This comparative look at Wes Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, Earnest in Paris, is a guest post by Miles Stephenson, a talented young writer whom I had the great pleasure of haunting locales touched by the Lost Generation during the trip to Paris he is presenting on The Modern Salonnière today, an earnest post I throughly enjoy presenting to my readers!
Earnest in Paris
As a young writer invariably shaping my voice, I often look to the masters for some wisdom. This started most earnestly with a study of the “Lost Generation” and their relationships in Paris, particularly F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest. And after some time, I started my own novel and even thought about dabbling in filmmaking, a medium in which I could manipulate color, audio, and form in a more direct, visual sense. But how does one approach such a task? How can the arrangement and palette of a frame be used to transport a viewer?
The Grand Budapest Hotel
If you’re looking for an answer to these questions, search no longer because Wes Anderson’s most recent masterpiece, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) might just be the most artful execution of this sentiment in contemporary cinema. So, when I found out I would be heading to Paris to take on a writing assignment and follow in Ernest Hemingway’s steps while he was an expatriate living in France during the 20th Century, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for me to compare two of my favorite writers, one from film and one from literature.
Without question The Grand Budapest Hotel is my favorite of Wes Anderson’s films. This stylized, storybook motion picture follows an eccentric concierge and his lobby boy from a famed hotel in a quasi-fictional alpine Europe between the two world wars. The film hits every beat: Wes’ beautiful attention to mise-en-scéne, the snappy gusto of the dialogue and its comedic timing, and the precision of camera movement and character interaction. Never before had a film transported me to a “fantasy world” to such an extent—an interbellum, theatrical Europe where a dowager matriarch is assassinated for political means, which results in the locking up of a framed, perfumed hotel manager who wins the reverence of a violent prison in the mountains of Europe until a secret guild of hotel concierge orchestrates a fugitive rescue mission.
It’s on all notes absurd and brilliant. And during the one hour and forty minutes of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I tasted Mendl’s courtesan au chocolat, saw the Renaissance elegance of Boy with Apple, felt the antique tiles of the Grand Budapest’s bathhouse, and heard the melody of a hauntingly beautiful alpine yodel from the Swiss group Öse Schuppel. The film’s realm was so flush with theatrical elements that I was effortlessly placed in this fictionalized Europe without any hesitation. Known equally for his symmetrical frames, high angle shots, and meticulous attention to detail and color as he is for his strong writing, Wes perhaps charmed me the most with the dialogue of his characters, particularly that of the fantastic Monsieur Gustave.
Played expertly by Ralph Fiennes, M. Gustave carried the entire film. He is a harshly precise, comically dramatic hotel concierge, pledged to forthrightness and honesty. Almost all of Wes’ characters are devoted to frankness- a direct way of speaking that results in some of his film’s best comedy. M. Gustave particularly carries this torch. This sentiment can be seen in some of the movie’s strongest scenes, including one in which he describes his lobby boy’s new lover.
“I must say, I find that girl utterly delightful. Flat as a board, enormous birthmark the shape of Mexico over half her face, sweating for hours on end in that sweltering kitchen, while Mendl, genius though he is, looms over her like a hulking gorilla. Yet without question, without fail, always and invariably, she’s exceedingly lovely,” Gustave explains to the lobby boy. This overly exaggerated honesty serves to inject observational comedy into his dialogue. It also makes Gustave loveable, as he hides none of his predilections and biases behind insincerity.
A Moveable Feast
This passion for Wes’ films was fresh in my mind as I boarded the plane for Paris a few weeks ago. I knew I would be writing about Ernest on my trip so I dusted off a copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (the Restored Edition for the highest historical accuracy of course) and dove in. As a writer who loves elaborate description and the “music” of language, I was used to more lyrical writing like F. Scott’s ritzy romanticism of the Roaring Twenties or even Bradbury’s often colorful renditions of harsh future realities. I had kept this trend going with even my more modern reads, including Joseph O’Neill’s Gatsby-esque Netherland and Colson Whitehead’s cartoonist description in The Intuitionist.
It was perhaps due to this heritage of more lyrical writing that Ernest truly puzzled me when I first read The Old Man and the Sea. “You’ll love it. He’s one of the best writers of the 20th Century,” virtually everyone told me. And I did enjoy it. The story itself was an instant classic. The dimensions of Santiago’s clash with the marlin reminded me of Beowulf—one of those heroic clashes between man and beast from another time. But the writing itself was what puzzled me. It seemed so ungenerous, so devoid of transporting agents of sentimental reaches. It seemed just facts on a page and I found myself annoyed by it.
The passage, “The old man was gaining line steadily now. But he felt faint again. He lifted some sea water with his left hand and put it on his head. Then he put more on and rubbed the back of his neck (page 88),” articulates Ernest’s devotion to more direct storytelling, devoid of the ceremony that a Fitzgerald or even a Steinbeck would take in displaying this scene. Other writers had yearned to seek their reader’s approval for years, spinning beautiful language and rich description to enchant them for another turn of the page. Why did Ernest avoid this? Did he not care about his readership? My twelve-year-old mind struggled with these issues and I settled it by forgetting him altogether, opting for more magic tricks from Fitzgerald’s top hat instead, a man I later learned was great friends with Ernest in the City of Light in the 1920s. But then I arrived in Paris and my trip changed the way I thought about Ernest.
