By Tony Williams.
Although this special Criterion three film DVD set has been available since 2008, it is only recently that I have discovered the work of William Klein. I first came across the name associated with the French anti-Vietnam War film Mr. Freedom which at the time of co-editing the first edition of Vietnam War Films (1994) was not in circulation and the entry could only use inaccurate secondary source material. The same was true for other films such as A Yank in Vietnam (1964) starring Marshall Thompson and Le Van, a Vietnamese actress who would later star in two films directed by Dang Nhat Minh – When the Tenth Month Comes (1984) and Farewell to the Countryside (1995). The American film is on my waiting list since I don’t trust those dubious Youtube sites that promises availability especially when the American actor in the still does not resemble Marshall Thompson! In James Jones’s chamber-music satire of Paris ’68 The Merry Month of May (1972) Klein appears in a student-occupied building alongside Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, Godard later returning with a camera. Klein is known to carry a camera with him wherever he goes so perhaps he may be an unfair victim of Jones’s satire of ephemeral and trendy movements in this unjustly neglected novel. I missed the 2013 UK television screening of The Many Lives of William Klein that is also now available on Youtube along with other fascinating documentaries and interviews with this highly talented but relatively neglected talent within the world of film studies. Viewing a highly racist and offensive DVD of the short films of Shirley Temple found in a supermarket by my hosts made me forget that the Klein documentary was on so I retreated upstairs in a state of mental exhaustion.
Klein is a fascinating person, a Renaissance man of the post-war modern era having accomplished himself in the diverse worlds of art, photography, documentary, and fiction film. His latest exhibitions and collections feature his own fascinating concept of “return to zero” since they often feature contact slides from the many photographs, films, and advertising posters framed and smeared over with modernist abstract art formations. Though well known in Europe as well as informed circles in America, he still remains relatively unknown to the much wider audience he deserves and this is a shame. Klein’s overall achievements articulate Orson Welles’s comments to Peter Bogdanovich in This is Orson Welles (1992) that limiting one’s interest to film is not enough – a wider knowledge of the arts is necessary. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff reported Michael Powell’s reaction to his disdainful remarks about ballet sending him to witness the real thing and not only giving him an appreciation of that particular art form but inspiration that led to his superb cinematography in The Red Shoes (1948). We must also remember that Cardiff himself had no experience of Technicolor before working on Black Narcissus (1947) but convinced the guardians of the gate of the Kalmus Castle by mentioning his knowledge of Rembrandt and styles of painting.
As a GI in Occupied Europe, Klein took advantage of the G.I. Bill to study art under the legendary Ferdinand Leger and others in France. He began his career painting, moved to photography, entered the eccentric world of fashion photography and then produced his first collection of New York photographs that horrified the editors of Vogue and remained unpublished in America for a time. Fortunately, thanks to the intervention of Chris Marker, then an editor in a French publishing company (who would later use Klein as one of the faces in La Jetee), the collection was published under the satirical title of Life is good and good for you in New York that has gone into several editions and led to other unique cityscape collections featuring the people and neglected architectural environments of Paris, Rome, Tokyo, and Moscow. Klein’s photographs often capture people as if framed in a still from a movie at a specific gesture of time, revealing their personal idiosyncrasies in a non-demeaning manner. They have connections, if not with Diane Arbus, then with Weegee whose work also influenced the young post-war photographer Stanley Kubrick. All these talents understood the environments they were photographing and depicted them less artificially but more in their own personal stylistic expression that combined artistry with recognizing the specific nature of the reality before them.
