What’s in a Genre?

Does it matter whether or not The French Dispatch is considered an anthology? 

Like all genre debates, how we categorize art can inform how we understand that art, ideally facilitating deeper engagement by filtering it through a pre-existing framework in order to illuminate aspects that may not be immediately apparent. Ideally, the art can then change our conception of the corresponding genres as well.

With The French Dispatch, labeling it an anthology can lead viewers to see the movie as nothing more than loosely connected stories, without any substantive relation between them besides the usual comparisons that can be drawn between any tales arranged side by side. In this interpretation, The French Dispatch is merely a cinematic recreation of a magazine issue, and — if you think about it — all magazine issues are basically anthologies.

Though that’s how the movie’s been pitched to audiences, paying close attention to its content reveals how it’s more of a cohesive narrative than the term “anthology” usually denotes.

The opening voiceover notifies us that what we’re about to watch is a handful of articles from the final issue of a magazine titled, what else, The French Dispatch. A key detail: the issue is a eulogy both for the magazine and for its longtime head honcho, played by Bill Murray. In terms of the former, on a macro thematic level, the movie is also an ode to the halcyon days of long-form print.

But it’s the Bill Murray ingredient that makes me chafe at calling the movie an anthology. A “eulogy” for a person is, by definition, a cohesive narrative; through stories about their life, the audience hopefully gleans a comprehensive overall picture of the subject through these smaller, individual anecdotes.

And that’s my take on The French Dispatch. The movie tells the story of his life, through what gave his life meaning: his magazine, and the interpersonal love he had for his writers and what they wrote about. Every single story in The French Dispatch is about a writer’s relationship with what they’re writing about, and we see the text of their articles come to life on screen. Between each story, we observe Murray’s role in what ends up on the page, working directly with his essayists to shape their vision. All together, these component parts comprise the story of Murray’s life.

One definition of the word “dispatch”: “the sending of someone or something to a destination or for a purpose.” The movie’s purpose is to be one unified send-off of Murray’s character, told through the elements of his life that defined his existence.

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