Wes Anderson, an Auteur in the Age of Algorithms

It’s summer again and that means it’s time for the another film from the Wes Anderson Universe, an singular franchise built on precise visual compositions populated by perfectly deadpan people. His youth is blown-up for the big screen, all retro hippy vibe meets modern millenial flat affect. From his start with the short- and full-length Bottle Rockets (1994, 1996) through another twenty works, evenly split between movies and shorts/advertising work, he has mined his mind for charming bits and baubles to ornament his narratives. I’ll admit I’m here for all of it.

What is a Wes Anderson film? The most striking feature is his “look”, usually a detailed, colorful, and engaging tableux, often brightened by whimsical film references and warmly held childhood memories. There are an abundance of articles out there adoringly cataloging the many stylistic quirks and techniques that inform a Wes Anderson movie, so I won’t add to my word count by listing them all here, but the most crucial is his dependence on Robert Yeoman’s camerawork, as they’ve worked together on the majority of his stuff. Their quirky but painterly compositions balancing negative space and a meticulous attention to detail has charmed the masses, whereas equally exquisite craftsmanship by someone like Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) has not.

Fortunately, even for hardcore film fans of auteur theory, style -though suitable for memes – is no substitute for a solid story (another oft-leveled critique of Peter Greenaway). Wes tells the best one he knows, over and over: families with characters of all ages but predominantly young adults, straddling that space in time between the family ties they’re moving on from and the connections they seek to make ahead of them. Stated generally, I think his stories are very warmhearted with a supremely tolerant benevolence towards all his characters. I may be overly simplistic, but even Wes Anderson says in regard the concept of the “Wes Anderson movie” that “The more I think about it, the more confused I get.”

The appeal of the Andersonverse to world at large is that it is so cute, so kawaii, so Disney-reassuring, the stories including all the warmest tropes of love and family and friends and adventure and shared troubles. This as opposed to some softcore Biblical reresentations or decaying animals that Mr. Greenaway might wish us to gaze upon. That consistency of image has recently led to a profusion of AI-generated memes of incongruous films in-the-style-of, the visual algorithms of the Anderson oeuvre being well-stated enough for the ghosts in the machine to eat and regenerate with some degree of passability. Understandably, the director has expressed his annoyance at this most backhanded of compliments. It is telling that these memes – amusing as they may be – capture to look of his films but not their soul. Creating a cinematic composition can be reduced to a formula but to employ it in the service of sincere storytelling still takes the human touch (for now).

Leaving the bigger meaning for the viewer to determine for themselves, it’s fair to say that there are recurring dramatic themes: the excitement and heartbreak of being young and in love, a struggle that might involve a search, droll and low-key power struggles filled with pointed dialogue, and the power and support of a parent figure or mentor. It is this latter kind of scene, sometimes framed as one between father and son ala Tenenbaums or Fantastic Mr. Fox, or adult mentors and their younger wards as in Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel, that offers the most catharsis dramatically. I would propose that this is indeed the beating heart of Anderson’s stories, the subtext of acceptance, that life is hard and everyone just needs some encouragement.

In fact, one of the high points of Asteroid City is Tilda Swinton’s scientist mentoring one of the brighter girls at this convention of young inventors. It’s not the emotional heart of the story as these senes often are but it is still a joy to see Ms. Swinton inhabit such a beautifully understated but comic character. This is a great scene and that, perhaps, is my problem with the movie: it’s all peaks and valleys for me, a leisurely and entertaining train ride through Wes-world but no roller coaster. If I have any overall opinion of the film is that it is enjoyable but far from Anderson’s best. There are of number of elements in this particular iteration of the Andersonverse that I think work well and those that don’t, a series of exeeded exectations balanced by dashed hopes; however, I can understand someone else who likes the film film equally well having an entirely different set of opinions.

That being said, I liked some things to a remarkable degree and to my surprise, like:

> Scarlett Johannson’s acting! Her role was great and her performance matched it. I am going to have to quite bitching about her lack of skills now that I have been proved wrong.

> Jeffrey Wright’s first appearance. Comedic genius!

> the impromptu alien cowboy band-backed alien song (Jarvis Cocker! Seu George!)

> the completely artificial and hilarious stop-motion alien scene, reminding me of the confidence and charm of Fantastic Mr. Fox

> yet another incredible addition to Tilda Swinton’s catalog of characters

> the use of opposing cabin windows as a framing device, an old school film student move of the kind that I think Wes excels at.

As for those valleys:

> Hong Chau’s shamefully short scene. I consider this actress a perfect Anderson type (her delivery in The Menu would support my contention) and the fact that she and Willem Dafoe were barely shoehorned in is the problematic effect of my major beef ->

> too many characters! I know Wes has his stable but damn! There are over 1,300* name celebrities with speaking parts in this sprawl of a good time and to make matters worse many of them are playing TWO characters, an actor and their character within another production. Adding another couple of pages to the playbill is an almost entirely seperate ensemble of young performers. The fact that there is only one, unchanging location also added to my mental fatigue.

> that.fucking.color.scheme. Ever since the Coen Bros. sepia’d the hell out of O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, digital color-grading has been more of a curse than a blessing. We all understand how many are charmed by the yellow-y pastels of older Kodak film stock but do we need to be pummeled by it when it’s reinforced by set design, locale, and Tom Hank’s horrible wardrobe? I say no. “Too much cute can make you puke” as I’m fond of saying (starting now).

Though his tone has lightened up in many ways since Bottle Rocket’s handgun and The Royal Tenenbaum’s shaving scene, there is often a dark thread of loss woven into Wes Anderson’s films as well. It is here that Asteroid City’s story shines brightest. The sprawling chaos of cast and storylines pays off with just one black-and-white scene at the end between Anderson-surrogate Jason Schwartzman (who gets the most screen time here since Rushmore) and a goddess-like cameo by Margot Robbie. The well-worn formula is trotted out one more time and a few heartfelt words between characters convey volumes of feeling, from understanding to acceptance to forgiveness to wisdom.

What is Asteroid City about? For this film, I’m as unsure as the director professes to be. I know there are a million cast members, often playing two roles, and that there are seemingly two ensembles, the adult one and the teen one. I know there are military officials and locals and even an alien. I know Tom Hanks rolls in as the badly dressed elderly father figure. I know Jason Schwartzman owns the film but Scarlett J. almost steals it.

I don’t, however, know what it’s supposed to mean other than Wes enjoys making these films with his friends and, from opening scene to closing credits, that I enjoyed being in the world he made. He knows life is hard and weird and too short and just wants to encourage us a little bit.

Maybe that’s enough.

Thank you.


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