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Legendary William Klein

The “Legendary William Klein”. You have never heard of him? Start with this interview: [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4wieOa_Kog[/youtube] If you don’t have time, continue. Have you ever seen the photograph of a model, fifties black eyeliner, painted nails, flowery hat and the face obscured by smoke wafting from the cigarette in her fingers? The one you know is […]

The “Legendary William Klein”. You have never heard of him?

Start with this interview:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4wieOa_Kog[/youtube]

If you don’t have time, continue.

Have you ever seen the photograph of a model, fifties black eyeliner, painted nails, flowery hat and the face obscured by smoke wafting from the cigarette in her fingers? The one you know is from Vogue, without being labeled?


You probably know this image without knowing the man behind the camera. This “brainy and pugnacious” artist made a good living with these images, (as well as commercials) but he never stopped taking shots at the fashion industry. He made two films, just to set the record straight – exposing the vapid nature of the fashion model in Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?) in 1966 and in 1985 in with Mode En France. (The Walker program also includes a documentary In and Out of Fashion -covering all his work.)

But what is his legacy? Legendary? Surfing the world between being the artist creating fashion images and the street photographer of raw reality; or between the auteur of non-narrative image films, gritty documentaries capturing the Zeitgeist of the revolutionary sixities, and socially critical pop-narrative films. His work is all over the place, and the influence it had is equally pervasive, even if you don’t know the man behind the camera.

His first feature film job as so called “co-director” as he says, was with Louis Malle on Zazie dans le Metro, giving it style Malle didn’t seem able to maintain without Klein. He was a friend and cohort of Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker. Name dropping without context can be frustrating, but Klein and this whole generation of French filmmakers made an indelible mark on the next generation of filmmakers – both popular and independent, Terry Gilliam and David Lynch certainly spring to mind. Marker also published Klein’s first book of photography. These French filmmakers were Klein’s contemporaries and co-conspirators in the sixties.

Without Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1969), I would argue, we might not have Robocop, Rambo, or even Iron Man. The image of the shoulder padded (or buff) male figure crashing through a wall in the name of self-righteous American values, bigger than life. This parody and social criticism – created during the upheaval and revolutionary sixties-has remained relevant, as Klein mentions repeatedly, thanks to Bush’s ascendancy.

Obscure as Mr. Freedom may be, in 1999, singer Beck paid tribute in his music video for the song Sexx Laws (pay attention to Jack Black in the opening sequence)…

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KyF7R4Z1ngk[/youtube]

His film The Model Couple, might be interpreted as a precursor to reality TV – “With televised fanfare and an overabundance of scientific zeal, Jean-Michel (Andre Dussollier) and Claudine (Anemone) are installed in an antiseptic “happiness capsule,” an apartment in which every aspect of their lives can be monitored.” -described in the New York Times in 1990.

As for his documentaries, he was often astoundingly at the right place at the right moment in history. No one else captured the fervor of the Black Panther and Black Power movement as he did. With Muhammad Ali The Greatest, begun when he was still Cassius Clay, and Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther, filmed when he happened to be in Algiers where Cleaver was on the run. His film on Little Richard captures the musician’s decline, and again, another piece of history.

Broadway by Light and Messiah are both lyrical, driven by music and the motion of the imagery. If you enter the viewing experience without expecting a narrative, or expecting you will be able to verbalize a plot you will enjoy it. Atmosphere and style reign.

Auteur films, as Raymond Durgnat said in a piece originally published in Film Comment, can’t be defined by their plots, but mainly by “atmospheres generated by style.” And in the end, if we give the viewer a rapid succession of interesting images , they won’t care if they get a plot.

Before William Klein himself comes to the Walker, make sure you take advantage of this chance to see his movies. (and maybe do some research about his legacy issue, there is more to be found)

William Klein is coming to the Walker for a Regis Dialogue. He will be talking with Paulina del Paso, filmmaker and associate programmer for FICCO 2009 (Festival Internacional de Cine Contemporáneo de la Ciudad de México).


  • I though Burce Jenkins put together a William Klein retrospective and dialogue at the Walker 15 years ago. At that time I interviewed Klein for publication about his body of work and I recall seeing a number of these films at that time.

  • Joe Beres says:

    Time can fly, Robb. I think you are thinking about the “Cinema Outsider: The Films of William Klein” touring program from 1989. That was the last time Klein was at the Walker.