Wes Anderson Goes Sci-Fi in 1950s America: Watch the Trailer for His New Film Asteroid City

Wes Anderson has been making feature films for 27 years now, and in that time his work has grown more temporally and geographically specific. Though shot in his native Texas in the late nineteen-nineties, his breakout picture Rushmore seemed to take place in no one part of the United States — and even more strikingly, no one identifiable era. Few filmgoers had seen anything like Anderson’s clean-edged retro sensibility before, and in subsequent projects like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, it intensified considerably. Then, in 2012, came Moonrise Kingdom, which took the Andersonian aesthetic to a particular time and place: New England in the fall of 1965.

Since then, Anderson and his collaborators have told stories in their distinctive visions of Eastern Europe, Japan, and France — but always, explicitly or implicitly, in one period or another of the mid-twentieth century. Judging by its newly released trailer, the events of Anderson’s next film Asteroid City occur in perhaps the most mid-twentieth-century year imaginable, 1955, and in small-town America at that.

Or rather, very small-town America: Asteroid City itself appears to be located in the middle of the Arizona desert (though shot in Spain, in keeping with Anderson’s increasingly Europe-oriented production habits), and with nothing more exciting going on — apart from the occasional distant nuclear-weapons test — than an annual “junior stargazer competition.”

The film “tells the story of a beleaguered widower (Jason Schwartzman) who’s busy schlepping his four children across the country to see their grandfather (Tom Hanks) when their car suddenly breaks down,” writes The Verge’s Charles Pulliam-More. This strands the family in the titular town, with its “strange earthquakes that no one knows the true cause of, fears about whether aliens might be lurking among the humans living in Asteroid City, and multiple sightings of a celebrity (Scarlett Johansson).” As fans can already guess from this summary, the ensemble cast includes more than a few Anderson regulars, also including Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban. A case of COVID-19 kept Bill Murray from participating, but even so, nobody who sees the trailer can doubt that the viewing experience of Asteroid City will be highly Andersonian indeed.

Related content:

Wes Anderson Explains How He Writes and Directs Movies, and What Goes Into His Distinctive Filmmaking Style

Why Do Wes Anderson Movies Look Like That?

Wes Anderson’s Shorts Films & Commercials: A Playlist of 8 Short Andersonian Works

The Perfect Symmetry of Wes Anderson’s Movies

Wes Anderson & Yasujiro Ozu: New Video Essay Reveals the Unexpected Parallels Between Two Great Filmmakers

Wes Anderson’s Breakthrough Film, Rushmore, Revisited in Five Video Essays: It Came Out 20 Years Ago Today

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Carl Sagan Explains How the Ancient Greeks, Using Reason & Math, Discovered That the Earth Isn’t Flat Over 2,000 Years Ago

The denial of science suffuses American society, and no matter what the data says, some conservative forces refuse efforts to curtail, or even study, climate change. Astrophysicist Katie Mack calls this retrenchment a form of “data nihilism,” writing in an exasperated tweet, “What is science? How can a thing be known? Is anything even real???” Indeed, what can we expect next from what Isaac Asimov called the United States’ anti-intellectual “cult of ignorance”? A flat earth lobby?

Welp… at least a couple celebrity figures have come out as flat-earthers, perhaps the vanguard of an anti-round earth movement. Notably, [Dallas Mavericks] guard Kyrie Irving made the claim on a podcast, insisting, Chris Matyszczyk writes, that “we were being lied to about such basic things by the global elites.” Is this a joke? I hope so. Neil DeGrasse Tyson—who hosted the recent Cosmos remake to try and dispel such scientific ignorance—replied all the same, noting that Irving should “stay away from jobs that require… understanding of the natural world.” The weird affair has played out like a sideshow next to the mainstage political circus, an unsettling reminder of Carl Sagan’s prediction in his last book, The Demon Haunted World, that Americans would soon find their “critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.”