It is difficult whenever viewing any of Klein’s films not to see connections with various art forms he employs throughout his long career. His first feature Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966) combines not only familiar angles from Klein’s inimitable fashion photography assignments for Vogue, along with their questioning camera-eyes, but also a documentary style combining realist familiarity with its artistically hyper-realistic representation, merging surrealism with judiciously selected “slices of everyday life” that not only challenge the spectator in the best manner of any serious experimental film but also aim to destroy any conceptions of rigid formal disciplinary boundaries viewers might ideologically and inappropriately bring to the film itself. Klein’s work represents the 60s era of feature film guerilla filmmaking that began an assault on conventional boundaries as seen in the Hollywood work of Arthur Penn. Influenced by the more radical work of Jen-Luc Godard that refused assimilation into any other conservative framework, Penn’s Mickey One (1965) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) soon became engulfed into the system as witnessed by Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970) before being consumed and ejected very much like the desiccated corpses seen in that Space 1999 October 1975 “Dragon’s Domain” episode guest-starring Gianni Garko. Fortunately, Klein remained well outside the system, ignoring its temptation, and avoiding the fate of Orson Welles’s last film The Other Side of the Wind that remains unedited and unreleased some forty-five years after its commencement and scaring away potential producers such as Clint Eastwood and others. In whatever creative artistic dimensions he chooses to work with, Klein and his work refuse such assimilation.
Klein’s New York photographs were unacceptable to the 1950s ideological climate since they revealed the dark urban underside of American culture very much in a camera eye conception of photographic noir. His images certainly recall those usually hidden features of New York not generally seen in mainstream American cinema that musically acclaimed the Big Apple as “New York. New York. It’s A wonderful Town” but certainly occurred in the striking location shots of the first half-hour season of the TV series Naked City (1958) and beyond, another great feature of 50s and 60s television noir to be set alongside The Outer Limits (1963-65) and other neglected examples. As well as revealing parts of New York, Klein’s photography depicted its urban underclass comprising many different ethnic groups generally invisible in Cold War promotions of “white bread” America. Though appearing differently through the eyes of this American-Jewish born French citizen, the images often revealed potentiality and vitality that the social structure of society denied and marginalized. Significantly enough when Klein and his Belgian-born wife toured Harlem, their guide assured African-American dwellers of the sincerity of this version of what appeared to be another invading white-camera eye – “They’re not White, they’re French.” Throughout his explorations and the recent visit to his old tenement block, Klein always treated his subjects with the respect and non-condescension they deserved but did not always experience.
Klein’s first documentary film was the breath-taking color Pop Art depiction of that familiar Madison Avenue landscape but viewed in the modernist imagery of that contemporary movement. Broadway By Light (1958) is a breathtaking achievement blurring the boundaries of conventional representation in new and exciting ways making it “forever young” even today. After finishing another short film, How to Kill a Cadillac (1959), Klein worked as a creative consultant on the visual design of Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le metro (1960) that Jonathan Rosenbaum describes as “a comedy feature that not coincidentally happens to be the most visually impressive and distinctive of Malle’s works.” Having seen the film only once in a Manchester University film screening sometime in the late 60s or 70s I can vouch for this since the striking color imagery anticipating his later more iconoclastic use of Pop Art color in later films still remains an enduring memory. Philippe Noiret, an actor Klein would work with on two of his later films, appears in the role of Zazie’s Uncle.
The Youtube version of Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1969) uses the earlier documentary, the 1964-65 Cassius le Grand, in which the future world champion trains and defeats Sonny Liston in the Miami context and includes later footage covering the 1974 Ali George Forman fight in Zaire following the U.S. Government’s harassment of this heroic figure for his anti-Vietnam War stand and his championship of African-American rights. The Youtube version is the latest compilation of Klein’s interest in Ali and his career. The first footage is in black and white and not only features Ali in training, his meeting with the Beatles but also cameo appearances by Jersey Joe Walcott who appeared in the anti-boxing movie The Harder They Fall (1956) as well as a very different off-screen cameo by Stepin’ Fetchit himself whom Joseph McBride pointed out in his Film Quarterly interview was not only in Ali’s entourage at the time but also whose off-screen image was very different as seen in this interesting encounter. Zaire is in color footage and Ali has to win his championship title back from Foreman after being unjustifiably deprived of it by the US government. Here Klein depicts Ali in a country run by Africans and the difference in imagery more than ideology is revealing. Despite defeating Foreman, Ali and his team have nothing but respect for his former rival comforting him with the fact that he may regain the title himself sometime in the future in the same manner as the African-American manager consoles his team who have lost a contest to The California Dolls in Robert Aldrich’s last film …All the Marbles (1981). Klein also contributed to Chris Marker’s collective film project Far from Viet Nam (1967, as well a documentary on an Algerian Pan-African Festival in 1969, and others on Eldridge Cleaver  and Little Richard ).
