I've been lucky enough to have done a bit of traveling in my life. I've lived in France, Belgium, and China. I've seen most of Western Europe, a good chunk of Eastern Europe, and bits and pieces of Asia. Wherever I go, I take a camera with me. I'm not a professional, nor an expert photographer but I enjoy the process and sometimes the result. I try to take lots of photos of different things. I hit the big landmarks of course. I have lots of photos of the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, Big Ben, etc., but I also have photos of random doors, phone booths, and extreme closeups of fruit laying symmetrically in market booths. Everybody has pictures of big things, so it's fun to try to find something different, something maybe no one else has a photo of. It is those little things that make up the real places anyway. Parisians don't even notice the Eiffel Tower anymore, but you can be sure someone enjoys that door and those fruits.
America as Seen by a Frenchman reminds me of all those pictures I've taken over the years. French director François Reichenbach spent 18 months wandering his way through the United States at the end of the 1950s. It is a cinematic snippet of American life from an outsider's perspective. It also works as a wonderful snapshot of America in a transitional period as the '50s moves into the '60s and all of the cultural changes that occurred then.
It doesn't tell a narrative story. It doesn't even stay in one place very long. The camera moves into a scene, observes what happens, and then moves on. This isn't to say it doesn't have a point of view, for it certainly does. All documentaries do, just in the choices they make in terms of what to show and what to leave out. No doubt many more hours of footage were shot for this film and what was left out is just as important as what was put in. Though we rarely hear anyone on-screen speak, there is a narrator (voiced by the wonderful French director Jean Cocteau). He sounds bemused most of the time. As if he can't believe this is what America really is.
The original French title is L'Amérique Insolite which translates to America the Unusual. We must have seemed strange to a Frenchman all those years ago. We probably seem strange to them now. I can attest that when I've traveled to foreign lands they always seem strange at first. The language is different. The clothes are different. The stores are different. And the behaviors and attitudes of the people are vastly different. The first time I left the country for any real amount of time was when my wife and I moved to Strasbourg, France. I started a blog to document our adventures. For the first few weeks, I wrote about everything. We'd walk down the block, buy a baguette, and I'd do a blog post. I wrote about the tramline, the grocery store, the parks and how everybody had these lovely metal blackout blinds for their windows. Every day, I discovered something new and strange to me.
Reichenbach's film goes to the beach to watch teenagers play in the surf and dance to the music. It goes to a prison rodeo and a striptease class. It floats down the fake river and ponders the fake Indians at Disneyland. It spends time with models and photographers, amazed at how American advertisers have influence over not just America but the entire world. It follows pretend cowboys as they dress up for a weekend of cattle rustling and finds a festival of twins. It drives past the great natural beauty of the Western part of the country and stops to watch a chicken play a game of Skittles in order to get food.
What you don't see is the great racial divide of the country. This was filmed but a few years after Brown vs. the Board of Education and when Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. The Civil Rights movement had picked up great speed but was still a contentious movement throughout the country. This film shows none of that. It is mostly filled with white people doing middle-class things. The few black faces we see are either in prison or taking part in the segregated Mardis Gras celebrations in New Orleans. It would be curious to know whether this was an intentional oversight on the place of the filmmakers or just something they didn't even notice.
But what we do get is a curious, mesmerizing, and yes, a heavily edited snapshot of at least part of America during a very specific moment in time. Whenever I have traveled, no matter how long I've stayed in one place, I know that I am only getting a glimpse of what life is like in that space. I see those countries, cities, and villages through the eyes of an American. America as Seen by a Frenchman is a fascinating glimpse into how an outsider sees the place where I live.
Arrow Academy presents America as Seen by a Frenchman with a high definition 1080p transfer, the original uncompressed audio track, and a new subtitle translation. Extras include a video appreciation by author and critic Philip Kemp, a stills gallery, and the usual booklet with an essay.