Wes Anderson’s films may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is an undeniable fact that the man is definitely an auteur. He is a director who has a singular, unparalleled vision for telling his stories. But what is his vision anyway? The new film, Asteroid City, by one of the most fascinating cinematic voices of the generation, is probably hinting at Anderson’s vision in a definitive way. The film reminded me of Synecdoche, New York, another classic, where the characters suffer their angst and frustrations stemming from the meaninglessness of life. It’s not that bleak an affair in this movie as compared to the Charlie Kaufman film, but it is certainly on that path.
The whole plot of Asteroid City is a meta-narrative. Conrad Earp’s play is about to be performed on stage. The play is about characters stuck in a place called Asteroid City, in 1955’s America. This America is a bit different, however, than you might think. You can imagine this America as being part of an alternate reality, best described by the word ‘retro-futuristic.’ The cast is filled with idiosyncratic characters, none more meaty than Augie Steenbeck, played by an actor who gets the part by seducing the playwright Conrad Earp himself. Let’s take a look at the intriguing character(s) more deeply, shall we?
Augie Steenbeck/The Actor
As the character comes in and out of the play, breaking the illusion of it being performed, to look at Augie Steenbeck is also to look at the actor who is playing him. Wes Anderson has entrusted this responsibility to Jason Schwartzman, his frequent collaborator, who, in fact, started his acting career with Anderson’s cult classic Rushmore. Coming back to Asteroid City, Conrad Earp has created a truly iconic part, that of the suffering and laconic Augie Steenbeck. The actor who will play this character will surely go down in the annals of American theater as one of the greatest actors ever. Augie is a war photographer, and he has seen things the civilians have not. Perhaps the jaded eyes and the morose face are a result of that fact. But it could also be that he is traveling through Asteroid City with his son and three daughters, while it has been three weeks since his wife passed away. An existentialist of sorts, ready to face the bleakest of realities known to man, and yet he couldn’t muster the courage to break this news to the kids—not even to his eldest, Woodrow. Woodrow is a prodigy and has won an award at the Junior Stargazer Convention, which is why Augie needs to stay in Asteroid City. He first needed to get the daughters to their grandfather’s estate, but their car broke down, and they were stranded in the desert of Asteroid City.
Even the playwright Conrad Earp had not fully figured out Augie’s emotional motivations. He is a mystery, and this mystery is what attracted the actor to barge into Conrad’s office after having read the play to deliver Conrad’s favorite ice cream. Actually, this was his tactic to get Conrad to see his audition for Augie Steenbeck. He hits it out of the ballpark with his characterization and brings Augie to life. Even Conrad is mesmerized, or seduced, in all honesty, by the actor’s tenacity. His effort to bring his favorite ice cream wrapped up in a tender way, ensuring it didn’t get ruined, and also his deep fascination with Augie’s character did the trick for Conrad. Legend has it that they started an affair, and the actor got the part.
Augie is a really tough part. Whoever would play him would have a really difficult time understanding the character. Augie, who was certain his wife and her father didn’t like him, could not find a way to express his angst. All the emotions were bottled up inside him, and he did absurd things to hide them, like burning his hand on an electric heater. In Asteroid City, he meets the actress Midge Campbell, and they start forming a connection. She, too, has had her fair share of trouble in life, and she recognizes Augie’s intention to stay mum about the issues that are tormenting him. The alien (yes, there is an alien in the film!) showing up in Asteroid City changes everybody’s life, and Augie, too, feels the impact. He is bothered by how the alien looks at him, as if the whole human race is doomed. There are four other families who have shown up for the Stargazer Convention, but Augie could connect only with Midge. Of all the things that bother him in Asteroid City, the most bothersome is when he learns that Dinah, Midge’s daughter, saw them getting intimate. However, this connection that Augie had with Midge is what prevented him from abandoning Woodrow and his three daughters. He decided to stay and not run away. After the alien showed up, the military quarantined Asteroid City, which meant he couldn’t have run away even if he wanted to.
The desert, the convention, the other dysfunctional families, Midge, and the burned hand were to become totally unfathomable for the actor, who was desperately trying to get the part right. What did the play ultimately stand for? In a strange break, after the alien visits the city a second time to return the special asteroid that it took with him on his previous visit, the actor abruptly exits the ‘stage’ of Asteroid City to meet with the play’s director, Schubert Green, in an attempt to get his validation. Schubert calms him down and reassures him that he is nailing the part despite the excessive props Augie is overwhelmed with. Augie carried the camera, the lighter, the facial hair, and the smoke pipe. All of it was manageable for the actor, but the fact that he wasn’t able to understand the meaning of the play was hurting him the most. Woodrow and Dinah grew intimate, and found a possibility of meaning with the arrival of the alien, but Augie was still the same. Wounded, ignored, loveless, and afraid of his true emotions, Augie was holding on to his pain, and that too without any supposed meaning. To portray this on the stage day in and day out was taking a toll on the actor’s psyche. According to Schubert, however, he had performed Augie with such honesty that nobody could ever imagine anybody else playing the part. He does warn him, however, not to look for the play’s meaning.
The play ends when everybody leaves Asteroid City, and Augie is the last one to go. Midge had left her an address, and the meaning of it all was perhaps to find a connection with another wounded soul, despite the meaninglessness. Yet, one can ask, what was the movie Asteroid City really about? Is it about the fascination with aliens and the search for extraterrestrial life? Or is it about our ordinary existence on Earth, where some moments are exciting while others are not? Is it about how an artist creates a world of his own in his head and tries to find the meaning of life through it? Through Augie and the actor who played him, it can only be surmised that it’s best that we don’t get too hung up on the meaning and continue telling our own stories while we can.