His achievements are prolific and exceptional and the films themselves need to be viewed in the light of these previous artistic involvements.
His first feature film Who are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966) is usually taken to be a French New Wave satire of the fashion industry within which Klein worked with Grayson Hall’s Miss Maxwell as a deliberate send-up of Vogue’s editor Diana Freeland. Although more well-known for her role in the later Dark Shadows (1966-71) series, Hall was then celebrated for her avant-garde theater performances. However, featuring contemporary supermodel Dorothy McGowan in her only film role as the title character, it is much more than a formal satire but rather a cinematic combination of Klein’s formative influences such as Cubism, Abstract Art, Pop Art, documentary, cartoon imagery, and radically reworked French New Wave narrative merged in a manner so as to be more diffuse and contradictory than Robin Wood’s “incoherent text” definition applied to the films of Robert Altman. Featuring historical footage of young Dorothy greeting the Beatles when they arrived at Kennedy Airport, footage that led to her selection and transformation into one of the era’s most celebrated models, this is one of the many examples of Klein’s combination of realist photography with cinematic construction, only this time it occurs in his own feature film rather than his urban photographs. After a bizarre fashion show featuring models in tin foil, flesh-cutting costumes representing the fashion of the nuclear age and given the female equivalent of the “papal imprimatur” by high priestess Miss Maxwell, the film moves on to depict Polly in a contemporary celebrity show “Who Are You” while the hapless director, played by Jean Rochefort, has to find the answer by investigating diverse footage. One still showing young Polly in a New York urban ghetto with an Anti-Communist sign placed prominently nearby reveals Klein’s dig at the veiled ideological reasons behind preventing his New York photographs being published in America. Also featuring Philippe Noiret as a reporter in search of the real Polly Maggoo, this may also make this film Klein’s avant-garde version of Citizen Kane (1941) with the French actor now playing the role of William Alland’s Thompson. The film also stars Sami Frey as its Prince Charming in search of his Cinderella fashion model figure of Polly, a quest influenced by Prince Rainer’s wooing of Grace Kelly a decade before. In one scene the pasteboard figure of the Prince takes his pasteboard “Lady Fair” on a flying tour of Paris with animation disrupting the diverse cinematic styles employed in the film. Duality finally rules in the film with the Prince winning Polly’s “twin sister” in a manner suggesting Klein’s parody of those Hollywood films such as The Dark Mirror (1944), A Stolen Life (1946), and Dead Ringers (1964). The film ends with the “real” Polly seen in a tracking right shot in a crowd greeting some unseen celebrity that is intercut with the successful wooing of her twin, the credits rolling to a mournful song articulating her loss. Clearly, the film employs its own version of the “jigsaw” enigma in Citizen Kane but does not supply any convenient “Rosebud” answer for its audience.
Polly Maggoo is a deliberately challenging incoherent text, more politically fragmented than its selectively appropriated narrative segments and cinematic tricks suggest. It has much in common with that radical interrogative aspect of the modernist tradition supposedly superseded by the banal alternatives of postmodernism, a movement in retreat today. With its criticism of a celebrity culture still relevant today and its designed provocations aimed at getting spectators to analyze rather than consume, it reveals the validity of a potent tradition that could be revitalized today in our era of reality shows, high concept and big budgeted spectacles, and the dominance of superhero blockbusters in cinema.
