Over the past two years all of us have had to recalibrate our definition of “normal.” It used to be typical that we would see the trailer for a movie and expect it to be at the cinema within a few weeks. How remarkably frustrating it was, then, to have one’s appetite whetted by a preview for a film that looked especially appealing (and which promised to speak in some measure to one’s profession) only to have everything shut down immediately thereafter.
It’s been a raw time, subject to many shocks and episodes of heartbreak. Beloved friends have died, their passing hastened along by the novel coronavirus. Restaurants we dearly enjoyed and assumed would exist well into the future closed their doors forever. We were prevented from comforting each other physically and attending concerts of live music; all our endearments and enjoyments were conveyed through plexiglass, as via a prison telephone. We were starved first of affection, then, more cruelly, of empathy and compassion; we could only view and judge others at a remove, like a dog barking at a squirrel on television.
It was traversing this drear landscape, a journey more of time than of distance, noting each day as our basic humanity atrophied and our anger percolated, that I held out shards of hope for our healing and renewal. I looked forward to when we could dine out again, to when we could hear music played in public again, to when we could watch an anticipated film in a theater again.
Nearly two years after seeing it touted in the coming attractions, I had the opportunity to sit flanked by cupholders for a showing of Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. And—it was mildly anticlimactic. I laughed out loud a couple of times, particularly at one bit of throwaway dialogue that had to do with article length. I’d hoped that there would be more about the workings of the publication itself, but that was almost enough of a bone to throw to a tired editor.
It was magnificently done, if weirdly conceived. There was almost too much verbal and visual information to process, all going by at ludicrous speed. Wes Anderson doesn’t insult anyone’s intelligence—he assumes it, and the viewer had better be able to keep up. Though an homage to The New Yorker, it was more packed like a 1953 issue of Mad. And it was highly fanciful, as much of Anderson’s work is.
A friend of mine responded with his own observations, having seen a different (sparsely attended) showing at the same theater: “I loved the visuals and got engrossed in the first story. I fell asleep through the second story which I found mildly annoying and woke up for the third story which I disliked. Not a good one for me, but I wouldn’t tell fans not to see it.”
I told him I didn’t disagree with him. At the screening we attended, there were just two other people—which is about par for the films we tend to enjoy. The first story in the anthology was the best. The latter two had their moments, at least visually. My main complaint is that there wasn’t enough of the Bill Murray character (loosely based on Harold Ross) and his interactions with the magazine staff. I’ve read Thomas Kunkel’s Genius in Disguise, Thurber’s The Years With Ross, and Brendan Gill’s Here at The New Yorker—and the real story of the publication is much more fascinating than Anderson’s beautifully designed pastiche.
Anderson makes a passing reference about the man who showed up at the office every day and never wrote anything. The real-life personage he refers to, Joseph Mitchell, is worthy of his own narrative. Mitchell was arguably one of the best writers in New Yorker history, and his initial story about Joe Gould—“Professor Sea Gull”—was widely anthologized. And yet, from 1964 until his death thirty-two years later, Joe Mitchell would go to work at his New Yorker office every day, never writing another publishable word. (In fact, a film was made about Mitchell, Joe Gould’s Secret starring Stanley Tucci, in 2000.)
The aspect of The French Dispatch which has stuck with me, much more than the whimsical vignettes within, was the section of the editor’s will (read near the beginning of the film) that stated publication would immediately cease and the presses melted down upon his death. Subscribers, of course, would receive pro-rated compensation for issues never to be sent.
That swift stroke would appear to slice through the Gordian Knot of succession. Is an editor a figure so godlike that his creation must be destroyed when he dies? Those familiar with the history of The New Yorker know that Ross had a replacement ready to step in when he was gone. The thought of William Shawn picking up the blue pencil must have been a comfort to him.
No one can afford to be irreplaceable. I have often reflected on this truism in the past year or so, prompted by a harrowing six weeks with a perilously infected tooth—that I worked through. My printer’s deadline is chiseled in stone; it doesn’t matter how I feel—up to a point. I can’t call in sick but I’d much rather not have to call in dead.
Unlike the fictional editor of The French Dispatch, I want my publication to continue. I’ll not direct anyone to pull the plug and melt down the presses. (My printer would certainly object.) I’d love to see someone pick up the torch and carry it forward—since I’m fresh out of blue pencils.
And I truly want to applaud their success while I still have fleshy hands to clap.