Thursday, June 29, 2023

Asteroid City (Wes Anderson, 2023)


(Warning: plot twists discussed in full and explicit detail)

Wes Anderson's latest is more of the usual, only different-- good news to Anderson fans, an occasion to groan for most everyone else (tho go figure, opening weekend gave him his biggest box office earnings ever).

Asteroid City tells two stories: the writing and staging of a TV broadcast of famed playwright Conrad Earp's (Edward Norton) latest play and the play itself, about a Junior Stargazer convention held in the eponymous town. 

The narrative, filled with Anderson's signature embarrassing asides and intimate confessions and sudden plot twists, all performed in Anderson's signature monotone (just a tad louder than a whispered confidence), isn't half as important as Anderson's signature visual texture, meticulously designed and immaculately realized on the big screen, with Anderson's signature melancholy flavor murmuring underneath. 

The ambience of an Anderson image is I believe key to his films: you think of an aquarium with clouded glass, exotic fish swimming among wavering fronds and little fantastical palaces; or you think of the suffocating airlessness of a diorama where every detail has been painstakingly molded, assembled, painted, then lit to look as unrealistically (read: stylized) flat as any other display in the obscure long-neglected museum. Anderson's films aren't amusement parks designed for mass entertainment but curated exhibits where the knowing cinephile (or blindly worshipping acolyte) explore, seeking uncommon pleasures. 

And sometimes the film isn't a pleasure; sometimes gazing at an aquarium feels pointless, or the enclosed air smells too musty, or that melancholic streak overwhelms you and forces you to step out for a cigarette break-- maybe take out your cellphone to type out a quick rant on social media. Absolutely valid response: Anderson's something of a navel-gazer, obsessed with his own concerns and ways of expressing those concerns-- in just the exact way he wants to-- and folks can and will grow impatient with that inwardness.

For those that don't respond that way-- not saying you're necessarily better people, you just don't respond that way-- I offer a few observations: with Asteroid City I think Anderson has built his most expansive elaborate diorama yet, a fictional town near Chinchon, Spain (to be precise: an hour outside of Madrid, in a farm field of orange dirt (made from crushed rock scattered on the topsoil, delivered from a nearby quarry) between the town of Chinchon and the town of Colmenar de Oreja) erected to look and feel like a small Arizona town (pop. 87). The single-pump gas station, the luncheonette complete with counter and swiveling chrome chairs, the trellised-and-vined motel with communal shower, the (my favorite detail) gentle rise of a concrete ramp leading to an interrupted highway. Walk across the row of vending machines, drop a quarter, and watch this olive-green miracle of '50s tech dispense a martini complete with conical glass (and an orange twist of course). 

If I talk at tiresome length about the production details that's partly because there's so much to talk about; partly to sketch the microscopic laser focus (shared by cast and crew, inspired by the filmmaker) necessary to fabricate such detail; partly to note that with all the effort spent on making large immersive sets they still have the quality of the diorama and the miniature to them-- they're still artificial constructs meant to suggest the world we know, not literal representations of that world. Anderson and crew working outdoors create a full-sized replica that still feels like a scale model-- quite an achievement, though people will argue if it's an achievement with any kind of value. 

There's the flying jetpack-- and here we're reminded of Schwartzman's Max in Rushmore, who manages to mount a high school play on the Vietnam War complete with tiny fighter jets zooming across the stage on wires dropping napalm on a dwarf jungle. There's the pair of motel room windows facing each other through which Schwartzman's photojournalist Augie conducts a tentative courtship with Scarlett Johansson's movie star Midge, and one is reminded of any number of Romeo and Juliet romances conducted across windows (even Johnnie To staged a version, between skyscrapers no less). 

If you've been on Tiktok you'd likely have come upon one of many videos imitating Anderson's style, but where the videos are excellent parodies (not hard to emulate, and plenty of examples handy) they don't quite capture the full flavor-- the whip-pans, the leisurely tracking shots, the wit and surprise and sadness that often accompany these images. The alien's surprisingly mournful eyes is one particularly brilliant touch; the three girls in princess dresses (actually they're witches, or one is part witch part alien) reciting incantations over their mother's tupperwared ashes is another. The balcony scene between the actor playing Augie and the actress playing his wife may be my favorite, the actress handing back to Augie her lines from a deleted scene, helping clarify for him his character, or his grief, or at least his reason for 'telling the story' as his director urges him to do. Tiktok parodies no matter how smartly made can't capture that kind of emotional delicacy. 

And that's the appeal of Anderson's latest, at least for me. If that's not enough to draw you in and enjoy, I totally understand; if that is, I totally sympathize-- can only offer my bit of companionship in our melancholy visits through this dilapidated curio of a show. 

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