Four Summer Films
It’s hard to think of a major director in film history who has developed a style more specific and monolithic than Wes Anderson’s. Every aspect of his meticulously controlled films is instantly identifiable: design, cinematography, editing, acting, sound—all utterly Wessy (as his style has been dubbed). One could excerpt any random 15 seconds of any of his movies and immediately recognize them as Anderson’s work. The elements of that style are by now well known (and frequently parodied): immaculate mise en scène utilizing self-consciously symmetrical arrangements of actors and backgrounds; frequent smooth vertical and horizontal camera pans; obsessively detailed yet obviously constructed sets; a “let’s tell a story” approach that nestles plots within plots; deadpan dialogue delivery; and a low-key sense of melancholy and wry drollery, punctuated with tiny bursts of deep feeling.
Asteroid City, Anderson’s latest film, is perhaps his Wessiest yet. The requisite all-star cast is in place, as is the quirky setup. The film starts in black and white and in old-fashioned “Academy ratio”—an almost-square screen, 1.37 times as wide as it is high. A host (Bryan Cranston) introduces a 1950s television play and its troubled author (Edward Norton). We then see an enactment of the play itself, a comedy/drama/sci-fi mélange taking place in the American Southwest. The depiction of the play’s performance amusingly escapes the bounds of 1950s televised theater, appearing in widescreen, full color, and in naturalistic locations, or as naturalistic as Anderson’s sensibility allows. The visuals are spectacular: rusty desert hues gorgeously captured by cinematographer Robert Yeoman, and mid-century diners and motels brilliantly designed by Adam Stockhausen and his team.
In the embedded story, a collection of families descends on tiny Asteroid City, New Mexico, for a Junior Stargazer event. Five brilliant teenagers are competing for a science fellowship, and they and their parents interact, fall in love, and deal with the corporate and military figures sponsoring the event. The parents include Jason Schwartzman as a recently widowed father, Scarlett Johansson as a Hollywood actress, and Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, and Stephen Park. Tom Hanks is impressively impassive as Schwartzman’s disapproving father-in-law. Jeffrey Wright is a military general, Tilda Swinton a local astronomer, Matt Dillon a mechanic, and Steve Carell a motel proprietor. The film occasionally flips back to the black-and-white framing story, bringing in Adrien Brody as the teleplay’s director, Hong Chau as his wife, and Willem Dafoe as an acting teacher. Halfway through the film, an alien makes a surprising appearance, depicted in stop-motion animation (recalling Anderson’s forays into that technology with Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs). The actor/model for that alien is revealed to be Jeff Goldblum.
You get the drill: everyone wants to be in Wes Anderson’s films because they’re so quirky and clever and strange. And when Anderson is on his game (as in the wonderful Grand Budapest Hotel), everything falls into place, and the sense of humanity underlying the baroque mannerisms breaks through and works in the way that I think Anderson wants it to work: as an unexpected warm-heartedness that takes you by surprise precisely because it’s counter to his understated, dry approach. The risk is that the mannerism will overwhelm the underlying humanity, and this is the case with Asteroid City. The moments of emotional connection that Anderson cultivates—the pathos of Schwartzman and his children mourning the loss of a wife and mother, the ships-that-pass-in-the-night romance between Schwartzman and Johansson—don’t register strongly enough to fold you into the narrative. Asteroid City remains an aesthetic experience, not an affecting one.
Returning to my initial question: has any other film director created such a singular, immediately identifiable style? Perhaps Jacques Tati, whom Anderson cites as an influence. But even directors one thinks of as supremely idiosyncratic—Godard, Hitchcock, Bergman, Ozu—have more stylistic variety from scene to scene and from film to film than Anderson. He seems to have locked himself into a strangely narrow lane. The celebrated “auteur theory” was predicated on the idea that a director’s stylistic signature was the artistic core of any film—and on the surface, Anderson would seem to be a prime example of a film auteur. But in a strange way, his signature is far too dominant, too visible—and thus inartistic, if one reads the auteur theory correctly. The core of the auteur approach—the fun of it, really—is in finding the traces of a director’s sensibilities within a heterogeneous variety of films: studio projects in diverse genres, with varied screenwriters, casts, budgets. The quintessential auteur director is Howard Hawks, whose profoundly specific worldview and technical autograph can be found in films as wildly dissimilar as Bringing Up Baby, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Rio Bravo. In a way, Anderson makes it too easy. We’ve long since absorbed his bag of tricks, and therefore looking for his artistry in any new work is a redundant, uninteresting exercise. All his recent films feel unnecessary, safe, recycling and reshuffling the same verbal and visual tropes. The real question is: can Anderson make a non-Wessy film? And, if so, will it have something to say?
