Float like a butterfly: William Klein got as close as any filmmaker could to some of the iconic American figures of a remarkable era. (Photo from "Muhammad Ali: The Greatest," 1974, courtesy Pacific Film Archive)

William Klein's Restless Mind

Dennis Harvey September 9, 2009

William Klein is best known as a photographer and expat New Yorker who moved to Paris in 1948 and never looked back—well, with the notable exception of New York (life is good and good for you in New York…), a mid-1950s exhibition and photobook. It was a much-debated sensation at the time for both its unconventional technique (Klein played liberally with focus, overexposure and wide angles) and rather shocking, vivid, un-pretty view of the Big Apple’s denizens. Today, it’s considered a game-changing landmark in the medium. His subsequent fashion photography (notably for Vogue) was also strikingly innovative. His images have been shown at leading museums around the world, including San Francisco Museum of Modern Art not long ago.

But in 1965 Klein got interested in filmmaking—initially abandoning still photography entirely for it. While he’s amassed a considerable body of filmic work since, viewers in his native land have very rarely had a chance to see it. The Pacific Film Archive’s "Top Bill: The Films of William Klein" series, running September 11 through October 11, rights that wrong with an extensive survey of his cinematic oeuvre to date. Sure to be a real eye-opener for the uninitiated, these movies are suffused with the same impudence, social commentary and aesthetic surprise found in his photos.

Klein’s documentaries and narrative features alike play with form, whether it’s blurring the lines between reportage and essay or fact and fiction. Predictable, they are not.

With both the sympathy of a fellow countryman and the questioning distance of a permanent expat, he got as close as any filmmaker could to some of the iconic American figures of a remarkable era—and was particularly drawn to polarizing African Americans at the height of the civil rights and Black Power movements. These three portraits are all remarkable: 1974’s Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, whose subject Klein had started filming a decade earlier when he was an as-yet-little-known Cassius Clay; 1970’s Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther, shot over three days’ hash-choked communing with the revolutionist in Algerian exile; and 1980’s The Little Richard Story, a marvel of creative digression that, when its subject periodically retreats into Bible-clutching noncooperation, simply goes off in search of his Deep South roots.

The Cleaver film came about as a consequence of Klein’s documenting the prior year’s Pan-African Cultural Festival, an international convening of performance talent in Algiers whose political empowerment message is perhaps the real star. The director also brought multidimensional complexity to observing another public event in The French, about the French Open tennis tournament in 1981, a year in which an extraordinary array of legendary players competed (it showed in the YBCA’s "Beyond ESPN" series.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Klein several times trained his camera on the industry he spent ten years promoting as a fashion photographer—and it shouldn’t surprise either that he waited for that stint to end before playfully biting the hand that fed him. His first narrative feature, 1966’s B&W Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, is both reflection and critique of its mad moment: The very peak of "pop" ’60s art and commerce, when everything seemed new and crazy at the same time. Its hapless heroine is an "It girl" model surrounded by a constantly moving chaos of stylists, publicists, portraitists, suitors, mashers, and one leading fashion magazine "dragon lady" (Dark Shadows’ Greyson Hall, playing a role purportedly modeled on Diana Vreeland). Freeform, borderline surreal, it’s just about the last word in mod cinema.

Swinging even wilder in its treatment of couture culture is 1984’s unclassifiable Mode in France, while 1998’s In & Out of Fashion finds him reviewing his own work in all media. The following year’s Messiah is another original objet d’art: Handel’s Christmas classic used as soundtrack for a provoking, sometimes bewildering but always arrestingly selected kaleidoscope of documentary images ranging from the sublime to the repugnant.

The closest William Klein has ever come to conventional storytelling without any documentary element is, well, not very close. Another satirical pop-art artifact, 1969’s Mister Freedom, is a starry (Delphine Seyrig, Donald Pleasance, Serge Gainsbourg, etc.) application of comic-strip "kapow!" spoofing American imperialism at the height of opposition to the Vietnam War. Another impish construct is The Model Couple, in which a young man and woman (still-active thespians Andre Dussollier and Anemone) subject themselves to a "French national experiment" by letting scientists poke, prod and observe them during a lengthy period of studio captivity. These two flippant, gimmicky endeavors are irresistible at first, but they can wear a viewer out fast—you can almost sense Klein’s antsiness as his high concept ideas turn into traps.

Nonetheless, it’s the very restlessness of his mind that makes everything in the Top Bill series worth discovering.