In Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” the Artist Is Present

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The notion of a perfect movie is absurd, but some movies attain an ideal synthesis of the director’s body of work. Wes Anderson’s latest, “Asteroid City,” is one such film. Although it reflects the same impulsive outpouring of creative energy as his other great movies, this one involves a singular balance of his prime themes, styles, ideas, and obsessions—a sense that he’s taking a few steps back from his cinematic canvas and recalibrating the relationship of his art, and of himself, to the world at large. “Asteroid City” provides a sense of a self-summing-up; without an alter ego in the cast of characters, he’s reflecting on his methods, his artistic desires, his standpoint on cinema. It’s not necessarily Anderson’s greatest work (whatever that means), nor even his most personal film. But it’s the one in which, by stepping back, he makes himself intellectually and emotionally most present.

The step back is built into the movie by way of a framing device, an ingenious setup that put a literal smile on my face when I first saw it—a faux mid-fifties black-and-white television show that is itself a giddy confection of metafictional whimsy. Bryan Cranston plays the unnamed host of the broadcast, a docu-fiction about the creation and production of a play called “Asteroid City.” The host characterizes the play as nonexistent, a title and a set of details cooked up for the purposes of the broadcast. Anderson delights (and those two words go together for pretty much everything he has ever filmed) in the details of live TV broadcasts, presenting the stage, foursquare in front of video cameras, on which a playwright named Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) is diligently typing away, oblivious to the presence of an announcer describing the action. (In a perpendicular view, Anderson also reveals the presence of an employee, just offstage, creating the broadcast’s sound effects, live, with percussion instruments and other gizmos.) The host runs through the list of performers who’ll be appearing in the broadcast, including the actor Jones Hall (Jason Schwartzman) and the actress Mercedes Ford (Scarlett Johansson), and places the play in September, 1955, divided into three acts.

Most of “Asteroid City,” however, is that very play—the one that ostensibly doesn’t exist. It’s performed not in a theatre but in the highly stylized three-dimensional space of a tiny desert town called Asteroid City, population eighty-seven, where a bunch of outsiders converge for a little more than a week and make history. The town—known, if known at all, for its meteorite crater and the meteorite that caused it—is about to welcome a convention of so-called Junior Stargazers. Their prime hosts and sponsors are the federal government—in particular, the Army, represented by General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), whose grandiloquence is matched by his battle-hardened tragic sensibility. A war photographer named Augie Steenbeck (Schwartzman) turns up there with his high-schooler son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and identical-triplet girls of about six (Ella, Gracie, and Willan Faris), toting a Tupperware container that holds the ashes of his late wife (Margot Robbie), who died three weeks earlier and whose death he has been unable to disclose to his children yet.

Another of the Stargazers is a teen named Dinah Campbell (Grace Edwards), who’s brought there by her mother, Midge Campbell (Johansson), a movie star who is both hiding out in Asteroid City from personal misfortune and rehearsing a role in a new movie—one in which she plays a troubled woman who takes her own life and reflects on her experience posthumously as a sort of ghost. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that the divorced Midge and the newly widowed Augie have an intense affair—and that Dinah and Woodrow also forge a tender, sweetly and shyly romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Augie’s father-in-law, Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), a pistol-packing, golf-obsessed lawyer, shows up in his Cadillac convertible to reclaim his late daughter’s ashes and to ferry the four children back to his home on the edge of a golf course. Woodrow and Dinah form a band of outsiders with three other young inventors (Ethan Josh Lee, Sophia Lillis, and Aristou Meehan), and the trio’s parents (respectively, Steve Park, Hope Davis, and Liev Schreiber) provide a kind of Greek chorus for the convention’s intrigues. Amid the intersecting currents of work and love, intellectual creativity and intimate passion, a U.F.O. drops an alien into the crater to abscond with the meteorite, and the town—under military command—goes into a lockdown (officially called a quarantine) in order to sustain a total government-run coverup that the kids themselves daringly break in transmitting the news to the world.

Anderson brings this elaborate whirligig of a story—with its powerful strain of grief and its oppressive vision of governmental power, its wondrous sense of surpassing strangeness and its voracious passion for the vitality of everyday doings—to the screen with an aesthetic passion that reflects his personal devotion. He takes moments of experience, whether minor or grand, and, by means of comprehensive stylization, calls attention to the overwhelming profusion of emotionally powerful, albeit infinitesimal, details that make those moments indelible. He is creating both experience and memory in real time, and thus generates a powerful nostalgia for the present, a longing to catch and freeze and hold on to each of these details in each of these moments. In effect, this is an artifice born of a VHS childhood, where tiny details and embedded peculiarities can be watched and rewatched and thereby magnified out of proportion to their prominence; the result is to efface the distinction between foreground and background, drama and ornament, and to turn a movie into a unified visual—and affective—field.

Anderson fills his cast with celebrated actors and others who aren’t celebrated yet but get their coming-out exaltation in his movie, and he films them with unreserved fascination and uninhibited ardor. “Asteroid City” is a movie of full-frontal faces. There’s no director currently working who’s as obsessed with faces as Anderson is. For all the meticulous construction and fine-grained composition of his films’ performances and images, he’s the current directorial generation’s main heir to Cassavetes in his attention to faces. Anderson’s square-to-the-camera compositions allow him to look his actors in the face; moreover, the face-to-face confrontation of actors, looking at each other by looking into the camera and thereby confronting the viewer, is one of his prime tropes. To see Anderson’s actors is virtually to be in direct personal relation to them. Anderson’s cinema is a heightening of love, of intense connection with what’s onscreen.

