James Pogue in the Baffler recently lamented the rise of “shareable writing,” manifest in a now-common breed of article both “easy for publishers to reproduce” and for readers to absorb. Shareability requires, above all, that pieces “be simple to describe and package online.” This in contrast to the writing published by, say, The New Yorker in decades past. “Every time I have a reason to pull up a piece from the archives, I am shocked at how strange and outré the older pieces read — less like work from a different magazine than documents from an alien society.” That alien society provides the backdrop for Wes Anderson’s next feature film The French Dispatch, whose trailer has just come out.
Anyone who watches one of Anderson’s films will suspect him of loving all things mid-century — that is to say, the artifacts of life as it was lived in the decades following the Second World War, especially in western Europe. This love comes through in the look and feel of even Anderson’s earlier pictures, like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, whose stories ostensibly take place in contemporary America. But in recent years Anderson has gone in for increasingly intricate period pieces, setting Moonrise Kingdom in mid-1960s New England and The Grand Budapest Hotel in the years 1932, 1968, and 1985, all in the imagined European country of Zubrowka. The French Dispatch takes place in the 1960s in the very real European country of France, but a fictional town called “Ennui-sur-Blasé” that allows Anderson to conjure up a mid-20th-century France of the mind.
The mid-century objects of Anderson’s love include The New Yorker, a magazine he’s read and collected since his teen years. The influence of that love on The French Dispatch has not gone unnoticed at the current New Yorker. A piece published there offering stills of Anderson’s new film describes it as “about the doings of a fictional weekly magazine that looks an awful lot like — and was, in fact, inspired by — The New Yorker. The editor and writers of this fictional magazine, and the stories it publishes—three of which are dramatized in the film — are also loosely inspired by The New Yorker.” Heading the titular dispatch is Arthur Howitzer, Jr., played (naturally) by Bill Murray and inspired by New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. Owen Wilson’s Herbsaint Sazerac is “a writer whose low-life beat mirrors Joseph Mitchell’s.” Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright, “a mashup of James Baldwin and A. J. Liebling, is a journalist from the American South who writes about food.”
Other regular Anderson players include Adrien Brody’s Julian Cadazio, an art dealer “modelled on Lord Duveen, who was the subject of a six-part New Yorker Profile by S. N. Behrman, in 1951.” Consider, for a moment, that there was a time when a major magazine would publish a six-part profile of a British art dealer who had died more than a decade before — and when such a piece of writing would draw both considerable attention and acclaim. There are those who criticize as misplaced Anderson’s apparent nostalgia for times, places, and cultures like the one The French Dispatch will bring to the screen this summer. But here in the 21st century, inundated as we are by what Pogue calls the “largely voiceless and precisely formulaic” writing of even respectable publications, can we begrudge the filmmaker his yearning for those bygone days? The only thing missing back then, it might seem to us fans, was Wes Anderson movies.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include 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.