“In and Out of Fashion” is the ideal name for a William Klein retrospective, not only because the filmmaking photographer has kept an eye on haute couture throughout a career of six decades and counting. Often underappreciated (if not by the Walker, which mounted the first-ever Klein film program in 1989, and has played host to its reels ever since), the confrontational shooter is now ready for his close-up. We might think Klein’s U.S. audience would’ve taken more strongly to his satiric critique of The American Way at some point during the past eight years, but, blessed as we are with eight Klein features (all in 35mm), a shorts program, and the man himself (on June 26), we’ll simply agree the party is better late than later.
In any case, it isn’t hard to see why most any Klein biographer will observe that the born New Yorker’s remove from the mainstream — growing up Jewish in an Irish neighborhood, moving to France after serving in the U.S. Army during WWII — fueled his dual interest in American outsiders (subjects of appreciative documentaries) and insiders (objects of scorn in his satiric fictions). Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (May 16 at 7:30 p.m.) — the best known (and best) of Klein’s narrative films — has Klein biting the well-manicured hand that had fed him fashion shoots; the first scene, unapologetically crude, finds a bevy of female models wrapped in (and cut by) aluminum siding. Pointedly one-dimensional as well, the title character of Mr. Freedom (May 15 at 7:30 p.m.) — a costumed superhero for the fascist cause, dark as the Dark Knight — is introduced busting an African American family at dinnertime (and much worse). Strike a pose; be The Man.
If these, along with The Model Couple (May 29 at 7:30 p.m.), constitute what a Criterion Collection box set calls Klein’s “delirious fictions,” his trilogy of documentaries about variously oppositional African Americans — Eldridge Cleaver, Little Richard, and Muhammad Ali — forms the core of his equally intoxicating nonfiction. Far and away the greatest of these is, well, The Greatest (June 6 at 7:30 p.m.), a two-part portrait that devotes an hour each to Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali — the same man, of course, yet separated here by ten years, a load of punches, and countless pages of history. (Subtitle it Out of and In Fashion?) Divided into segments shot during 1964 and 1974, the film captures the boxer’s radicalization around the time of his two early Sixties bouts with heavyweight champ Sonny Liston — a shift that led to Clay’s adoption of the Black Muslim moniker Muhammad Ali.
The Greatest certainly looms large here (“I predict that tonight someone’ll die at ringside from shock!” he exclaims before the rematch with Liston), yet Klein doesn’t just stick to the men in the ring. Delving into the business of fighting (the artist was acutely interested in American advertising wherever he found it), Klein trains his camera on the fans, the odds-makers, the moneymakers, the commentators (including Malcolm X, in one astonishing scene), and the ’60s-era white managers who hold a repugnantly proprietary view of the fighter. (Small wonder the film invokes slavery within its first five minutes, as well as inserting Godardian cutaways to billboards as a reminder that all this brutal humanity is bought and sold.)
By 1974, part of what has changed is that Don King has gained the juice to act as promoter, and that Ali’s fight against George Foreman in Zaire is as much about Black Pride as about boxing. (The racial power of the event can’t be denied: Just two years later, Sly Stallone was moved to deliver the retaliatory Rocky.) Likewise, Klein views the sporting per se as somewhat incidental to the context around it, rendering the bouts in a brilliantly abstract flurry of still photographs whose subliminal force anticipates Raging Bull. Such sequences are undeniably potent, and Ali may indeed have been The Greatest in his field, but it’s outside the ring that Klein and his subject each manage to float and sting.
In Michael Koresky’s liner notes for the Criterion box, the filmmaker is quoted on the subject of Mr. Freedom’s radical irony. “A lot of French critics said [Freedom] wasn’t realistic… But now, if you want to win an argument about a film, you can always say it’s a comic strip.” Helluva point, and it applies equally to what I’d call Klein’s other greatest film, Messiah (May 17 at 2:00 p.m.), which brings a fanciful panel style to the librettos of Handel’s oratorio, if not Christianity in sum. Hmmm…what would Jesus write? Let’s start by saying that anyone intolerant of the nonnarrative Koyaanisqatsi method of wedding classical or “classical” music to contemporary images — or of the notion that an atheist Jew such as Klein would dare to fiddle with a text as divine as Handel’s — will need more than a Christian capacity for forgiveness just to make it past reel two.
When Messiah was released almost a decade ago, Klein disciples were heard to preach to the unconverted, urging them to consider the film’s global-village street scenes in relation to all that’s holy. When Klein puts a shot of worshipful Las Vegas gamblers over the lyric “Behold your God,” we’re meant to note that casinos are modern temples whose congregations are in desperate need of redemption. (Not exactly a novel sermon, this.) Elsewhere, Klein goes looking for God in billboard ads and conjures somewhat subtler juxtapositions, as when “The government shall be upon his shoulder” is sung by an African-American inmate choir; the crime-busting drills of Dallas cops are matched to “He taketh away the sins of the world”; a montage of war-atrocity images accompanies “Let us break their bonds”; and high school kids smoking cigs during recess suggest that we, like sheep, have “gone astray.” (Is the similarity between “astray” and “ashtray” intentional?)
For Fellini enthusiasts, the surreal sight of Bodybuilders for Christ snapping aluminum pans like toothpicks leaves little doubt that Klein once worked as an assistant to the director of Satyricon. And aficionados of the oratorio might relish the symmetrical relationship between this postmodern movie and Handel’s own multinational pastiche of old and new, or between the Paris-based, expatriate American Klein and Messiah‘s 18th-century librettist Charles Jennens, described in one CD’s liner notes as a “pompous, conceited, and fabulously wealthy man of leisure.”
Dogmatic by definition, Klein’s Messiah is not unlike a Kevin Smith satire for the museum crowd — and not without value nearing Father’s Day, either, as it commands some of the more unreflective among us to ponder the holiday in a manner that doesn’t necessarily include a trip to the megamall. Still, for Klein’s first visit to the Twin Cities in two decades, one can’t help but wonder: Might the 81-year-old be coaxed to the Mall of America? With camera in tow?