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Raging Bill: William Klein's Works on Film

Like his contemporary Stanley Kubrick, William Klein was born in New York in 1928, gained early acclaim as a still photographer, and created his major film work while in self-exile in Europe. An American in Paris studying painting on the G.I. bill, Klein turned to photography as a tool for his visual art. His first major work, Life is Good and Good for You in New York (1956), captured the photographer’s vivid street-level encounters with his hometown and revolutionized the design of photographic books. His entrance to film soon followed, and while often linked with the "Left Bank" group of the French New Wave (which included Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, and Alain Resnais), Klein maintained an independent vision and a penchant for wicked satire and raw, direct filmmaking.

Over the years, he has distinguished himself in many arenas: his influential fashion photography; his celebrated books on Moscow, Tokyo, and Rome; and even a successful string of television commercials. His filmmaking has continued unabated with the release of his new feature, The Messiah, his 23rd film in a remarkable career now spanning more than four decades. Rage on, Bill Klein.


February 11 (Friday) 7 pm

The Little Richard Story

Directed by William Klein
France 1980, 16mm, color, 90 min.

A slice of Americana with a political core, Klein’s chronicle lays out the rise and near fall of the young black man from Macon, Georgia, who became the King of Rock and Roll. By the time of his filming, the Little Richard that Klein encounters has turned pitchman for "Black Heritage" bibles sold by a hustling white couple from Nashville. Sensing he is being exploited, Richard exits his sales position—and Klein’s film—leading the director to Hollywood on a surreal search for Little Richard imitators.

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February 11 (Friday) 9 pm and February 13 (Sunday) 3 pm

Muhammad Ali the Greatest

Directed by William Klein
France 1974, 35mm, b/w and color, 120 min.
Newly Restored Archival Print

Klein’s magnum opus, Muhammad Ali The Greatest combines his pioneering 1964–65 portrait of the young champion boxer Cassius Clay (released in the states as Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee) with his film on the fighter’s classic comeback bout with George Foreman a decade later in Zaire. The only white photographer in the boxer’s camp ("I got as close to Ali as a Jewish New Yorker from Paris could get"), Klein captured the force of Ali’s singular personality as well as the insights of his mentor Malcolm X (filmed by Klein weeks before his assassination) and the bedlam of the boxing world. Over the course of the film, Ali emerges as the Heavyweight Champion of everything American—from media and money making to humor and politics—and, according to Klein, "several things not particularly American, like courage and conviction."

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February 12 (Saturday) 7 pm
February 23 (Wednesday) 8:45 pm

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (Qui Etes-Vous Polly Maggoo?)

Directed by William Klein
France 1965–66, 35mm, b/w, 105 min.
With Dorothy MacGowan, Jean Rochefort, Sami Frey

Klein’s celebrated mock-documentary follows the career of Polly Maggoo, a fictional American fashion model who is pursued by both a French television producer and a prince. With its high-contrast black-and-white cinematography and its frenetic editing, the film satirizes both the look and the content of the world of haute couture. The opening fashion-show sequence sets the film’s comically abrasive tone by focusing on the latest collection of the hot Parisian designer Isidore Ducasse, who is labeled by one awestruck fashion editor "the poet of sheet-metal" for the riotous aluminum sculptures in which he has clad the models.


February 12 (Saturday) 9 pm

Mode in France

Directed by William Klein
France 1985, 35mm, color, 90 min.

A free-form, semi-documentary snapshot of the mid-1980s French fashion scene, Mode in France features clothes by such leading designers as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Alaïa, and Agnes B. By turns a fashion history, a fashion show, and an extended experiment in dramatization, Klein’s film captures the reigning looks and textures of the scene through stylized studio sequences (one featuring Grace Jones as a leather-clad fashion diva) and documentary-like episodes such as the elaborate street scene in which the inhabitants of an entire Paris neighborhood are dressed by Gaultier.

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February 13 (Sunday) 7 pm

Mr. Freedom

Directed by William Klein
France 1967–68, 35mm, color, 104 min.
With Delphine Seyrig, John Abbey, Sami Frey

Banned by the French government, recut by its producer, and misunderstood by the critics, Mr. Freedom is Klein’s garish, color-coded satire of Yankee imperialism. The title character is a superhero—part James Bond and part Buck Rogers morphed with a football fullback—who is sent to Europe to eliminate French leftists and avenge the death of his French counterpart, Capitaine Formidable (Yves Montand in a cameo). Adrift in a foreign land, Freedom falls for the counterinsurgent bombshell Marie-Madeleine (Seyrig), a union that leads to both sexual and political mayhem. Made in France at the height of 1960s anti-Americanism, Mr. Freedom mixes puppets, agitprop, comic books, pinpoint satire, and outlandish design with a political ferocity that would become Klein’s artistic signature.

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February 13 (Sunday) 9 pm

Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther

Directed by William Klein
France 1970, 35mm, color, 75 min.

While in Algiers to document the Pan-African Festival, Klein encountered Eldridge Cleaver, the exiled "Minister of Culture" of the Black Panthers. Over the course of three days and three nights, Klein filmed Cleaver indulging in drugs, fiddling with a menacing-looking knife, and presenting his plans for the overthrow of the U.S. government. The finished work is a wrenching piece of direct cinema, a too-close encounter with the rhetoric of revolution and the casualties of America’s struggles.

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February 25 (Friday) 7 pm;
February 26 (Saturday) 9:30 pm;
February 27 (Sunday) 6 pm

William Klein in Person for Friday & Saturday screenings

The Messiah

Directed by William Klein
France 1999, 35mm, color, 120 min.
American Premiere!

Set to the strains of Handel’s famous oratorio, Klein’s latest film presents a global view of humanity at the end of the millennium as it documents various performances of the ubiquitous choral piece. From the grotesque to the sublime, from the mundane to the tragic, Klein’s cast includes Texas prison inmates, a gay choir in Times Square, women boxers at the Taj Mahal, a drug rehab choir in Harlem, thousands of sobbing Promise Keepers in Detroit’s Superdome, several hundred wealthy arts patrons attired for Houston’s annual Hair Ball, and the Ministers of Muscle preaching the gospel across America.

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February 26 (Saturday) 7 pm (William Klein in Person)

In & Out of Fashion

Directed by William Klein
France 1994, 35mm, color, 85 min.

This montage film mixes excerpts from Klein’s feature films with imagery from his fashion photography, books, and paintings, and even includes rare footage he shot of Yves Saint Laurent’s very first runway show. The title suggests not only the centrality of fashion to Klein’s work, but also the shifts in taste that have by turns cast him in the spotlight or relegated him to the wings. Given the current revival of attention to nearly all aspects of his career, Klein’s now classic work remains very much in fashion.

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