It’s hard to fully grasp white if you have never seen black, or green if you don’t know red or orange. And the understanding of water a fish carries in its tiny brain is probably not so great. (That’s except for flying fishes, of course. They exist; they are amazing.)
The same is true for cultures in general, including national cultures. I am pretty sure that observant individuals who have good knowledge of another culture understand best the culture in which they live. “Compare and contrast” always does some good. It does not matter much where the knowledge of the other culture comes from; it all works out the same. Thus many long-term immigrants we would expect to have a grasp of American culture superior to that of the native-born in general, with some predictable gaps.
I, of course, was reared in France. I know the French language as well as anyone and better than almost all younger French people whose vocabulary is astonishingly poor and whose command of grammar is often downright rustic. I have also a good access to Mexican culture because of many small conversations with California Mexicans, because of several long stays in Mexico, because of my readings of Mexican authors but above, all, because of my sometimes dedication to Mexican telenovelas. And here is an aside: Anyone who thinks telenovelas don’t tell you anything about the “real” Mexico is missing the relationship between a people and the art forms it develops and consumes. He might just as well say that “Dallas,” the soap, was not about American society. Was it about Estonia, China, Germany, Egypt, then? End of aside. Anyway, here again, being able to understand the language corresponding to the culture is essential. (Speaking it does not matter nearly as much.)
No, a little more bragging is sadly necessary. I have lived in this country for nearly fifty years. That’s longer than most American-born citizens alive today, I would guess. Nevertheless, there are gaps in my understanding of American culture. Much that normally happens in American society before high-school is hazy, second-hand, or absent from my mind altogether. That’s because much of it appears trite, or downright boring, not worth the effort of finding out about. Baseball would be an example of the latter. A friend who is a fan actually told me once, “ You don’t understand, Jacques, baseball is supposed to be boring.” ! Although I speak English with an accent (that gets worse as my hearing deteriorates), I would describe my understanding of the language as near perfect and my command in the use the same language as better than pretty damn good. At the same time, and contrary to a widespread but naïve impression, you don’t lose the fundamentals of your culture of origin by living in another society. And you certainly don’t forget your native tongue (although some seldom-used terms might slip your mind). Thus, I am a truly bi-cultural person which allows me legitimately to pull rank on most of you. So, sit up and listen.
After a hiatus of ten years, I have French language television in my house again and I am watching it several hours a day. It’s not that its fare is so great. The social scientist in me just has to. Overall, French television has improved a great deal in ten years. Mostly, it now offers pretty good serials. They are clearly imitations of American serials, an improvement in itself, especially as regards tempo. They benefit from being often filmed in the admirable French countryside. And, for some reason, the French have always produced good documentaries. (The 2005 “March of the Penguins” is a French production.) I have even discovered in replays of French television a literary show that has no equal anywhere in America. It’s the very best that contemporary French culture has to offer.
TV5, the French language television channel also offers some Canadian and Belgian movies, and many more French movies practically every night. A high proportion of the latter are recent films. There are so many of those that, after a while, I feel free to generalize. My generalizations in turn are like the negative of American culture: What disappoints me, what disturbs me, what I miss in French movies are salient features of American culture that make up much of the pleasure of everyday life in America.
First, and strikingly, the French cinema is dependent for full effect on American popular music in English, a language few master. Two reasons, I think. The first reason is that French popular music today is devoid of the quality of soul. French audiences recognize soul but French composers and singers are unable to produce it. So, French film directors borrow it from where they can: here. They do in about 80% of French films I would say, even in films that feature otherwise good French popular music. The second reason I give for this reliance on American popular music is more tenuous but I believe it’s quite real. French society is old and aging fast. (Other European societies are aging even faster.) Not much happens in France on a day-to-day basis, or on a year-to-year basis, or during one’s own full childhood. Things are pretty much today as they were yesterday and the day before. This is charming to semi-literate American tourists who think it gives the country “authenticity.” This immobility is a source of sadness to many French people, including the young but not limited to them. They know that progress must give visual and especially, auditory signals. French directors, who live constantly with one eye fixed on the other side of the Atlantic, are vaguely aware of this deficiency. I think they watch their near-final product, decide it’s not moderne enough. Then, they add a couple of pieces of American popular music to signal, that their movie was not made in 1955.
