotional undercurrents of The Royal Tennenbaums, leaves his films merely enjoyable, engaging, frivolous, funny and even super smart, but inessential. So much as I liked Asteroid City – and I did – I was mostly unmoved by it.

Woodrow: It’s today again.

Anderson’s pictures inevitably draw attention to their own artifice, be it through tableau framing, colour palette, eccentricity of character and dialogue, playful musical cues or (more recently) switches between aspect ratios and colour and black & white. It’s easy to ascribe insolent meaning to such meta-ness, that of deconstructing form and reality, but in the case of Asteroid City, this appears to be on its mind more explicitly. 

Augie: She’s actually a very gifted comedienne.

After all, it’s a movie (in colour, in widescreen, mostly, which ’50s TV most certainly wasn’t) of a TV production of a play, one hosted by Bryan Cranston – who strays into the colour of the televised realm at one point too: “Am in not in this?” – and punctuated by black-and-white sequences depicting its genesis and offscreen production. A movie in which Scarlett Johansson plays an actress playing an actress (that is, Mercedes Ford is playing the production’s Midge Campbell) who embarks on an affair with Jason Schwartzman’s war photojournalist Augie Steenbeck (who runs through lines with Midge for her forthcoming role). 

Schwartzman is also seen as Jonas Hall, the actor playing Augie, auditioning for his role before playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and consummating the deal with a pair of discarded trousers and a kiss. Augie leaves the (colour) play at one point to go (black & white) backstage, worrying “I still don’t understand the play”, before director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) coaxes him with “Just keep telling the story”. That is: don’t look for meaning here, just keep doing it, which couldn’t be a more Anderson diktat (or the Coen Brothers, for that matter). Indeed, asked by a group of actors what the play is about, Conrad replies with the pricelessly impenetrable “Mmm, infinity, and I don’t know what else”.

Schubert: I don’t think I should be in a building with real windows.

The facades of Augie and Midge – the fronts they present to the world – are essential to this, as well as the blurring of character, role and programmed, performative behaviour; Anderson wants it impenetrable (to them, to us). This is, then, about paradigms. Personal ones and en-masse ones: just keep telling the story (going through the routine of life), and don’t try to understand it. 

The military presence (presided over by Jeffrey Wright’s General Gibson) in Asteroid City is an object lesson in this. They’re on the lookout for technology – including a Tesla-esque Electromagnetic death ray – that can be quickly classified (it doesn’t fit the narrative), and take suggestions for a suitable means of dealing with an unexpected ET incident; “Tell them it didn’t happen?” is dismissed as a joke – even though this has been a standard response – but the need for a suitable cover story is not. 

Anderson indulges a skit on the military interrogation of those present, whereby everyone involved can think of nothing else, from every answer during a Rorschach test coming back “An alien with…” to a debriefing where an individual recounting the alien repeatedly receives the correction “Alleged alien”, and a McCarthyite questioning of budding inventor Ricky (Ethan Josh Lee) regarding a 6th-grade student paper article criticising his principal: “Who were your sources?” “I will not name names!” comes the reply (he later leaks the ET story to the student press).

Consequently, are we to conclude that the refrain “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep” is the trash of self-involved theatrical luvvies getting all method, or that it’s a very direct instruction on just how the world works, that the process of awakening is an exceedingly difficult one, one that requires one to question one’s motivation, what it’s all about, and to pull down those facades?

Narrator: Asteroid city does not exist. It is an original drama created expressly for this performance. The characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication. But it is an authentic account of the inner workings of a modern theatrical production.

Is Asteroid City about infinity? It certainly seems set on invoking a cosmic range as part of its undisciplined expanse, albeit in a very finite way. We’re immediately told this 1950s is a fiction, so we might variously choose to include in this fiction various ideas and concepts it floats, from asteroids/meteors (fiction), to nukes (fact), to aliens (fact), to suppressed technologies (fact), to the existence of God (fact, albeit not so much in the Judaeo-Christian sense). 

