art as art’s subject

“Tonight’s program takes us backstage to witness first hand the creation, start to finish, of a new play mounted on the American stage.

“Asteroid City does not exist. It is an imaginary drama created expressly for this broadcast. The characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication. But together they present an authentic account of the inner workings of a modern theatrical production.”

— the first words of the movie Asteroid City

A couple of articles I read recently in the New York Review of Books clarified some things about my reaction to the movie Asteroid City which I discussed recently.

Here’s a quote from “Bodies That Flow,” which is about Peter Paul Rubens, the Flemish painter:

“If it is possible to sum up, in one work, the way that Rubens respected the beauty of women, then this is it,” writes Jennifer Scott, the gallery’s director—one might add that it is equally a hymn to the beauty of oil paint. We can forever learn from Rubens about the latter. I am less sure whether he tells us how women and men should relate.

And this is from “Cartoon Rules,” which is about Ernie Bushmiller, who created the comic strip Nancy:

Nancy’s main characters included the titular mischievous girl, her aunt Fritzi, and her pal Sluggo; its perfectly generic fences and houses seemed to resemble the view outside Griffith’s window. The strip was Bushmiller’s decades-long exercise in joke construction, accomplished with a rigorous set of rules and an absurd imagination. As Griffith writes in Three Rocks, his graphic biography of Bushmiller, “Nancy doesn’t tell you what it’s like to be a child. Nancy tells you what it’s like to be a comic strip.”

The more I think about Asteroid City, and re-watch it, the more I think that it’s about movies themselves and how they work (and how they are similar to, and different from, theater). It’s a movie about a television program which is presenting a play, and the play is shown to us in the form of a movie. At one point, an actor steps “on stage” at the wrong time, and later another actor “leaves the stage” in the middle of his performance because he’s stuck on one action which his character takes which makes no sense to him. (That’s Jones Hall, who’s playing Augie Steenbeck, who deliberately burns his hand on the Quickie Griddle, for some reason. Jones Hall is played by Jason Schwartzman.)

Also, in one of my favorite bits, other than the laugh-out-loud moments I mentioned in my earlier post, a car drives at high speed through the tiny town of Asteroid City, being pursued by a police car and a motorcycle, and various guns are fired. The main characters watch this, and then, when the speeding vehicles are gone, resume whatever they were doing before. This happens three times, and it seems to be saying, “Yes, you could be watching a movie with gunfire and fast cars and violence, or you could be watching this.” And, in blatant (and, I’m sure, deliberate) violation of Chekhov’s Law, two civilian characters go armed throughout the story and neither of those guns is ever fired, or used or referred to in any way.

Asteroid City is a movie about how movies work. As I said before, characters look directly at the camera a lot, and sometimes address the audience, but it’s not really a “fourth wall break,” since there is no fourth wall. There is never a moment when we’re supposed to forget that “the characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication.”

Pirandello, or Beckett, or Stoppard would understand.

Why does Augie burn his hand on the Quickie Griddle? To paraphrase that kid in The Matrix, there is no Quickie Griddle.

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