America As Seen by a Frenchman

“In every American there is a photographer, and in every photographer there is always a tourist. If you meet them, don’t be surprised to see them touring the world without looking at it. Their Kodak is their memory. Once they return to their armchair, their albums in their laps, they will relax, set about loving the world, and start travelling.”

These words, spoken sixty years ago by the documentary filmmaker François Reichenbach, are perhaps truer now than then, when most every person who walks the Earth has not only a high resolution camera in their pocket if not in their hand and the means to instantly share their work to their online portfolio, but they apply equally to Reichenbach himself.

Creator of several short films, conceived and shot often without any form of a crew and with no particular goal or aim other than to capture the moments of life which captured his eye at that time, an examiner of culture rather than the individual lives or stories of his anonymous subjects, he had come to America first as an advisor for New York art galleries on which French paintings would be wise investments.

His grandfather an art collector and his cousin Pierre Braunberger a film producer, from an early age Reichenbach was an observer of others, and for eighteen months he toured America with his camera capturing the footage which would form his first feature, America As Seen by a Frenchman (L’Amérique insolite), released in the summer of 1960 and entered into the Cannes Film Festival that year and now presented on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy.

From the arrival under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge across the states, there is little structure to the footage or path to Reichenbach’s drifting across the continent, America As Seen by a Frenchman dreamlike yet captivating, poetic images accompanied by the words of the filmmaker and his friend, La Jetée’s Chris Marker.

A fashion shoot on Malibu Beach, a caravan of cowboys at dawn who turn out to be weekend re-enactors, the automatons of Disneyland’s sanitised recreations of history, there is a carefree gaiety but it is manufactured and artificial, something of which Reichenbach is aware even as he remains detached and refrains from direct criticism, and the film serves as a window on a time of optimism but without the overshadowing ego of a jingoistic native host.

The carnival of New Orleans, the Huntsville Prison Rodeo where prisoners are transported in cages to the waiting audience who watch while murders compete to have their sentences (marginally) reduced, there is a sense of America as a nation which has become a spectator sport blind to the gluttony and waste which are its by-products, and Reichenbach expresses his fears that the historic culture of his beloved Europe may follow in as little as two decades.

Soothing but superficial, from stripper schools to the Miss America Pageant, black faces are seen but segregation is never mentioned, and it is only in the final reel that Reichenbach peers beneath the childish distractions to confess to the presence of crime and disappointment, while Philip Kemp’s accompanying history of the filmmaker provides an insight into the and an overview of his varied and prolific work, much of which more directly addressed these topics.

America As Seen by a Frenchman is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy from Monday 1st June