Astroblemes and Artificiality
Wes Anderson's Asteroid City opens with a sequence establishing that, in the context of the film, Asteroid City is a play written at some point in the 1950s by one Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), and that the rest of the film is a combination of a performance of the play and a look behind the scenes at its history. This play is entirely fictitious, if you see what I mean, and the film's narrator (Bryan Cranston) may even make this point. I'm not sure; assimilating all of the foregoing is a little challenging, considering the film is progressing at a steady clip and is what you might call textually dense throughout.
One of the film's many ironies is that the behind-the-scenes stuff looks extremely stagey and artificial while the sequences which are supposedly the play itself play out in vibrant, oversaturated widescreen colour, seemingly shot on location (though it looks like digitally-modified location to me – there's a dancing roadrunner puppet for one thing). In the context of the play within the film (stay with me, folks, we've only just got started), Asteroid City is a tiny place out in the Arizona desert, not far from a fair-sized astrobleme (a meteor crater, for the uninitiated), where the Junior Stargazer convention is due to be held, sponsored by the US Army.
With me so far? Arriving for the convention is very recently widowed war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), whose eldest child is being honoured there. He also has his late wife's ashes in a Tupperware bowl. Also making an appearance is film star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), whose daughter is likewise very bright, along various other parents (Liev Schrieber, Hope Davis and Stephen Park), and a scout troop overseen by June (Maya Hawke). It's obviously a good day for the motel owner (Steve Carell) while the government soldiers and scientists overseeing the convention (led by Jeffrey Wright and Tilda Swinton) also seem quite optimistic. The only person who seems a bit grim, when he eventually shows up, is Augie's father-in-law (Tom Hanks), who's not pleased that his grandchildren haven't been told about their mother yet.
Well, all these people get to know each other and the convention eventually gets underway, after various diversions and cutaways to goings-on behind the scene. But a significant astronomical conjunction is interrupted by the arrival of an unexpected visitor, who throws everything into turmoil and leads to the army placing the whole area under quarantine…
When the closing credits started rolling at the end of Asteroid City, I found myself wondering 'what was that all supposed to be about, then?' (and also – and I hope you appreciate my candour here – 'I wonder if Scarlett Johansson used a body double for that split-second nude scene?' But mainly the former question). An employee of Oxford's last-Odeon-standing came in with a bin bag; I have got to know him slightly (going to the cinema sixty-plus times a year will have effects like this) and asked me if it was worth a watch. I had to admit I wasn't sure and would have to think about it.
I'm still thinking about it, to be honest. Now, obviously there's a place for studied naturalism in cinema, that's kind of most people's default position. But I'm also open to a bit of non-naturalism as well, probably more than most people – I love a good musical, which is hardly a naturalistic genre, while Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager can't stand them. It possibly goes without saying that Asteroid City is… well, studied naturalism crawls into a hole and dies very early on in proceedings. Attention is repeatedly drawn to the various layers of artifice Anderson creates – there are ostentatious tracking shots as the camera swivels around to introduce various elements of the setting, changes from widescreen to academy ratio, from colour to black and white and back, actors playing the characters in the play but also playing the actors playing the characters (yes, I know, I'm sorry), and so on. At one point Bryan Cranston wanders into a scene he's not supposed to be appearing in, apologises to the camera and leaves.
Technically it's all done with great adroitness, and – as you may have noticed – Anderson has managed to assemble a really astonishingly good cast. (But then lots of famous actors like to show their artistic sensibility by working with the right sort of auteur, which is probably one of the reasons why Woody Allen was able to keep plugging away for as long as he did.) Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe and Margot Robbie all show up for tiny parts, and things just get weird as Jarvis Cocker makes an appearance as a singing cowboy. All right, more weird.
It's obviously never actually dull and it's quite often funny in a deadpan sort of way. Nearly all the actors are playing it completely straight, which probably either adds to the fun or heightens the sense of befuddlement, depending on whether you're on board with Wes Anderson. I have to confess I am not really one of the converted, although I did see the animation about the talking dogs a few years ago. Has Asteroid City persuaded me to seek out more of his older movies? Well, I don't think I'm going to be actively looking for them, to be honest.
'It's all a metaphor for something, I just don't know what,' says Jeff Goldblum in what's pretty much his only significant line of dialogue, alluding to a key plot element. This is pretty much my response to the whole film – it is clearly the work of a rigorous intelligence with a distinct artistic sensibility, made to the most exacting standards in terms of its technical realisation. And on those terms it is a very impressive creation. But the whole nature of the thing – even the purpose of it – is to be a non-immersive narrative. You're constantly reminded you're watching performers playing roles in an artificial environment. There's being all clever and meta and knowing, but there's also telling a good story that entertains on its own terms. The closest thing to a message in Asteroid City seems to be 'you can't wake up if you don't fall asleep' – quite what that's supposed to mean is predictably unclear, but in terms of creating the shared dream of a story, I was wide awake all the way through, and I imagine most other people will be too. But this may be the point.