This is why Mr. Freedom (1969) is also relevant today. Before its Criterion Eclipse DVD restoration, it was only available in VHS versions that never adequately reproduced the Pop Art absurdist color scheme employed by Klein. He made this film in collaboration with many of the radical talents in the French entertainment industry, one of whom (Yves Montand) appears in the brief role of Captain Formidable, a character whose militaristic costume resembles that later worn by John Wayne in The Green Berets (1968), only in this case the beret is red, not green. The film would seem to be a product of May ’68. However, shooting began in December 1967 and finished before May ’68 with its release delayed by some nine months. Although Klein did not declare his political interests before this film, he had already lost his Vogue contract by contributing to Far from Vietnam and photographs in his New York and Rome collections already reveal his particular viewpoint especially in the first book that was never initially published in America. Like Dashiell Hammett he made his political commitments late but the seeds for those commitments were already evident in his urban photographs in the same way that Red Harvest (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1929), and The Glass Key (1930) can be viewed as premature Marxist texts. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum (whose archive web site always provides invaluable information), Klein’s contributions to Far from Vietnam involved the poignant case of the American Quaker Norman Morrison who protested against the Vietnam war by burning himself to death in a sympathy with those Buddhist monks in Saigon as well as two war-related marches, one-pro (the grotesqueness of the participants certainly paralleling some of the facial features in Klein’s New York photographic work), the other anti.
Mr. Freedom not only saw further participation of Philippe Noiret in the role of the cartoon figure Moujikman but also Sami Frey as Christ who mysteriously appears in Moujikman’s underground domain alongside the Virgin Mary. Her traditional blue and white garments not only complement Christ’s white costume but also the red, white, and blue outfit worn by Mr. Freedom in his superhero guise throughout most of the film. Daniel Cohn-Bendit makes a cameo appearance and Simone Signoret also appears in an uncredited cameo. Ex-patriate American actor John Abbey, whose brief film credits include Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), appears in the title role alongside Delphine Seyrig in an uncharacteristic scantily-clad bimbo role as Marie-Madeleine. Donald Pleasance is Dr. Freedom, head of an unnamed organization (obviously the CIA) that occupies the top floor of a skyscraper also occupied by well-known pre-Haliburton American corporations. Jean-Claude Drouatt is Mr. Freedom’s servile sidekick Dick Sensass, Serge Gainsbourg plays Mr. Drugstore, and Catherine Rouvel is Mojikman’s female associate Marie-Madeleine who, unlike her counterpart in a James Bond movie, receives her just desserts from Mr. Freedom after helping him escape since the “only good Red is a dead Red.”
Mr. Freedom is an excessive, over-the-top film that deserves revival today if only for its contemporary relevance very much like Polly Maggoo. It is a justifiable satire on the worst examples of American masculinity and imperialism that continually raises its ugly American head as seen in the past example of George W. Bush and its present incarnation in Donald Trump. Klein shoots a comic-book, Pop Art, hysterically stylistic and thematic film that embodies not only his feelings about America past and present but also the ugly commercial, materialistic, and commercial values it still embodies. As Jonathan Rosenbaum comments in his Website archive review, originally posted on December 8, 1989, “Done in a Punch-and-Judy manner that occasionally suggests both Godard and Kubrick, and combining guerilla-style documentary with expressionism, this feisty political cartoon remains one of the most significant expressions we have of 60s irreverence”. The film certainly combines echoes of Cold War paranoia seen in Dr. Strangelove (1964) with the color Pop Art imagery from Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Made in U.S.A. (1966). The other side is certainly not spared from satire as seen in Noiret’s Moujik Man who resembles an oversized red puppet figure similar to the huge Gutman of 1941’s The Maltese Falcon (William Klein: Paintings, etc. Roma: Contrasta, 2012 features a beautiful still showing the costumed Noiret standing alongside Klein’s wife) while Red Chinaman is an inflatable Chinese dragon – perhaps Klein’s response to the Maoist definition of America as a “paper tiger”? Moujik’s underground hideaway contains advertising posters little different from their American counterparts, except in promoting Soviet values.
