American expatriate filmmaker William Klein’s work shows a wide and eclectic range. He started as a photographer before making his way into motion pictures, both fiction and nonfiction.
Pacific Film Archive is presenting a retrospective of his work, “Top Bill: The Films of William Klein,” starting Friday and running through Oct. 11.
Klein is perhaps best known in the mainstream film world for his documentary, Muhammad Ali, the Greatest (1974), which screens Friday night at 6:30 p.m., and for The Little Richard Story (1980), showing Sept. 24.
But most of Klein’s work has been in a more avant-garde vein. His first fiction film, Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966), shows Saturday at 8:40 p.m. and follows the seemingly meteoric rise of a young Brooklyn-born model, an average freckle-faced girl who ascends to the top of the European fashion world. Klein had done time in that world as a fashion photographer, and here he turns his camera around to reveal a blistering portrait of a vacuous, image-obsessed culture. Polly is essentially what she has always been, a simple girl, youthful, callow and naive, but through the magic of makeup, wigs and a loving lens she is transformed into a goddess, an icon, a harbinger of a youth movement that she is only dimly aware of and that may not really exist anyway.
Klein captures the phenomenon from all angles, from the media-created cultural movement that Polly is said to represent, to the political ramifications of that cultural shift, and the simpler, more primal level of love and sex and fantasy, as Polly is essentially reduced to a static, seamless sex object, a blank slate of penetrating gazes, parted lips and kinky costumes upon which men can project their seediest desires.
Klein followed with more stinging satires, including Mr. Freedom (1969), showing Sept. 19, and The Model Couple (1977), screening Oct. 10.