Tag Archives: The French Dispatch

The first uncontested crackerjack of grammatical expertise to appear in film

18 Jan

With a flourish, Alumna (Elisabeth Moss) spins round from a prodigious piece of sentence diagramming on a blackboard and fixes the camera with a proud glare. And another sub-editor (probably) enters the ever-increasing pantheon of Hollywood copydeskers.

This all happened some months ago, of course; given the necessity for masks, this blog is currently unable to attend the cinema without its glasses steaming up, so it has only just caught up with Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch on home premiere. Nonetheless, the story of the Dispatch and its last ever filings from Ennui-sur-Blas√© back to Kansas features a strong corps of production types to go with its gifted writers.

I say “probably” a sub-editor because Alumna is a wide-ranging, influential figure whose job is not specified in the credits. It is even suggested in some quarters that she might be a reporter, but look at the photograph. Does a reporter know how to do that? (To save you the trouble, the sentence reads: “They will fail to notice the torn ticket-stub for an unclaimed hat which sits alone on the upper shelf of a cloakroom in a bus depot on the outskirts of a work-a-day town where were apprehended Nickerson and his accomplices.”) She’s also described as the Dispatch’s “uncontested crackerjack of grammatical expertise”, which doesn’t sound much like a reporter either.

However, it’s not 100% clear exactly what she is. If she’s a sub-editor, wouldn’t she have been tempted to intervene in that 41-word sentence rather than simply diagram it? (The verb-subject inversion at the end might have to stay; the Dispatch very much seems to be a writer’s paper.) Also, she seems to be in charge of editorial conference, demanding progress reports and worrying about pagination like a managing editor while Arthur J Howitzer, publisher, sits and listens. Most sub-editors know how hard it is to get in to the interesting meetings, let alone run them.

Furthermore, also in conference is a more junior figure, “The Proof-Reader”. When asked about one piece in production, she reports “three dangling participles, two split infinitives and nine spelling errors in the first sentence alone,” suggesting (i) that she might be more of a sub-editor?; and (ii) that this must be another sentence as long as the example on the blackboard.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with split infinitives, as we know; no doubt that is why Howitzer gently intervenes to say: “Some of those were intentional.” Also, one is left wondering what has happened to the Dispatch’s editorial processes if all these things are only getting picked up at proof stage.

No such problems exist with Howitzer’s very poorly typed will, which appears on screen covered in editorial blue pencil, including at one point where the “permanently” in “permanently cease” has been deleted with the note “cease alone is clear”. However, another hand has firmly struck out this correction and marked “stet”. Quite right too: for a matter as consequential as this, it’s worth a little redundancy to make the meaning quite clear.

Meanwhile, the lawyer is raising distinctly sub-editorial concerns about Herbsaint Sazerac, the “Cycling Reporter”, and his vivid account of Ennui’s lowlife. “Impossible to fact-check. He changes all the names and only writes about hobos, pimps and junkies,” he complains. (Howitzer responds soothingly: “These are his people.”)

So perhaps it’s the kind of small, freewheeling newsroom where everyone does a bit of everything. Certainly the net for opinion is cast wide at conference. Staring at the flatplan on the wall together, Howitzer turns to the waiter from the bar downstairs, who has just brought the drinks. “What do you think?” he asks. The waiter looks at the board and shrugs expressively. “For myself, I would start with M Sazerac.” And so they do.

Images: © Searchlight Pictures 2021