American Vertigo & Kings of the World

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

Facile Rider

American Vertigo
The cops seem to be brutalizing this man in this scene from American Vertigo, but since the film offers no commentary, we don’t know what is really happening.

One fine day, French pop philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy (commonly known as BHL) set out to discover America, invited by The Atlantic Monthly to follow in the footsteps of 19th-century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. One of BHL’s personal goals on this road trip was to prove that the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of his countrymen was ridiculous. Instead of accomplishing his mission, however, at least in the filmed version of his travels, he basically confirmed most of his compatriots’ preconceptions about America by scratching the surface, visiting tourists traps, reporting on clichés, and interviewing freaks and cranks.

His book about the trip, American Vertigo (Grasset), came out in 2006, but BHL was also accompanied by a camera crew. The result is this impressionistic film with the same title by Michko Netchak (actor Jean-Pierre Kalfon reads excerpts from BHL’s book in voiceover). It offers a string of superficial, arbitrarily chosen images of the United States. Many of the images are attractive, and most of the vignettes are interesting, but what do they add up to? Not much. These widely varied, fleetingly treated subjects have been dealt with in much more depth and with much more impact in real documentaries and books that actually probe their subject matter – the war in Iraq, the American prison system, the American Indian movement, etc. – rather than glancing at it quickly and leaving town.

The thread that is supposed to hold it all together is his “investigation” of the prison system (de Tocqueville’s assignment in 1831), which means we get to visit facilities at Riker’s Island and even Guantánamo Bay. He also visits two decommissioned penitentiaries, including Alcatraz, and rather spuriously uses them in his condemnation of the horrors of the American approach to incarceration. While he is harping on its inhumanity, however, one can’t help thinking about recent reports on the abysmal conditions in French prisons. He does have a point about the death penalty, but that’s another subject that has been better dealt with in depth elsewhere.

About the best thing I can say about this film is that at least the notoriously narcissistic BHL kept his own face out of the film – we see him only once in the distance.

Its most interesting bits are just teasers that leave you hungry for more. BHL goes to see American Indian activist Russell Means and suggests that a museum be built for the poor, downtrodden American Indians. Means takes umbrage (at BHL’s condescending attitude? – we don’t know because we are shown so little of the interview) and starts ranting in a distinctly anti-Semitic way. Cut! That clip is followed by a short interview with writer Jim Harrison, a fascinating character we’d like to hear more from, but he gets cut off as quickly as Means did, and we are back on the road.

Not that Lévy doesn’t have a few good points to make. He compares downtown Buffalo, New York, full of abandoned and burnt-out buildings, with his memories of wartime Sarajevo and castigates the United States for “urbicide,” or killing off its cities. He also decries the American way of reinventing history and giving it the Disney treatment. After a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, for example, he quickly leaves town in disgust when he discovers the American sport par excellence was not invented there by Abner Doubleday as claimed. Another deception!

Judging by the film alone, BHL has failed miserably in his goal of proving his compatriots wrong about America. If you knew nothing about the country, you would leave the theater thinking that the United States was a strange, cruel place indeed. And you get the impression that BHL was relieved to put an ocean between himself and it. Thanks for the big picture, Bernard-Henri.

Another documentary road film that was released in France only a week earlier, on June 13, has just the opposite effect. In Kings of the World, three young French documentary makers, Valérie Mitteaux, Anna Pitoun and Rémi Rozié, set out to find out what Americans thought about their influence on the world after 9/11. They traveled around the West Coast and ventured inland to Arizona, Utah and Nevada. The difference here is that the filmmakers actually spent some time with their subjects, not just looking at them as if they were circus freaks and moving on, allowing the audience to get to know them.

The result is a much more thoughtful film that leaves you with a fairly positive impression of Americans, even though the filmmakers, unlike BHL, seem to have set out with a critical view of the United States. In the end, they were won over by the Americans they met, even the government-hating cowboy convinced that the imposition of Soviet-style communism would be the immediate result of the election of John Kerry.

If you want to spend your money on a documentary on the United States from a French point of view, spend it on Kings of the World.

Heidi Ellison

© 2007 Paris Update

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