Rank and File:
The (Re)Discovery of William Klein


Film critics, film festivals, film magazines – they are all too obsessed with the latest thing, the cutting edge, the most incredible new discovery. Retrospectives are disappearing from Film Festivals and slipping into the walled-up tombs of museums, archives, libraries and cinémathèques. You can’t read about an old movie – not even one by Rossellini or Borzage – in an issue of Film Comment or Cinema Scope these days unless it either a. is touring in a roadshow, b. is the object of a fabulous print restoration, or c. has just been released in an expensive DVD box set. Meanwhile, the fashions flush in and out: Wong, Sokurov and Kiarostami are yesterday’s news, as we greedily leap upon Gomes and a couple of Filipinos.


What a pleasure, then, to be able to discover – or rediscover, since some lucky members of early generations have already had their chance – the extraordinary work of filmmaker-photographer William Klein, gathered together in my hometown of Melbourne by curator Amree Hewitt for the Australian Centre of the Moving Image. This event gave me the opportunity to gorge, within a few days, on the near-complete range of Klein’s cinema – and here is truly a case where an encounter with past cinema completely rearranges the cultural landscape of the present.


Looking at Klein’s famous photographs from the 1950s and ‘60s – his American or Japanese street views and European fashion shoots alike – one could easily deduce his visual ‘signature’: distorting wide-angle lens; lighting effects of exposure, flare and blur; compositions that veer from grotesque facial close-ups to chaotic, decentred crowds or urban sign-clusters.


However, in his prodigious works for cinema (1958-1999), Klein’s stylistic signature arrives in a different, unexpected form. It is a slow, lateral camera movement, left or right, whether interior or exterior – scanning streetscapes, groups of ordinary citizens protesting or having fun (or both), professionals at work, spokespersons for an organisation or event, talented (or talentless) individuals waiting nervously for their show biz audition … Even when he turns, within the film medium, to a meditation on his still photography, he ingeniously recreates this lateral scan: in the short essay Contacts (1989) – a small piece of a large conceptual cross-media project – he glides along the never-before-publicised contact sheets that delivered some of his best-known images, cueing us into the hits and misses, the possibilities and voids before and after the shot.


Klein’s lateral views have a very particular feel to them. They recall (most explicitly in the Muybridge-like recording of ‘sports gestures’ in Slow Motion, 1984) those sequences from very early cinema in which groups of people (such as workers) would file, one by one, before a static camera, in order to identify themselves. In those images, the camera seemed more like a surveillance instrument, the tool of a sinister State, than the instrument wielded by a sensitive artist. I once heard the distinguished scholar Christa Blümlinger talk on the history of défilement on cinema, taking off from a short, dazzling Jean-Luc Godard video (On s’est tous defile, 1988) showing fashion models parading on a catwalk. Trust Godard to turn even these glamour dolls into the image of workers or prisoners – a ‘rank and file’ – or, indeed, the minor film industry extras who numbly offer their ID numbers for the production office in Grandeur and Decadence (1985). But here is a more optimistic ‘archaic’ moment in the cinema of my own country: the remarkable indigenous woman Essie Coffey in My Life as an Aboriginal (1978) organising her family members – with a subtle gesture to Martha Ansara behind the camera – to introduce themselves one by one as they cross the field of the filmic frame.


Klein, ever the anarchist, turns his own abundantly obvious artistry to a droll, subversive purpose when he does his implacable ‘glides’: he forces boss and worker, winner and loser, somebody (celebrity) and nobody (ordinary person) alike to declare ‘who they are’, not as individual personalities, but as social subjects, cogs in a crazy machine.


