Friday, December 3

‘The French Chronicle’: The Race Journalists Who Inspired Wes Anderson | Babelia

At the beginning of 2003, the editorial staff of the weekly The New Yorker received a surprising call. It was the filmmaker Wes Anderson, newly revealed then thanks to budding cult films like Academia Rushmore O Los Tenenbaums, who made them an indecent proposition: he had the firm intention of buying the weekly archive, founded in 1925 and since then turned into a bible of the American intelligentsia, an absolute reference of political commentary and cultural criticism, always peppered with exquisite fiction texts, satirical illustrations, the occasional poetry and, above all, covers to frame.

The answer was definitive: the archive of this almost century-old magazine was not for sale. Anderson, who began to read The New Yorker During his high school years in his native Texas, he had to settle for acquiring several dozen bound volumes owned by the University of California, Berkeley. Two decades later, his obsession with that publication has led to The French Chronicle, a heartfelt tribute (and worthy of a true maniac) to the golden age of journalism. The film tells the insides of a fictitious magazine, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, an American weekly based in France that is clearly inspired by The New Yorker (although it may also contain a slight hint of The Paris Review, founded at the dawn of the Cold War in the French capital and whose co-founder, Peter Matthiessen, collaborated with the CIA). Wes Anderson, who just edited an anthology of articles by The New Yorker which brings together 15 mythical texts, created its characters based on the reporters who worked for the publication covering the great (and small) events of the last century from France. These are their true stories.

Bill Murray in 'The French Chronicle' and the founder of 'The New Yorker', Harold Ross.
Bill Murray in ‘The French Chronicle’ and the founder of ‘The New Yorker’, Harold Ross.

Bill Murray – Harold Ross

Nothing is coincidence: if the founder of The French Dispatch played by Bill Murray, with his usual sardonic resignation, comes from Kansas, the man who created The New Yorker, Harold Ross, was born in the neighboring state of Colorado. Ross directed the magazine between 1925 and 1951, a long term in which he edited a total of 1,399 issues, having been one of the original members of the legendary Algonquin round table, the intellectual gathering frequented by journalists, critics, writers and interpreters. of Broadway of which Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood or Alexander Woollcott were part. Obsessed with commas, which fell on the pages “with the precision of knives around the victim in a circus act,” as writer EB White once put it, Ross hated having crude or sexual jokes made on the pages of the magazine. and he was not a supporter of articles of social denunciation, which set the tone for the somewhat snobbish and detached weekly during its first decades.

He was not the only model for the role. Wes Anderson claims that the editor of his film is inspired by Ross “on the surface” and his successor in The New Yorker, William Shawn, “in the feeling.” The latter, who took the reins between 1952 and 1987, became known for protecting his reporters from any internal or external pressure. The character of Bill Murray, very understanding of those neuroses recognizable by anyone who is paid to put characters together, shares that characteristic.

Actor Owen Wilson and journalist Joseph Mitchell, stellar signature of 'The New Yorker'.
Actor Owen Wilson and journalist Joseph Mitchell, stellar signature of ‘The New Yorker’.

Owen Wilson – Joseph Mitchell

The film opens with the report of a picturesque reporter played by Owen Wilson, who tells the story of a brilliant painter locked in a French madhouse (Benicio del Toro) and of his muse, a silent jailer (Léa Seydoux). Wilson’s character seems inspired by the journalist Joseph Mitchell, one of the most stellar of The New Yorker. He joined the weekly’s team in 1938 and soon attracted attention for his taste for characters so unusual on the pages of the intellectual press as drunkards, swindlers, tramps, drug dealers and bearded women. On another occasion, he dedicated a long essay to the rats of New York, in an undisguised metaphor for the social behavior of his fellow citizens.

A chronicler of the city for several decades, he entered a deep creative block in 1964. From that year on, he continued to go to the magazine’s editorial office every day, but never published anything again, despite officially remaining on the staff until his death in 1996 (the film makes another nod to Mitchell through a fleeting secondary that “has never finished a single article”). After his death, it was published Joe Gould’s Secret (Anagram), which recovered the memorable profile that Mitchell signed on the son of a large family from Massachusetts, a Harvard graduate, who ended up living as a beggar in Manhattan. When reproached for writing about “ordinary people,” Mitchell replied, “Ordinary people are just as important as you, whoever you are.” The appointment would go down to posterity.

