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Light and Freedom: William Klein’s Pop Politics

By Ed Halter

Broadway by Light (1958) is William Klein’s first film, a short study of illuminated advertising signage in Times Square after dark, running just under 12 minutes long. Through Klein’s high-contrast cinematography, New York City dissolves into a dance of blinking electric lights, dominated by reds and golds and the occasional splash of argon blue, all set against a deep velvety blackness. Mid-century logos drift across the void—Budweiser, Chevrolet, Canadian Club—superimposed upon one another to become a mobile collage. Scrolling electronic tickers, strobing checkerboard displays, and animated neon characters vie for attention with theater marquees bearing titles like The Ten Commandments and Four Boys and a Gun, as a silhouetted worker changes the letters for the next day’s offerings. Towards the end of the film, Klein focuses downward onto reflections in street puddles and shiny car surfaces, transforming this panorama of advertisements into a set of galactic abstractions.

Though born and raised in New York, Klein moved to Paris in 1948, where he has largely lived as an expat since. In the 1950s, he became known as a fashion photographer, shooting for Vogue and other publications, and then earned acclaim for his first book of photography, Life is Good and Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels (1956), published by Editions de Seuil thanks to Chris Marker, who then served as editor of the company’s Petite Planète travel series. Marker and his friend Alain Resnais encouraged Klein to make Broadway by Light; Klein cites both men in the film’s opening credits, which segue into a brief poetic text written by Marker. “Every night in the center of New York,” Marker writes, “an artificial day breaks.” A few years later, Klein would appear as a time-traveler in Marker’s La Jetée (1962), and his voice serves as narrator for its English-language version.

In 1989, the Walker Art Center mounted the nationally touring retrospective “Cinema Outsider: The Films of William Klein.” By this point, Klein had completed twenty-four films, including satirical features like Who Are You, Polly Magoo (Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?) (1966) and Mr. Freedom (1969), and documentaries like Muhammad Ali the Greatest (1974) and The Little Richard Story (1980), though none were then in American distribution (all four are currently available for viewing in the Walker Mediatheque). For the show’s monograph, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum interviewed the director by telephone; Klein made the following statement on Broadway by Light, relating it to Life is Good and Good for You in New York:

I did this book on New York: black-and-white, grungy photographs. People said, “What a put-down—New York is not like that. New York is a million things, and you just see the seamy side.” So I thought I would do a film showing how seamy New York was, but intellectually, by doing a thing on electric-light signs. How beautiful they are, and what an obsessive, brainwashing message they carry. And everybody is so thankful for this super spectacle. Anyway, I think it’s the first Pop film.

Certain elements seen in Life is Good and Good for You in New York carry over into Broadway by Light. Klein’s gritty street photographs, unlike Broadway by Light, are more often day-lit and crowded with people. But behind their heads, we see ads for Rheingold beer and Winston cigarettes and store-window displays, as well as more fugitive forms of publicity, like beggars’ placards and graffiti. One particular spread in Life is Good could have served as a monochrome study for Broadway by Light. In it, Klein juxtaposes a movie-theater marquee with its warped twin in the polished exterior of a parked car. Naturally, Klein wasn’t the first to capture the typographic hubbub of New York’s signscape. Walker Evans used superimposition to create his 1930 photograph Times Square/Broadway Composition, and filmmakers had been drawn to the mesmerizing play of flashing lights as far back as 1905, when cameraman Edwin S. Porter shot Coney Island at Night for Thomas Edison. But by stating that Broadway by Light was the “first Pop film,” Klein places it at the very beginnings of a new sensibility.

The earliest glimmers of Pop are sometimes traced to British artist Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1947 collage I was a Rich Man’s Plaything, which includes an image of a toy gun with the word “Pop!” emerging from its barrel, but art historians more frequently cite the use of same word in the 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? by Paolozzi’s compatriot Richard Hamilton, which portrays a muscleman holding an incongruously large Tootsie Pop. Klein regards Broadway by Light as a filmed collage of found objects. “I rented a camera and just filmed what I saw,” he told an interviewer for Sight & Sound magazine in 2013. “The idea was to use these commercials in Times Square as readymades, like Marcel Duchamp.” And like Paolozzi and Hamilton, Klein too includes an appropriated instance of the word “pop,” in a sequence depicting an advertisement for Kleenex that reads POPS UP in neon.

Klein suggests that Broadway by Light portrays both the beauty and the “brain-washing” quality of Times Square. This concept is reinforced by Marker’s opening remarks, which state that the purpose of the lights on the Great White Way “is to advertise entertainments, to sell products.” The nature of such persuasive images, created for marketing and propaganda, would become a major theme of Klein’s cinematic output. Klein’s first feature film, Who Are You, Polly Magoo? approaches this concept more directly. Its narrative revolves around an American ingénue who becomes the empty center of the Parisian fashion scene. “Fashion is about illusion,” says one fashion-world operative in the film. “To sell and dupe people the industry invokes its powerful magic: the model.” The Paris fashion world must have gotten the message—Klein was dismissed from Vogue soon after Polly Maggoo’s theatrical release in France. In later years, Klein turned to documenting mass-media figures like Muhammad Ali and Little Richard. Ali, particularly, is portrayed by Klein not merely as a great athlete, but as a savvy PR man, manipulating the press’s attentions in the service of civil rights.

For his second fiction film, Mr. Freedom, Klein created a Cold War allegory played out with absurdly nationalist superheroes. In the film, square-jawed Mister Freedom (John Abbey), clad in red-white-and-blue sports gear, joins forces with France’s seductive Marie-Madeleine (Delphine Seyrig) to stop the Commie forces of Soviet baddie Moujik Man and Red China Man, who takes the form of an enormous inflatable dragon. Filled with bold colors and crude dialog, Mr. Freedom’s sensibility falls somewhere between the direct satire of a political cartoon and the psychedelic juvenility of Zap Comix.

