The way the game usually works is you take a washed up actor, who’s been unemployed for a while (David Hasselhoff), take one of his not-to-recent works (Bay Watch), then turn to those around you and say with a sort of snickering condescension. “What’s up with David Hasselhoff nowadays? Baywatch was like what – ten years ago?” Usually, those around you will take the bait, snicker back, and reply with equaled sarcasm – “I don’t know, but I hear he’s big in…(and finish with the name of a foreign country as in)….I hear he’s big in Germany.”
The game works on many levels and thrives in various situations: the office, the car, over dinner, even in the bedroom. As far as I can remember, it’s been the longest running joke that never seems to run out of gas. Why? Because there’s always washed up actors, washed up series, and strange countries that have fetishes for these people.
That’s why anytime I hear mention of someone from the States (who I haven’t heard of) who’s apparently “Big in France,” I’m immediately suspicious – and can’t help but think of Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation. Washed up actor, check, washed up series, check, “Big in Japan,” check.
Countless times people have asked me what I think of so and so’s album, or the recent book by so and so, and since I’m supposed to know these people (“Mais John, il est Americain”), they’re ultimately frustrated when I stare back and reply with that same condescension – “I don’t really know him…. but I hear he’s big in France.”
In literature, I’ve never read a Douglas Kennedy novel, but my French friends have read every one. Jerome Charyn, I’ve never heard of. Paul Auster, ok sure, but I don’t think of him in the cult way my friends here do, and I definitely don’t think he should direct films.
With cinema, it’s the same. People assume I’m supposed to know everything about Hal Hartley as if he were Tarantino. Hal Hartley, I only know because I studied in France for a year in the early 90’s, where I discovered him and his confrere John Cassavetes, the guy who invented being “Big in France.” Same for Whit Stillman, same same for Abel Ferrara.
Music-wise, I’m not sure if Keziah Jones is American, but I can tell by the posters everywhere he’s BIF (Big in France). Cutty Williams, Jeane Manson – never heard of them, but I take it they’re American, and yes both BIF.
Add to that basketball players (Sam Clancy Jr.- Le Mans Sarthe Basket) sports commentators (George Eddy) and I start to worry that maybe France isn’t big enough for all these (Bigs in France.)
Those concerned about the scourge of globalization should find this heartening. There are actual products and people you can still find abroad, that you can’t find at home. For every Starbucks opening in Paris, there’s a Hal Hartley film opening as well. And THAT you can’t find in the US.
“But John,” I often hear. “It goes both ways. There’s certain French who are bigger in the States than they are in France.” Perhaps, but the only ones that come to mind are Jacques Derrida, Julie Delpy, and Nicolas Sarkozy – which does make for an interesting elevator ride.
What I can’t figure out though is what makes one BIF in the first place. I mean it’s not like they’re super controversial or vulgar and have fled to France to avoid prosecution. I don’t think Cutty Williams ever pissed on his audience, nor do I think Whit Stillman ever slept with a Bush twin. Roman Polanski on the other hand…. I also don’t see a conscious or subconscious effort by any of these BIFs to tailor make their act to France. I don’t see a lot of French lyrics, nor constant overarching French themes, not even a clichéd Robert Doisneau Kiss on a cover. (Although the title of Douglas Kennedy’s recent book La Femme de Cinquieme may be the start of a new trend).
On good days, I give BIFs the benefit of the doubt. They’re accomplished artists, who’ve found a voice and a home in France and a public that appreciates them more than their native country ever did. I mean there’s a long tradition there: Picasso, Giacometti, Chopin….Jeane Manson.”
On bad days, though, I see BIFS as charlatans, opportunists taking advantage of a foreign audience who doesn’t know any better – offering a vision of the States captured through a French lens, cued to some French Touch (see GQ article no 14), serving up an America a bit more smoothed over and easier to the French palate. BIFs aren’t as much accomplished artists as savvy businessmen who know a niche market when they see it, and who’ve decided to (as an old Kinks album once said) “Give the people what they want.”
Douglas Kennedy knows all too well the buzz he’ll get when he chooses to critique the American Pursuit of Happiness. It’s a favorite French sport. Hal Hartley has the American Eric Rohmer thing down pat. OK fine, he’ll use American actors and New York backdrops, but you can rest assured it’ll be French auteur in tone and French financed bien sur. Jango Edwards? Let’s just say Jango figured out long ago that France has a soft spot for clowns, especially American ones.
Yet the explanations I hear from the French on what makes a BIF a BIF usually has less to do with their talent and more about the America they supposedly fled. BIFs are “too conceptual” for the States I hear or simply “don’t want to play the game.” (I’m not sure what that means). BIFs “want to do their own thing, not the usual American blockbuster.” (As if Abel Ferrara had been begged to do Lord of the Rings). “BIFs aren’t “politically correct enough.” Oh Please. Neither war nor segregation drove Jeane Manson to France’s shores, and I doubt politics did either. Yet again she did jump at the chance to sing at Place de la Concorde with Nicolas Sarkozy after the election, so I may be wrong.
Maybe my problem with BIFs is an ego thing. I don’t like to be scooped on anything American I’m not familiar with, nor be told by those outside of America what’s good inside – just like I don’t dare lecture my friends about Bordeaux vs. Bourgogne wines, PSG vs. OM, or metre carre vs. metre carrez. I also tend to have faith in the capitalistic greed of the American entertainment establishment. Sure they turn out crap on a continual basis, but they also have a nose for talent, and if your stuff’s really good, there’s money to be made off you, and they usually don’t let you sneak away without good reason.
Often I feel France is still trapped in those Hemingway and Jazz days when they truly did nurture a lost generation of counter-culture American talent. Since then it seems they’ve been trying to recapture that same magic, but under the old creaky assumption that Hemingway and Jazz are still counter cultures.
Deep down, though, I think my whole suspicion of the Whit Stillman’s or Paul Auster or Jeane Manson’s of the world is rooted more in a dislike of myself. I’m one of these BIFS in a way. (OK I’ll call myself an MIF “Medium in France” for the moment.) I too often feel like a charlatan passing off as an American writer, and the GQ readers just don’t know it…yet. And maybe just maybe (as Groucho Marx once said) “I don’t want to belong to a club who’d have me as a member.”
Often I spend sleepless nights wondering where I’ll be in 10 years. Will I still be in France or back in the States? Or will I have moved to Provence like other Americans before me, trying to pen another one of those ha ha funny- tongue in cheek looks at being an American-in-France-Year in the Merd merds. Maybe by then, New York will be replaced by Shanghai as the new pole of coolitude, and the States will be a President Palin governed cultural backwater, the laughing stock of the international smart set. And somewhere over coffee in some office somewhere in France, someone will pipe up, “What’s up with John von Sothen (washed up writer) nowadays? I mean his column in GQ (not-to-recent work) was like what – 10 years ago? The group will take the bait and snicker back with the same condescension I show today. “I don’t know, but I hear he’s big in…….. (the States.)”
“Ha ha ha ha ha!” they’ll all roar.