Like a missing-link hominid stepping out of the jungle, famous photographer William Klein emerges on 21st century DVD as the great bullgoose Art Film-era satirist we never knew we had. Hallowed for his still images and his documentaries, the Paris-based Klein also made three furiously hostile lampoons that were nominally released, ignored and then forgotten. Until now, you could only find “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?” (1966), “Mr. Freedom” (1969) and “The Model Couple” (1977) in scruffy bootlegs from pro-am vendors like Pimpadelic Wonderland and given the movies’ paucity of reputation, you would’ve had little reason to do so. A busy ’60s shutterbug for the French Vogue, Klein more or less fell in with the Left Bank New Wavers (Resnais, Demy, Marker, Varda) and the Panic Movement (Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor both show up in “Polly Maggoo”). But his perspective was New Yawk pugilistic, his humor was mercilessly accusatory and his eye was unerringly sharp and expressive. The movies in the new Criterion Eclipse set are a revelation (arguably, they’re the most astute left-wing mockeries of their day), but more than that, they appear to be timeless, and their blitzkrieg critiques are just as pertinent now as they were then.
Perhaps more so, since the brainless sociopathologies that Klein attacks have only grown more powerful and pervasive in the intervening decades, and precious few Western filmmakers today have the nerve to satirize the culture that feeds them. Klein’s first and best feature, “Polly Maggoo” lays into a world Klein knew intimately fashion, from the designers to the magazines to the TV media covering both. The titular heroine (played entrancingly by the rather Theron-esque Dorothy MacGowan in her only film) is a simple Brooklynite hitting the big time in Paris as a cover girl, accosted by slavering men on the street, chased down by a TV-exposÃ© producer (Jean Rochefort) trying to fathom what he perceives to be her beautiful emptiness, and pursued by the bumbling emissaries of a mythical prince (Sami Frey), who’s fallen in love with her photo. Chockablock with imagery and set pieces that are simultaneously gorgeous and thick with outrageous content, making vicious fun of men and sexism and media shallowness and Diana Vreeland and haute couture (the opening sequence plays out behind the scenes at a runway show where a designer has outfitted his girls entirely in giant shards of sharp-edged aluminum), Klein’s movie is nothing less than Voltairean in its exactitude and BuÃ±uelian in its sardonic wit.
“The Model Couple,” conceived and filmed years later, prophesies “The Truman Show,” “EDtv,” “The Real World” and “reality” everything, as a perfectly “average” French husband and wife (AndrÃ© Dussollier and AnÃ©mone) are sequestered in a government-analysis “model apartment” and subjected to tests and studies as the entire travail is televised live and commented on by panels of asinine pundits. Superbly acted, it has only a minor satiric bite (and, ironically, it dates more than either earlier film). But “Mr. Freedom” is the discovery of the moment, if only because its relentless, scabrous rip through American jingoism and xenophobic sloganeering remarkably expresses the Bush administration mindset (as well as its Rovian reasoning, press conference rhetoric and homicidal policies) even more accurately than it characterizes the American public personality during the ‘Nam years. “Antifreedomism!” is the danger confronted by Mr. Freedom (John Abbey), a ludicrous superhero-spy whose uniform is a mÃ©lange of sporting equipment, whose theme song actually misspells “freedom” and who hollers at a huge-but-powerless inflatable SuperFrenchMan, “Are you with me, or against me?!?”
Mr. Freedom is the bloodthirsty tool of a mercenary corporation, sent to France to protect them from the “Reds,” and in the process, from an underground bunker filled with hoochie-koochie acolytes painted red, white and blue, he manages to bomb half the country out of existence. This predates “Team America: World Police” by 35 years, and derisively howls in just the same way at how America views the world and itself but don’t overlook Mr. Freedom’s bout of stigmata, Delphine Seyrig in a peach Afro and tissue-thin gownless evening strap rallying the troops with a percussion band of tubby wrestlers, Philippe Noiret as the evil Soviet Empire (in a massive foam-rubber suit), the U.S. Embassy-as-huge-discount-department-store-with-cheerleaders and Mr. Freedom’s inspiring speech to his minions, a harangue of absurd sales pitches and meaningless aphorisms that’d fit perfectly in Bush’s mouth. (Klein heard “freedom” being chewed into gristle by politicians during the Cold War, but he was also imagining the future of the Dubya reign.) There’s a good deal more nobody could accuse Klein of not having ideas, or not having a tireless sense of humor and though it can get tiring, “Mr. Freedom” stands as a monument to irreverent dissent. “Duck Soup” and “Les Carabiniers” come to mind as companion pieces is there higher praise?
A more neutral archaeology, the DVD release of Tony Palmer’s long-unseen British TV miniseries doc “All You Need Is Love” (1976) is a welcome look back upon the long history of pop music as it evolved piecemeal and at the behest of musicians, before the 24/7 market ubiquity of iPods, “American Idol,” satellite radio and internet streaming. This is Ken Burns before Ken Burns (if not quite as polished as “Baseball” or “Jazz”), comprised of interviews and archival footage both common and rare (including footage of a singing Woody Guthrie, and a woeful Roxy Music performance that nonetheless affords a glimpse of a synthesizer-playing Brian Eno), and unfurling the whole story, from Scott Joplin to Earl Hines to Bessie Smith to Benny Goodman to Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Jethro Tull.
Palmer’s 14-hour-plus odyssey is filthy with progressional details as when it is made clear how the WWI upkick in urban munition factories mobilized southern blacks to northern cities, encouraging them to leave the harmonica and piano behind in favor of the steel guitar and what became the modern blues. Destroyed are the common beliefs that ragtime, jazz and blues grew out of one another (they were completely separate entities, culturally and geographically), and that the Mississippi Delta was some kind of ground zero for the blues (you needed to go hundreds of miles upriver). Palmer also dedicates, amid the swing and rock and country and folk, entire episodes to pivotal periods/manifestations you’d never think to include (or wish to endure), among them ‘music hall’ (featuring Liberace!) and The Musical (oh boy, “Tommy”). Pop music itself is by definition a very mixed bag, so some of the necessary digressions are painful, but the banquet is large and long and enriching. My favorite morsel: a live Roosevelt Sykes doing the best “St. James Infirmary” I’ve ever heard, and giving it credit as a 300-year-old Liverpudlian riff to boot.
[Photos: “Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?”, 1966; AndrÃ© Dussollier and AnÃ©mone in “The Model Couple,” 1977; The Rolling Stones in “All You Need Is Love,” 1977]
“The Delirious Fictions of William Klein” (Criterion Collection: Eclipse Series) and “All You Need is Love” (Zeit Media Limited) are now available on DVD.