When Carl Sagan wrote about the Pale Blue Dot photograph, in which a satellite photo frames Earth as a blue speck of dust in space light, secular humanism had found its Sermon on the Mount. Schopenhauer’s pessimism, influenced heavily by Darwin’s research on natural selection, had devastated a still-Christian intellectual sphere in late-19th century Europe by proclaiming biology — not God — to be a complete explanatory force for human existence, human desire, and human meaning. It is not an understatement to say that nearly all of modernist thought can be seen as a response to Schopenhauer and his early secular, scientific worldview — in fact, not a single serious thinker asked the trite but troubling “what is the meaning of life?” before him. Though the German philosopher never claimed humanity to be devoid of meaning, most in the atheistic scientific community embraced a meaningless universe since “meaning” carried as much empirical weight as fairies, the aether, and God. There even erupted a moral stance, still visible in internet forums dedicated to atheism today, that accepting this position was a chivalric sign of bravery and clear-thinking in contradistinction to the coddling, infantilizing nature of meaning-making religions. This brand of secular humanists could never market their position without condescension until science’s PR poet Carl Sagan made his addendum. Now, one could marvel at just how insignificant our human lives are compared to the scope of the entire universe, but one must also admit that the marveling itself was an act of divine humility to the universe. Thanks to Sagan, popular media gained a visual shorthand for the resolution of a character’s existential crisis: stargazing.
Halfway through Wes Anderson’s new Asteroid City, Dinah Campbell (Grace Edwards), in a moment of confession, jokes that her mother is a victim of stargazing, as she is a star and makes a living by having others gaze at her. It’s a sidereus barb from a child navigating the age in which a parent becomes a human and one must face a miniature death of God. Nearly every major character in Wes Anderson’s filmography deals with their own little death of meaning (Max Fischer changes schools, Steve Zissou lets go of the shark), but none do so as explicitly as those in Asteroid City. Fittingly, then, this is also Anderson’s most star-studded work yet, with many trade reports setting aside an entire paragraph just to list off the names. That said, the film does prioritize the story of Augie Steenback (Jason Schwartzman, whose character feels like a reprisal of Rushmore’s Astronomy Society founder, Max Fischer) and his kids who, in 1955, arrive in the tiny desert town of Asteroid City to attend a stargazing program for child prodigies (another Rushmore nod). It’s here that Augie, a celebrated WWII photojournalist, finally mentions to the kids that their mother died three weeks ago. Meanwhile, Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), single mother and renowned actress, arrives at her daughter Dinah’s genius-affirming ceremony, but focuses only on her next role. Also present in Asteroid City: more genius kids, a class trip, the US military, a lone mechanic, a motel manager who sells real estate from a vending machine, and some singing cowboys. The only thing that would make the town a more perfect ‘50s pastiche would be the arrival of an alien, so an alien arrives.
On top of all that, the whole thing is actually a play, complete with frequent interruptions to scenes of its creation and creators, which itself is actually a televised performance (of the Playhouse 90 variety) hosted by Bryan Cranston. Anderson used a similar structure in The French Dispatch, but this is no mere anthology film. The black-and-white, Academy-ratio’d sequences of the play’s creation compose a completely different film, one concerned with the East Coast theater world of method acting and its heroes and victims. The actors of the play sometimes walk into these sequences, where they discuss line changes, spoil later parts of the play, and reveal qualms about their parts. The playwright (Edward Norton, playing something between Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams), director (Adrien Brody, perhaps an Elia Kazan-type), and acting coach (Willem Dafoe, definitely Lee Strasberg) remind us of the postwar turn to the “true self” that defined both modern art and the modern search for meaning. Within the play itself there’s yet another play, one that Augie and Midge flirt-rehearse together but that stops when Augie asks for the meaning behind one of his character’s actions. Then, the play itself stops when the East Coast actor asks about the meaning behind the centerpiece. What happens when we seek after the meaning of life?
Of course, this is still a Wes Anderson movie, so all the existentialist and meta-modernist themes are packaged in a graphic design cartoon world with so much detail that it makes it impossible to read every sign or even mentally register every building. The set was built from the ground up (literally, as even the ground was covered with crop-friendly red dirt) in Chinchón, Spain, just as the studios of lore might have made. This production even included cast and crew living on-site, making for an amicable, efficient production like the midcentury troupe camps of John Ford or Ingmar Bergman. Chinchón had, in another life, been the location for Orson Welles’s The Immortal Story, but Anderson’s production took advantage of its infinite flatness to use as a blank canvas, filled with midcentury station wagons, camps, vending machines, diners, signage, and, in the distance, Looney Tunes-inspired Arizona mesas, complete with a puppet roadrunner that goes all but meep-meep. Production designer Adam Stockhausen used the high saturation of desert state postcards as inspiration for this living, breathing town, and Robert Yeoman, Anderson’s go-to DP, complements the landscape beautifully, with planimetric compositions of robin egg blue skies and brick red deserts that feel miraculous in an age of darker and darker digital LUTs. And, though the actors are kooky enough on their own, costume designer Milena Canonero cements each character’s image with multi-colored cowboy equipment, punchy bolo ties for Steve Carrell’s businessman, and so-gaudy-it’s-admirable patterned golf pants for Tom Hanks’ character, who frankly cannot shut up about golf. If Anderson keeps picking these names as his go-to collaborators, it’s likely because he likes them, but it’s also likely they’re some of the best at what they do. And Asteroid City is, if nothing else, the greatest showcase of their talents.
That doesn’t make this just another parodic parade of Anderson’s nods to his own style. Here, rapid-fire dialogue may stop for an uncomfortable twenty seconds before a cut reveals that no punchline will save us from these characters’ more serious monologues. Robert Yeoman uses shallow focus and Dutch angles to emphasize the strangeness of the East Coast theater world before we’re abducted back to Kodak color safety (only for him to break a few Andersonisms there, too). And, in case one were to think that all of this means Anderson is pulling away from the qualities he’s most known for, an original song by Wes inspires a singing cowboy moment — perhaps this writer’s favorite of the many, many bits from the many, many characters of Asteroid City. This is neither the director reacting to nor doubling down on what the audience expects of him; art critics used to call what’s happening here “stylistic evolution,” or perhaps just “fun.”
The alien (”played” by Jeff Goldblum) is meaning itself, of course; that’s why it’s so disruptive. That’s why every character changes after it makes contact and why the actors involved in the play want to have its appearance spelled out. The meaning crisis induced by a secular scientific worldview would push for aliens (as Sagan pushed for SETI funding) as a way for humans to grapple with their own individual place in the universe and accede to its godlike vastness. Note the map-based language of “finding your place,” “finding your way,” or “being directionless” that’s associated with this process; compare that with the language of “mapping the stars” and astronomical charts. The plastic arts underwent the same transformation around the same time, as meaning was no longer privileged as a collective narrative, but was inherent to the artist and viewer as individuals who must “make a journey” deep in the self to bring out a work’s meaning. Anderson’s Asteroid City beautifully plays with these modernist concerns while yanking away our maps to the stars. The aliens have been here a long time.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 24
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