America as Seen by a Frenchman | l’Amerique Insolite (1960) ***

May 28th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Francois Reichenbach; Documentary with commentary by Jean Cocteau; France 1960, 90 min.

French writer/director/DoP Francois Reichenbach (1921-1993) made his name with a series of musical biopics, amongst them Serge Gainsbourg, Herbert von Karajan, Yehudi Menuhin and Mireille Mathieu. Chris Marker collaborates on this freewheeling travelogue with its delightful preamble by Jean Cocteau  that praises his homeland’s spirit of resistance.

The journey kicks off at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Franciso, where Reichenbach meets participants of the ‘Salt Route’, re-staged in Houston. Ordinary Americans saddle up horses and carts and re-live, for a few days, the experience of the founding fathers. The voice-over expresses how their Native Indians will live forever live in their hearts – a rather dubious statement. But Reichenbach really gets going with the next sequence, a photo shot on a beach in California where a couple of actors get really excited by their activities, “even beyond their remit”. This male perspective never comes to rest.

After a cursory visit to Disneyland (back then a far less technological experience) and a ‘Ghost Town’ in LA where extras from Hollywood pose with visitors, we visit a Rodeo in a prison where the winner will have his sentence reduced by a year – the runner-up will have three weeks ‘holiday’ from jail to spend with his wife. Then starts a nostalgic trip to American childhood, expectant fathers learning to bathe and feed babies in a three week course. When said babies have been born, we discover they have their own TV programmes in hospital. Hula-hop contests and various parades with children and adults, show a strict segregation, but the director turns a blind eye. Further on, boys under thirteen are taught to be impervious to their injuries at Soap-Box Derbies, toughening up the new generation.

But soon we come back to the sexy side of it all, visiting a school for striptease where young women learn the trade. A half-naked young  woman appears in a ad while the off-voice commentator states”this woman has an ordinary husband”. Reichenbach spends an awful long time at the beach where teenagers “discover their sexuality”. After a demolition derby, the feature takes us to New Orleans, where the carnival processions are strictly segregated: Black and White Carnival do not meet. Finally some unruly young men are seen in prison, following by a sequence involving their positive counterparts in a cult-like ‘Holy Rollers’. It all ends up in New York with its massive glass store-fronts, making Reichenbach wonder “if the US is not just a big shop with slogans” and fearing “that Europe might look the same in twenty years.” Clearly he wasn’t wrong!

Nothing prepares for the violence of the Kennedy or Martin Luther King assassinations, or the Vietnam War, which dominated the next decade. But thanks to Reichenbach’s uncritical approach, we start to appreciate the fault lines of a society which would explode not long afterwards. Forget the white-washing commentary, just take it all in with your eyes. Reichenbach offers a cinematic and valuable heads-up for what was to come. AS


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