Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Plus ça change

Another question raised by my recent visit to France (and after this I promise to stop writing about it) is: was there something unpatriotic about me, being American, spending my tourist dollars in a country that didn’t support the U.S. in its invasion of Iraq? Certainement pas! I never stopped buying or drinking French wine, since I tend not to believe, on principle, in boycotting the products of an entire country for political reasons (especially when they produce really good wine). And not only did I never call them “freedom fries,” but I actually continue to call them pommes frites.

This is not to say that I support every stance the French government has taken recently. In fact, I personally believe that Jacques Chirac is responsible for the invasion of Iraq. Okay, now some of you (all right, most of you, okay, all of you) are saying right about now: hey, wasn’t Chirac, um, opposed to the invasion of Iraq? Well, yes, and that’s exactly my point. As everyone from Bob Woodward to John Kerry to Paul O’Neill to Richard Clarke is more than happy to tell us, President Bush had made up his mind to invade Iraq even before the diplomatic avenues had been exhausted. So, the only hope for averting the war lay in the possibility that Saddam Hussein would realize that there was no way out except to capitulate to what were officially the United Nations’ demands. But would Saddam have blinked and given the U.N. everything it was asking for if the U.N. had been united in its threat of force? Sadly, we will never know. When France stated publicly that it would veto any resolution authorizing force against Iraq, it may well have made the risk of invasion acceptable enough to Saddam for him to stand tough. He bluffed, his bluff was called, and the rest, as they say, is bloody history.

When it comes down to it, despite having been exposed to endless hours of American police dramas, the French are simply rotten at playing good cop/bad cop. And that leads to my real topic: the monumental clash between the French mentality and American popular culture. It some ways, the French understand American culture better than Americans do. For example, I never really appreciated the quintessentially American art known as jazz until I went to France. The French (and other Europeans) have often been more appreciative than we Americans of some of our most talented artists. Also, I had heard for years, before going to France myself, that we Americans were woefully under-informed about the rest of the world, while people in countries such as France were much better informed about us and the wider world. Generally, that was indeed true then and may still be true today. But news media aside, there is a fair amount of distortion in how people in different countries perceive one another, and this has to do with popular culture, i.e. television and movies. Hollywood has long been known for stereotyping non-Americans, but what I didn’t think about before I went to live in Europe was what kind of images of us Americans Hollywood sends out all over the world.

Around the world, American movies and television shows are pervasive. I am always amazed at how, when some reference to an old TV show like Bonanza or I Love Lucy comes up, non-Americans often know all about them. I was shocked one day when my Irish wife, who watched precious little TV in her youth and had barely heard the name Star Trek before I met her, mentioned that she had been a fan of The Waltons. And my mind was really blown in Chile when I found that some people there were quite familiar with Dark Shadows! The weird thing is that, to us Yanks, these shows are entertainment. To non-Americans, they are often their primary source on what life in America is like. Consider this: the series Dallas has been and continues to be quite popular in a lot of places all over the world. Blood for oil, indeed.

So, back to France. I suppose it might have been natural to wonder how an American visitor might be received in France these days, after all the political rancor that has gone on between our two countries lately. But that merely made my visit all the more nostalgic for me, since I will always associate American military adventures and much-despised Republican presidents with my time in France. You see, when I went there to study in the 1970s, the U.S. was still involved in Vietnam and Richard Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate scandal. And there was lots of other stuff going on that year, like the pro-U.S. military coup in Chile. Whatever heat I might take these days for being an American, it couldn’t be any warmer than what I experienced three decades ago. And, of course, my reception this time (as then) was largely cordial. In the end, the politics of your country’s government doesn’t seem to matter that much to individual French people as much as your ability to speak passable French.

Most of the political heat I took 30 years ago was from my fellow students, who naturally trended leftward. But what was really strange were the weird notions that French people of all political stripes had of everyday life in America. Between zealous political reporting in the French media and Hollywood entertainment, many people I encountered saw the United States as 1) a racial war zone, where lynchings were common occurrences, and 2) a violent landscape run by mobsters. Like all stereotypes, these views had some basis in reality. After all, it hadn’t been that many years since the urban riots of the 1960s, and of course racial discrimination was still way too prevalent in American society. But the image that most French people seemed to have made the South Africa of the time seem like a racial paradise by comparison. (While I was hitchhiking in Normandy, a young man gave me a lift and, realizing I was American, actually broke the ice by saying, “So, you are all racists over there.”) Likewise, the Mafia thing was real enough, but people seemed to think we all regularly woke up to find horses’ heads in our beds. This is what really drove home for me the power of Hollywood. It had only been about a year since Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather had been released, and it had become a worldwide phenomenon. And for a good many people around the world, it had defined what America was like. (Given this fact, I think it is entirely appropriate that Coppola’s daughter would grow up to make a movie about inter-cultural misunderstanding called Lost in Translation.) I have to wonder to what extent negative attitudes toward America are formed by people’s perceptions of us as a people, based on our mass media. (Okay, and maybe American foreign policy sometimes has something to do with it too.)

Since I am an advocate of freedom of artistic expression, I don’t really blame the film and television industries for their frequently distorted images of American life. I tend to hold consumers of information and entertainment responsible for not being more critical of the information fed to them. Besides, I am optimistic that new technology is improving things. With satellite television, the internet, etc., it is not so easy for one group of people to mold worldwide images as it used to be. Of course, these new media are easily and frequently exploited by groups with hateful purposes, but I am hopeful that in the end a diverse marketplace of information will end up spreading more truth than lies. We shall see. In the end, these new media (and the competition between ideas that they facilitate) will ultimately be the decisive battleground in the “war on terror,” even more than Afghanistan and Iraq.

-S.L., 29 April 2004

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