Vietnam in Fragments

William Klein in 1967-'68: A radical re-evaluation
by Jonathan Rosenbaum  posted June 4, 2008
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I've recently finished teaching a course that doubled as a weekly film series in Chicago, devoted to world cinema in the 1960s. William Klein's Mr. Freedom, the most obscure by far of the 14 features I picked, was the one I was most worried about in terms of its likely reception. What worried me is summed up in my capsule review for the Chicago Reader:

"William Klein's over-the-top fantasy-satire (1968) is conceivably the most anti-American movie ever made, but only an American (albeit an expatriate living in France) could have made it. Despite Klein's well-deserved international reputation as a still photographer, his films are almost unknown in the U.S., so this spirited and hilarious second feature offers an ideal introduction to his volatile talent. Filmed in slam-bang comic-book style, it describes the exploits of a heroic, myopic, and knuckleheaded free-world agent (Playtime's John Abbey) who arrives in Paris to do battle against the Russian and Chinese communists, embodied by Moujik Man (a colossal Cossack padded out with foam rubber) and the inflatable Red China Man (a dragon that fills an entire metro station). Donald Pleasence is the hero's sinister, LBJ-like boss, and Delphine Seyrig at her giddiest plays the sexy, duplicitous double agent who shows him the ropes. Done in a Punch and Judy manner that occasionally suggests Godard or Kubrick, and combining guerrilla-style documentary with expressionism, this feisty political cartoon remains a singular expression of 60s irreverence." In short, to paraphrase George S. Kaufman, just the sort of thing you'd expect to close in New Haven—even though it was just about to appear on DVD for the first time with two other Klein features, in Criterion's invaluable Eclipse series.

As one indication of how easy it is to forget a film that received scant attention anywhere when it came out, consider the passing thumbnail description given to it by Gilbert Adair, one of my favorite contemporary writers (and an old friend), in a recent article in the Guardian about 1968 and its recent anniversary celebrations. Discussing a small retrospective at the BFI Southbank, Adair expresses some warranted dismay about a remark in the program booklet regarding The Bride Wore Black: "Truffaut used this Hitchcock homage as an argument against the use of guns." Yet a paragraph later, Adair himself offers the following: "Among the several other films featured, William Klein's Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? and Mr. Freedom are enjoyable, exasperatingly scattershot satires on, respectively, the fashion industry and the anti-war movement."

The anti-war movement? This sounds like Adair must have been thinking of some other movie. But since Mr. Freedom, shot in 1967 and early 1968, was released in 1969 only after the French government banned it for six months, it's never come close to being a familiar reference point—unlike, say, Polly Maggoo (which a Paris student bar that survives to this day was named after). Speaking for myself, I only caught up with this marginalized item in London in the early 70s, some time before I wound up working briefly for Klein in Paris—translating a script of his from French to English, for a project that would eventually mutate into The Model Couple.

So Mr. Freedom was a film that had clearly fallen by the wayside. And yet it was the only film shown in my '60s world cinema course that sold out every ticket. I even suspect that this may have happened because of its being described as "conceivably the most anti-American movie ever made," though it's hard to imagine that this would have attracted as much of a crowd three or four years ago. And the 50 or so enrolled students and 150 others who came to the screening seemed to take to it like ice cream. Could it be that almost 40 years after its original, unheralded release, Klein's movie has finally found its audience—meaning that we've finally caught up with it? "As far as I'm concerned we can never go beyond expressionism," Alain Resnais remarked in a 1969 interview, referring specifically to Klein's film. And maybe it took a George W. Bush—a full, real-life embodiment of Klein's ridiculous antihero--to drive home the satiric point.

Sometimes what we call expressionism is a matter of content as well as style. Klein's wide-angle photography and its propensity for caricature, which is also fully evident in his still photography, crops up in some of the documentary footage he shot in the U.S., shortly before Mr. Freedom, for Far From Vietnam—an agitprop feature he and Resnais made collectively, along with Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens, and Chris Marker. I saw Far From Vietnam in the fall of 1967, when it concluded the New York Film Festival, and, contrary to Mr. Freedom, it created more angry debates than anything else I saw that year. (Paradoxically and lamentably, unlike Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? and Mr. Freedom, this feature is almost impossible to access today; my own VHS copy was purchased in Tokyo roughly a decade ago.)

In the Village Voice, for instance, Andrew Sarris denounced it, in a review later reprinted in his first collection, Confessions of a Cultist: "Zero as art. Some polite applause for Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Joris Ivens. They at least tried to make a personal statement. But where was Chris Marker's `unifying' editing? I haven't seen such a patchwork quilt since Mondo Cane. The English-language commentary sounds like a parody of the thirties' Stalinist sermon. As for the footage on the big parades in New York earlier this year, the point being made is unclear. The 'peace' marches are presented as grotesquely as the 'loyalty' marchers, as if all Americans of every political persuasion had gone mad over Vietnam. By contrast, the Vietnamese peasants are neat, alert, and dedicated. It struck me that the film was intended for neither Paris nor New York but for Hanoi."

This attack irritated Sarris's fellow Voice columnist Jonas Mekas so much that the following week, Mekas's entire column consisted of a drawn cartoon of a disdainful Sarris watching the film on television. Interestingly enough, the footage of prowar and antiwar marches in New York described as grotesque by Sarris were both shot by Klein, and ironically I assume it was Klein's "personal" use of wide angle lenses that led to much of Sarris's irritation. (Similar grotesquerie can be found in the faces and wide-angle photographic styles of both Louis Malle's 1960 Zazie Dans le Métro, on which Klein is credited as artistic consultant, and Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Dr. Strangelove.) Reviewing the film myself at the time in a student newspaper (as a graduate student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook), I defended it then—and would defend it today—as one of the most powerful documentary statements about the opposition to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. (In fact, I would cite Emile de Antonio's 1968 In the Year of the Pig and the collectively made 1972 Winter Soldier as its only real competitors.)

Although I didn't know who Klein was at the time-and it appears that Sarris didn't either—it was his documentary footage in Far From Vietnam, making up roughly a fourth of this two-hour film, that affected me the most. It had far more to say to me than Resnais' uncharacteristic and mannered episode (in which Bernard Fresson pontificates at length in a Paris flat about Hermann Kahn's On Escalation to his wife or girlfriend—a bit that already looked dated in 1967, and was briefly ridiculed by Manny Farber in Negative Space), or even Godard's very characteristic monologue from behind a camera, interspersed with clips, about not being able to shoot a film in Vietnam.

Klein's footage turns up in two separate parts of the film. The first part—about six minutes long, appearing 20 minutes into the film—deals successively with a 1967 march down New York's Fifth Avenue supporting the war and an antiwar demonstration on or near Wall Street that provokes many hecklers, many of whom are seen jeering, "Bomb Hanoi!" (This is the only stretch of the film in which the wide-angle distortions are very pronounced, and a few snippets of this march footage are actually recycled in Mr. Freedom.)

The second part, almost 91 minutes into the film—which is far more powerful, and runs for about 23 minutes—comes in two sections separated by an intertitle, "Vertigo" (strongly suggesting the intervention of Chris Marker, the film's editor). The first section, dated 1965, is about Norman Morrison, the 31-year-old American Quaker who, following the example of several South Vietnamese Buddhist monks, protested the war by pouring kerosene on himself, lighting a match, and burning himself alive--an act he performed outside Robert McNamara's office at the Pentagon, taking along his one-year-old daughter, Emily. This section intercuts a young woman named Ann Uyen serving watermelon to her three children in a Paris garden and calmly explaining the importance of Morrison's act in North Vietnam (where even a street in Hanoi was named after him) with Anne Welsh, Morrison's widow and her own three children, having a meal with others in Baltimore and playing with her kids while she no less calmly explains her own support of her late husband's drastic act. The second section documents the 1967 antiwar march in New York in which close to half a million people participated. In this segment, we also see many concurrent arguments and debates about the war on the street; most memorably, we see a bearded man with a small child, chanting, growling, and screaming the word "napalm" in different intonations, apparently mad as a hatter—until someone in the crowd asks him what the word means, and he abruptly switches gears and proceeds to define it calmly and precisely ("It's a form of jellied gasoline..."), in a normal and even tone of voice.

It was probably the episode about Norman Morrison that had the strongest impact—not only in 1967, when I first saw Far From Vietnam, but also late last March, when I screened nearly all of this Klein footage with Japanese subtitles for the same audience who had just seen Mr. Freedom. Back in 1967, I'd already known about Morrison and what he'd done, but all I'd heard about his act from friends and colleagues and in the press and on television was that he was obviously a madman whose suicide had accomplished nothing.

His act was seen, in short, as an alienating and alienated gesture that epitomized the affectless violence of the period, which is more or less how the same sort of act registered when Jean-Pierre Léaud encountered it on the street in Godard's Masculine Feminine (1966). But, like the supposed madman on the street during the antiwar march, Klein's footage challenged me to accept another meaning—and even more remarkably, it did this without any signs of special pleading or tortured rationalization. And late last March, seeing this with my students, it carried a related message: that the true legacy of 1968 wasn't what succeeded or failed politically at the time—it was how much it mattered, and what some people were willing to do in order to achieve it.

The importance of this information wasn't part of the media as I understood it back then, but part of something else. It was like receiving a letter from a friend who lived far away but knew exactly what I was thinking. That's still what matters the most to me in current movies, and the major legacy of 1967-'68 for me is the certainty that there are still friends of this kind scattered in various groups across the globe, regardless of the state of our postal delivery. 

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Courtesy of Criterion Collection
Serge Gainsbourg (on piano), Delphine Seyrig, and John Abbey in William Klein's Mr. Freedom

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THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Rosenbaum served as film critic for the Chicago Reader from 1987 to 2007. His most recent book is Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

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Author's Website: JonathanRosenbaum.com