3 Cheers for “Mr. Freedom” (R.I.P. William Klein)

Word about the passing of artist/photographer/film-maker William Klein (1926-2022) has trickled out slower than that of his colleague and (adopted) countryman Godard. He passed away three days before JLG, and we are just hearing about it today.

I only discovered Klein’s work a few months ago, by way of the film we mention in our title, which we were so enthusiastic about we crowed about it on social media as “the only superhero movie that matters” and we came that close to blogging about it at the time. But now we are prompted by Klein’s death to deliver. (People seem to invariably feel obligated to couple “sad” with “death”, and I frequently do so when referring to someone who leaves the land of the living before his time. But when you’re 96? Or 91, like Godard? Reportedly Godard wasn’t even particularly ill beyond the typical ailments that afflict people of that age — he was just ready for it to be over! He didn’t have the strength to make films any more! The tragedy was the age, not his passing! A digression — but ye Gods it was liberating to articulate, in this contemptible age of mealy-mouthed social media groupthink)

Anyway Klein’s work was new to me, but the more I learn about him the more engrossed I become. He was American, a Jew from the Lower East Side, where his grandfather owned a clothing store. He studied sociology at City College and served in Germany and France during World War II. After the war he studied at the Sorbonne, became a successful abstract painter and sculptor, then took up photography, taking pictures for Vogue, and exhibiting photo essays depicting various cities. This led organically to documentary film, starting with the short Broadway by Light (1958), a study of the signs in Times Square. Much like Stanley Kubrick he was interested in boxing as subject matter. His enthusiasm for black boxers then gravitated to movies that explored Civil Rights. These included Cassius, le grand (1964–65) about the Liston-Clay fight in Miami (the same bout referred to in One Night in Miami); Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1969); Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970); and The Little Richard Story (1980). Not unrelated was his contribution to Far from Vietnam (1967) with Godard, Alain Renais, Agnes Varda, Claude Lelouch et al; and Festival panafricain d’Alger (1969).

So yeah, Klein was a left-leaning, anti-war, anti-colonialism kind of guy. His three narrative feature films are all heavily satirical critiques of modern capitalism. Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966) took on the fashion world he knew so well. The Model Couple (1977) is informed by his knowledge of sociology and takes on the corruption of that science as it is harnessed for mass marketing and government purposes.

But the one we really hope you’ll take the time to check out is Mr. Freedom (1969), one of the few movies I’ve ever seen whose satire is a strong enough sauce for me. Perhaps it is a film only an American expatriate could make: deeply knowing about the culture it sends up (and dresses down), but completely unworried about professional repercussions by an industry that would never stand for truths told this nakedly. The eponymous main character is a kind of mix between a comic book superhero, a C.I.A. op, and, um, a white supremacist propagandist. (For some context on the latter — segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace ran for U.S. President when this film was being made in 1968 and ended up taking five states away from Hubert Humphrey, handing the election to Nixon. THAT’s your America that’s supposedly so liberal that some people want to blow a gasket). Fellow American expat John Abbey (fresh from Jacques Tati’s Playtime) plays Mr. Freedom with all the heavy handiness this kind of movie begs for, like a sketch on The Smothers Brothers Hour, say. Initially he’s a beat cop who drinks beer on the job and then shoots whoever he pleases, whether they be malefactors or people he just feels like snuffing. His red, white and blue costume complete with football helmet simultaneously evokes Captain America and the New England Patriots.

Then he is summoned by his spy boss Dr. Freedom (Donald Pleasance) to his office in — wait for it — The Freedom Tower. (You young ‘uns may not know or remember this but time was when that was the unironic intended sobriquet for the new One World Trade Center!) The building has headquarters for major corporations on every floor, and is also the covert HQ for U.S. government intelligence. Mr. Freedom is dispatched to France to foil Communists and find out who killed their national hero Capitaine Formidable (an uncredited Yves Montand. Good for you, Monsieur!). As in a Bond film, he has a chick at his side, Capt. Formidable’s widow Marie-Madeleine, played by Delphine Seyrig like a frisky sexed-up version of Little Orphan Annie, complete with curly red wig. In a delightful plot detail, she and her late husband operated a prostitution ring to finance their anti-Communist activities.

The film proceeds from there. The American Embassy is a literal supermarket, its sole mission apparently to shove its products down the gullets of French consumers. The Soviet and Maoist agents are played by ethnically stereotyped inflatable balloons. When Mr. Freedom feels guilty about something bad he’s doing, it turns out to be caused by a pernicious ray being beamed by the Communists. Serge Gainsbourg plays “Mr. Drugstore”. Simone Signoret has a cameo. Jesus and the Virgin Mary are in it, and there are characters named Johnny Cadillac, Dick Discount, and Joe Detergent. And it is played as broadly as the kinds of performances in the best Russ Meyer movies, early John Waters, and the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, but as though they were acting in a script written by Paul Krassner and Abbie Hoffman. Something like that.

For more timeline context: the MLK assassination was in April 1968. An early scene in the film alludes to the riots in Washington DC in the days afterward. The Paris Riots were in May of ’68. The riots at the Chicago DNC were in August ’68. And U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (which was originally begun by France in an effort to keep their Southeast Asian colonies) was at its peak in response to the Tet Offensive. The nations of Western Europe, while colonial powers themselves working within the capitalist system, often seemed like pawns in the stand-off between the big powers in the Cold War. In their frustration to be free of that, the French Left were sometimes silly (my wife and I often joke that somebody like Godard would have been put against a wall and shot, were he a citizen of the Communist governments he loved to romanticize).

But that hardly means that in its opposition, the capitalist West was any too admirable either. It oppresses its minorities and tends to be defensively hypocritical with regard to its own injustices and atrocities. It is more than possible to have a problem with both systems. Which is why I found Mr. Freedom so enjoyable when I watched it a few months ago, at some point late during the Trump Administration. I didn’t find it at all dated. Everything terrible about America it points out are truer than ever TODAY. Including the sort of movie hero the script parodies. More than ever, American cinema is drowning in a cesspool of proto-Fascist superhero propaganda. You’d think such a thing would be the exclusive province of the right, but no. “Liberal Hollywood” and its liberal fans across America soak it in too, never even thinking to question themselves or what they’re looking at, what they’re promoting, what they’re accepting, what they’re justifying. Are you “just watching a movie”? Or are you being a cheerleader for a culture of racism and violence? Or, ya know, don’t look at yourself. Whatever you can live with.

At any rate, New Yorkers, there is some good news: the William Klein exhibit at the International Center of Photography which opened in June has been extended, and you still have a couple of days to catch it! Details are here.