Opinion

The French Dispatch evokes the golden age of magazines - we're ushering in a new era

Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch pays tribute to the glory days of our trade. Big Issue editor Paul McNamee explains why our Breakthrough scheme shows we're on the threshold of something new.

Bill Murray in the film The French Dispatch. Image: Searchlight Pictures

Bill Murray in the film The French Dispatch. Image: Searchlight Pictures

It is the most curious thing. A place where journalists aren’t the bad guys. 

I left a screening of Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch feeling elated. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot since. 

The French Dispatch is about magazines, and why storytelling of the sort that magazines can deliver matters. It’s set in the French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé where a publisher/editor has established an outpost of an American newspaper and assembles a host of curious contributors to write for the titular magazine.

It’s stylish, naturally. And just about everybody is in it. It’s a Wes Anderson film that is a tribute both to Wes Anderson and a host of great movies, particularly those from the French new wave onwards. 

But you don’t have to be an art house obsessive to enjoy The French Dispatch. Because it also has heart.

Words matter. The way you tell a story is frequently as important as the story itself. When it comes to the big themes, around life and death, love, ageing and finding your way in the world, there is an important place for the press. Which isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds.

At a moment in time when journalists are frequently dismissed as pariahs and MSM hucksters, this is a refreshing approach. 

Anderson even captures the essence of an editor – wandering around the office questioning expenses, being supportive and putting a line through sentences here and there.

Played by Bill Murray, he is Arthur Howitzer Jr, advising his team to “just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose”. Which, of course, is the best advice.

Even the subs are waspish and cool. (That, in a Wes Anderson fashion, is a knowing joke. The subs may cut it. That’s another one.) 

There is a certain melancholic air at the film’s close, a sadness that the period for that particular style of magazine has passed.

The characters evoke a golden age of wise-cracking East Coast New Yorker writer that at one time every cub reporter has copied. Why would anyone choose to head into this trade now, a trade whose salad days are the stuff of stories and whimsy? 

Last week we announced the Breakthrough programme.

It’s a Big Issue talent lab aimed at bringing through young undiscovered and unnurtured voices from marginalised backgrounds who may never have thought of coming into publishing.

There will be other training programmes through Big Issue under the Breakthrough banner. But the first project is rooted in this great knockabout business. 

I was worried that we may struggle to recruit, that journalism may not hold much attraction any more. It’s a long distance from Woodward and Bernstein. I needn’t have worried. The talent and ideas were not in short supply. The challenge was whittling down the numbers. 

And so here we stand, on the threshold of something mighty and new, led by The Big Issue to inspire and move some incredible talent to their own French Dispatches. 

Allez! 

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue. Read his past editor’s columns here.
Paul.McNamee@bigissue.com

@PauldMcNamee

This article is taken from the latest edition of The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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