Sagan devoted much of his life to countering anti-science trends with warmth and enthusiasm, parking himself “repeatedly, arguably compulsively, in front of TV cameras,” writes Joel Achenbach at Smithsonian. We most remember him for his original 1980 Cosmos miniseries, his most public role as a “gatekeeper of scientific credibility,” as Achenbach calls him. I think Sagan may have chafed at the description. He wanted to open the gates and let the public into scientific inquiry. He charitably listened to unscientific theories, and patiently took the time to explain their flaws.

In the very first episode of Cosmos, Sagan addressed the flat-earthers, indirectly, by explaining how Eratosthenes (276-194 BC), a Libyan-Greek scholar and chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria, discovered over 2000 years ago that the earth is a sphere. Given the geographer, mathematician, poet, historian, and astronomer’s incredible list of accomplishments—a system of latitude and longitude, a map of the world, a system for finding prime numbers—this may not even rank as his highest achievement.

In the Cosmos clip above, Sagan explains Eratosthenes’ scientific method: he made observations of how shadows change length given the position of the sun in the sky. Estimating the distance between the cities of Syene and Alexandria, he was then able to mathematically calculate the circumference of the earth, as Cynthia Stokes Brown explains at Khan Academy. Although “several sources of error crept into Eratosthenes’ calculations and our interpretation of them,” he nonetheless succeeded almost perfectly. His estimation: 250,000 stadia, or 25,000 miles. The actual circumference: 24,860 miles (40.008 kilometers).

No, of course the Earth isn’t flat. But Sagan’s lesson on how one scientist from antiquity came to know that isn’t an exercise in debunking. It’s a journey into the movement of the solar system, into ancient scientific history, and most importantly, perhaps, into the scientific method, which does not rely on hearsay from “global elites” or shadowy figures, but on the tools of observation, inference, reasoning, and math. Professional scientists are not without their biases and conflicts of interest, but the most fundamental intellectual tools they use are available to everyone on Earth.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2017. This version has been lightly edited and updated.

Related Content:

Carl Sagan Predicts the Decline of America: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “Without Noticing, Back into Superstition & Darkness” (1995)

Hear Carl Sagan Artfully Refute a Creationist on a Talk Radio Show: “The Darwinian Concept of Evolution is Profoundly Verified”

Carl Sagan Presents His “Baloney Detection Kit”: 8 Tools for Skeptical Thinking


Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Byrne Explains How the “Big Suit” He Wore in Stop Making Sense Was Inspired by Japanese Kabuki Theatre

In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the name of David Byrne’s band was Talking Heads — as the title of their 1982 live album perpetually reminds us. But their overall artistic project arguably had less to do with the head than the body, a proposition memorably underscored in Stop Making Sense, the Jonathan Demme-directed concert film that came out two years later. “Music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head,” Byrne says in a bizarre contemporary self-interview previously featured here on Open Culture. To make that fact visible onstage, “I wanted my head to appear smaller, and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger.”

Hence costume designer Gail Blacker’s creation of what Talking Heads fans have long referred to as the “big suit.” Byrne has always been willing discuss its origins, which he traces back to a trip to Japan. There, as he put it to Entertainment Weekly in 2012, he’d “seen a lot of traditional Japanese theater, and I realized that yes, that kind of front-facing outline, a suit, a businessman’s suit, looked like one of those things, a rectangle with just a head on top.”

A friend of his, the fashion designer Jurgen Lehl, said that “everything is bigger on stage.” “He was referring to, I think, gestures and the way you walk and what not,” Byrne told David Letterman in 1984. But he took it literally, thinking, “Well, that solves my costume problem right there.”

Though Byrne only wore the big suit for one number, “Girlfriend Is Better” (from whose lyrics Stop Making Sense takes its title), it became the acclaimed film’s single most iconic element, referenced even in children’s cartoons. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called it “a perfect psychological fit,” remarking that “when he dances, it isn’t as if he were moving the suit — the suit seems to move him.” The association hasn’t been without its frustrations; he once speculated that his tombstone would be inscribed with the phrase “Here lies David Byrne. Why the big suit?” But now that Stop Making Sense is returning to theaters in a new 4K restoration, nearly 40 years after its first release, he’s accepted that the time has finally come to pick it up from the cleaner’s. Unsurprisingly, it still fits.

