Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Asteroid City lays bare the scaffolding of narration

It's an outstanding magic trick to expose the inherent insubstantiality of storytelling by means of such a solid, heavy-hitting story

Onto this Earth has landed an otherworldly fabulation: a film by Wes Anderson, which tells a [fictional] documentary filmed as monologue, which reenacts [allegedly real] events in the life of a writer, who writes a play with a troubled production, which narrates a short quarantine in a tiny town in the US southwestern desert, where an actress rehearses her upcoming movie. That's at least five layers of stories within stories. Asteroid City not only boasts Anderson's signature punctiliousness in set design, shot composition and character blocking, but also extends that deliberate artificiality beyond the look of the screen, reshaping its authorial relation from a single straight line to a segmented chain of railwagons, one leading to the next, serving as yet another form of expression of Anderson's artistic and personal fascination with trains.

In this Cold War-set multi-story, ironically structured as an Old West satirical paean to American achievements that is contained inside a set of Russian dolls, visitors to the town of Asteroid City, whose children are competing in a hilariously advanced science fair, are suddenly forced to stay at their motel for several days, overseen by the army, because the prehistoric meteorite that is the town's only tourist attraction has been stolen by aliens. This plot by itself is fertile ground for drama, and the film more than delivers on that front. However, in a reverse manner compared to a movie made by literally any other director (except for maybe Christopher Nolan), where the formal choices are a vehicle to deliver the message contained in the story, in Asteroid City the story is a vehicle to deliver the message contained in the form. Marshall McLuhan would approve.

The multi-story device that Anderson had already used in The Grand Budapest Hotel is here blown up to the stratosphere: the theater play is shown to us as a movie, set in a desert that extends to the far horizon, shot from several angles (always straight angles, mind you), with digital visual effects, with titles superimposed—you know, what any movie does. But there's the catch: that's the story that is supposed to be a play, but you experience it the way its supposed audience in the theater never could. You're not watching the play; you're watching what the play represents. For extra mind-blown-ness, at one point the perspective is reversed and we see the backstage as one of the actors leaves the play. And for a brief second, in a shot worthy of Las Meninas, we get a glimpse of the audience. We see us. Not literally us, because the function of images on the screen isn't being, but representing; that's what makes the trick possible. The best stories are those about stories, and Asteroid City achieves a Sierpińskian level of structural beauty in the way it folds upon itself. Even the dialogues are self-referential, with frequent use of easily missable constructions such as "He said that he said," "I believe that I think," "I wonder if I wish."

Every level of the production is influenced by this self-folding. In your typical Anderson shot, a main event happens in the foreground while equally important events are simultaneously happening at one or two degrees of separation in the background. The difficulty of reading an Anderson movie lies in the fact that each shot has a main focus, but you have to be fully aware of the entire screen all the time. Asteroid City takes the basic design of that multilayered space (three dimensions flattened into two) and uses it to create a multilayered plot (parallel lines converging into one). An actress rehearses her movie in a motel room; the play where she exists is shown to us as a movie; its author's life is shown to us as a play; and all those layers of fiction are shown to us as a documentary (that is, the genre of truth), but the documentary itself exists inside Anderson's scripted movie (the genre of lies). For super extra mind-blown-ness, the three acts signaled by the title cards inside the play-shown-as-movie contain some scenes of the upper levels, as if the documentary were part of the play that is mentioned in the documentary. This referential loop ends up eating itself when the layers start blurring together and the most significant emotional beat is revealed to take place offscreen, in a deleted scene, set in a dream, performed by an actress who was removed from the play. The secrets that explain the story rest on a moment that doubly doesn't exist, that its audience will never know.

In a tale that contains a [tale that contains a [tale that contains a [tale that contains a [tale]]]], where does the innermost level lie? In English, folk tales start with "Once upon a time..." In Tamil, it's "Having been said and said and said..." In Arabic, it's "There was and there was not..." The complex relationship between recursively referenced layers of reality and unreality reaches a hard limit when one considers that, although some characters in the play-shown-as-movie seem aware of the audience, none of them show any awareness that they're in a larger movie, the one made by Anderson. In the first level, the narrator of the documentary talks to the camera, but he's addressing an imagined audience, not us. For mega super extra mind-blown-ness, Asteroid City ends where the play ends, but we don't return to the upper layers to see how they end. For all we know, they're still happening. (Another possible explanation, which closes the referential loop, is that we occupy the same layer of the play, and the upper layers contain us.)

So let's look more closely at that play. It contains several signifiers of quintessential Americana: cowboys, UFOs, absurd military guys, the Space Race, a roadside diner, vending machines, summer flings, overconfident teenagers, oblivious parents. This microcosm of US life is bordered on one side by a perpetual police car chase and on the other side by perpetual nuclear weapon tests. The script barely acknowledges them. Small and big violence are so commonplace that they've become part of the landscape, while the army looks with greed upon the children's fantastical futuristic inventions that prove completely useless to defend one coconut-sized rock. One marvels that the screen doesn't melt with how caustic the sarcasm is here.

Wes Anderson's distinctive style has recently been repurposed for hundreds of insultingly superficial, horrific, lifeless imitations. Asteroid City should come as a relief for artists worried that an algorithm may one day do their job. A machine that scoops up image files and regurgitates their rearranged bits can't express the intimate experience of solitude, regret, self-doubt, and compassion that you get from Asteroid City, nor can it design the web of narrative threads that support the plot, nor can it think of drawing from the influences and the context that complete the movie's meaning. Anderson is in every sense a human being and in every sense an artist if either has ever existed in Hollywood.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.