Showing posts with label France. Show all posts
Showing posts with label France. Show all posts


July 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Ratatouille” opened to universally great reviews, and it’s a delightful film. The more important question for Hollywood, though, is not whether a film is good but whether it will make money. No, not just whether it will make money but whether it will make a lot of money. “Ratatouille” had an opening weekend gross of “only” $47.2 million, and people at Disney already felt they had to spin the numbers to rebut claims that the movie was a disappointment.

The “trades” (I love using show-biz lingo) were comparing it unfavorably with “Cars,” Pixar’s 2006 summer movie and a big money make. But besides the financial comparison, the two films also provide an interesting cultural comparison. They exemplify the “culture wars,” the red-state blue-state divide.

“Cars” embodied the Nascar red-state mythology, not just because of its obvious theme (stock car racing) and setting (the American Southwest) but because of its moral: the triumph of American small-town virtues (friendship, community) over egotistical self-fulfillment and achievement.

The Michael J. Fox film, “Doc Hollywood,” was nearly identical in plot (career-minded doctor headed for Beverly Hills crashes his Porsche and winds up in a small Southern town; you can guess the rest), but this theme is a staple in many American fictions. Community is to be prized over individual achievement; plain small-town folk are better than city fast-trackers.

“Ratatouille,” by comparison, is downright unAmerican. I imagine Disney-Pixar was taking a chance even with the title, a foreign word unknown to many Americans, and most of those who do know it probably can’t spell it. On the other hand, what could be more American than “Cars”? The movie is set in France, a country US patriots were boycotting not so long ago (remember “freedom fries”?).  As for the virtues of bucolic settings, the rural life shown at the start of the film has little to recommend it, and our hero, the rat Remy, quickly winds up in Paris. And this movie loves Paris, a city which has long been, in the American imagination, the antithesis of down-home American virtues and values. Paris is tempting because of its sensuality (“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm?”) but ultimately evil.

Even the basic concept of the film must seem foreign to the red-state mentality. It’s not about a manly pursuit like driving fast; it’s about cooking. While other films may extol just plain folks who eat plain simple food that nobody made too much of a fuss over in preparing, “Ratatouille” dismisses such an attitude as unworthy. Food is something that requires attention, both in the cooking and the eating. And the film takes frequent jabs at the American way of eating. It makes Remy’s rival (the evil chef Skinner) all the more repugnant by having him promote his line of micorwavable frozen foods – burritos, pizzas, and other things you’d find in many American freezers. Even worse, he has his people working to produce a frozen corn dog.

The attack on American bread is a bit more subtle – a didactic speech by a female chef giving the audience a lesson in what makes for good bread: a crunchy crust. The slap at our preference for squishy bread (Wonder) is so obvious she doesn’t need to say it out loud.

Despite this unAmerican aura, the film seems to be “doing well,” and the grosses from the weekend will probably look encouraging. I take these numbers as a sign that things are changing in America, that good food, even good European food, is not something that happens only on the coasts. Remember the Republican attacks on Democrats in recent elections as “brie-eating, chablis-drinking” pretentious snobs? But stores in the heartland are selling brie and chablis. David Kamp is probably exaggerating in calling America The United States of Arugula, but apparently a lot of Americans now at least know what arugula is.

In fact, the red-state blue-state division may be less an accurate representation of reality than a convenient stereotype dreamed up by politicians and the press. Like any stereotype, it may be a useful shorthand with some truth to it, but like other stereotypes, it can also make real-life contradictions harder to see. Not so long ago, a caffe latte was an exotic drink reported on by adventurous tourists returning from Italy. Now, every kid in Iowa and Wyoming has grown up with Starbucks. The drinks have been Americanized (a spoonful of high fructose corn syrup makes the espresso go down), but now latte and cappuccino are as American as pizza.

Maybe the next time you stop in at Flo’s Café in Radiator Springs, the menu will feature ratatouille.

We'll Always Have Paris

May 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

France is still playing its typecast role in the American imagination. At least in the imagination of many Americans, France remains synonymous with sex— illicit, tempting sex. Sex for pleasure.

I thought this view had pretty much disappeared now, forty years into the sexual revolution. In pre-revolutionary America of the 1940s and 50s, sex wasn’t American, it was French. If you wanted to imply sex, you alluded to France. There was a big difference between a kiss and a “French kiss.” To “French” someone was to give them a blowjob (pardon my French). American “underwear” was plain cotton, functional without a hint of sex; if you wanted something lacy and sexy, you needed a French word— “lingerie.” A woman’s “nightgown” was about as sexy as flannel pajamas, and she wore it to bed when her goal was sleep. But if she were going to bed for sensual pleasure, she put on her “negligee.”

It was classic Freudian repression and projection. The culture repressed its own sexual thoughts, projected them onto France, and then castigated the French for expressing these sinful ideas.

Apparently, old stereotypes never quite die. Mitt Romney provides the most recent example. Romney was governor of the cosmopolitan and liberal state of Massachusetts, but now he’s running for the Republican nomination for president, and he’s trying to get the votes of the religious right. (Religion in America, and many other places, packs a strong dose of sexual repression.) So on Saturday, he gave a speech at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. According to the Washington Post report

He also criticized people who choose not to get married because they enjoy the single life.

“It seems that Europe leads Americans in this way of thinking,” Romney told the crowd of more than 5,000. “In France, for instance, I'm told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up.”

Pure imagination. There’s no such thing. There was a French movie that came out in 2003, “7 Ans de Marriage.” And in 1955, “The Seven-Year Itch,” a very American film, gave us that famous image of Marilyn Monroe, a blast of air from a subway grating ballooning her white skirt.

But France has no official state-approved seven-year marriage. In fact, France and most other countries in Europe have lower divorce rates (i.e., higher rates of lasting marriages) than does the US.

Where did Romney get this idea? And why didn’t the Washington Post reporter and many others who heard or read about the speech think to check Romney’s “facts”?

It seems that this is a classic “urban legend” — an anecdote, almost always without factual basis, that nevertheless gets passed along, told and retold, as true. According to Jan Harold Brunvand, who coined the term, these false stories gain currency and resist skepticism in part because they resonate with existing images and ideas.

If we already assume that Europeans, especially the French, take a cavalier approach to marriage and that they care more about their own sensual pleasures than about the sanctity and stability of the family; and if we assume that not just their people but also their governments are out to undermine the American way and American ideas (as the French sought to undermine the American view that invading Iraq was a really nifty idea); then the seven-year marriage story is so obviously in keeping with what we already “know” about them that we needn’t bother to check and see whether it’s actually true.

Hat tip to Mark Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community on the Romney story.

Intercultural knowledge (Comprenez?)

April 1, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Foreign students in the US are often dismayed at how ignorant American students are about other countries. Not just ignorant but incurious. So I was interested in this poster that’s all over Paris metro walls these days.

How many Americans could decipher a visual pun in foreign language? Certainly not enough to make it worthwhile to advertisers. (Of course, if they could offer round-trip to London for $90, they wouldn't have to worry about ads.)

The problem of ethnocentric ignorance goes beyond pop culture trivia, and it’s certainly not confined to the young. Soon after taking office, the Bush administration decided that it could change the politics of the Middle East, and in 2003 it launched that policy with the invasion of Iraq. But the ignorance of the region’s culture and religion is stunning. Last October reporter Jeff Stein revealed that many high-level government people working on counter-terrorism didn’t have a clue as to the differences between Sunni and Shiite, didn’t even know which branch of Islam was followed by Al Qaeda or Iran.

If you didn’t get the poster reference, you can find the answer here.