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Anderson Unbound

The audacious poetry of “Asteroid City.”


Whether or not you enjoy the movies of Wes Anderson, the complaint that he’s a stylist at the expense of substance brutally misses the point. Every image has been calibrated to achieve a specific effect — in terms of what people mean when they speak of filmmakers who create “pure cinema,” Anderson couldn’t be a better candidate. I’ll never forget the grieving boy in “Rushmore” who plunges himself into the theater as well as every other possible pursuit. When someone falls, he moves them under a streetlamp for better lighting, sanitizing the chaos of life with his art. It feels like an autobiographical touch, especially in retrospect, as Anderson has devoted his cinema to characters attempting to process the unpredictability of life via art and other obsessions.

Think of the montages that litter every Anderson film, in which characters explain their hobbies to their audience. These are not merely excuses for Anderson to take a bow and linger over his amazing set designs, but the manna of the movies. With more money and confidence, Anderson continues to dive deeper into minutiae. There’s a faultlessly timed sight gag early in “The French Dispatch” in which a drink tray rotates under the control of offscreen hands that load it with lovingly crafted drinks of the staff of a New Yorker- type magazine. You can fail to respond to an Anderson film, and I barely got through “The French Dispatch,” and still bow your head in respect to the phenomenal craftsmanship and the subliminal character portraiture. Anderson takes a Godard theme—that we are what we consume—and spins it into the stuff of despairing fantasia.

“Asteroid City” is the next logical step for Anderson, as it is set predominantly in the fantasy projection of an often offscreen character. If characters’ hobbies are their identity embodied, then we are seeing here a playland concocted from psychological detritus. The trailers allow one to think that “Asteroid City” is a kooky Anderson movie set out in the desert in the 1950s with a potential for alien hijinks, but there’s an elaborate framing device that crystallizes the movie’s essence. In the outer shell, we are watching a black-and-white TV special with a host (Bryan Cranston) concerned with the life of the legendary playwright, Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), who’s cut from the tortured, closeted cloth of Tennessee Williams and who wrote a metaphorical play about tourists out in desert encountering an alien, while mushroom clouds sprout up from A-bomb testing. Within the special about Conrad’s life, which includes details about the staging of the play with fictional legends of a school of acting that’s clearly a gloss on the Method, we see the play itself dramatized as a Wes Anderson movie. That’s the shell that the trailers have been selling, and it’s the majority of “Asteroid City.”

It sounds belabored, but Anderson establishes the rules of the game within minutes, before the opening credits have unspooled. It’s going to be tempting for people to ask why the frames-within-frames are necessary, however. The answer is that “Asteroid City” is a deliberately alienating movie. Anderson wants to move you while pushing you to acknowledge the artifices involved in crafting a pretend story that affects the audience emotionally. The central story of “Asteroid City” concerns a father, Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), who’s struggling to find a way to tell his three precocious children that their mother has died. In this film’s myriad nesting realities, Augie is established as being played by an actor who had an affair with Earp while struggling to find the character. The actor doesn’t understand the point of the play he’s in, as Anderson fluidly links the struggle to find an artistic thread with the efforts to make sense of life. Anderson contextualizes the Method as a psychological think tank plumbing for meanings that may or may not be in the text, though the search is the meaning.

It's the search that seems to spur unforgettable Method moments. Think of Brando playing with the glove in “On the Waterfront” or with the cat in “The Godfather.” One of the subtlest motifs of “Asteroid City” is this recurrence of indelible gestures that temporarily pop through the frame, establishing the simulacrum of a psychology of a character within a microsecond. I’m struggling to resist simply listing bits, as there’s a motherlode in this movie, even by Anderson’s standards, of unforgettable business that speaks volumes quickly and cumulatively. In “Asteroid City,” Schwartzman gets dozens of these gestures, as do other characters, and with the nesting structure in place these moments establish the temperature of multiple characters simultaneously. In one frame, an amusing bit with a pipe reveals Augie’s need to hide behind ostentatious artifice; in another frame, a director calls out the actor playing Augie for indulging in too much shtick. Two bits of pathos for the price of one, which collectively hint at the vast social infrastructure that contains Anderson’s figures as well as all of us.