The young Canadian director Celine Song’s film debut, Past Lives, is the best film released in the first half of 2023 and feels in some ways like the opposite of a Wes Anderson opus. The film is meticulously directed, but not a single frame calls attention to its artistry. Song’s talent is that of great film directors like Renoir, Huston, Wyler: the art that conceals itself. You never catch her reaching for an effect or a moment. Every scene plays out with gorgeous naturalism—which is not to say that she succumbs to banality. Song can convey complexity and ambiguity without relying on device. Past Lives works the way that Chekhov plays, in their purest form, work: as perfectly condensed modules of observation.
The film begins in a restaurant with an unseen couple dissecting the relationship amongst two men and a woman sitting at a bar across the room. Is the woman married to the man on the left or on the right? Are they intimates or casual colleagues? Is the situation friendly or secretly fraught? My husband and I have played this game countless times, inventing entire backstories for intriguing groupings at nearby tables. As this prologue ends, the woman within the threesome turns to the camera and smiles—and we immediately know that the film will be her story, and that the answer to the unseen couple’s questions will unlock the film’s narrative, enlightening and surprising us.
The woman is Nora (the magnificent Greta Lee), who emigrated with her family from South Korea to Canada at age twelve. She left behind a best friend, Jung Hae Sung (the equally magnificent Teo Yoo), a boy who was her only intellectual equal at school and whom she told her mother she would someday marry. A dozen years later, the two reconnect on Facebook and begin an intense online flirtation, which Nora eventually shuts down, cognizant of the impossibility of a long-distance relationship and wanting to focus on her burgeoning writing career. Nora then marries Arthur, a fellow writer (John Magaro, superb), and establishes a stable and productive life in New York City. Another dozen years pass, and Hae Sung visits New York, ostensibly as a tourist, but also to reconnect with Nora and to see what sparks might still exist.
Sparks there are aplenty. Past Lives is clear-eyed about the frisson that can exist between two people who never even share a kiss, let alone a sexual encounter. The film beautifully parses the layers of excitement, connection, awkwardness, and regret that pass between Nora and Hae Sung—layers that outsiders like Arthur can observe but not penetrate. Nora’s love for and commitment to Arthur are not in question. But she is unable to deny the electric charge that permeates every encounter with Hae Sung. And so these three smart, self-actualized, empathetic adults find themselves locked in a situation without a satisfactory solution. The film’s profoundly wise conclusion is that there is no conclusion. Life presents us with complicated situations that we must learn to accommodate.
Lee and Yoo’s faces are gorgeous canvases on which play out all the layers of emotion and meaning that Past Lives encompasses. Lee, in particular, radiantly captures a complex character who is confident and clear-eyed and who, at the same time, can’t always define what she wants. These complexities echo in the film’s sense of place and time. Past Lives is in some sense about the tension between belonging and displacement. All three characters feel at home and also not at home in their locations, and that balance evolves over the years. All are trying to define just what home means: a place, a site of professional fulfillment, a person, a family. Song, who also wrote the screenplay, displays an astonishing ability to capture environments, whether in Seoul or New York, that evoke the complicated relationship we all have with our surroundings, the push and pull of familiarity and estrangement, and the mix of novelty and nostalgia that colors our reactions to our circumscribed worlds.
Past Lives was a surprising box office hit, tapping something in the zeitgeist, but of course the summer’s true commercial juggernaut was the double whammy that was instantly, and now irretrievably, dubbed “Barbenheimer.” This was the simultaneous release of two films that seemed, on the surface, to be polar opposites both in terms of their content and their target audience: Greta Gerwig’s postmodern Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s monumental Oppenheimer. The press delighted in pasting the two films together—cue countless memes and fake trailers—and many filmgoers pledged to see both films on the same day, in a sort of “how wide can the pendulum swing” experiment. In the event, both films were box office smashes, far outperforming even the most optimistic projections, leading to the biggest weekend tally since before the pandemic. Cinema owners around the world rejoiced.
