America as Seen by a Frenchman

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domino harvey
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America as Seen by a Frenchman

#1 Post by domino harvey » Fri Mar 20, 2020 10:33 am

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At the end of the 1950s, celebrated French documentarian François Reichenbach (F for Fake, Portrait: Orson Welles), whose lens captured the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Johnny Hallyday, spent eighteen months travelling the United States, documenting its diverse regions, their inhabitants and their pastimes. The result, America As Seen by a Frenchman, is a wide-eyed – perhaps even naïve – journey through a multitude of different Americas, filtered through a French sensibility and serving as a fascinating exploration of a culture that is both immediately familiar and thoroughly alien.

Prison rodeos; Miss America pageants; visits to Disneyland and a school for striptease; a town inhabited solely by twins; rows of newborns in incubators, like products on an assembly line – all these weird and wondrous sights, and more, are captured, sans jugement, by Reichenbach’s camera, aided by whimsical narration (provided by, among others, Jean Cocteau) and a jaunty musical score by the late, great Michel Legrand (Une femme est une femme).

Titled L’Amérique insolite – literally “unusual America” – in its native tongue, America As Seen by a Frenchman lovingly renders the various eccentricities of Americana circa the mid-twentieth century, and proves the old adage that reality really is stranger than fiction.

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
  • Image gallery
  • 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

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domino harvey
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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#2 Post by domino harvey » Fri Mar 20, 2020 10:36 am

Can’t believe this is getting a Blu-Ray release, wow!

My write up from the New Wave List:
domino harvey wrote:
Tue Sep 05, 2017 10:05 pm
Image

L'Amérique insolite (François Reichenbach 1960)
Reichenbach visits the States and reveals an unexpected look at America in the late fifties as seen from outside. We are now so removed from the fifties that the film functions as much for us as it did the French at the time, in providing a wholly alien look at the melange of cultures and practices of the era. Unusually shot in ‘Scope, the doc give us a multitude of unexpected vantages and shots that are frequently fascinating. If all the film did was capture amusing novelties like pie eating contests (complete with a hilarious Michel Legrand song in which the lyrics namecheck the composer) and the like, it would be of some interest. But there’s a lot going on here. Early in the film, Reichenbach bridges a scene of lovers embracing at a campsite to lovers embracing in the waves of a beach. He then reveals these new lovers are models, complete strangers paid to pretend to fall for each other, and then shows that by the end of the shoot, the models themselves appear to by their fiction and start making out for real. It is the film’s greatest moment, and one that gives a key for reading the picture as a whole: America as conscious and self-furthered fiction. Reichenbach does not directly attack the country or culture. Rather, with the assistance of Chris Marker, who co-wrote the narration, he talks around it. At first the narration comes off as too cloying, too cute. However, it soon becomes clear that the film is offering a variation of the ethnographic documentary, and the narration that tends to go with it. Reichenbach presents us with an unusual product: a Western ethnography as seen by Western filmmakers for Western audiences. We (American or French) recognize the patronizing tone of this piece because for all its alien aspects, the world is recognizable and comparable to our own. Yet, do we check ourselves as easily when we see the travelogue of Tahiti or rural China? Reichenbach’s film causes a Western audience to examine their own cultural assumptions by turning strange that which is not, really, that foreign.

It’s interesting to note how carefully Reichenbach avoids direct critique. If you were a foreigner traveling to America in the late fifties, surely one of the first things you would notice is the self- and state-sanctioned segregation. Yet the film never says one word about this— directly, at least. We get plenty of shots of black children playing together, footage of the black carnival in Mardi Gras, and so on to accompany the footage of white teenagers blowing bubblegum bubbles on the beach and what not. The film even offers us a helpful explanation that America has two races: dogs and cats. But by its obvious exclusion, the film draws increased attention via this lack. Reichenbach’s film is too outwardly genial to be openly hostile, but the film is fundamentally incredibly negative in its portrayal of American society. When we see a bizarre prison rodeo in which bullriders compete for reduced sentences, Reichenbach doesn’t need to pat our hand and let us know he agrees it’s barbaric. He shows the process, overlays some pat commentary, and points out how some of the participants are there even without the promise of reducing their sentence, an even greater indignity. It is, I think, so clever a critique that one could imagine this playing in American theatres to local audiences and having the film received at face value with no offense taken (well, were it not for all the nudity in the film…).

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tenia
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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#3 Post by tenia » Fri Mar 20, 2020 11:10 am

This has been restored in 2K, quite recently if I'm not mistaken.

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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#4 Post by The Elegant Dandy Fop » Fri Mar 20, 2020 11:18 am

What an absolute left field release! I have to echo Domino’s praise. Reichenbach’s documentaries are among some of the most formally interesting. His films are classier, proto-versions of the mondo documentaries that were popular in American exploitation cinema. On one hand observational, alien, and often funny. Friendly reminder that he also directed scopitones for all the big French pop stars and was the original director of the Elmyr de Hory footage in F for Fake.

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domino harvey
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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#5 Post by domino harvey » Fri Mar 20, 2020 1:22 pm

I don’t want to dampen any excitement for this incredible announcement, but I’m a little disappointed Arrow didn’t include the precursor shorts Reichenbach made in the states prior to this— they’re very much dry runs at this feature

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tenia
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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#6 Post by tenia » Fri Mar 20, 2020 3:18 pm

I've also just read that there was an earlier version of this movie, with a voice over done by Marker, but this version was rejected by Reichenbach because it was deemed too political.

