Wes Anderson’s new film, Asteroid City, is like a cartoon without the toons. It’s true that the alien who descends (twice) into the picture looks like a drawing of a long-legged human tadpole. Similarly, the desert where much of the film is set looks less like an actual landscape than a sketch of somebody’s idea of such a place, complete with squiggled humps serving as mesas. But then the credits tell us that an actor (Jeff Goldblum) is playing the role of the alien, and that the film’s principal sets – a petrol station, a diner, a motel – are just that: sets. That is, built and then photographed. (There is an unfinished ramp for a motorway that looks so confected we have to believe in its literal, if not its fictive, reality.) For good measure, the film pretends to be a documentary about the staging of a play – unless perhaps it is about the making of the documentary about the staging. Set mainly in the American West in 1955, the film opens with busy, nostalgia-inducing songs, both recorded in 1957: ‘Last Train to San Fernando’ and ‘Freight Train’.
The effect of all this, although I’m still trying to figure out how Anderson could get such a result from these elements, is not trickery or philosophy but a sort of innocence. We are awake and also dreaming. The suggestion, I think, is that life as we live it may be largely an affair of props and sets, and Anderson is inviting us not to feel too bad about this possibility. The question ‘Who framed Asteroid City?’ looks towards the same answer as Who Framed Roger Rabbit. We did, with some prompts from the directors. We farmed out a lot to our memories and imaginations.
Asteroid City may belong to the mode of retro-futuristic art, as some critics have suggested, and I do think that Anderson is both parodying and peddling some such thing. We shall know who we are by pretending we know who we once thought we were going to be. Who were we, or who were the Americans, in the atomic-coloured deserts of the 1950s? The film brings together an assortment of people who have some reason to be at a research institute in the wilderness: children who have won a science prize; their parents; the administrators of the institute; visiting scholars; a wandering country music band. The occasion is Asteroid Day, an annual celebration of a meteorite that landed in this part of the desert five thousand years ago.
The prizes are distributed and everyone gets to look, through the appropriate protective lenses, at what is called an ‘astronomical ellipsis’. Only briefly, though. A flying saucer descends and hovers; the aforementioned alien drops out and helps itself to the meteorite fragment. It is a polite alien, though, who a little while later returns the treasure – the borrowing, a stamp on the object suggests, was only for a historical check ordered by the alien’s community.
The comic question for the plot is what to do with the visible proof that there is life among the stars – with the thought that astronomers and stargazers (the film likes to juxtapose the terms) may have new matters for reflection. The immediate effect of the alien’s arrival is that no one can leave the place. Everyone has to be quarantined and tested for whatever medicine and psychology know how to test. Their lives are effectively frozen.
One could fill a whole review with the names of the stars (no pun) in this movie. They include Adrien Brody, Steve Carell, Willem Dafoe, Tom Hanks, Edward Norton, Margot Robbie, Liev Schreiber, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright – most of whom appeared in Anderson’s previous film, The French Dispatch (2021). These are engaging presences representing the writer of the play, its producer, the director of an acting school, a parent, a grandparent, the director of the institute, a scientist, a motel manager and many other figures, but in spite of the crowd the film seems light. A less friendly word would be ‘shallow’, and it is true that Asteroid City often appears to be waiting for what isn’t going to happen. But then things do happen, and they benefit from their apparently casual arrival.
Even before the alien’s descent, certain moods and conditions were changing because of the location. Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer whose camera never leaves his neck, manages to tell his four children that their mother is dead – he has been failing to do this for three weeks. He couldn’t find the right time. Now he has her ashes in a plastic box that he can’t take home. The little girls don’t want to take it home anyway, they want to bury it at what they feel is a magical site, a place where science turns into science fiction, and they do.
Augie develops a sort of static intimacy with Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) by taking photographs of her without her permission, or with permission granted only after the fact. She is a famous actress and the mother of a prize-winning child. She has a mark on her cheek, and she talks about the cruelty of the men she has known. Still, she’s happy enough to show anyone that the mark is simply painted, and easily wiped off. She wears it as a symbol rather than a physical memory. But then she slips deeper and deeper into sadness, either in the play or in the life she lives outside of plays – it’s hard to tell. The longer she stays in the desert the more she comes to believe that the clichés of pessimism are true. She thinks of ‘catastrophically wounded people’, literally or metaphorically hit by a meteorite, and this theme produces one of the film’s two great dizzying moments.
Augie and Midge are in neighbouring motel buildings separated only by a narrow alley. They can see easily into each other’s dens and speak as if they are in the same room. There is a much discussed (by critics and viewers) shot of Midge taking a shower, and a photograph by Augie of the same scene. In the moment I am talking about, however, Midge appears to be dead, lying in the bathtub with her head on the edge – a classic suicide position in films. The shot seems to be held for a long time (it isn’t). Augie speaks to Midge. She doesn’t answer. Then she does. She says, ‘Do 45.’ Augie doesn’t understand straight away but quickly catches up and riffles through the pages of a script. She is referring to the moment when her character dies. They are rehearsing. I think we have to wonder whether she isn’t wrong about the truths of pessimism.
The other great moment also involves Augie, but more centrally. He leaves the Technicolor film set for the black and white backstage of a theatre, and then steps out onto a balcony in a narrow city street: a theatre district somewhere, plenty of neon lights in the background. This is as close as any movie is going to get to a certain kind of realism, presenting a true picture of a historical location visitable by anyone. On another balcony just across the street stands Augie’s dead wife. She reads the lines she would have recited if she and the lines had not been cut from the finished movie. I’m not going to try to unpack this eerie sequence, but I do want to mention one of its suggestions which is hard to miss. If we seriously want to meet up with our loved ghosts, we should perhaps look in the least, rather than the most fantastic, places. We may even have to leave the building.
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