The films are wildly unalike, although both benefit immeasurably from being seen in a theater. Barbie is a joyous, canny, surprisingly intelligent celebration of smart women and their ability to hold multiple truths in confident balance. The film unabashedly foregrounds feminism and the need for women to control their own bodies and their own sexuality. It also happily indulges in the joys of consumerism, fashion, and décor, even as it satirizes capitalism. And all is accomplished with a gratifyingly light touch. Seeing it with a large, responsive audience underlines the multiple planes on which the film works: at our screening, riotous laughter alternated with cheers and applause for the manifesto-like monologues. Oppenheimer is a serious, essentially old-fashioned biopic, albeit complicated by Nolan’s trademark fractured approach to narrative. While its screenplay is effective and its performances superb, the film is primarily a visual experience. Its meaning exists largely in the scope and structure of its imagery, the framing, and the planes of focus—all of which will essentially be lost on a television screen. (Barbie’s eye-popping visuals are terrific too—but may perhaps translate more successfully to the home viewing experience.)
The news that indie darling Gerwig, best known for Lady Bird and her lovely Little Women, would direct a movie about Barbie, and that it would be endorsed, indeed coproduced, by Mattel, the maker of the doll, raised eyebrows everywhere. Barbie has come under severe criticism in recent decades for modeling an unrealistic body image and for valorizing a blandly beautiful, sexualized role model. Although Mattel has responded by releasing more diverse Barbies, as well as “empowered” versions of the doll (“Astronaut Barbie,” “President Barbie”), the brand is generally viewed as out of date, a relic of an era when a gorgeous blonde was the default image of American womanhood.
In licensing their intellectual property for this film, Mattel made the smart decision to lean into the controversy and to hire a director known for her feminist sensibility. Gerwig’s screenplay (cowritten with her partner Noah Baumbach) takes Barbie from her plastic dreamland to real-world Los Angeles, where she encounters a society whose values have both advanced and regressed. Young girls think her very ethos is fascistic, and toy executives want her to stay silent, literally trying to put her back into her box. At the same time, in contrast to Barbie-Land where women make up the government and are valued for their accomplishments, Barbie finds herself disempowered in the real world, sexually harassed by construction workers, and pigeonholed by her looks. The film then outlines a classic hero’s journey: from complacency to crisis to enlightenment.
It’s remarkable that Barbie was made and released in its present form. The screenplay makes virtually no concession to corporate caution. The final moments of Barbie’s journey engage a wonderful joke that can only be interpreted as a post-Dobbs reclamation of every woman’s right to control her own reproductive rights. Indeed, the best reviews for the film may be the ludicrous railings by right-wing pundits, grasping their pearls at the very idea of a “woke Barbie.” Piers Morgan’s sad, cringey diatribe against the film, which in his view criticizes a patriarchy that, he claims, does not exist(!), is one of many reactions that only prove the film’s relevance.
Margot Robbie was obvious casting for the lead role, given her stunning beauty. And she was one of the driving producers of the film, apparently insisting on Gerwig as writer and director. But Robbie’s achievement in this film is not just a matter of visual typecasting. She exhibits extraordinary physicality, moving with that strange, jointless doll-like rigidity in the film’s early scenes and gradually evolving into more human flexibility. She also embodies levels of silliness and seriousness, joy and despair, which begin as hyperbolic, almost childish extremes but eventually become richly modulated, adult expressions. There’s a breathtaking moment halfway through the film when Barbie, at a loss as to how to navigate the real world, sits at a bus stop and turns to see an elderly woman sitting next to her. The woman, played by the legendary 91-year-old costume designer Ann Roth, is luminous and completely unmarred by plastic surgery. “You’re so beautiful,” Barbie says with awe, to which the woman smilingly responds, “I know.” This is the movie’s fulcrum, the moment when Barbie comes to a new understanding of what beauty means and what its value is. Robbie plays this moment with quiet radiance.
Barbie’s journey is abetted by Gloria, a Mattel employee played by the wonderful America Ferrara, who gets the best moment in the film, a galvanizing summary of the exhausting tightrope that every woman must constantly walk: be pretty but not too pretty, skinny but not too skinny, confident but not aggressive, and so forth. Also accompanying Barbie on her journey to the real world is her Mattel-regulated boyfriend Ken, played here by the game Ryan Gosling (looking remarkably buff at age 42). Ken turns out not to be the brightest of bulbs, although he does glom onto the fact that the patriarchy is alive and well in 2023. His attempts to bring this philosophy back to Barbie-Land fail, although they do eventually result in a sensational musical number for Ken and his compatriots that mashes influences from Singin’ in the Rain to Grease. Barbie wields a remarkably deep casting bench, with strong contributions from Kate McKinnon, Simu Liu, Issa Rae, Michael Cera, Will Ferrell and, in a critical and touching cameo, none other than Rhea Perlman.
