Remembering the great photographer and filmmaker, whose radical satirical films are still ignored by cult movie fans and distributors alike.
It sometimes – quite often, in fact – feels as though we could simply turn this site over to endless obituaries of interesting people who have left us. Such is the nature of life and death, I suppose – as the creative and cultural greats of the past get older, so more and more of them will die with increasing frequency. Our annual round-up of those who have passed in the previous year is an attempt to at least acknowledge the many, many significant people that we have lost – but every so often, we feel the need to expand on that. Such is the case with William Klein, who died recently at the age of 96 – a good inning, as they say, but still a dreadful loss of an artist whose work is much admired yet simultaneously terribly neglected.
Kelin remains best known as a photographer, known for his work in both the fashion world and New York urban environments – both highly significant documents of a time and style that he pioneered, bringing a freshness and new sense of vitality to fields that had been rather more staid until that point. Klein wasn’t the first to use street photography to tell dramatic stories but he was one of the masters of the art and this, combined with his dramatic fashion imagery for Vogue, was revolutionary for the time. So revolutionary, in fact, that few people seemed to understand what he was doing at the time. This seems to have been the motif for Klein’s entire career – misunderstood work that was only appreciated fully years later – or, in the case of his movie work, still wildly underrated and unreleased. His street photography was often condemned as anti-American – which, in a sense, it was, a nation seen through the jaundiced eye of someone who was disconnected from – but still related to – the national culture.
Encouraged by Chris Marker and Alain Renais, Klein shifted his direction to filmmaking in the late Fifties, beginning with a series of important and (of course) now obscure documentaries about people like Little Richard and Muhammad Ali. He quickly moved into fictional feature films. The first of these, Who Are You, Polly Magoo? was made in 1966 and is a pointed, pop-art satire of the fashion world that should be up there with every Swinging Sixties movie and French New Wave experiment. I can’t begin to tell you how much we love this movie here at The Reprobate. Klein had lived in France since he was 19 – when he married the woman he would stay with for the rest of her life (his wife, Jeanne Florin, died in 2005) – and his films feel like a fascinating cultural hybrid, not quite la nouvelle vague, not quite Sixties American counter-culture. Of course, you’ll struggle to find a decent and affordable copy of Polly Magoo – there are old DVDs and a decade-old Klein box set that sells for high prices but as far as we can see, no Blu-ray and certainly no UK release. What’s more, they seem to be virtually unknown in the cult movie circles that you’d expect to be all over them (this is a generalisation, before anyone pops up to tell me how much they love the films). Polly Magoo is still better known than his other features – Mr Freedom, made in 1968, is a biting satire on American imperialism and superhero fantasies was a broad attack on fanatics of all colours and so failed to satisfy anyone while The Model Couple from 1977 is an equally sharp attack on consumerism and the often false freedoms of liberal societies. Klein would return to documentaries after this – and also shot countless TV commercials over the years.
That Klein’s movie work is so infrequently released or buried away in the archives of streaming services while some films are issued every couple of years in slightly upgraded editions is a tragedy. He’s hardly the only director to have suffered this fate – indeed, we could just have easily written an obituary for the great Alain Tanner, whose important movies have been essentially ignored by distributors since the VHS era (and even during it – I had to import his work on tape to the UK). We fully understand and sympathise with the demands of the commercial market and the costs of releasing films that might have a rather niche appeal – a Dario Argento film has guaranteed (re)sales to a fanatical fan base and an obscure European arthouse movie doesn’t, but still – the lack of decent, available editions of these films is depressing.
Klein’s photography has had more respect – and with immaculate timing, he died on the final day of a New York retrospective of his work at the International Center of Photography. Fashion and documentary photography is probably an easier sell to both the mass and art market than sharply satirical fiction and is still seen as a more legitimate artform than the motion picture by many. He will always be a photographer first, a filmmaker second in the eyes of many.
His photography might well be the more important part of his career. It’s a remarkable body of work and well worth exploring. But his films – his trilogy of satirical feature films even more than the documentaries, simply because the latter get all the respect – are long overdue a rediscovery.
William Klein: 1928 – 2022.
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