Red, white, and blue personify the superhero costume of Mr. Freedom who aggressively imposes all-American values on his victims, both dead and alive, with his helmet and shoulder guards embodying the politically violent nature of American football in the service of the State that few films (with the notable exception of Robert Aldrich’s 1974 The Longest Yard) have ever dared to expose. Old Glory’s traditional colors remain constant throughout the entire film but rather than being tedious, Klein constantly varies them so they never appear laborious. As an accomplished modernist painter, he knows how to vary chosen brush-strokes from his palette and thus makes the film both a stylistic and thematic assault on the vicious political and materialist values of American culture.
The film opens with documentary footage of police assaulting impoverished African-Americans and street riots before revealing the pre-costumed Mr. Freedom. Rather than wearing the civilian clothes of Clark Kent prior to his Superman transformations, he appears in police uniform so that he is never entirely out of costume in the entire film. Even his private-eye trench-coat and dark glasses have political significance since rather than embodying Raymond Chandler’s knightly definition of that figure venturing down those “mean streets…who is not himself mean” but also “a man of honor,” Mr. Freedom resembles more the rabid, anti-communist thug of Mickey Spillane’s One Lonely Night (1951) who misogynistically disposes of his female threats in the most brutal ways as seen in I, the Jury (1947) and Kiss Me Deadly (1952). He is certainly not the Lemmy Caution of the Eddie Constantine films. Mr. Freedom enters no police box but a cop’s office to retrieve his costume from a closet before terrorizing an African-American family who have looted from stores, society’s consumerist goods that economic deprivation has denied them. This over-grown loudmouth jock then goes on his next mission where Dr. Freedom (played by an American accented Donald Pleasance), seen through three television screens (not all of them functioning properly paralleling the then American broadcast network station that also appeared in the White House), gives him his next mission. Mr. Freedom is to go to France to educate the ungrateful French public into the values of American democracy. The condescending attitude of America to France will later find an echo in the “Blame the French” habit of the later Bush administration as well as the political establishment’s continuing hostility towards any foreign leader who does not comply with the demands of American imperial foreign policy.
One of the funniest scenes in the film sees Mr. Freedom enter the American Embassy. Its interior is a giant supermarket filled with American consumer items and inhabited by a compliant Ambassador and his team of dancing bimbos all clad in scantly red, white, and blue costumes. It foreshadows Bruce Beresford’s depiction of the London Australian Embassy in Barry McKenzie Holds his Own (1974) where the interior is presented as a campfire gigantic cook-out near a tent presided over by an Ambassador wearing shorts and surrounded by all his Aussie mates. It also has Donald Pleasance in the role of Count Plasma! That film also featured then Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, in a cameo appearance in the final scenes, who would be deposed a year later by the British Government acting in collaboration with the CIA (see Cogan 2015).
Another beautifully composed shot reveals Mr. Freedom recently arrival in Paris with Captain Formidable’s widow Marie. As she waits inside the room, the camera slowly tracks right to reveal the paranoid-delusional hero slowly stalking a perplexed Parisian window cleaner before he throws him over the balcony. Like many privileged Ugly Americans past and present, this not-so-Quiet American can literally get away with murder even if the victim is innocent. Recent incidents of “The Company’s” activities in Pakistan and elsewhere spring immediately to mind.
The film moves to Klein’s Dr. Strangelove climax with Mr. Freedom nuking half of France but he fails to obliterate the capital and the rest of the country since a botched explosion destroys both himself and headquarters. Prior to this action he ascends the top of a building before initiating this cataclysm. Despite not uttering the lines, “Top of the World, Ma”, his depiction bears an uncanny resemblance to the final seconds of James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) suggesting again that Klein both knew his Hollywood cinema and how to subvert it in his inimitable avant-garde manner. Following his demise, Klein once again cuts to documentary footage showing Parisian street demonstrations, ones that will obviously lead to May ’68.
In an era inundated with dumb superhero blockbusters, Mr. Freedom needs no remake, only a theatrical re-release to show studios how ideologically stupid and politically vicious this whole franchise is as well as shaming audiences into self-awareness. For these reasons, this will never happen.
