How are you doing? ‘Asteroid City’ exists in a Looney Tunes dimension

Wes Anderson on the set of ‘Asteroid City’. Roger Do Minh/Pop. 8

Director Wes Anderson’s films seem to get more Andersonian every year. He has the most recognizable style of any director working today, instantly recognizable even to people who have never seen any of his films at all (as evidenced by the Anderson parodies on TikTok). Anderson never cared much for naturalism and often drew attention to the artifices of storytelling in his work. That the audience can notice the effort of the filmmaker and crew throughout the viewing experience is a feature, not a bug, and is often even part of the text itself. His work has only become more playful as his author’s voice has grown louder, to the extent that his most recent films seem less like traditional cinema and more like classic cartoons performed by flesh and blood people. Whether they know it or not, this is the aesthetic that Anderson’s parodists imitate. It has never been more apparent that Anderson has the soul of a 1950s animation director. Primarily working on a two-dimensional canvas, he demonstrates meticulous control over the frame and, most importantly, he is a master of the art of the joke. Anderson, of course, dabbles in animation, even writing and co-directing two stop-motion films, but Asteroid City perhaps the most specific Looney Tunes in its catalog.

Anderson’s films have an economy of motion typically only seen in hand-drawn animation, where backgrounds are static paintings and each of the characters’ gestures has a price tag attached. This is clearly not the case in live-action, where an actor standing still and an actor waving his arms wildly require about the same amount of labor, but Anderson still constrains his character’s movements. Sure, this is a hit with the Every Frame a Painting crowd, as it showcases the director’s meticulous control over composition and blocking of every shot, but the cel animation analogs are just as obvious. With the exception of rare instances of mixed media, there is no “location shooting” in animation. Every set and every single prop that appears in a cartoon has to be specially made for it, made by different hands, but all to an agreed upon aesthetic. This sort of bespoke specificity can be found in plenty of live-action films set in fantasy worlds or distant futures, but where other than in a Wes Anderson movie is such a handcrafted, unified production aesthetic applied to a piece from the 20th century?

Above: Steve Carell, Aristou Meehan and Liev Schreiber in 'Asteroid City';  bottom: The desert backdrop in a Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoon.
Above: Steve Carell, Aristou Meehan and Liev Schreiber in ‘Asteroid City’; bottom: The desert backdrop in a Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoon. Above: porridge. 87 productions/focus functions; below: Warner Bros.

Consider Anderson’s strong preference for moving both characters and the camera along a horizontal plane. In classic cel animation, environments are rendered using long, painted background plates, which can slide under the character cells to create the illusion of a dolly/tracking shot. Anderson likes a long horizontal tracking shot, but his other oft-parodied camera move is just as reminiscent of vintage cartoons: the 90-degree pan. Anderson’s quick pan of the camera from one flat wall to another at a perpendicular angle is a movement that comes straight out of the sky. Cheerful melodies. In cel animation, you can’t really pan the camera, because there’s no real set. Instead, you can either paint a panoramic background that gives the illusion of camera movement (which must be done quickly so that the audience doesn’t notice the lack of parallax) or insert a fake whippan, a blurry image. and distorted approximation of the parts of the background between the first and second corners. In both the Anderson films and the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. Whip pans like this are used not only to create a new setting, but also to reveal signage and graphic design jokes.

And there is no greater master of this kind of American animation than Chuck Jones, director of some of the most acclaimed cartoons of all time and a clear influence on Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City. The film is set in a theatrically exaggerated desert in the American Southwest, shot in the perfectly flat Chinchón, Spain, with scaled wooden planks filling in the distant mountains. Add to that some impossibly precarious stone spires and this would be the exact setting of one of Jones’ Wile E. Coyote cartoons. (There’s even a roadrunner doll who pops up a few times during Asteroid Citygreets a character with a friendly “meep meep”.) The story takes place at a convention where “junior stargazers and space cadets” show off their wacky space age inventions, including a jetpack and a death ray that seems straight out of space to come. The armory of Marvin the Martian. Speaking of Marvin, when an actual alien arrives at the procedure, he’s a spindly humanoid with limbs that bend like rubber, and the only obvious features on his charcoal gray body are a pair of expressive white eyes. The alien is a clumsy, silent presence that almost always looks straight down the barrel of the camera, and has a physical comedic timing that feels unmistakably Bugs Bunny.

These parallels between Wes Anderson’s style and classic Warner Bros. may arise from similar influences. Anderson and Jones both clearly enjoy early silent comedies and the deadpan physical comedy of Chaplin and Keaton. Anderson’s work is emphatically stage-like, especially in this film, which is presented as a cinematic interpretation of a television special about a stage play, which would also explain the linear plane and handcrafted production aesthetic. It also happens to be a metatextual matryoshka that Chuck Jones, the director of “Duck Amuck,” would definitely appreciate. Anderson likes it when the work is on display, when you can see the impressions of the puppeteer’s fingers on a stop-motion puppet. However impressive or expensive the production may be in reality, and however profound and mature the themes of the story, Wes Anderson’s films have the whimsy of a child’s home movies. When you’re eight years old, you can’t get together with your friends and make an eight-minute cartoon in an afternoon. You can put a camera in your living room and play Bugs & Daffy. Imitation is only the very first step of invention, as a generation of filmmakers playing Wes Anderson on TikTok are now discovering, but it’s how most inventors get started.

How are you doing?  'Asteroid City' exists in a Looney Tunes dimension

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