Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Mr. