There is a scene in Asteroid City (2023) in which Midge (Scarlett Johansson), a movie actor, asks Augie (Jason Schwartzman), a widow, to say his lines with feeling, to draw out passion. "Use your grief," she instructs him. One can use this scene to draw a comparison between the Wes Anderson reels, pervasive on Instagram now, and the director's movies. The former, generally, are a shallow and mechanical imitation which are devoid of emotions. The latter looks cartoonish, but is driven by an expertise that manages to leave a bittersweet taste in the mouth.
I still remember how Agatha's (Saoirse Ronan) death - delivered through a voiceover in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), pierced my heart and broke it into a million pieces. While watching a Wes Anderson film, you feel as if you are observing an adult filtering their perception of the world through the lens of a toddler. Grief arrives suddenly, exists for only a few seconds, hits you where it hurts. Then it disappears for the remainder of the storytelling.
In Asteroid City, a girl discloses that she thinks she would feel more at home outside the Earth's atmosphere. A boy confesses that he likes to take up challenges to attract people's attention. Two actors (backstage) discuss their scene and say it was cut due to the behind-the-scenes runtime complications. We feel a sense of longing after we sift through these. As we are hit with a realisation that nothing will ever be the same anymore, the sadness of the realisation lingers.
The film also contains what is considered quintessential Anderson humour. Three adorable little girls claim that they are witches. A classroom session is interrupted by song and dance. A guard casually hands over his gun to a teenager and enters a telephone booth. There is a queue barrier to reach the site of the crate, which seems pointless given that it occupies a small space in a very vast landscape. I chuckled when a little girl said, "Fifteen minutes is 6,200 hours."
That is not the only typical characteristic it shares with the rest of Anderson's oeuvre. Asteroid City also packs in the trademark Anderson frames, which are injected with an eye-pleasing colour palette. When the audience goes into a Wes Anderson Film, they are equipped with stylistic knowledge because of its accessibility. They know what kind of movie they will watch.
What's so exceptional about Anderson's films, which always feel fresh, invigorating and wonderful, is that the more they try to create a distance between themselves and the audience through artifice, the more we are pulled into them. In Asteroid City, a TV documentary narrated by a host (Bryan Cranston), tells us about a play that is shown to us like a film. As the movie progresses, the boundaries get increasingly blurred as the host enters the movie and the movie characters go backstage and talk to the playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). This storytelling device, in a way, illustrates that one can notice Anderson in his films, standing (invisibly) in every frame, constantly managing it. Yet, his "controlled" filmmaking doesn't reek of lifelessness, it is in fact, the very opposite.
When Schubert Green (Adrian Brody), a director, is told to go home, he says, "this is where I belong, for now." Some artists, like Schubert, get so involved with their work that they don't "return" before they are done with it, for the time being. (What about that grease paint on Midge's eye in the film? Does it, in some way, mock the method actors?) One wonders if Anderson is one of those artists who manically obsesses over his films until the post-production process is finally finished.
One of the ways his love for the medium he works in reveals itself is through how he chooses to shoot his actors faces. They look so fragile, unsure, and lost, that you want to give them a hug. Like a crater, some of them - if not all - profoundly impact us. And the movies, like an amusing alien, surprise (and delight) us with their unconventional, idiosyncratic beauty and structure.
There is a scene in Asteroid City where the screen splits into two parts, and we see Augie on the left and Stanley (Tom Hanks) on the right. If a moment like this had been generated by an AI, the shots would have been static, and both Augie and Stanley would have conversed directly looking at the camera without blinking. Anderson simply rotates the camera to the left side of the screen and, through this simple technique, turns the whole scene into something imaginative and fantastical. What this means is that artificial intelligence will only give rise to artificial imitations. Art can only flourish through personal taste and experience, and that personality can only be brought in by something sentient: Humans.