We are seeing ripple effects, witnessing how Earp’s despair mutates into Augie’s rootless grief, which becomes an emotional moment for you and I as we watch “Asteroid City.” Anderson has been experimenting with these kinds of structures for most of his career. Think of how in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” we come to understand a painting as an embodiment of the reach of fascism across multiple stories of multiple generations. Anderson hasn’t fully gotten his Brecht on, not yet at any rate, as he uses alienation effects to intensify, rather than diminish, conventional emotional currents. If you reject this intricate infrastructure, you can still enjoy “Asteroid City” as a well-honed art object with flashes of surprisingly intimate melodrama. If you accept the film entirely on its terms, “Asteroid City” opens up to reveal the heart of Anderson’s cinema, achieving a unique and thorny kind of poignancy. Paul Schrader got it right when he claimed that “Asteroid City” is the best Wes Anderson movie because it’s the most Wes Anderson movie.

With all of this framing doing so much work for him, Anderson can whittle “Asteroid City” down to the moments that matter to him, discarding pointless formula plotting. Those spare desert images, clearly fake and luscious to behold, suggest the spectrum of the American psyche boiled down to chillingly cheerful postcard images. The ingenious cutting between Augie and Midge (Scarlett Johansson), an actress preparing for the role of an abused wife, herself played by a promising proponent of the Method, suggests two people in nesting realms connected by their lack of connection. Staying in neighboring cabins, while their children participate in a science expo that’s understood to be a scam perpetuated by the American military to harvest weaponry innovations, Augie and Midge exchange existential Anderson witticisms, each sitting at a window of their cabin facing the other, or, depending on the angle, the audience of the film. I could’ve watched an entire film of these alternating first-person compositions, featuring actors who speak wounded Anderson-ese fluently. Anderson writes their faces on the screen as myths.

Anderson burrows so deeply into his aesthetic in “Asteroid City” that the nests begin to bleed into one another, suggesting a ghost in the machine, a flaw in the programming that hints at existential terror. Even critics who admire “Asteroid City” have failed to acknowledge its jolting creepiness. Into one of the Technicolored fantasy-scapes of “Asteroid City” wanders Bryan Cranston’s host, who’s now in color himself. Quickly realizing he’s in the wrong place, he shuffles offscreen. It’s a joke that hints at madness. Was that the host or Cranston himself? How can a play being mounted in a New York theater in the 1950s, shot in black-and-white, resemble a contemporary Anderson movie anyway? Because Anderson, this realm’s God, decrees it. At times, they seem to know they’re in a movie and are desperate to escape it, like the characters of episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” Catching Cranston in the frame is like happening upon the agents in a Philip K. Dick story who actually control our reality.

The Cranston joke is a set-up for a more startling act of thrashing against the cage, whether you wish to define it as the dimensions of Auggie’s reality, the reality of the actors mounting “Asteroid City,” our own, or the version of America under Anderson’s consideration, one racked by the Red Scare, by the invention of the A-bomb, by a discriminatory set of mores that force people into closeted lifestyles. Or all or none of the above. The maestro of this method, played by Willem Dafoe, mounts a chant in which the actors, trying to bring a moment from Earp’s play to life, begin to chant: “You can’t wake up, unless you go to sleep.” As they chant, they turn to face us, and even the alien from the nesting story appears, eyes gleaming with awe and malevolence.

Even for Anderson, this sequence is astonishingly confrontational. A sentimental read of this scene could deem it a testimonial to the power of art to heal, a theme that has attracted Anderson in the past, but the implications here are murkier. Art could be better described as an attempt to heal. A flawed attempt. It says something devastating about Anderson’s shifting worldview that the master scene of Earp’s “Asteroid City,” the scene that unites the characters in communal rapture and renders Augie sensical to his host actor, is revealed to have been cut. Though this cut scene, a now-dead scene about a dead wife who mirrors every dead person in Augie’s life as well as every disappointment in Earp’s as well as every dead person in Anderson’s cinema, is still nevertheless eventually shared between two people in a moment of connection experienced in between other cacophonies. They found meaning amongst leftovers discarded by an author who couldn’t bear to believe in his own hokum, and so the scene finds a way to come to life anyway. This is a catharsis of exquisite bottomless irony.

“Asteroid City,” one of Anderson’s most personal and sophisticated films, feels like nothing less than a reckoning—a borderline avant-garde plunge into madness representing the height of his figurative poetry. Stories within stories within stories within stories within stories suggest everything. And nothing.

“Asteroid City” is now playing in theaters nationwide.