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"Asteroid City": A Road to Nowhere
In this edition of Marginalia, postmodernism as a cultural cul-de-sac, and whether Wes Anderson can find a way out of it.
Asteroid City (2023)
Towards the beginning of Asteroid City, when we first arrive at the titular town, the camera pans and lingers in Wes Anderson fashion on key features, and we see something that explains the grand name of this tiny outpost: a half-finished bridge, complete on one side and suddenly, humorously, ending at its middle above the single road through town. A sign beside it says, “Ramp Closed Indefinitely”. This place is full of unmet aspiration and little else, a little town that once dreamt of being a big city. This image also serves as an apt metaphor for the film itself: incomplete, unfulfilled, promising something greater than it is.
We are brought into the town by way of a black-and-white introduction, which reveals that the film we’ve bought tickets to is not a film at all but a play whose production we are granted behind-the-scenes access to. So it was that first the lights fell in my cinema and then my spirits; few things are as certain to dampen my enthusiasm for a film like being incessantly reminded that the film is mere artifice, and that suspending my credulity to actually enjoy the thing would make me a sucker, as if all of this postmodernity hadn’t already played itself out quite some time ago.
Yet – credit where it’s due – I found myself quickly forgetting that the colour scenes set in Asteroid City were “fake” (as in, false within the world of the film). No matter how many times we returned to the production story of the play, and in spite of title cards that announced the act we were in, I lost myself in the rhythm of the play’s narrative and the stellar performances of the actors playing actors in a play within the film. (All this Babushka doll nonsense does get tedious.)
All the actors are on fine form in Asteroid City, from the Anderson regulars to the newcomers. Steve Carell puts some meat on the bare bones of his small role, and it’s great to see Sophia Lillis, who was a standout in It: Chapter One, on a big screen again. This might also be one of my favourite performances from Anderson veteran Jason Schwartzman, who loads the subtext of his character’s silences with real pathos, and he does so with subtlety. There is a maturity to Asteroid City, a certain restraint that feels, if not new to an Anderson film, particularly refined here, and I think much of that is thanks to Schwartzman’s grieving-without-grieving widower.
Scarlett Johansson is perhaps the finest player in this film, giving a layered performance pitched perfectly to Anderson’s usual tone, but edged with a subtle humanity that defies the affectless quality Anderson’s dialogue is known for. I could have happily watched her in far more scenes than she has, and she could have easily carried a version of the film in which she plays the lead character. As the film stands, no one is quite the lead, and no storyline quite takes centre stage. The whole thing meanders around with the spotlight drifting across the many characters and plot-lines, never resting for long enough to let any of them develop much depth.
In one of the film’s many overt instances of self-reference, a family are burying the ashes of their mother when one character says, “We don’t have any burial rights to this plot here,” to which another, walking into shot, says, “I would question whether it even is a plot.” Once the internal groan had subsided, I had to concede the point – this loosely strung-together sequence of non-events is hard to describe as a “plot”. Even the alien visitor has very little impact on the narrative and doesn’t amount to much more than two cutesy moments of stop-motion.
Speaking of that alien: near the film’s conclusion, Schwartzman’s character breaks the fourth wall within the movie by leaving the colourful world of the play through a door in what is revealed to be a stage. He enters the black-and-white backstage world, where he meets Jeff Goldblum dressed as the alien and telling a member of crew, “I don’t play him as an alien actually, I play him as a metaphor. That’s my interpretation.” As if being beaten over the head with this clunky piece of meta-commentary wasn’t enough of a blow to the skull, Schwartzman asks him, “A metaphor for what?” and Goldblum replies, “I don’t know yet.”
Much of this postmodernism-by-the-books might be exciting to first-year film students for whom Asteroid City could serve as an intro to the dominant cultural mode of the last sixty years. For the rest of us, steeped in postmodernist literature, cinema, TV, and even commercials and living through postmodernism’s death throes over the last decade, it’s rather tired. Anderson has always had enough authentic emotion amidst his otherwise laconic style to prevent his films from being cynical, but I’m not convinced that the moments of sincerity here emerge from the film’s self-consciousness, as would be the case in a meta-modernist film. (Meta-modernism is the current favourite to supersede postmodernism as the next cultural mode; a great primer on it bycan be found here.) Asteroid City seems to be allowing sincerity, even sentimentality, to sit alongside irony and self-consciousness – but not freeing them to mingle together or synthesise into something new. As a result, the film feels like something we’ve seen many times before.