Related content:

A Brief History of Talking Heads: How the Band Went from Scrappy CBGB’s Punks to New Wave Superstars

An Introduction to Japanese Kabuki Theatre, Featuring 20th-Century Masters of the Form (1964)

How Talking Heads and Brian Eno Wrote “Once in a Lifetime”: Cutting Edge, Strange & Utterly Brilliant

Japanese Kabuki Actors Captured in 18th-Century Woodblock Prints by the Mysterious & Masterful Artist Sharaku

How Jonathan Demme Put Humanity Into His Films: From The Silence of the Lambs to Stop Making Sense

Talking Heads Live in Rome, 1980: The Concert Film You Haven’t Seen

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Complete “Everything is a Remix”: An Hour-Long Testament to the Brilliance & Beauty of Human Creativity

Let me quote myself: “From 2010 to 2012, filmmaker Kirby Ferguson released Everything is a Remix, a four-part series that explored art and creativity, and particularly how artists inevitably borrow from one another, draw on past ideas and conventions, and then turn these materials into something beautiful and new. In the initial series, Ferguson focused on musicians, filmmakers, writers and even video game makers. Now, a little more than a decade later, Ferguson has resurfaced and released a fifth and final chapter in his series, with this episode focusing on a different kind of artist: artificial intelligence.” Above, you can watch the complete edition of “Everything is a Remix,” with all parts combined into a single, hour-long video. A transcript of the entire production can be found here. Watch. Ponder. Create.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

Related Content 

The Long Game of Creativity: If You Haven’t Created a Masterpiece at 30, You’re Not a Failure

David Lynch Explains How Meditation Enhances Our Creativity

Malcolm McLaren: The Quest for Authentic Creativity

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi Explains Why the Source of Happiness Lies in Creativity and Flow, Not Money


Enroll Today for Online Courses with Stanford Continuing Studies: Open Culture Readers Get 15% Off

A heads up for Open Culture readers: This spring, Stanford Continuing Studies has a rich lineup of online courses, and they’re offering a special 15% discount to our readers. Just use the promo code CULTURE during checkout.

Serving lifelong learners everywhere, Stanford Continuing Studies will launch its spring curriculum next week (the week of April 3), letting you choose from over 100 courses. Among the courses, you will find some notable mentions:

Defending Democracy at Home and Abroad features three Stanford scholars (including the former US ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul) who will examine the uncertain state of democracy at home and abroad. Together, they will explore 1) the merits of democracy compared with the alternatives, 2) challenges to democracy both in the US and across the globe, and 3) solutions for protecting and advancing democracy everywhere.

With Stanford Monday University: 2023, five Stanford scholars will focus on important trends currently shaping our society, especially after the pandemic. What’s the future of working from home, and how will remote work affect the economy of the United States? Why have addictions—including to devices and screens—skyrocketed in the US, and how can a dopamine fast help bring them under control? Why has the modern economy left behind so many working-class communities in America, and how can investment in these communities help address the wealth inequalities in our country? These, and other questions, will be explored in the course.

Finally, in The Book of Change: Ovid, Art, and Us, art historian Alexander Nemerov–voted one of Stanford’s top 10 professors by Stanford students–will examine Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the great works of art inspired by the Roman classic. Along the way, he will explore paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velázquez, and Nicolas Poussin, plus sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Stanford Continuing Studies also offers a large number of online creative writing courses and online business courses. See the complete lineup of courses here. And remember to use the promo code CULTURE during checkout to get your 15% discount. The code expires on April 30.

Watch the World’s First Film Made in Babylonian, the Language of Ancient Mesopotamia

“Enable subtitles,” says the notification that appears before The Poor Man of Nippur — and you will need them, unless, of course, you happen to hail from the cradle of civilization. The short film is adapted from “a folktale based on a 2,700-year-old poem about a pauper,” says the University of Cambridge’s alumni news, acted out word-for-word by “Assyriology students and other members of the Mesopotamian community at the University.” The result qualifies as the world’s very first film in Babylonian, a language that has “been silent for 2,000 years.”

