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Considering nostalgia and travel with Wes Anderson

This Fall Term, I made my way to a movie theater outside of Saint Paul to see The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s most recent film. The film resonated with me deeply upon the first and second viewings. However, in my travels abroad, The French Dispatch has gained a new personal import.

Wes Anderson and The New Yorker seem to have a similar following in the self-declared literati community. People who appreciate these respective bodies of film and writing notoriously wear their taste as a badge of refinement. Anderson’s new film, The French Dispatch, is the director’s love letter to The New Yorker.  To this end, the film interprets the history of The New Yorker in true-to-form stylized and embellished Andersonian fashion. The French Dispatch also represents the essential aspects of The New Yorker within its filmic construction. I first experienced this connection at an experientially aesthetic level and later at a conceptual level. Most of all, as is the case for most, if not all of his work, the film provokes for me a feeling of anemoia (a nostalgia for a time you’ve never known). The French Dispatch perhaps hit a personal chord for me as a writer for a publication. The film portrays a life extinguished by the ailments of late-stage techno capitalism. 

The New Yorker was founded in 1925 by Harold Ross (a reference for Bill Murray’s Arthur Howitzer, Jr. alongside its second editor, William Shawn). Aiming for a sophisticated humor that would distinguish the magazine in an oversaturated market, The New Yorker struggled in its first several years before establishing itself as the prestigious, broadly-read publication it eventually became. It became far more than a magazine of comedy, featuring the talents of many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ greatest writers (The New Yorker very well might be considered responsible for emboldening the careers of many of these individuals). The French Dispatch tells the story of such a magazine. The dryly humored Arthur Howitzer Jr. is shown in a similar role, guiding his eclectic cast of genius reporters through a vibrant and thorny world. In discussing Anderson’s work with a friend and follower of his work, I concluded that his films have a distinct absence of neurotic anxiety. His characters worry, they feel strong emotions (present with flourishes that often verge on being perceived as stylized), yet convey a contentment and deep self-knowing that denies the possibility of such anxiety. It is my thought that this seems to be Anderson’s theorizing of an analogue life. Social media and fast communication is generally left from his narratives. Anderson’s nostalgic mise-en-scene frees his characters from many of the shackles that bind his audiences. For some, this is felt as shallow, something they see as a failing of his films. Others delight in the escapism that this allows.

Something essential to the intertextual relationship between The New Yorker and The French Dispatch is a shared story construction process. Long form features published in The New Yorker are often timely, brilliantly written, intriguingly curious and provoking pieces that spark conversations and reflection for months following their publishing. The New Yorker issue can be eclectic, with shared themes emerging as they are contextualized by a reader’s experiences—or not at all. The French Dispatch offers a similar structure narratively. Within each vignette, characters pursue a variety of milieu and geographies, encountering sensuality, tragedy and most importantly, vitality. The stories coalesce in an abstracted, yet extremely life-affirming viewing experience. The process and presence of embellishment within the film and the magazine leads this experience. Flourishes within both the writing in the film and magazine are pointed, poetic (not in a bad way) and pithy. The writing is otherwise direct and the narrative is straightforward. Most notably, both film and magazine find their moments of beauty in the mundane. The storytelling of these moments is clear yet artful. The film’s structure takes the form of The New Yorker’s long form feature pieces. The character and situation studies presented all find their touches of color and beauty within the cracks of the plot.

My abroad experience also allowed me to grow an appreciation for the film’s consideration of the American expat living in Europe. The film’s characters are visa-stamped intellectuals who freely navigate the globe. I recently left North America for the first time in my life. In a preparation video, the OCS office discussed the stereotypes that apply to Americans abroad and behaviors we were to avoid in our goal of maintaining Carleton and our country’s reputation. Half joking with an abroad mate of mine, I decided that I could decisively distinguish Americans in Rome on the basis of their fashion from a block away. I have proven my abilities accurate. This filled me with both embarrassment and a bit of egotistical pride. I must have looked more like my compatriots than I would like to admit, yet I feel as if I followed decorum better than many of them. However, Rome is a city of foreigners. As is Barcelona. As is Chicago, my home town. What does it mean to be an American in these European cities? The French Dispatch primed me to see myself as a member of a romantic community of intellectual travelers and students.

 A favorite dialogue from the film is as follows:

Lt. Nescaffier: I’m a foreigner, you know.

Roebuck Wright: This city is full of us, isn’t it? I’m one myself.

Lt. Nescaffier: Seeking something missing, missing something left behind.

Roebuck Wright: Maybe with good luck, we’ll find what eluded us in the places we once called home.

However, the reality has been sharper and ruder. Many of my peer students seemed unwilling and uninterested to live in new manners. This was most apparent in Florence. As it is such a popular destination for studying abroad, there are bars exclusively for abroad students. What’s more, many Americans studying there have no desire or need to leave their bubbles and they have an impact on these places. The aforementioned bars, countless restaurants, shops and more open for their convenient consumption. The French Dispatch’s writer expat encounters a Europe that does not exist. It is cosmopolitan but not globalized in the film. Unfortunately, travel has been recontextualized by a capitalist and globalized push towards flatness and commodification. Rome’s Caravaggios require Euros as payment to view. Unfortunately for me, what I have found in places I have yet to come home from is a lot of what I left at home. The writer needs not travel in the year 2022: a trip to their strip mall will provide the same food options. I feel let down by the promise of his film. I also feel impassioned to travel more. Wes was wrong. The world is a bit flatter and more boring than he promised. But that is not necessarily all bad. I have seen more empathy and cosmopolitan unity than his films promise. 

The internet—social media in particular—has allowed us to consume media (culture?) from various places without ever leaving our rooms. People I have met from other countries who are my own age have similar music and film tastes as I do. This is beautiful and oh-so-mundane. Anderson’s town, Ennui-sur-Blasé (translated roughly: “boredom-on-apathy”) seems to acknowledge this reality. I hope to return to The French Dispatch soon and to see how my travels have changed my experience of the film. 

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