The third DVD in this collection, The Model Couple (1977) is no less satiric in nature than the others. Yet, although it has many visual and sound merits, it reveals a lack of vitality that may be due less to Klein’s supposedly diminishing powers but rather pessimistic recognition that earlier “le joie de vivre” anarchistic subversiveness may now be facing more of an uphill struggle a decade later when the forces of reaction are more firmly entrenched in society. Anticipating both the worlds of reality television (similar to Nigel Kneale’s 1968 BBC 2 Theatre 625 The Year of the Sex Olympics and Bentley Little’s 2001 dystopian novel The Association), The Model Couple focuses on a French government experiment of subjecting an average mediocre couple to the “Brave New World” of a future estate where their every movements will be monitored by a scientific team. Like Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), The Model Couple is Klein’s own response to the aftermath of May ’68 in which the system is now fully in control even to the extent of stage managing a revolutionary guerrilla takeover at the end which is nothing less than another enactment of total control nullifying all forms of resistance. In 1977 France, the Ministry of the Future chooses a white “normal” middle class couple Jean-Michel (Andre Dussolier) and Claudine (Anemone) to be placed under constant surveillance on television to see if they will fit into residential suitability within the “new city for the new man”. Satirizing post war high rise development of the type seen in Britain and France (see here Godard’s 1966 Two or Three Things I know about Her) as well as East European counterparts such as the Zagreb locations for Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962), Klein condemns the system’s invasion of human dignity and privacy in a manner applicable to both East and West.
Klein originally intended to film a major epic satire but financial constraints prevented this so he moved into his familiar low-budget avant-garde film technique working not only as director and scenarist as he did in Polly Maggoo and Mr. Freedom but now also as co-cinematographer. As with these films that show the continuing relevance of an “auteur (written, directed and produced) policy” seen also in the early films of Larry Cohen and George A. Romero, Klein has his adopted homeland in mind as well as noting the negative influences of American culture especially the intrusive nature of a television apparatus Dennis Potter would also later critique in his posthumous Cold Lazarus (1996). He commented, “The French had these delusions of grandeur, inherited from de Gaulle. They wanted to make, out of nothing, new cities, and I wanted to show how ridiculous all this was.” Chosen after a national campaign, the selected couple face incarceration for six months in a high-tech apartment envisaged on a 2000 prototype. Although released for excursions such as supermarket shopping, the victims find themselves statistically assessed by a scientific team concerning purchases as they are on the most intimate parts of their lives involving orgasm rates and Jean-Michel’s frequent bouts of coitus interruptus. It is Klein’s vision of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) conceiving not the city of the future but the apartment of the future so it is not surprising to see Eddie Constantine in a supporting role playing not Lemmy Caution who will liberate the area, but the American advisor to the French Government Dr. Goldberg – perhaps the successor to Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Freedom in the earlier film?
The couple gradually react against the inhumane intrusive activities of their masters who monitor their potential for total compliance at various points of the film. After supposed liberation by a French revolutionary group who are also part of the same system this post-Gaullist Adam and Eve couple find themselves expelled from their Government planned Edenic apartment and left to fend for themselves. Abandoned by the intrusive Corporate “Guardian Angel” scientific couple who have treated them like guinea pigs throughout the movie, like the character in a 1964 Pietro Germi movie they have been “seduced and abandoned”. The Model Couple ends in the same way as Polly Maggoo with a closing song satirizing the very human nature of the foibles that has led to their not-so-positive future. They have themselves to blame for their initial compliance and eventual failure to engage in a real revolutionary opposition much better organized than the juvenile antics and Pop-Art spray can images defiling the white walls of the interior by these effete young inheritors of the legacy of May 68. Godard’s Weekend (1967) concluded in a more dark and devastating manner with the cannibalistic revolutionary hippies in full control and Mireille Darc’s bourgeois wife carrying the logic of her society to its obvious conclusion by consuming her own husband. It is again another “Back to Zero” situation but not in the creative and revolutionary manner of re-invention as Godard expects in Le Gai Savoir (1969), another film, like Weekend, having similarities with the same color style used by Klein in his more radically avant-garde art works. The Model Couple recognizes the full implications of failure of that lost opportunity offered by May 68 that forms an implicit background to Rivette’s Out One (1971) and the realization that any future manifestation of struggle will become much more difficult now state institutions understand the tactics of their enemy and will impose any type of weapon, culture, ideological, material, militaristic that is necessary to ensure victory. In this manner, The Model Couple is a transitional film in the work of William Klein. Although Klein does not appear in the end occupying the exhausted, battle-weary, cinematic strategist of Jean Lu Godard in Numero Deux (1975), his authorial personality remains central to this film in its satiric combination of Art and Politics. He may be weary but will struggle on as he has in his later works in all media.
