Discover more from 101 Things I Learned About Fiction from Film
Just Try to Feel It
Or: Wes Anderson's Asteroid City (2023) ending unexplained
Hey everybody! Welcome back to the newsletter. I hope your week was good and you were able to get some words down on the page. If you didn’t or you feel you could’ve done more, it’s okay. Tomorrow the page will wait for you, and anything is better than zero.
Two weeks ago, I finally saw Wes Anderson’s latest film Asteroid City (2023, many spoilers ahead!), which I was really excited to see, since I’ve been a big fan of Anderson ever since I saw his second film, Rushmore (1998), when I was in high school.
In the past, Anderson has always been straightforward about the premises of his movies. For instance, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) records the highpoint and decline of a fancy European hotel. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is about two kids who elope. On the other hand, I was surprised to learn that his newest film was much more than it appeared to be on the surface.
Asteroid City, for the most part, appears to be about a group of people who encounter an alien presence in the titular setting. However, there is a parallel story brewing beneath the dusty vistas that stretch under the blank blue horizon. The film opens with the broadcast of a television program that in part evokes The Twilight Zone, as well as broadcasts of televised stage shows. The first thing we learn during this broadcast is that Asteroid City is not a real series of events happening in the world of the film, but a fictional play. In fact, the film we are about to see is a televised production of that play. We meet the playwright responsible for penning Asteroid City. We meet the actors who play the parts of Asteroid City’s visitors and inhabitants. We are even given an overview of the set, the physical limits and boundaries of the city.
As the events of the play occur, we occasionally intercut to moments that are happening behind the scenes of the play. We learn that Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), Asteroid City playwright, begins a romantic affair with Jones Hall (Jason Schwartzman), the play’s lead actor. Towards the end of the film, however, we learn that Earp is tragically killed in a car accident. In spite of his passing, the show goes on. The film does not show us much of Earp and Hall’s relationship beyond their first meeting. However, it does take the time to show—or at least imply to us its effect on Hall. This is the cornerstone of the film’s larger thematic arc.
The first time Earp and Hall meet, Hall asks a question about his character, Augie Steenbeck: “Why does Augie burn his hand on the Quicky-Griddle?”
As viewers we don’t have the context for this question yet. By that point, all we know is that Hall’s character, Augie, is struggling to find the best time to break the news to his children that their mother has died. Much later, after he’s told his children the news and begun an affair with an actress who is also visiting Asteroid City (Midge Campbell, played by Scarlet Johansson), we see Hall as Augie rehearsing a screenplay read with Midge. Early in the scene, she implores him to use his grief to improve his line reading. Shortly after they finish, he stares at the red-hot zigzag coils of the Quicky-Griddle, and then a few moments later, deliberately lays his hand on the live grilles.
When we first hear Hall’s question, it strikes us as an offhand remark. We think he’s confused by a passing detail that functions to build the artistic relationship between Earp and Hall. We probably think: Hm, probably not important for us to know. But then we see the action happen, and that signals to us—if we remember the question—that it was important all along. To underline this further, the question is repeated at the play’s climax, when Hall, amidst chaos, breaks character to reiterate his concern. Hall then storms off the stage to barrage the director, Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), with more questions.
“Am I doing him right? I feel lost. He’s such a wounded guy. I feel like my heart is getting broken—my own personal heart—every night. Do I just keep doing it? Without knowing anything? Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of an answer out there in the cosmic wilderness?” he asks, before adding, “I still don’t understand the play.”
To this, Green answers, “Doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story.”
As a writer, this response resonated with me so much. Writing seems to depend on certainty as a virtue, drawing the finest of lines between ambiguity and vagueness. Ambiguity, if done correctly, can be powerful, impactful, heartbreaking. The right question can be more satisfying than any of the possible answers. Vagueness, on the other hand, leads to the opposite thing. The reader is left frustrated, perhaps even angry that they’ve given their time and attention to a work that seems reluctant to impart its insights to anybody.
What I think Hall is dealing with is a strong ambiguity in the text he’s been tasked to perform. As a reader, he can tell that the action is supposed to mean something, but the text doesn’t have the character spell that meaning out afterwards or anywhere else. The predicament for him is that as a performer, he also needs to be able to interpret the action. He is an artist who finds himself blocked, the same way we do when we don’t know what we’re supposed to put on the blank page. But in Hall’s case, he is struggling to find that interpretation within himself.
Going back to the introduction between Hall and Earp, Hall takes an early stab at the action’s meaning: “The way I read it, he was looking for an excuse why his heart was beating so fast.”
Earp admits, “What an interesting sentiment. I love that idea.”
However, Earp also admits: “Well, I don’t even know myself, to tell you the truth. I hadn’t planned it that way.”
Long after the scene-in-question has passed, Hall’s reiteration of the question is an admission that his first interpretation is not quite true. Or at least, there’s something about it that doesn’t work for him anymore. He needs to reinterpret it (or more appropriately, revise it), and grant it a new meaning by feeling his way through it. Hence, he barges into Schubert Green’s room behind the set. Hence, Green reassures him that he’s not only doing right, but that the role is becoming him. Without a full understanding of the play, he is supposed to just keep telling the story.
Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I think to myself: what am I trying to work out with this story? Is it a feeling? Am I mad about something, a certain situation in my life? Is there something I find unresolved that I wish I could resolve another way? When I start writing, I usually don’t know where the story is going to go, but I let my feelings guide me. “Use your grief,” as Midge advised Augie. As a fictionist, I know my story is going to deviate from its starting point in real life. Things won’t happen the way I might have wanted them to happen, so long as I listen to my feelings. But in the process, something more interesting comes out. Something that I might not be able to explain in real life, but can make sense of in my feelings. Something that rings with emotional truth.
It’s pretty common for writers to find themselves at a loss when they explain their work. All of us, I’m sure, have heard one writer say, “I didn’t really have a deeper meaning in mind when I wrote that part. I just thought it felt funny/sad/interesting.” Conrad Earp makes a similar admission to Hall during their first meeting: “He just sort of did it while I was typing.” While these answers are unsatisfying to a curious audience, they are true to the experience of writing. I also think they broaden our sense of what could be happening on the page; too many people are reliant on the living author’s word to explain what happened.
I’ve summarized maybe too much of the movie at this point already, but I want to echo one last moment in this movie. There’s another behind-the-scenes moment where Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe), a famed acting teacher who supplies most of the cast for Asteroid City, implores his students to look at sleep as a thoughtful action, rather than a passive one. “Important things happen,” he says. “Is there something to play? I think so.” In this sense, I think writing is a lot like sleeping, but of course, I mean dreaming. We don’t try to explain our dreams—why would we ever want to? They’re so much better when they’re simply felt. They say more profound things to us when they mean nothing.
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