America As Seen By A Frenchman is Francois Reichenbach‘s documentary about the American experience via a foreign lens. Long discussed in Film Studies college classes for decades, the film is now available for a wide audience via Arrow. While everyone dreams of the Pixar and Marvel movies they’re missing out on, why not try a foreign documentary?
In a lot of ways, this film can be seen as a primordial Mondo Cane. Yet, it focuses in wonder on the mundane human experience of the 1950s. Over the course of 90 minutes, something true rings out for modern viewers. This was the last time that the traditional Post War America existed. The Civil Rights movement and other cultural touchstones were beginning to fire up around the nation. But, they didn’t take over the national mindscape for another year or two.
The prison rodeo held my attention. It was a weird sequence with a lot of visuals that showed where Middle America and the Southwest was in terms of prison relations. The events still happen in smaller numbers, but the comfort with the event is intriguing on film. America As Seen By A Frenchman works best when looking at our grandparents with an outside eye. Seeing as these people bounce around aimlessly in such glee is so alien.
Commercial activity of the 20th Century is one of my pleasure spots of research. Watching people shop and seeing old store configurations are stunning to me. Dinosaur Dracula looks at similar things with his Junk Food in Movies retrospectives. It’s enough to have a culture of product, but to examine why they appeal.
Yet, Richenbach steps back and watches how shoppers herd and ignore certain things. All the while, they choose things that were put out of a way to appeal them. America As Seen By A Frenchman excels when it does things like this. But, there is something more to this weird sensation of visual imagery.
Americana is a lot more than the name given to New Country music by outsider fans. The spirit of Americana is related to anything that touches upon the American culture. Thanks to our capitalistic society that takes the form of products and how our citizens interact with them. Bunny parade costumes that were funny in the 1950s look horrifying now. But, they help identify where we were as a people.
What is so fascinating about Reichenbach’s direction is his love of the subjects. Constantly focusing on the wide array of people he meets, no one is the subject of scorn. America As Seen By A Frenchman is about a foreign observer seeing an age of Americana ending and giving birth to something far greater. Older citizens call it the loss of innocence, but innocence is a flawed concept.
There is a phrase applied to describe magic. That is magic is science happening faster than a people can understand it. You can apply the same sentiment to cultural shifts. Nothing is meant to stay the same, but there are these weird lulls in the human experience that birth things like the Monoculture.
That is to say, a monoculture isn’t about excluding people directly. It’s about what happens when everything becomes homogenized and fed to a culturally tired nation. The effect doesn’t last forever, but it creates interesting moments in history. That is the beauty of America As Seen By A Frenchman.
Arrow brings the Blu-ray to the United States with a handful of special features. America As Seen By A Frenchman is not going to be the biggest of releases. You get a new video appreciation, booklet and related materials. I’d recommend a purchase to the curious.