Much of Klein’s other work needs to be rediscovered. His documentary on Eldrige Cleaver in Algerian exile can be found on Youtube and his 1999 visual essay depicting Handel’s Messiah within a very relevant “fin du siecle” context deserves viewing. Klein not only films the familiar choral renditions from this revered piece of classical music performed by choirs and individual singers but juxtaposes them with contrasting images from the modern world. They may be a Times Square performance by a gay and lesbian choir, police officers in Texas, but also dark contemporary images that question the affirmative tone of the original piece. Sacred music often contrasts with profane imagery to reveal many familiar juxtapositions from Klein’s artistic, photographic, and documentary film legacies aiming not to affirm exclusively the message of Handel’s musical tradition but to question its relevance, whether redundant or somehow useful in building the affirmative type of world we all strive for. Again, Messiah is non-commercial, non-studio system oppositional cinema at its best, the product of a lifetime of artistic and committed experience.
I’ve used the title “Entertaining Mr. Klein” not just as a humorous reference to Joe Orton’s subversive domestic comedy Entertaining Mr. Sloan (1964) but more in the sense of Klein’s appropriation of a subversively dialectic sense of entertainment. In its simplest sense Klein’s type of cinema is much more than passive entertainment but an entity that one can both enjoy and engage with in a sincere emotional and intellectual manner, which assures that the director is not manipulating but encouraging the interchange of recognition, new forms of perception, and the development of new ideas. Klein deserves to be better known than he is already in appreciative circles that know his work. He belongs to that rare species of twentieth-century Renaissance man, an Artist who has accomplished significant work in the realms of Modern Art, Photography, Documentary Film, and Fiction. In two of his essays available online Rosenbaum has applied the apt term “Documentary Expressionism” to Klein’s films and, as mentioned above, these essays are important and further reading for anyone interested in exploring this very unique creative avenue. To realize its full potential Cinema cannot just be confined to film but must draw on the heritage of all other artistic forms. According to her 1996 Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, Gail Levine documents how this American artist utilized other available art forms, especially cinema for his urban paintings. According to Jo Hopper’s diary entry he even watched the film version of The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s novel and also praised Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers” as well as the 1959 film by blacklisted scenarist Ben Maddow The Savage Eye. Hitchcock admitted his indebtedness to Hopper’s “The House by the Railroad” (1925), which inspired the Bates House in Psycho (1960). If Francis M. Nevins has described Hitchcock as Woolrich’s blood brother, then Hopper as well as Herrmann may belong to this dark artistic fraternity. Having achieved acclaim in multiple art forms that he continues to synthesize in all his work, the films of William Klein again offer another potential for the realization of cinema’s true potential rather than the miserable commercially manufactured products that affect us today. See the films, be entertained, but also learn from them, and interrogate their implications further. That is what they offer to us.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is a Contributing Editor to Film International and currently enjoying his new 200 level class Noir Fiction and Film.
Cogan, James, “Forty Years Since the Canberra Coup,” 11 November 2015, http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/11/11/coup-n11.html, accessed 9/15/16.
McBride, Joseph, “Stepin Fetchit Talks Back,” Film Quarterly 24.4 (1971): 20-26.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, “Documentary Expressionism: The Films of William Klein,” https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1989/06/documentary-expressionism-the-films-of-william-klein-2/, accessed 9/15/16.
Wood, Robin, “The Incoherent Text,” Hollywood from Vietnam to Regan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, 46-69.