And it doesn’t only feel like we’ve seen it before; we’ve seen it done better, by Anderson himself. Asteroid City lacks the charm of Anderson’s most successful films, lacks the nostalgia for a bygone era so wonderfully captured in Moonrise Kingdom, lacks the fun found in more bizarre stories such as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. As a big character piece with an ensemble cast and multiple subplots, The Grand Budapest Hotel pulls off a cohesiveness not found here. Asteroid City lacks that earlier film’s narrative centre of gravity around which the characters and their stories can orbit.
The truth about those components floating free here, lacking a gravitational centre, is that I enjoyed many of them. At any point in the film, if an invasive survey-taker had popped up to ask what I thought of the scene currently playing out, I’d tell them I was moved to reflection or to laughter as the moment dictated. I laughed loudly when the film’s narrator finds himself suddenly and randomly inserted into a scene, making him ask, “Am I… not in this scene?” It’s another of those insistently self-conscious meta-moments that as a whole I find lacklustre, but in this specific instantiation I was thoroughly charmed. This is the problem in miniature: the (often wonderful) parts don’t add up to a compelling or cohesive whole.
Many of the pieces of Asteroid City feel incomplete in themselves. No single storyline is given enough focus to feel fully developed, and the scenes backstage in black-and-white are disjointed, served up with little relational context to the main feature they interrupt. Even that framing device feels slipshod, because while the backstage sequence opens the film, the closing credits roll inexplicably over Asteroid City. Why don’t we return to the framing device? Maybe it’s to add one more question to the list of questions Asteroid City raises but doesn’t seem interested in exploring.
As for the story beat that most people will be expecting if they’ve seen the trailers, I’ll be damned if I can figure out why the alien visitor is in this film. Functionally, it only serves as an excuse to keep our cast confined to Asteroid City for a week, and even that feels undeveloped. At no point did I have a sense of time passing, of boredom or tension brought on by being quarantined (some of the children even break the quarantine with minimal effort and invite busloads of tourists to hang out at the ostensibly cordoned-off military zone).
The addition of an extra week did not allow for further examination of our characters, though it apparently allowed for a mostly off-screen romance that we are told about rather than get to witness. This would be frustrating enough, but it irritates all the more for the fact that this romance involves the two most compelling actors and characters in the film. You can keep the ostentatious black-and-white scenes and the pointless alien – give me more of the humans.
In The World in a Frame (1976), critic Leo Braudy wrote:
“Genre films essentially ask the audience, ‘Do you still want to believe in this?’ Popularity is the audience answering, ‘Yes.’ Change in genre occurs when the audience says, ‘That’s too infantile a form of what we believe. Show us something more complicated.’”
I think Wes Anderson can be thought of as a genre of his own making, and I’m forced to admit that it might no longer be complex enough for us to believe in. In a world saturated with postmodern “self-consciousness and hip fatigue” (as David Foster Wallace put it), Anderson’s films, laced with sentimentality and nostalgia, were a welcome reprieve. But in a world no longer looking for a salve to irony’s burn but a new modality all together, Anderson’s films might have become a part of the past they themselves look back at with such nostalgia.
The other problem with Wes Anderson’s films being so “Wes Anderson” is that it’s hard to know what, if anything, that style is saying with any particular film. If this, or any of his other films, were the only one he’d made, you’d ask yourself what the particular framing of this moment or blocking in that one is expressing, what it says about the theme or asks about a character. But as this isn’t his only film and all the others look just like this one, the answer to the question of why it’s shot this way inevitably seems to be because that’s how Wes Anderson shoots his films. I’m not sure how much there is left to say.
Asteroid City’s play-within-a-film conceit would have interested my much younger self, but today I found it worn out. I and many others have long thought of postmodernism as a cul-de-sac, but Asteroid City provides us with a different image for a metaphor: the incomplete bridge as a road to nowhere. As I left the cinema, much as it pained me to think it and pains me to write it now, I was left feeling that Anderson might finally have run out of road.
Marginalia, plur. noun:
“In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”
~ Edgar Allan Poe