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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#7 Post by therewillbeblus » Tue Apr 21, 2020 4:16 pm

I’ll add to the praise to this film which feels like an absolute masterpiece of the possibilities of the documentary, in demonstrating manipulation to reflexively portray artifice. Early on the narrator shows Americans posing for pictures and engaging in a very familiar exercise of forcing idealized image, stating “To glorify a certain view of happiness is the first rule of American publicity” before bluntly declaring that this why so much work is put into it. This hilarious declaration could serve as the thesis for the film if it was interested in something as specific, but this extends to all exhibition beyond easily exposed superficialities. The dialogue is so wry it’s difficult to tell what is a joke or just an objective contextual paradox, but a meaner film would have failed to do what this does with juxtaposition and contrasting tonal layers of verbal and imagery. I was reminded of Godard if he toned down the intellectualization and political agenda and allowed the images and objectively detached language from the eye of subjective American intent to form its own unique sardonic spirit, yet not without its own authentic interest that inspires our own complex experience of digestion. My favorite part, for hardly any reason I can spell out, is the jump from unobtrusive neutral shots of youthful femme friendship to the romantically spurious "America is filled with young girls running to happiness" tracking shot intimately running with the women smiling at the camera over beautiful music, which brings up a flood of varied sentiments; while the Las Vegas segment near the end made me laugh the most, though the brief isolated shots in proximity to gamblers stimulated a solemn honest kinship between myself and the subject that again dismantled any simple or clear interpretation of the material.

Glad to see Arrow continuing their trend of an occasional wild card release of the analytically obscure, and I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t end up as one of the best releases of the year.

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tojoed
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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#8 Post by tojoed » Tue May 05, 2020 12:04 pm

I'm looking forward to this. I've had the soundtrack music for ages on Michel Legrand's
Nouvelle Vague album, but I've never had the chance to see the film.

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whaleallright
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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#9 Post by whaleallright » Sun May 10, 2020 11:04 am

Well, this is cool! I have a really shitty copy of this that looks like it was taken from VHS. Agreed w/ Domino that his earlier shorts would have been a good inclusion, but maybe they aren't available in decent versions?
literally “unusual America”
In this context I think "insolite" suggests something stronger, more like "weird"

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swo17
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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#10 Post by swo17 » Sun May 10, 2020 11:46 am

I just watched Concert of Requests on the Kieślowski set and that was presented in a pretty compromised form, but thankfully that didn't stop them from including it. I suspect it's more likely a rights or cost issue

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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#11 Post by Calvin » Sun May 10, 2020 12:12 pm

Reichenbach's earlier shorts seem to be owned by Les Films du Jeudi, as is America as Seen by a Frenchman, so I doubt it's a rights issue either.

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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#12 Post by MichaelB » Sun May 10, 2020 12:54 pm

swo17 wrote:I just watched Concert of Requests on the Kieślowski set and that was presented in a pretty compromised form, but thankfully that didn't stop them from including it. I suspect it's more likely a rights or cost issue
I’ve seen two distinctly different transfers of that, and both were dreadful - although Arrow picked the marginally less terrible one.

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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#13 Post by MichaelB » Sun May 10, 2020 1:09 pm

In fact, looking at the visual texture, I wonder if it only survives on ancient analogue videotape? Kieślowski’s The Photograph, which he made the following year, was even believed lost for several decades, and Kieślowski sadly never lived to see its rediscovery (he bewails the apparent loss in Kieślowski on Kieślowski).

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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#14 Post by Ribs » Thu Jun 25, 2020 3:45 pm


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domino harvey
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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#15 Post by domino harvey » Thu Jun 25, 2020 9:53 pm

Did he really just “Ok Boomer” everyone at the end there

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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#16 Post by therewillbeblus » Thu Jun 25, 2020 10:09 pm

I’m still bothered by putting “probably” and “inevitably” next to one another. Writing may definitely be hard for him.

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domino harvey
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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#17 Post by domino harvey » Thu Jun 25, 2020 10:10 pm

I also enjoyed his skepticism that a documentary filmmaker could be considered part of the New Wave. Because of course no nouvelle vague film has any documentary filmmaking techniques

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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#18 Post by Cash Flagg » Fri Jun 26, 2020 6:42 am

So the extras are only worth one star, and yet the 23-minute featurette is ‘really interesting’?

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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#19 Post by yoloswegmaster » Fri Jun 26, 2020 7:21 am

Cash Flagg wrote:
Fri Jun 26, 2020 6:42 am
So the extras are only worth one star, and yet the 23-minute featurette is ‘really interesting’?
He probably gave it a 1 star since that's literally the only extra on the disc.

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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#20 Post by colinr0380 » Tue Jul 07, 2020 1:53 pm

Mondo Digital's review. I must say that I am intrigued by the notion put forward that it occupies a transitional niche in between the Cinerama films and Mondo ones!

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tenia
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Re: America as Seen by a Frenchman

#21 Post by tenia » Sun Sep 27, 2020 5:33 am

In case anybody still wonder, the Arrow disc is indeed sourced from the restoration supposed to be shown at Cannes Classics 2020 : 4K scan of the OCN / 2K restoration, all work by Hiventy.

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