The Wild Writers and Their Subjects Bash
by John Kendall Hawkins
The other day I was reading one of my favorite magazines — The New Yorker — and had a perfumed thought fart. More like a bouquet actually. I was in no particular hurry, so I hit the Stop button on the elevator and huddled with other gathering farts for a conference. I wondered: What if we made a movie based on The New Yorker‘s last days, and we set it in some imaginary place in France — say, Jejune — and went retro metro, and based the plot of the film on articles appearing in the magazine, and filled the frames with pastiche and pastels and odd angles, and brought it all to life with the quirkiest characters I could fart out? One of my neurons liked this idea very much and let out a Wagner tuba hoot. Next thing I know, it’s like the first movement of the bowel symphony, and I’m forced to get us moving again, and we tumble out of the elevator like we were coming down cold turkey off the nitrous oxide with pusses that showed it.
Sure. We break the film up into parts that come together from magazine sections. I see Flash Fiction, John Edgar Wideman combined with James Baldwin (Paris years), a little vignette filled with sad and angry pastels (how do they do it?), on the lam, nightclub jazz blues, dames in fishnet, smoky hazes, but somehow intentionally over-stylized to sentimental effect, deep thoughts to sax riffs. Or Poetry. Charles Simic, say. War years. Playing with toy soldiers, writing his early memoirs, glissando fingers crawling up the leg of his maid’s Black Forest, while bombs fell outside the window (stylized whistles — Dixie maybe), perfect timing.
And a section called Life and Letters — “Thomas Mann: Deeper and Darker Than You Thought But Twice As Much Fun For His Complexity” — on holiday in Jejune, sans the kids, sans the wife, brooding as only Germans can do, when a pretty set of gams enters his periphery and a new adventure is underway, the ol’ glockenspiel heart still has some hammering to do. And Critic at Large: ” ‘Bambi’ Is Even Bleaker Than You Thought,” our scribe bringing us through the hidden feminist implications, angry even though postmod has cracked the Canon’s hairy walnuts — ah, but can she resist the Sartrian ogler across the cafe? They see eye to eye: How about that?
And And A Reporter at Large, an intriguing episode where young and intrepid investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, Sackler Family nemesis, comes to Jejune to meet up with a shadowy figure who has “information” about the “arson” at Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019, and gets rolled in alleyway, but by ridiculous luck is found and nursed back to health by one Joan Dark, a vigilante looking to take down the 1%. Cryptic Crossword. One man’s peripatetic life, gathering evidence, puzzles themselves as clues. I dunno, maybe it’s all fatuous.
But recently viewing Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (shortened to The French Dispatch), I saw such a vision come to life and work marvelously well. In The French Dispatch, Bill Murray plays Arthur Howitzer, Jr., the editor in chief of the quirkiest newspaper you’ve ever heard of. Most of the writers and editors are whack jobs, working at a place that has a sign Howitzer points to occasionally: “No Crying.”
It’s staffed by unusual and sometimes zany reporters:
One reporter known as the best living writer in quality of sentences per minute. One who never completed a single article but haunted the halls cheerily for three decades. One privately blind writer who wrote keenly through the eyes of others. Three dangling participles, two split infinitives, and nine spelling errors in the first sentence alone. [from the screenplay]
Howitzer tells his beloved writers, “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”
Howitzer is about to die of a heart attack. We hear his will, which gives the best indication of his practicality, and his generosity to his reporters and readership, summed up in a voice over:
The presses will be dismantled and liquified; the editorial offices will be vacated and sold; the staff will be paid ample bonuses and released from their contracts; and the publication of the magazine will permanently cease.
Howitzer’s a gem, preferring to pay for an expanded edition, rather than ever cut one word from one of his reporter’s stories. (A gentle tweak at New Yorker values?) When he dies, the paper is dispatched with him. And his staff knows it’s appropriate; they could never work as a team with anyone else.