As embodied by Mr. Freedom, the United States is depicted as a racist global policeman, in thrall to American corporate interests. He takes his order from Doctor Freedom (Donald Pleasence) of “Freedom, Inc.,” a shadowy organization located at the top of a skyscraper, where it shares real estate with Texaco, General Motors, Unilever, and other power-hungry conglomerates. Interviewed in 1970 by the American counterculture glossy Evergreen Review, Klein laid out the metaphor in clear terms. “Mister Freedom is all the Westmorelands, the MacArthurs, the pin-up boys of the war. Doctor Freedom represents the system and its leaders—the Trumans, the Johnsons, the Nixons, and the Kennedys,” Klein tells the interviewer. “Almost all of Mister Freedom’s dialogue is made up of sentences from [Dean] Rusk, Johnson, MacNamara … Moujik talks like Khrushchev. The Chinese Dragon gives out warnings like the 2000th solemn warning broadcast by Peking Information, and so on.”

The idea for Mr. Freedom came to Klein following the release of Far from Vietnam (1967), a collective anti-war film organized by Marker for which he contributed a segment. According to Klein, Far from Vietnam generated press, but drew little audience. Mr. Freedom was Klein’s attempt to make an anti-war film that could attract the popcorn crowd, using the visual language of broad comedy, old-time serials, and the monster movie. “Films like Far From Vietnam didn’t go over very well,” Klein told Evergreen. “How can you get people to go to a film and want to talk about it, discuss it, when they come out? I made a film that’s a kind of booby trap.” Viewers “may come to see adventure [and] fist-fights,” Klein says, but they end up getting a geopolitical critique.

Klein’s filmmaking participates in a larger interest among his fellow Parisians in exploring the use of Pop images towards political re-education. Godard uses appropriated comic-book images to punctuate his Maoist talkie La Chinoise (1967) and slyly evokes Roy Lichtenstein in Made in USA (1966), later analyzing the public wartime image of Jane Fonda in Letter to Jane (1972), made with Dziga Vertov Group collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin. Guy Debord had already begun promulgating a Situationist theory of the image with his 1967 manifesto Society of the Spectacle, which in 1973 he would make into an essay film of the same name, built from appropriated fashion photos and Hollywood movies. Meanwhile, during May ’68, Situationists put Debord’s theories to practice through the detournement of comic book panels, erasing dialogue and replacing it with Marxist slogans to create wheat-pasted posters; René Viénet applied this same technique to an entire Hong Kong martial arts movie for his redubbed film Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (1973).

But in his own attempt at a more accessible Pop Brechtianism, Klein was somewhat out of step with filmmaking on the Left in France, which was at that point tending towards an intellectualized and dogmatic cinema. Godard, for example, was then working under the rubric of the Dziga Vertov Group on some of his most theoretically rigorous works, while Marker devoted his efforts to the film collective SLON, which engaged factory workers in making films about their own conditions. “A lot of French critics said it wasn’t realistic,” Klein told Rosenbaum. “The idea of grotesque stylization wasn’t accepted.” Resnais, however, defended the film, arguing that Mr. Freedom “is a completely expressionistic film. Maybe that’s why it provoked such violent reactions: some people can’t accept having reality transposed to another level.” The French government seemed to have agreed, as it banned the film from theaters during the events of May ’68.

Speaking with Evergreen, Klein argued that Mr. Freedom’s cartoony sex appeal was a tactical move: “It’s obvious that you have to put on a mask in order to talk about politics in a commercial movie house in France or anywhere else. I put on a mask when I make this sort of film. You try to fool the distributor with stills of fights, of bare breasts, and so on.” In this regard, Mr. Freedom and Broadway by Light both attempt to turn the power of spectacle back upon itself to create a radical counter-image.

It’s ironic that Klein would brag to Evergreen about trying to “fool the distributor” with Mr. Freedom, given that the magazine was published by Grove Press, who were, at the time, the American distributor of the film. In the wake of the enormous financial success Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967), Grove was then pouring money into the wide release of leftist fare. To promote Mr. Freedom, a suggestive image of Abbey grasping a busty Seyrig was used as the cover of Evergreen’s April 1970 issue, which included the interview with Klein as well as an extended photo-roman of Mr. Freedom made from stills. The same cover image was reused by Grove several times, in print ads to promote its films on college campuses, and in the trailer for the Grove Press Film Festival of 1970, where it was animated by Carmen D’Avino. Filmmaker and distributor colluded to use sex to sell politics, and thus Mr. Freedom itself became an advertising image for the counterculture.


Ed Halter is a critic and curator living in New York City. He is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York, and his writing has appeared in Artforum, The Believer, Bookforum, Cinema Scope, frieze, Little Joe, Mousse, Rhizome, Triple Canopy, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. He teaches as Critic in Residence in the Film and Electronic Arts department at Bard College and is currently writing a history of contemporary experimental cinema in America. Halter curated the International Pop Cinema currently on view in the International Pop exhibition.

“It’s obvious that you have to put on a mask in order to talk about politics in a commercial movie house in France or anywhere else. I put on a mask when I make this sort of film. You try to fool the distributor with stills of fights, of bare breasts, and so on.” —William Klein

William Klein, Broadway By Light, 1958

Photo: courtesy artist.

William Klein, Mr. Freedom, 1969

Photo: courtesy the artist.

William Klein, Who Are You Polly Maggoo?, 1966

Photo: courtesy the artist

William Klein, Who Are You Polly Maggoo?, 1965

Photo: courtesy the artist

Poster for William Klein’s Mr. Freedom