“I’m Disillusioned All the Time”: William Klein on His Legendary Film Career

On the occasion of his retrospective at Quad Cinema, Klein talks about his movies, becoming a Parisian, and fascism in the US.

William Klein, Far from Vietnam (1967) (all images courtesy Quad Cinema)

The photographer-filmmaker William Klein, a New Yorker who became Parisian without hesitation, is a living legend. While the film critic Serge Daney wrote about movies watching their audiences, Klein’s images — most famously, those from his classic street photography book Life Is Good (and Good For You) in New York (1956) — are snapshots from the precipice of modernism, looking back at the viewer with hyperreal clarity. This week, Quad Cinema is hosting The Eyes of William Klein, a nearly complete retrospective of the expatriate firebrand’s moving-image works, as well as short films and documentaries on Klein’s career.

Watching Klein’s body of work decades later, it still refuses its viewers a safe remove. With works like the omnibus film Far From Vietnam and Mr. Freedom, a live-action cartoon of Vietnam-era jingoism, Klein’s journalistic impulses were animated by an insatiable skepticism towards the United States. Moving or still, Klein used film to interrogate the core 20th-century processes of consumption and image distribution, not once feigning an objective journalistic perspective. Even his debut short film Broadway By Light — a collaboration with Alain Resnais, with whom Klein would again work on Far From Vietnam — paints the billowing electric glow of 1950s Times Square with the ominousness of eerie science fiction. Muhammad Ali: The Greatest immediately shreds the traditional sports-doc template by introducing the 22-year-old prizefighter Cassius Clay, followed by a long-tracking shot that profiles the 11 (white, rich) Kentucky businessmen who invested in his boxing career at the time.

Speaking over the phone (with a twinge of Cary Grant in his European-accented New York accent) from his Paris apartment, Klein is every bit as caustic as I’d been led to believe. Then again, I can’t dismiss the 89-year-old interviewee’s constant admonitions of “so what?” and “what about it?” as outright as I’d like, for these are indeed questions every critic should be asking themselves; Klein’s images have always spoken best for themselves anyway.

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William Klein, Muhammad Ali, The Greatest (1969)

Steve Macfarlane: This is your first New York retrospective in many years —

William Klein: In 1990 I had one at Film Forum! I’ve had them all over the fucking place. Do you know what you’re saying?

SM: Let’s talk about Broadway By Light. The decision, in 1958, to switch from shooting still photography to a color, avant-garde film…

WK: How can it be radical? It’s a film about Times Square. Still, photography and color film photography are two different things, so of course there’s a relationship — one leads to the other. Listen, you know what I do, you know my photos, so what is there to talk about? One day you do a still, one day you’re shooting moving images. What’s the big deal?

SM: Well, was there something about that kind of electric light you couldn’t capture with photography?

WK: Oh, come on. I just made it. What are you talking about?

SM: I’m trying to ask you about your life…

WK: My life? I don’t know what you’re saying. Who the fuck are you?

SM: I’m a big fan.

WK: So why are you asking such stupid questions?

SM: It’s the best way to collect context. Can I try again? You’ve always been your own cameraman, instead of commanding a massive crew…

WK: It varies from project to project. But if you’re doing a documentary, you don’t want somebody else on that front line — reacting to reality. So, I film what I see, and then I put it together. That’s it.

SM: Tell me about your antipathy towards New York City — a town you once described as “Hicksville.”

WK: I’m disillusioned all the time. When I showed the photographs from Life Is Good and Good For You to my American editors, none of them wanted to publish it — they said, “You make New York look like a slum”; I said, “New York is a slum.” They didn’t go to the Bronx or to Queens; they went from Sixth Avenue to Madison Avenue. They thought my photographs were anti-American, but what did they know about New York — about life, in general? The French had a much different take, both on photography and publishing.

SM: Why do you think that is?

WK: They didn’t know America as well back then as they might now. They were actually very happy to see a book of photographs critical of life in America.

My father was a real Death of a Salesman type — he lost all his money in the Great Depression. He said to me: “Why are you living in France? This is the greatest city in the world!” He never realized he wasn’t living the life that he could have. I had found that life in Paris was much more palatable — none of the bullshit my father was feeding me, about how America was the greatest country in the world and all that. When you see Trump carrying on the way he does, you must think there’s something wrong.

William Klein, Mode in France (1984)

SM: Were you in a hurry to leave the US?

WK: I left because I was in the Army: I was working for the Occupation in Germany. Mr. Freedom was a fantasy of a superhero — I thought all the films about superheroes were unclear as to why these people were doing what they do. Who shelters and finances them? I thought I would make it clear that Mr. Freedom comes to clean up France, a hotbed of revolution and leftist movements. In the process, he destroys half the country. Mr. Freedom is not a hero, he’s a fascist! The film is a joke! You have a Mr. Freedom in the White House right now. All he has to say is: “We’re strong, we do what we want, and if nobody likes it, fuck them.”

SM: Was there ever a time you did not see the US as fascist?

WK: Well, I remember Sunday, the 7th of December, hearing on the radio that the Japanese had bombarded the Americans in Pearl Harbor. I got off my bed and started doing push-ups in my living room!

SM: By your lights, why are Americans still willing to believe they live in the best country on earth?