Strong and deep casting, even in cameo roles, has become a hallmark of A-level films if Barbie and Asteroid City are indicative. Oppenheimer also boasts an all-star lineup, with small roles filled with the likes of Alden Ehrenreich, Tony Goldwyn, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti (as Einstein!), David Krumholtz, Josh Hartnett, Matthew Modine, Rami Malek, and Casey Affleck. The film outlines the life story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project and the “father of the Atomic Bomb,” from his student days through the dreadful triumphs at Los Alamos to his sad final years when he fell victim both to McCarthyism and to crippling remorse over his role in birthing the nuclear age. Key roles are played by excellent actors like Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, the military commander of the atomic project, Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s sorrowful wife Kitty, Gary Oldman as Harry Truman, and Robert Downey, Jr., in an award-worthy performance as Lewis Strauss, Oppenheimer’s nemesis in the latter part of his career.
Nolan, a born filmmaker (his previous work includes Interstellar, Inception, Dunkirk, and the best of the Batman films) is also a storyteller who loves to mess with story. His breakout film, Memento, fragmented its timeline in a way that confounded some and delighted others. Oppenheimer similarly pulls its story apart, temporally and visually. When seen in its intended theatrical format, the movie is a compendium of film formats and aspect ratios. Nolan is one of the few current directors who still believes in the primacy of film over digital projection. Oppenheimer was captured via a combination of analog 70-millimeter and IMAX stock. Both formats feature large frames, allowing for ultra-sharp, highly detailed images. 70mm images are typically 2.76 times as wide as they are high while IMAX images are 1.9 times as wide as high. In the ideal environment (such as I experienced in New York’s Lincoln Square Theater), the image is projected onto a massive screen, with frequent alterations in the aspect ratio. At times the image is “widescreen,” meaning that the top and bottom of the screen are blacked out, creating a panoramic, “landscape” effect. At times, the image is square-ish, filling the upper and lower reaches of the screen with visual elements that are on the periphery of our vision, thereby creating a sense of immersion. (It’s important to note that descriptors like IMAX and 70mm describe the size of the film frames themselves, not the size of the screen; a 70mm film can be projected onto a tiny screen, although that would be somewhat of a waste as the whole point of large-frame formats is their enhanced resolution that allows for a vivid, smooth image on even the largest of screens).
This gets complicated because not every cinema is set up to present Nolan’s intended vision. The combined 70mm/IMAX negative was used, in many cases, to create prints that were downgraded for those theaters not set up with 70mm and IMAX projectors. Many people saw Oppenheimer via digital projection, a compromise that Nolan reluctantly accepted as inevitable, given the disappearance of film projectors from all but a few cinemas. A digital projection will never have the warmth or detail of a large-format analog print. At the same time, navigating massive reels of actual film requires an exponentially higher level of skill than pressing “play” on a laptop to show a digital image. The demise of film is an inevitability, but for the time being we’re lucky to have partisans like Nolan who carry the torch for a difficult but gratifying technology.
If I seem to be spending a lot of time on the technical aspects of Oppenheimer’s filming and projection, it’s because a great deal of the meaning and force of the film comes from these very elements—a key reason that it must be seen in a theater to make its intended effect. Nolan, working with the great cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, uses the shifting aspect ratios, as well as alterations between color and black and white, to mark not only different eras but also different points of view. These shifts help us locate where we are in the story’s timeline and also help the film build its internal tension—most notably in the countdown to the first atomic blast which is agonizingly suspenseful precisely because of the vividness and variety of the film’s visuals. When Wes Anderson utilized a similar varied approach to colors and aspect ratios in Asteroid City, the result felt precious. Nolan’s use feels probing and intentional.
Oppenheimer is, upon close examination, an elaborately tense, balanced confluence of conflicting aesthetic approaches. The film’s wall-to-wall bombastic score by Ludwig Göransson further (and excessively) highlights the artificiality, contrasting with the naturalistic dialogue and acting. In some ways, Oppenheimer feels like an avant-garde work disguised as a mammoth blockbuster, a description that could apply to many of Nolan’s previous films. He has consistently managed to make intelligent, large-scale movies that foreground their technological construction in intriguing and productive ways. Some find Nolan’s films brilliant but cold, too obsessed with their own methodology. This is true—but with a topic as historically monumental as Oppenheimer’s, the thematic gravitas is a given, and the personal and emotional elements inevitably recede. The morality under the microscope in Oppenheimer—the brilliant science that ushered in our modern era of imminent apocalypse—profits from Nolan’s complex stylistic approach. Anything simpler or more humanistic wouldn’t do justice to the subject.