After Anderson’s delightfully well-cast The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) that brought together actors who practically emerged from the woodwork of the place, so naturally there in frames full of je nais se qua vibes in which it seemed the characters had introjected the character of the hotel in-itself, he clearly had no problem getting an eager ensemble together for The French Dispatch. Sharing magician duties with Murray are Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Le’a Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothe’e Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Owen Wilson, Henry Winkler, Christoph Waltz, Liev Schreiber, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Elisabeth Moss, Anjelica Huston, and throw in Roman Polanski’s daughter Morgane and you got yourself quirky pastiche up the yin-yang. They all come together like the proverbial impressionist painting, emphatic colors playing with, even delighting in interplay of tones and strokes talking to each other, maybe having a Gauloise together afterward. Now that’s ensemble!
One of the things I liked best about the film was its art direction and production design, for which, along with the ensemble work, it is receiving the highest accolades. Each frame of The French Dispatch is a fully realized aesthetic moment musicaux. Some scenes were so well thought out, you could tell they were in France. The Chopin tinkles don’t hurt. And, I don’t know, maybe it was me, but there was something of the beau geste seemingly inspired by the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Heart Club Band. I wouldn’t be surprised if it later comes out that Anderson was toking to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in some future tell-all late night interview with TV’s Conan the Arbitrarian. We’ll see if the shtick holds up when I put the film through the test of a third watching.
The film is billed as a comedy-cum-drama-cum-romance. I didn’t see much drama, but if you say so, Wes. But it did have two romantic subplots that were most excellently unfurled to this viewer’s happy hands delight. (I’m still clapping.) The first involves Moses Rosenthaler, a lunatic prisoner (played by Benicio Del Toro) in jail for murder, but who is also a “genius” artist. When we first meet him, he’s painting a portrait of Simone (played by Le’a Seydoux), a live naked, sensual female model — yes, in prison (it’s France!) — who, wait for it, is his guard. When the session is through (a bell rings), she flicks him off, gets dressed, and puts him back in his cell. His abstract expressionist portraits of her get famous, thanks to Julian Cadazio (Adrian Brody) who “discovers” him, and J.K.L. Berenson (Tilda Swinson), a curator and lecturer on his work. There’s classic sexual tension tautly expressed between Simone and Moses, and, alas, unrequitable love. I dunno, I kinda read it as a sly lampoon of Foucault.
The other bit is the romance between two radical chic will-be lovers Zeffirelli and Juliette. That’s right, you’ll think Zeffirelli and his film, Romeo and Juliet. (Well, you will now.) Zeffirelli (Timothe’e Chalamet) is a resistance fighter against L’Homme, and he has a manifesto, mostly re-written by reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), his older woman lover who goes on to play Lady Macbeth, and he means business. Opposed to his manifesto-istas is a young fem group led by the ferociously pretty Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), who torques the talk, a sweet nutcracker who means well and means to change the male dominated manifesto-driven world to a woman-fisto revolution. They snarl and growl. They are virgins who fall in love, another dialectic that needs each other. Sigh.
It turns out that Anderson did have in mind an odic tribute to the New Yorker and a kiss for France, reminiscent in some ways of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But Anderson’s film is far superior in its multifaceted approach to Allen’s pleasant near-death swoon. Allen is still going on about Hemingway-esque days. Anderson’s palette expresses a sweet underbelly of gooey sweet French soulfulness. Sure, it’s bullshit, too. (Stream the film La Haine some night to see how the other half lives and dies.) But, then, it’s all bullshit in the post-modern world — democracy, capitalism, communism, liberte’, e’galite’, fraternite’. There’s a reason why we crave abstract expressionism. Ever since we killed the Canon.
Aside from the fact that it’ll probably win a slew of Oscars — and surely should be in the running for Best Picture. If you are looking for a film that captivates with its overflowing designs and character portrayals, this is your film. It’s upbeat, well-acted, and a joy to behold, as Blake would say. See it on the big screen.
And here is a valuable sampling from the film:
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