Friendly Witnesses 

William Klein's films cover 20th-century pop-cultural upheaval. The Baader Meinhof Complex busts heads and assassinates pols. Choose your weapon.

William Klein's name may not be instantly recognizable, but his images are. The New York City native, a painter turned photographer, first set up shop in Paris as an ex-GI after WWII but soon perfected the transatlantic shuffle. When the 1960s exploded, Klein was already famous in New York as a photographer of fashion and documentary, and his Parisian address turned out to be an ideal vantage point from which to witness the era's culture wars.

Klein's photography was never as well known as that of Robert Frank, but it shares with Frank (The Americans) a taste for eye-popping candor, a vividly social context, and an affinity for the outsider that tickled European preconceptions while providing stateside hipsters with a thrill of recognition. His instinct for uncovering America's obsessions — race, celebrity, money and the lack of it — dovetailed nicely with France's love-hate for the America it thought it knew. Klein's move from still photography to filmmaking was as natural, but also as studied, as a Cassius Clay right cross.

Good luck trying to draw a thematic circle around Klein's subjects. One minute his camera is tiptoeing through a gaggle of outlandishly dressed models posed in a French barn, the next it's floating through Hollywood in a convertible loaded with Little Richard impersonators. For its twelve-title retrospective of Klein's work, Top Bill: The Films of William Klein, curated by Steve Seid and featuring prints from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Pacific Film Archive samples the full range.

The pick of Klein's narrative fictions is probably The Model Couple (1976), a none-too-subtle satire of social engineering and marketing research in which two newlyweds (André Dussolier and Anemone) volunteer to spend six months in a government-sponsored "happiness capsule" where a team of sinister technicians studies their every move. Liberally sprinkled with shards of Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Downey Sr. (especially Putney Swope), the concept dwindles in the last quarter but fares better than Klein's 1969 farce Mr. Freedom, another not-quite-hilarious critique of overbearing Americanism, starring John Abbey as a red-white-and-blue anticommunist crusader in Paris. The latter plays September 19, The Model Couple on October 10.

Klein had a highly developed eye for the fashion demimonde, but with a dollop of grime in one corner. His first feature film, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), channels Richard Lester and Richard Avedon in the story of an American runway model (Dorothy MacGowan) trying to convince herself, in vain, that the haute-couture life is glamorous. Klein's black-and-white images certainly are. It screens September 12.

Klein's earliest films were documentaries, and it's in that sphere, free-associating with pitch-perfect editing and his gorgeous, intimate camera work (Klein shot all of his own films), that he hits his stride. If he had made no other films than Muhammad Ali, the Greatest (1974), Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970), and 1980's The Little Richard Story, Klein would rank as one of the most perceptive pop-cultural documentarians of his day.

The hook in The Little Richard Story is that Klein had no access to his subject — the rock 'n' rolling "Georgia Peach" failed to show up for Little Richard Day in his hometown of Macon, even though they had decorated a public park for him. Undeterred, Klein and his crew trolled the streets for local color and discovered what everybody likes about the South: sidewalk blues singers, shotgun shacks, etc. He cut that together with a Little Richard impersonation contest plus raucous concert footage of Richard Penniman himself, and presto! Party time. It plays September 24.

The Ali film is something of a legend. Alongside Leon Gast's When We Were Kings, it captures the essence of Ali's appeal, from his 1964 title fight (as brash, trash-talking Cassius Clay) against scowling Sonny Liston, all the way to the "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974 versus George Foreman, Ali's magnificent comeback amid hordes of African kids chanting "Ali, boma ye!" (Kill him, Ali!). Four years before, Klein scored a coup by going to Algiers to interview American fugitive revolutionary Eldridge "Soul on Ice" Cleaver as he strolled through the medina — Klein then placed that Q&A into a montage of the Black Panthers' greatest hits. Ali the boxer, Cleaver the agitator, and Little Richard the screaming queen — three faces of Black America that scared the hell out of the establishment in the 1960s and 1970s. Klein captured that heat for all time. Muhammad Ali opens the PFA retro on September 11; the Cleaver doc shows September 18. Go to for details.

In the summer of 1972, I was traveling in a dilapidated Volkswagen van with four other scruffy, long-haired companions, on our way from Amsterdam to Cologne. A few kilometers into West Germany after the border crossing near Aachen, we were stopped by a squad of German polizei with automatic weapons, who pulled us over to stand for a frisk while they searched the van. The man in charge was an American in civilian clothes who looked exactly like Gomer Pyle. When asked why we were being stopped, he mumbled something noncommittal and then, after his men had found nothing interesting, let us continue our trip. It was only after we had met up with our friends in Cologne that we realized what the fuss was about. "Don't you read the news?" our incredulous German buddies asked. "They were looking for the Baader Meinhof gang."

Indeed, many Americans then and now will have a hard time placing Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and their comrades in a meaningful context. Which is why, despite its dramatic failings, filmmaker Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex arrives in Bay Area art houses as a useful tool, a history lesson in a box, on a moment in time when actual revolution seemed not only possible but in some cases likely, in parts of Western Europe and the United States.

Frustrated politicos of the bread-not-bombs school might be tempted to read the film — adapted by Edel and Bernd Eichinger from Stefan Aust's book — as an instructional parable. We see how journalist Meinhof (nice job by actor Martina Gedeck), a married mother, moved from the sidelines to the forefront of violent resistance against what she saw as US-led Western imperialism, alongside hotheaded Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and blond lefty-Valkyrie Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), who robbed banks, planted bombs, shot capitalists, and inspired "second- and third-generation" adherents to do the same, circa 1970-1980. Edel's account runs us through the events so briskly that we end up wondering what it all meant.


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