“AMERICA AS SEEN BY A FRENCHMAN”
Through the Eyes of a European
In the late 1950s, celebrated French documentarian François Reichenbach spent eighteen months traveling the United States, documenting its diverse regions, Americans and their pastimes”, a record of his journey as seen through a French sensibility. It is an exploration of a culture that is, at the same time, familiar and thoroughly alien.
We see prison rodeos; Miss America pageants; visits to Disneyland and a school for striptease; a town where only twins live; a maternity room filled with newborns in incubators as if they are products on an assembly line. Reichenbach captures these and so much more without judgement and with humorous narration s camera, aided by whimsical narration. He film highlights the various eccentricities of Americana during mid-twentieth century and we see that reality actually is stranger than fiction.
By the end of the 1950s, the United States was the world’s sole global superpower. The country experienced an economic boom and a cultural revolution that changed the world. Reichenbach documented his findings and insights in his film. The film is a snapshot in time of the diverse landscape and populations of America with a French sensibility through photographic jump-cuts and handheld cameras lending and the director is like a child mesmerized by his magical surroundings and totally unaware of America’s darker underside. We understand that the more disturbing elements of American culture did not fully come to light until later in the decade when the Vietnam War became hopeless, Nixon entered the White House, and Hunter S. Thompson and LSD changed everything. Parts of the documentary’s portrayal of the stranger aspects of American life are accompanied by the postmodernist commentary of Jean Cocteau.
We see dilapidated buildings and car wrecks filling lakes and these give us a depressing view of capitalism, at a time when it was being celebrated in golden era after World War II. This is in contrast with the film’s more fanciful view of the advertising industry: to be as creative as possible in order to have sales. Contradictions like this make the film feel incoherent at times but it’s the documentary’s lack of direction that makes the film fun.
Ultimately this is a positive portrait of America during the post-war boom years. Americans are seen as often driven by nostalgia, and it’s difficult to view this film today through any other lens.
The most pleasing aspect of this documentary is how it both celebrates America’s diversity without ignoring its more bizarre characteristics. Reichenbach was transfixed by America and so he took this trip and made this documentary. He captures on film anything that took his fancy, from Texan office workers reliving a 19th century cattle drive to models on a Californian beach.
The commentary condemns the fakeness of Disneyland and a ghost town created to give tourists a taste of the Old West but it basically observes, allowing viewers to make up their own minds about what they’re seeing.
Originally released in 1960, the documentary is now an intriguing slice of history, from a period before JFK’s assassination and the cynicism of Vietnam and the anti-war movement. It is a love letter to a long gone place and time and is a stunning and wistful piece of work.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
Original uncompressed mono audio
Newly translated English subtitles
New video appreciation of the film by author and critic Philip Kemp
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ignatius Fitzpatrick
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Caspar Salmon