Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Born in the U.S.A.: Indiana Jones and Asteroid City

There was a time, back in the Thirties and Forties, when Hollywood backlots stood in for all the exotic places on the globe. You needed to set your story in a Casablanca bazaar? An Irish village? An exotic palace high in the Himalayas? If SoCal couldn’t find a suitable location, perhaps you went as far away as Yuma, Arizona (where Crosby and Hope filmed Road to Morocco). Back then, Hollywood studios’ screenplays circumnavigated the globe, but their production was strictly all-American.

 How things have changed! I just saw Wes Anderson’s new Asteroid City, an all-star meditation on the difference between reality and artistic invention. Some of it is apparently set in New York, where a TV documentary captures the evolution of a fledgling theatre piece written by Broadway great Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). Most of it—showing the playing-out of Earp’s artistic vision—is set in a candy-colored version of the American Southwest, complete with a quaint filling station, a roadside café, and a bungalow court, as well as a freight train that passes through now and again. This out-of-the-way place, known as Asteroid City, gets its name from a small globule of space junk that once landed here. Now it’s the location of a modest but prestigious gathering of military brass, some “brainiac” kids who’ve won a science competition, and their eclectically assorted parents. And did I mention there’s an alien sighting?

 The locale, the cast, and the background music (lots of old western tunes that would surely make the Coen Brothers happy) all shriek Americana. So I was more than a bit surprised, in reading the closing credits, to discover that Asteroid City was shot largely in Spain, with additional production units in France and Italy. I’m sure the financing of the film had something to do with the choice of shooting locations. Anderson, who has made such films as The Darjeeling Limited, and The French Dispatch, has a great affinity for exotic locales. By choosing to shoot in far-flung corners of the globe, he’s doubtless come up with some lucrative funding sources that depend on him filming far from Hollywood, even when he’s dealing with all-American subject matter.

 I like Anderson’s loopy vision of the world, and it’s fun to see such major talents as Scarlett Johansson, Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and even Tom Hanks pop up in offbeat roles. (Jeff Goldblum is billed as the alien.) The approach worked beautifully in probably my favorite Anderson ensemble flick, The Grand Budapest Hotel. (His sensitive coming-of-age romance Moonrise Kingdom is lovely but stylistically uncharacteristic.) But it certainly helps, when the canvas is so broad, if we care about the characters, and if the film is actually about something coherent. In Asteroid City, Anderson’s movement back and forth between the behind-the-scenes creation of a drama and the actual playing out of the finished version can be seen as meaningful . . . or simply aggravating. Me, I’ll go with the latter adjective.

 But of course the big news this week is about the launching of Indiana Jones and the Dial of  Destiny. Talk about Americana—and a great film with which to kick off a holiday weekend. No, I didn’t choose to brave what I hope will be big crowds at the multiplex (today’s film industry needs all the blockbusters it can get). But I rented Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which Harrison Ford gets to play (delightfully) against old pro Sean Connery. Indie’s crusty dad may be Scottish, but the man himself is a strong, smart, courageous All-American. July 4 doesn’t get much better than that.


No comments:

Post a Comment