Here is my second observation: As you might expect, French movies often contain scenes of unconstrained sex and of unrestrained nudity. This fact almost never makes them even vaguely erotic. The French seem to have invented the passion-free, almost sexless, sex scene. I mean hot, perspiring, hard-breathing passion; I don’t mean anything more refined. When French films show nudity, which is often, as I have said, there seems to be no intent to show the naked human body in an attractive light. Sometimes, they almost seem to go out of their way to make nakedness seem vaguely disgusting, as if old-fashioned Catholic nuns were behind the camera. (New-fashioned Catholic nuns tend to be militant lesbians or else, they pretend to be.) The two dozen or so contemporary French directors who turn out almost all recent movies appear to have grown up without benefit of Playboy magazine. It’s puzzling and a little dispiriting. I am not sure what this lacuna means for French culture in general. Perhaps, it’s an expression of a lack of appetite for life. “La chair est triste, hélas et j’ai lu tous les livres, “ wrote the popular 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé. So, maybe, it’s an old thing within French culture and I am reading too much into a few movies. As the case may be, I have never felt that way about any American film. That’s never.
My third observation concerns oozing. I mean the quiet despair that oozes from many contemporary French movies except comedies and even from a few of those. Sometimes, despair is the very topic of the film as in the fairly acclaimed: “La ville est tranquille,” staged in de-industrializing Marseille. More often, the cynicism and the hopelessness come thorough as if bleeding from the corners of the screen, in the assumptions of unimportant casual conversation between characters, for example. They also come through, of course, in the large proportions of those characters who happen to be unemployed, or not-yet-employed in spite of their advanced youth. And think about it: I am not referring to the poor or to conventional poverty. Nearly all the characters in all French movies are well-clothed, very well housed by world standards, excellently doctored, and they enjoy more than twelve years of freer than free education if they want it. (“freer than free” because most French post-high-school students receive a state stipend and subsidized meals while they pay no tuition.) And, as you might have guessed, the average French working or non-working stiff eats better in France than the average American banker in America. (A lot better, actually!)
So, what I think I perceive, what I read between the lines in many French movies, what I think I would guess about French society by watching these movies even if I did not know the numbers, is a sense of futureless-ness. When people have nothing to look forward to, or only the next vacation, they become joyless about just almost everything. Of course, you would expect an underlying sense of hopelessness to be pervasive in all societies where a 2% economic growth rate is an occasion for official celebration. It has to be even worse when the feeling is that the end of the party – such as it was – is just around the corner.
Forty to thirty years ago, the French, like other western Europeans, chose security over everything else. It made them backward, inexpressive, and chronically despondent. As their nanny state unravels and their children keep having to pay the piper, it looks to them like everything is going to get worse. So, they have lost their appetite, even for sex.
PS I don’t think things are going to become worse in France myself. I suspect that after a painful transition, the French will wake up and recover the vigor that was their grand-parents’ during the post-war years. That was when they acquired the economic means to enter resolutely the dead-end of welfarism instead of the open road of entrepreneurship and growth. Then, they will start making good movies again.
Update: The news on TV5, which is not exactly French television but television in French, continues to regal me with instances of staggering ignorance. Tonight, the anchor reminded us that fifty years ago, at the Bay of Pigs, Fidel Castro “repelled the American Army.” The ignorance is not neutral, it has a strong ideological bias. Guess which. Watching TV5 news has the merit of helping me appreciate the blond bombshells on Fox. They seldom say anything patently untrue and they are pleasant to look at (unlike naked women in French movies for example. See above.)