[update below] [2nd update below]
One of my first posts on this blog, when I launched it last month, was on the French “philosopher” Bernard-Henri Lévy. Since then, he has become, for a time at least, France’s unofficial Minister of Defense, military Chief-of-Staff, and Minister of Foreign Affairs. And over the past three days he’s been shooting off his mouth in defense of his friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn—it’s striking how BHL is good friends with seemingly every top-ranking politician in France, left, right, and center—, not only in the French media but in the American as well. I heard his temper tantrum yesterday morning on France Inter; he made a good point or two but more not good ones, and was, in general, his irritating, self-righteous, insufferable self (BTW, the estimable Robert Badinter, who was interviewed half an hour later on the same France Inter news show, was almost as irritating; his table-thumping tone of perpetual indignation is beginning to tire).
I thought about skewering BHL one more time, just for the hell of it, but note that the job has already been done by several commentators outre-Atlantique over the past two days. E.g. Justin Elliott rubbished “Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s shameless defender” in Salon.com. Andrew Sullivan did likewise on his blog. David Rieff, on the TNR web site, was particularly severe toward “French intellectuals’ despicable response to Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest.” Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of the libertarian magazine Reason put it best: “BHL: France’s National Disgrace“…
Welch’s piece is witty and spot-on, except for the very last sentence: “And another reminder that BHL is 10 times the national embarrassment to France than Jerry Lewis or even Johnny Hallyday ever was.” Welch may have BHL figured out but he shows his ignorance of France in gratuitously tossing out the tired cliché of the French and Jerry Lewis, which is one of the most hackneyed in the American book when it comes to this country. I’ve been hearing Americans snicker for decades about the supposed French admiration of Jerry Lewis. I am sure Americans will still be doing so generations from now, when no one will even remember who Jerry Lewis was. But here’s the thing. I’ve lived in France for some twenty years now and visited this country yearly (save three) during the twenty years preceding those twenty. I know this country quite well. And not once, ever, even one single time, have I ever heard a Frenchman or woman even mention Jerry Lewis, let alone speak about his films. Paris is the greatest city in the world for movies, with a number of repertory cinemas around town that have retrospectives of the films of great directors and actors/actresses of the past. Never, not once, have I seen one devoted to Jerry Lewis. Nor have I ever once seen a Jerry Lewis movie broadcast on television here. In fact, the only reason Americans think the French like Jerry Lewis is because Americans think the French like Jerry Lewis. It’s just something that’s out there and that everyone repeats, because that’s what everyone says. But the only thing one learns from these Americans is that, when it comes to knowledge of France, they don’t know WTF they’re talking about.
As for Johnny Hallyday, this cliché—that he’s a cheap French imitation of Elvis Presley, not very good, and generally a joke—seems to be more English than American (as Americans mostly have no idea who he is). I actually used to think the same thing, and would roll my eyes and snicker every time my wife and French friends—almost all of them—would tell me how great a singer “Johnny” is. But then I realized that I didn’t really know his music. I’d never bothered to listen to it. He just seemed too weird of a personality. And too bizarre looking. But eight years ago, when Johnny turned 60 and had a concert at the Parc des Princes to mark the event—before 60,000 fans and a live TV audience of millions—I decided to open my mind and give him a look. It went for three hours and I watched it to the end. It was great! Johnny is a great rock ‘n’ roller! And a great stage performer too. Voilà. Now I understand why he is so beloved in this country (even if he is still a weird guy). Matt Welch and other Anglo-Saxon Johnny snickerers have no doubt never listened to his music. If they like rock and roll, they should.
Back to Jerry Lewis, I have actually read (in an American publication) that his movie ‘The Nutty Professor’ (French title: ‘Doctor Jerry et Mister Love’) is hilariously funny. I want to see it. Problem: the DVD is hard to find here. I’d have better luck in the US.
UPDATE: The LRB web site has a blog post today (May 19) by Elliot Weinberger on BHL and DSK. He is not tender toward either.
2nd UPDATE: The New York Times has a profile here of Johnny Hallyday (July 15).