WK: Because there’s a lot of bullshit going on. Americans hear all the chest-thumping and they think it’s true. All you need to do is take the subway. I said in the book, New York is the capital of anguish — and I still think so! It’s a fine city, but you have to be rich.

SM: Back to the street photos. You never tried to hide your role as interloper.

WK: Well, photographs can be critical, but I never made a big deal of taking mine, and people didn’t take it as an affront — I used my wide-angle lens and printed them in a very violent way, and the book came out to be pretty violent. I just saw it like an American.

SM: Tell me about making these “reactions” into fiction. How do the practices influence each other?

William Klein, Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966)

WK: They just do. I film what’s happening or I invent it — that’s it. With Polly Magoo I made fun of the fashion industry, with a coutelier in the opening inspired by Yves Saint Laurent. My coutelier’s dresses were made of aluminum, and the dressmaker Paco Rabanne copied the idea.

SM: Did you always have a jaundiced eye towards the fashion industry?

WK: Well, if it sells, they’ll do anything. I took fashion photographs and documentary photographs — I was actually pissed off because when I started to sell, I found collectors would buy my fashion photographs much more easily than the documentary ones. What can I do?

SM: I’m excited the Quad is showing your less well-known work about 1968, Grand Soirs and Petit Matins (May Days).

WK: In French, the title Grand Soir “the revolution” and Petit Matins — “the hangover” — allowed me to show what was happening. I was very sympathetic to the students, but critical of fantasy. The students who occupied the Sorbonne wanted to make a real revolution but they never got anywhere. They were in the process of upturning their government, and they almost succeeded. But I was skeptical over the idea of a student revolution becoming a general one, because I saw what was happening. In France, the universities work in a way that’s not like they work in America — the professors have their lectures, they’re photocopied, students can buy them for a few francs, and there can never be any discussion between the lecturers and the students. The French system of university was very reactionary — when you talk about Daniel Cohn-Bendit, you have to know that his 22nd of March movement wanted the students to have a say in the running of the university, and that’s how the movement started. It became a national thing; general movements followed. I filmed the events day by day, and the film was edited in six months.

SM: I had read about it being four hours, originally — the Quad cut is just over an hour and a half.

WK: Well, listen: life goes on. You do one thing, then you do another. Maybe the original was four hours, and there’s another, shorter version that’s more useful — okay?

William Klein, Grand Soirs et Petit Matins (May Days) (1978)

SM: Godard, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Muhammad Ali, Eldridge Cleaver — did your political activity in France cost you any friends or clients back on Madison Avenue?

WK: No. My activities are all on screen. I did what I wanted to. I never had any problems with censorship. My style is my style.

SM: Tell me about your relationship with Muhammad Ali. I consider Muhammad Ali: The Greatest the greatest sports documentary of all time.

WK: I met him, we became friends, I followed him in 1964, 1974, and 1984. I filmed him — no mystery. Life goes on. I filmed him the night that he won against Sonny Liston. After the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali’s friend and trainer, Bundini Brown, told me: Ali had visited the poorest slums of Kinshasa, in the Congo, expecting to be applauded — but a lot of guys there said, “Fuck you Ali – you made me lose $150!” (laughs)

He died at 74, and I had plans to visit him at 75, so I could give him a kiss. He was indeed the greatest of all time but, in the end, it didn’t help him too much.

SM: That scene of him visiting the slums is a major moment in Michael Mann’s Ali, which I understand was a major inspiration for certain sequences in your film.

WK: Yeah, I saw it. Will Smith was very convincing in the action parts of the film, but there was something wrong: they wanted to show Ali as conflicted, feeling negative, so Smith always has the corners of his mouth turned down. But Ali wasn’t that way — he was a joker, always ready to come back with a one-liner.

SM: Back to Broadway By Light

WK: Most people didn’t think it was worthwhile to do it. The first thing people photograph when they come to New York is the lights on Broadway, even today — so it’s part of the big attraction. My first photographs were also abstracts.

SM: In the short documentary Contacts, you break down row after row of near-misses, shots you don’t consider to be worthy of the word “photograph,” and the few that make the cut. Now, cameras are everywhere…

William Klein, Contacts (2008)

WK: Last week I was in Tokyo, and my assistants were taking more photographs than I do — everyone around me has iPhones, but I don’t. But I have a deal with Sony, so I was shooting on their new camera. I used to work with Leica, now I’m with them.

SM: What are you shooting?

WK: The streets. Everything. You know, my 1961 book on Tokyo was sponsored by Fuji and Nikon, and Fuji film was so bad, I had to tell them, in meetings, I couldn’t use their film anymore. I would go to the PHX in Tokyo and buy Kodak film, which was much better. But now, Sony has a really good automatic camera, and I had to go with it.

SM: Has all this tech made people into better photographers?

WK: You know Robert Capa? ‘Capa’ is a name he dreamed up — it’s Hungarian, it means, “the shark.” He told me, “The trouble with the photographs that people take is, they’re not close enough.” The closer you get, the better the photograph will be — and by instinct, I always moved in close. Anyhow, I think we’ve had it.

The Eyes of William Klein continues at the Quad Cinema through Tuesday, March 13. Check the Quad Cinema website for showtimes. 

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