“Found on a clay tablet at the archaeological site of Sultantepe, in south-east Turkey,” the story of The Poor Man of Nippur hasn’t come down to us in perfectly complete form. The film represents the points of breakage in the tablet with VHS-style glitches, a neat parallel of forms of media degradation across the millennia.

That isn’t the only noticeable anachronism — taking the buildings of Cambridge for Mesopotamia in the seventh century BC demands a certain suspension of disbelief — but we can rest assured of the Babylonian dialogue’s historical accuracy, or at least that this is the most accurate Babylonian dialogue we’re likely to get.

According to Cambridge Assyriologist Martin Worthington, who oversaw the Poor Man of Nippur project (after serving as Babylonian consultant for The Eternals), determining its pronunciation involves “a mix of educated guesswork and careful reconstruction,” but one that benefits from existing “transcriptions into the Greek alphabet” as well as connections with stabler languages like Arabic and Hebrew. The result is an unprecedented historical-linguistic attraction, a compelling advertisement for the study of Babylonian at Cambridge, and also — in depicting the impoverished protagonist’s revenge on a thuggish town mayor — a demonstration that the underdog story transcends time, culture, and language.

Related content:

Listen to The Epic of Gilgamesh Being Read in its Original Ancient Language, Akkadian

Watch a 4000-Year Old Babylonian Recipe for Stew, Found on a Cuneiform Tablet, Get Cooked by Researchers from Yale & Harvard

Listen to the Oldest Song in the World: A Sumerian Hymn Written 3,400 Years Ago

Trigonometry Discovered on a 3700-Year-Old Ancient Babylonian Tablet

Learn Latin, Old English, Sanskrit, Classical Greek & Other Ancient Languages in 10 Lessons

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Discover Edo, the Historic Green/Sustainable City of Japan

When you picture modern day Tokyo, what comes to mind?

The electronic billboards of Shibuya and Shinjuku?

The teeming streets?

The maid cafes?

The robot hotel?

A 97 square foot micro apartment?

Bernard Guerrini‘s documentary Naturopolis – Tokyo, from megalopolis to garden-city describes Tokyo as “a giant city, a city which never stops growing:”

It has destroyed its natural spaces. It has created its own weather. It’s too big for its own good. They say Tokyo is like an amoeba that absorbs everything in its path.

It’s a far cry from the urban space Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, intended when planting the seeds for Edo, as Tokyo was originally called.

As the above excerpt from Naturopolis explains, the 16th-century city was innovative in its incorporation of green space.

The daimyō, or military lords, were required by the shogunate to keep residences in Edo. Each of these homes was furnished with a gardener and a landscaper to maintain the beauty of its al fresco areas.

Meanwhile, crops were cultivated in all communal outdoor open spaces, with irrigation canals supplying the necessary water for growing rice.

These plant-rich settings provided a hospitable environment for animals both wild and domestic. The carefully curated natural zones invited quiet contemplation of flora and fauna, giving rise to the seasonal celebrations and rites that are still observed throughout Japan.

Whether admiring blossoms and fireflies in spring and summer or autumn leaves and snowy winter scenes in the colder months, Edo’s citizens revered the natural world outside their doorsteps.

Bashō did the same in his haiku; Utagawa Hiroshige in his series of ukiyo-e prints, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.

Somewhat less poetically celebrated was the importance of night soil to this biodynamic, pre-industrial shogunate capital. As environmental writer Eisuke Ishikawa delicately notes in Japan in the Edo Period – An Ecologically-Conscious Society:

A long time ago, when excrement was a precious fertilizer, it naturally belonged to the person who produced it. Farmers used to buy excrement for cash or trade it for a comparable amount of vegetables. Fertilizer shortages were a chronic problem during the Edo period. As the standard of living in cities improved, surrounding villages needed an increasing amount of fertilizer…

(Anyone who’s shouldered the surprisingly heavy interactive–not THAT interactive–night soil buckets on display in Tokyo’s Edo Museum will have a feel for just how much of this necessary element each block of the capital city generated on a daily basis.)