There’s the question of why so many critics charge Anderson with suppressing emotion through the antics of his artifices, and why this critical attitude has long prevailed and is still taken seriously. Fortunately, “Asteroid City” provides the answer, by way of its framing device. The broadcast hosted by Cranston is also a tale of the theatre itself, and, no less than Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight” or Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve,” Anderson’s film provides a crucial contrast between the art of theatre and the art of cinema. The black-and-white TV show, which punctuates the movie throughout, tells the story of how Jones Hall, an obscure actor, rose to sudden stardom through his personal association with the playwright Conrad Earp; it shows how the famous director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) brought the nonexistent play to the stage, how he sacrificed his private life to his career, and how his tempestuous professional relationship with the co-star of the play, Mercedes Ford, also led to the promotion of an intrepid understudy (Ryan) to a leading role (as Woodrow). It also shows an intense, fervent actors’ workshop, led by the charismatic teacher Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe). This is a nod, of course, to the Actors Studio, and is a setting where key moments in the play are subject to fiercely focussed analytical scrutiny and guided improvisations.

The black-and-white TV broadcast is a story of the theatre that’s mainly filmed as if it were being viewed not through the probing and roving and intimacy-provoking eye of a camera but from a theatrical, stage-bound distance. Yes, the camera moves, and Anderson crafts some ingenious maneuvers for it (as in horizontal tracking shots backstage to show Schubert’s temporary living quarters). But he offers few closeups, maintains distance (sometimes strikingly frustrating distance) from the mighty cast that he assembles for the theatre-centered sequences, and thus indicates an essential distinction between this theatrical world and his own cinematic one. It’s the success of such ferocious performances—and the equation of ferocity with veracity, of the show of emotion with the feeling of emotion—that has both enshrined the Method and the Actors Studio in modern artistic mythology and inured critics to the kinds of performances that Anderson achieves.

Yet, far from cinematically dismissing this theatrical concept, he also suggests the crucial connection between it and his own methods. The highly expressive form of acting on display in the most celebrated of Method performances is indeed antipodal to Anderson’s precise, restrained, and unified acting style. But, instead of the Stella-bellow for which Marlon Brando is remembered, there’s also the slighter yet greater display of his genius in the infinitesimals, such as, in “On the Waterfront,” the comedic delicacy with which, saying “Dink,” he clinks glasses with Eva Marie Saint, or the sad purr with which he gently pushes aside the gun held by Rod Steiger. Such moments, which distill vast emotions to delicate, precise, almost overlookable grace notes, mark the connection to Anderson’s exacting complexity, his construction of scenes from an overwhelming profusion of such touches—in the writing, the placement of the camera, the décor, the color scheme, the costumes, the dialogue, the music, the casting, and the actors’ highly directed and micromanaged performances. Each of these is a “Dink” or a gun-push, deft and subtle and expressive, by Anderson himself. He doesn’t create and direct a scene for any outer dramatic necessity but under the intense inner urgency of what it means to him personally; every daub of paint and detail of hairstyling is invested with the fervor of his own emotional memory. He himself, not his cast, is the supreme Method actor of his own films.

The TV broadcast and the on-location story, the docu-fiction about a play that doesn’t exist and the staging of that play somewhere in a cinematic theatre of the mind, are related as a framing device and the story that’s framed. But the two intertwined parts function more like a diptych, at the same level—something like an Old Testament and a New Testament of the cinema (I’m reminded of the two parts of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Nouvelle Vague”)—and this marks the even more essential distinction between the two realms. One of these worlds belongs to Anderson’s artistic mythology and the other belongs to his experience: namely, in the New York theatre segment, there are no children. (The character played by Ryan, though young, is thrust into an adult world of intrigues and has no childlike experience in the course of those sequences; Schubert has a child who’s only mentioned, never seen or heard.) And children are the core of Anderson’s philosophical vision and social ideal.

The Old Testament is the world of adults; in Anderson’s cinematic New Testament, a child (or several) shall lead them. Both Testaments are set in the supposedly repressed and conformist and backward nineteen-fifties, and Anderson finds in both of them the avatars of the future—both the disinhibition of the New York scene for adults and the visionary intelligence and insurrectionary audacity of the brilliant children at the unconventional near-California convention. Anderson’s big bang is 1968 (suggested in “Moonrise Kingdom,” depicted in “The French Dispatch”), and the children of “Asteroid City” are its avant-garde. His teens (and even the peremptory triplets) display preternatural ingenuity, not just scientific or intellectual but emotional, human; he extrudes the richness of their emotional worlds and the power of their often ineffable sensitivity and discernment. They show irrefutable sharpness and rightness in their immediate judgment because, dependent on and subject to the power of adults, their lives depend on it; and they put this judgment into poetically precise words and daring, decisive actions. Theirs are voices of liberation. “Asteroid City” demonstrates (for anyone who ever doubted it) that, far from being a mere stylist, Anderson is a far-seeing and deep-thinking political filmmaker. ♦


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