The realization came to me, regrettably, on the last page of A Moveable Feast. I was concluding this classic piece of literature over a refreshing Serendipity at Bar Hemingway, an old-world nook in the wall at the Hôtel Ritz Paris on 15 Place Vendome dedicated to the legend of this famous writer. The room abounds with Hemingway memorabilia: magazine covers from Life or Paris Match featuring a grizzled, wise Ernest; his personal letters; copies of his memoirs and novellas signed by his grandson Sean; and enough boxing gloves, mounted antlers, and alcohol (of course) for a proper man-cave.
Colin Peter Field, the now famous bartender at Hemingway Bar at the Ritz in Paris, mixed for me my first French 75—one of his signature moves is guessing which cocktail suits a person on any given evening! Image © Saxon Henry.
In the company of eclectic Parisians and Italians that could have been straight from a Wes Anderson movie (it was the Ritz Hotel after all) and Colin Peter Field, ranked as the best bartender in the world by Forbes and Travel + Leisure magazine, the last passage of A Moveable Feast greatly impacted me. “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were nor how it was changed nor with what difficulties nor what ease it could be reached. It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.” It was here where I finally got Ernest. He had started the memoir by telling the reader the importance of writing only true statements.
“‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I start to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scroll-work or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written (page 22.)”
Hemingway writes to Bunny Wilson about Gertrude Stein. Image © Saxon Henry.
Ernest is rejecting the more lyrical and fictionalized writing of his time. He wasn’t trying to dazzle me or wrap me up in some embellished description, he was just trying to tell me a good story about his time in Paris—his memories in little cafes and his days watching the fisherman by the Seine, and his nights with artists and women in the City of Light. He didn’t gloss over his racehorse betting addiction or the flirting with women or his lack of money and stability or the flood of alcohol he drank every time he sat down in a restaurant. He didn’t sugarcoat Gertrude Stein’s unyielding bravado and harsh criticism of his work or Ford Maddox Ford’s perceived insolence and annoyance.
In Chapter 9 of A Moveable Feast, Ernest writes, “It was Ford Madox Ford, as he called himself then, and he was breathing heavily through a heavy, stained mustache and was holding himself as upright as an ambulatory, well clothed, up-ended hogshead (page 75).” Later, he says Ford’s breath was so putrid he avoided looking at him or held his breath when he was near. Granted, I did read the restored edition with Ernest’s initial purpose, unsweetened by his family’s posthumous edits, but I feel in any edition of the book, Ernest’s honesty shines through.
Movie Director Magic
When I first told my mother and her friends this idea at Chez Georges on 1 Rue du Mail, they were shocked by the implication that the colorful panache of Wes shared anything with Ernest’s uncompromising masculinity. After all, Ernest was a world war ambulance driver attracted to big game hunting, horse-race betting, and bullfighting. Wes, on the other hand, is known in his filmmaking for his warm color palette, eccentric set designs, and cute romances. He’s a bit of an enigma, as his public persona is much more private than the legend of Hemingway. I do think it’s fair to say the two run in different circles. And yet both of them remain my two favorite artists. For what they contrast in physical similarities, they can be compared in their exploration of earnest storytelling.
As I sat around the table with my mother and her friends, discussing this idea, to my shock, Wes Anderson himself serendipitously walked in the door and stood at the bar not five feet from me with his friends Tilda Swinton and Sandro Kopp. It was truly one of those extraordinary meetings of chance. I got up, introduced myself, and explained to him the very topic of conversation my party was having when he walked in. Just like his writing, Wes was funny and honest and he’ll always be a big part of my experience in Paris.
And so, after I finished A Moveable Feast and felt I had a greater understanding of it, I took a look at Wes Anderson again. I watched each and every one of his films and re-watched The Grand Budapest Hotel more times than I could count. That’s when I noticed something—the very things I laughed and smiled and marveled at in Wes’ writing, I found in Ernest’s accounts of Paris in A Moveable Feast. The two artists shining earnestness is what kept me coming back.
For Wes, this honesty is articulated by most of his reviewers as “quirky” dialogue or characters that “flatly speak their minds.” When talking to a group of fascist border patrol guards, Monsieur Gustave says, “You’re the first of the official death squads to whom we’ve been formally introduced. How do you do?” Ernest uses this as well, but in a more subdued, less campy delivery. “…There were writers who had finished a day’s work for better or for worse, and there were drinkers and characters, some of whom I knew and some that were only decoration (page 83).”
Although the two seem incompatible on the surface, Wes Anderson and Ernest Hemingway’s art comes from the same place. I had this realization while retracing Ernest’s steps through Les Deux Magots, La Closerie des Lilas, and the bookstore Shakespeare and Company on the very same day I met Wes Anderson. It was this remarkable experience and intersecting of artists that lead me to finally understand the magic of Paris that Hemingway talked about in A Moveable Feast.
This guest post on The Modern Salonnière, Earnest in Paris, © Miles Stephenson, all rights reserved.