13 August 2007

How They See Us

Like Borat, but without the depth: Bernard-Henri Lévy

Appearances to the contrary, I don’t mean to fill this space exclusively, or even primarily, with movie reviews. On the other hand, I do see a lot of movies, and teachers always told me to “write what you know.” Some teachers went even farther than that, and a writing professor at Columbia, Joyce Johnson, the distinguished autobiographer of the Beat circle, opened a semester’s seminar with the pronouncement that “All writing is autobiographical.” As my fellow students nodded their heads in unthinking agreement, I mused that this would be a long semester indeed, because the lady had just expanded the old adage: as she saw it, “Whatever you write is what you know.”

That sound you hear is an immortal shriek from Renaissance French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, who used to wear a little medallion that read, “Que scais-je?” (What do I know?), and who is, by chance, the cover boy on the current issue of one of the leading news magazines here.

But what do I know? Over the weekend, I finally got around to seeing American Vertigo, the documentary-film adaptation of a book by the same title by Bernard-Henri Lévy. The author decided to replicate Alexis de Tocqueville’s tour of the United States; perhaps because the nation is larger nowadays than it was in the 1830s, Lévy hired a chauffeur and limo. He’s a very rich guy, heir to a lumber fortune, and he can afford it. But apparently the guy was driving very, very fast, because although Lévy traveled very far, he didn’t see much.

The result is a scrapbook of postcards and snapshots, and Lévy flips through so quickly that it’s hard to believe even he is interested in what we’re looking at. For every major issue confronting the U.S., there’s one brief glimpse of something that, in Lévy’s mind at least, is relevant. None of these bits ("scenes" is too exalted a word) are insightful, some are factually inaccurate, many are purely bewildering. Garrison Keillor already ripped the book to shreds in the New York Times book review, but the filmmaker (Michko Netchak) didn’t heed the criticism and offers a whirlwind tour of a whirlwind tour.

You want to understand President Bush? Here’s an interview with Robert Kennedy, Jr., speaking bad French and drinking a Coca-Cola. (Lévy pronounces him “the last of the Kennedys,” which will come as news to his sisters and his cousins, whom we reckon up by dozens.) You want to understand health care in America? Here’s the interior of an office at the Mayo Clinic, where Lévy is dismayed to learn that Ernest Hemingway’s files are missing. The highlight of the whole film: Ron Reagan, Jr., does a very good imitation of George W. Bush.

It doesn’t get more insightful than that. The picture starts out at a fast pace, and you keep thinking, “Surely they’ll slow down, surely they’ll pick a topic and linger and focus.” But they don’t. As the critic in Le Monde noted, even Borat worked harder to get it right.

I wanted to see the picture because it’s important to keep abreast of what the French think of the States. Watching Borat with an audience of guffawing French people, I realized that there was no chance they were laughing with us. So here’s Bernard-Henri Lévy, who opposes anti-Americanism on principle and who has made a movie about America. Maybe he could tell me something. It seemed worth the risk.

Montaigne: No promotional tours, no talk shows,
no signings at the FNAC — and no movie deals

Lévy is extremely well-connected, a close friend of President Sarkozy, and despite his lack of academic credentials, he’s presented himself as France’s leading and most photogenic contemporary philosopher. He can do this because he runs a television network and a publishing house. His common-law wife, actress and singer Arielle Dombasle, guarantees that Lévy can get additional press coverage: this time last year, she took up a new sideline — stripping — over at the Crazy Horse. But Lévy is as famous for being shallow as he is for being famous, and that’s saying something.

So what do I know?

I hoped to derive from the friendly but detached observations of an outsider some clearer perception of my native country — and I was wrong to seek in Lévy’s quarter.

Meanwhile, I’ve spent enough time in France to believe that the vast majority of the French don’t hate America: they do hate George Bush, but they recognize it’s not all the one thing. Nevertheless, I’m frequently struck by how little the French understand America, and how few even try. Now that I’ve seen Lévy’s film, I fear that other Frenchmen, who do try but who must travel to the States without chauffeur or movie-star mistress or the sundry other perks that Lévy commands, will be no more successful than he was.

I’m going to read some Montaigne now.