Frances McDormand on 'The French Chronicle' and the writer who inspires her, Mavis Gallant, who also covered May '68 for 'The New Yorker'.
Frances McDormand on ‘The French Chronicle’ and the writer who inspires her, Mavis Gallant, who also covered May ’68 for ‘The New Yorker’.

Frances McDormand – Mavis Gallant

The Canadian writer Mavis Gallant was another of the most prominent firms of The New Yorker. He left reporting in 1950 to move to Paris and focus on writing short stories and novels, such as Green water, green sky (recovered in Spanish by Impedimenta in 2018), but he made exceptions every time the New York weekly commissioned him. In all, Gallant wrote about 60 chronicles for The New Yorker from Paris, the city in which he would reside until his death in 2014. The best known of them all is The Events in May, where he recounted how a small youth revolt ended up turning the entire country upside down and causing de Gaulle’s power to falter. The events of May ’68 appear transposed in the second chapter of the film, where Timothée Chalamet plays a student leader opposite a seasoned journalist, Lucinda Krementz, who bears a certain physical resemblance to the writer, played by Frances McDormand. It is not pure chance: Anderson points to Gallant as one of the reporters of The New Yorker the ones he has read the most, along with John Updike and Ved Mehta. Another model for the same character could be Lillian Ross, a pioneer of literary journalism closely linked to the history of the magazine. Anderson has guarded his file since his death in 2017.

Tilda Swinton and journalist and speaker Rosamond Bernier, at a gala at the Metropolitan Museum in 1988.
Tilda Swinton and journalist and speaker Rosamond Bernier, at a gala at the Metropolitan Museum in 1988.

Tilda Swinton – Rosamond Bernier

The eccentric character played by Tilda Swinton in the film, JKL Berenson, is clearly inspired by Rosamond Bernier, a journalist from the bohemian intelligentsia of Philadelphia, who was friends with Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Aaron Copland. Bernier moved after World War II to Paris, where he worked for the French edition of Vogue and then founded the art magazine The eye, which still exists today. In the second half of her life, the journalist became known for her lectures on the great artists of the 20th century, such as Matisse or Miró, which she delivered, with indescribable diction and accent mid-Atlantic (This is how Americans who pretend to be British speak: as if they were somewhere halfway across the ocean), at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He passed away in 2016 at the age of 100, eight after retiring. Swinton pointed to the journalist, whose real name was Rosamond Rosenbaum, as an obvious inspiration for her character and defined her, in a recent interview, as “a groupie Of art”.

Jeffrey Wright, double in the fiction of 'James Baldwin', portrayed in the Paris of the fifties.
Jeffrey Wright, double in the fiction of ‘James Baldwin’, portrayed in the Paris of the fifties.

Jeffrey Wright – James Baldwin

The third episode of The French Chronicle It stars Roebuck Wright, double in the fiction of James Baldwin, the great African-American writer who arrived in Paris at the age of 24 and, according to legend, with a paltry 40 dollars in his pocket. In postwar intellectual Paris, Baldwin found relative refuge as a homosexual black man, far from the vexations he suffered in his native country. The character played by Jeffrey Wright is inspired by his clothing style and highly media profile: the entire chapter is narrated as if it were one of those television interviews that made Baldwin so well known, or even more so, than books like Next time the fire, Notes from a native son O Giovanni’s room. “The character is a tribute to the writer, but it is not biographical at all,” said the actor who plays him, Jeffrey Wright. For example, Roebuck does not talk about politics and civil rights, as Baldwin did incessantly, but about somewhat more anecdotal matters. Actually, that role has a second model: AJ Liebling, another prominent firm from The New Yorker, which became known for the literary quality of his gastronomic chronicles signed from France, which he later collected in different volumes. For this reason, the character of Wright writes in the film about an Asian chef who triumphs in Paris, although the plot ends up taking him in other directions.

All names cited appear in the end credits of The French Chronicle, when Anderson includes an emotional and unexpected dedication to the great firms that made history with their reports in The New Yorker: Harold Ross, William Shawn, Rosamond Bernier, Mavis Gallant, James Baldwin, AJ Liebling, SN Behrman, Lillian Ross, Janet Flanner, Luc Sante, James Thurber, Joseph Mitchell, Wolcott Gibbs, St. Clair McKelway, Ved Mehta, Brendan Gill and the couple formed by EB White and Katharine White, the mythical fiction editor of the magazine between 1925 and 1960. Which allows to leave doubts, if someone needed it.

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