As many have, both in movies and contactee/channeller/whistleblower sphere, Anderson connects ETs (this one being vaguely Grey-like but with friendly stop-motion pupils and “played” by Jeff Goldblum “as a metaphor”) with nukes, both in terms of time period and location – obviously: Roswell etc – but then has them arrive purely to remove (and return) the meteorite fragment for the purposes of cataloguing it; one has to wonder, is their interest in the great fictions humans tell themselves (such as the preposterously precise announced impact date of September 23 3007 BC – perhaps a commentary on “accurately” recorded history itself). 

Augie: I don’t like the way that guy looked at us.
Midge: What guy?
Augie: The alien.

Chicken-and-egg-wise, we have another period nuke movie in the year of Oppenheimer, but more nonchalantly by this stage (about 5-or-so years later): “Another atom bomb test” comments the unflustered Augie as he snaps away at it. At this point, the reality has not advanced into full-on terror at its consequences. “This machine sells land” the motel manager (Steve Carrell) announces, but it becomes evident that the actual ownership thereof is as subjective as anything else we may wish to assume comes accompanied by rights. 

Augie: Let’s say she’s in heaven. Which doesn’t exist for me, of course, but you’re Episcopalian.

Then there are more metaphysical concerns, of God and death. Augie musters up the courage to tell his son (Woodrow, played by Jake Ryan) and three daughters that their mother has died (3 weeks previously), but qualifies the entire conversation with caveats concerning belief systems and his own experience of his mother telling him about his dead father (“‘He’s not in the stars’, I said. ‘He’s in the ground.’ She was an atheist. She thought it would comfort me”). Augie’s conception of anything beyond is reductive and ambivalent, something quickly learned by science boffin Woodrow (“I don’t believe in God anymore”). 

Augie’s daughters, meanwhile, are more than content to let their imaginations run rampant (“We are witches. Part witch, part alien”) and insistent on funeral rites no one else ultimately objects to because they don’t care enough. At least the girls have strong opinions, ones that will inevitably be coaxed out of them as they’re educated to be more sensible. Further, one has to wonder at the exchange with grandpops Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks, or rather, Hanks’ brother). He suggests they move their mother’s ashes (preserved in Tupperware) to a more appropriate burial site, and they respond “If you torture us, we’ll sacrifice you”. He replies with a sober “I understand”. I mean, this is, on the face of it, the former Tom Hanks, the Vril’d adrenochrome addict, they’re addressing. Anderson’s in his own world, sure, but he isn’t that oblivious. 

Then there’s Clifford (Aristou Meehan) asking dad (Liev Schreiber) for dares, because he fears, otherwise, “No one will notice my existence in the universe”, the curious concepts of time (it’s always today, but “15 months is 6200 hours”), the cute road runners, and the Anderson trope of a sudden, necessary death (the announcement of “Robbie Conrad dead at 50” concludes the piece). Anderson tends to extract the best from everyone he works with (he even managed it with a late-period Bruce Willis), and this is no exception. His regulars, too many to mention, are all well up to par and include Tilda Swinton as a stargazer, Willem Dafoe as an acting teacher and Rupert Friend as a cowboy. Matt Dillon and Maya Hawke also appear (the Dillon scene is front loaded; he’s a mechanic who persuasively describes the two possible problems with Augie’s car, one of which will be simply and swiftly corrected, the other leaving it a write off. He is quickly provoked to add “I think we’ve got a third problem we’ve never seen before”. He is, then, willing to entertain the unknown and unfamiliar).

Augie: The, uh, alien stole the asteroid.

Anderson’s at his most prolific just now, it seems (as a White Hat, perhaps he feels any brakes or impediments are now off), with the upcoming The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar and Six More (a collection of Roald Dahl shorts; I wasn’t the biggest fan of what he did to The Fantastic Mr Fox, but that’s likely because I cherished the book so much) and another feature beginning… Well, I would guess whenever the various strikes end. We’re almost a decade from The Grand Budapest Hotel, and we’re hopefully due another classic of similar proportions.

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