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 brought many changes – a new government, a new name for Edo, and a race toward Western-style industrialization. Many parks and gardens were destroyed as Tokyo rapidly expanded beyond Edo’s original footprint.

But now, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is looking to its past in an effort to combat the effects of climate change with a push toward environmental sustainability.

The goal is net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, with 2030 serving as a benchmark.

In addition to holding the business, financial, and energy sectors to environmentally responsible standard, the zero emission plan seeks to address the average citizen’s quality of life, with a literal return to more green spaces:

Accelerating climate change measures is important to preserve biodiversity and continue to reap its bounty. In recent years, the idea of green infrastructure that utilizes the functions of the natural environment has attracted attention. It is one of the most important considerations for the future: achieving both biodiversity conservation and climate change measures.

A United Nation report* pointed out that COVID-19 is potentially a zoonotic disease derived from wildlife, such infectious diseases will increase in the future, and one of the reasons is the destruction of nature by humans.

Read Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Zero Transmission Strategy and Update here.

Related Content 

The Met Puts 650+ Japanese Illustrated Books Online: Marvel at Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji and More

Download 1,000+ Beautiful Woodblock Prints by Hiroshige, the Last Great Master of the Japanese Woodblock Print Tradition

Wabi-Sabi: A Short Film on the Beauty of Traditional Japan

See How Traditional Japanese Carpenters Can Build a Whole Building Using No Nails or Screws

The Entire History of Japan in 9 Quirky Minutes

Cats in Japanese Woodblock Prints: How Japan’s Favorite Animals Came to Star in Its Popular Art

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Understanding Espresso: A Six-Part Series Explaining What It Takes to Pull the Ideal Shot

It doesn’t take long to learn how to pull a shot of espresso. Search for that phrase on Youtube, and you’ll find hours’ worth of sound instruction, most of it in the form of brief and easily digestible videos. All of them cover the same basic stages of the process: grinding, dosing, tamping, and brewing. When examined closely, each of those stages reveals a formidable body of knowledge to master. If any one Youtuber can lay claim to having mastered all of them, it must be James Hoffmann, previously featured here on Open Culture for his videos on subjects from deep-fried coffee to the classic Bialetti Moka Express. In the six-part series above, he offers viewers an overview of all they need to know to achieve a true understanding of espresso.

Episode by episode, Hoffmann explains how to choose the right dose of coffee, ratio between the amount of ground and liquid coffee, brew time, grind size, brew temperature, and pressure. Of course, there is no single universally correct setting or amount of any of these things: each is a variable with its own range of effects on the shot of espresso ultimately yielded.

Each drinker, too, has a different conception of the taste and texture of the ideal espresso shot, and consistently realizing those qualities — or at least getting close — necessitates no small amount of trial and error. But those who listen well to Hoffmann’s explanations will surely end up with fewer errors, and in any case get more enjoyment from the trials.

Watch “Understanding Espresso,” and you’re going to want to know how Hoffmann pulls shots for himself. This he addresses in a bonus episode — unsurprisingly, the longest one of the bunch — which shows his entire process in detail, from preparing the beans to stirring and sipping. Along the way, he also introduces the variety of specialized devices he uses: a strong draw for his many coffee-gearhead subscribers, but one he presents with the caveat that you really don’t need to go high-end all the way in order to live your best espresso life. Even so, the dedicated home enthusiast must put in considerably more time and attention than the average chain-coffee-shop barista. “Cafés want to make good espresso as quickly and easily as possible,” he reminds us. “We want to make incredible espresso every time.”

You can watch the entire playlist, from start to finish, at the very top of the post.

Related content:

The Birth of Espresso: The Story Behind the Coffee Shots That Fuel Modern Life

Coffee College: Everything You Wanted to Know about Coffee Making in One Lecture

All Espresso Drinks Explained: Cappuccino, Latte, Macchiato & Beyond

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Bialetti Moka Express: A Deep Dive Into Italy’s Most Popular Coffee Maker

Life and Death of an Espresso Shot in Super Slow Motion

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

More in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.