William Klein is a remarkable figure in film history, a law unto himself, ultimately beyond (while overlapping with) many movements and trends. To look at the 1964 footage that constitutes the first half of Muhammad Ali, The Greatest (1974) – with its lack of voice-over narration and its relentlessly energetic ‘in the moment’ reportage – one might imagine him to have issued from the American cinéma-vérité school of Leacock, Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. But, crucially, there is no spurious objectivity in Klein: just one look at the deliberately ugly way he frames the boxer’s Southern white ‘owners’ (another lateral defilement) in contrast to the open, generous way he films Ali and his intimate entourage, is enough to palpably convey who the filmmaker is for and against, who he likes and dislikes. So, there is an aspect of Klein that anticipates the cooler, more analytical – although still indirect – gaze of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries about every kind of social institution (prison, school, office, abattoir, monastery …); as well as the more loquacious essay-films of Chris Marker, who first encouraged Klein to turn his photographic eye into a cinematographic eye in the (literally) dazzling short Broadway by Light (1958).


But Klein is a not a hyper-cerebral or sociologically deterministic filmmaker. He lays out the divisions and miseries of the social world (see Hollywood, California: A Loser’s Opera, 1977), but that world, as he grasps it, is also always at the point of exploding: because of the stress of the resistances building up within and against it (as in his documents of Vietnam War protest in America or May ’68 in Paris); or because an excess of bureaucratic rationality is on the point of tipping into utter madness, as in The Model Couple (1977), his eerily prophetic dream of reality TV and scientific ‘lifestyle planning’. Although life, in Klein’s acute vision, may always happen within a lateral grid of social control, that life always insists, always resists, always bursts out of its sanctioned confines: the most memorable sections of The Little Richard Story (1980) occur once the ‘star’ has walked out, and the everyday ‘extras’ (including a veritable army of Little Richard imitators) teem in and take over …


To match this anarchic sensibility, Klein developed a multi-faceted film language that can weakly be labelled ‘expressionistic’. Years before Jean-Luc Godard really let fly in A Woman is A Woman (1961), Klein was already collaging bold primary colours in his photographed images with stark, loud graphic design in his credits and intertitles. Later, other influences washed in and were duly made over by Klein, always via inspired exaggeration: witness the wild, sudden musical mixes (Nouvelle Vague style) of brassy official anthems and Serge Gainsbourg rock in Mode in France (1984), or the apotheosis of politicised Pop Art in the insane comic-book satire of the wonderful Mr Freedom (1969). Just as Klein’s films endlessly cross and hybridise media (still and moving images, live and animated footage, on-stage and off-stage spectacles), they also detonate the border between documentary and fiction: his retrospective documentary In and Out of Fashion (1988) contains narrative and ‘performance art’ conceits, just as his first clear foray into fiction, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), offers a touchingly up-close, behind-the-scenes account of the glamour rituals surrounding a strangely ordinary-looking supermodel (Dorothy McGowan).


Arriving from the fields of painting and still photography, it was inevitable that Klein would be met, throughout his brilliant career, with a certain suspicion: is ‘the image’ too strong, too upfront in his work? Klein knows better, and his film work shows it: from Contacts, we receive the image neither of a neutral anthropologist standing back nor a Felliniesque demiurge dressing the scene, but a ‘participant observer’ in the world, a canny voyeur who realises that social life, in all its laterally-gridded forms, is fundamentally exhibitionist, just (as he declares) “waiting for a photographer” to reveal its contradictory truths.


Watching The Model Couple at the end of 2008, I had the time of my life: not only is it a brilliant commentary on our modern media, but it also contains a magical moment that took me directly back to my first moments of teenage cinephile wonder, when images, sounds and performances mix with ideas and radical innovations. There is a bit in this movie, at its Tashlinesque height, when suddenly, completely unannounced, the image and sound (while the couple talk at their breakfast table) goes out of synch. I thought, for a second, the ‘apparatus’ had gummed up. But then the guy (André Dussolier) actually explains it: it’s the effects of all this scientific manipulation on them! OK, I have seen these games in some structuralist experimental films by Hollis Frampton or Kurt Kren. But isn’t it amazing how rarely this joke is dared, since the technical ‘marriage’ of image to (speaking) sound is the greatest and most pervasive enslavement of the entire film medium? Klein breaks out.


© Adrian Martin December 2008

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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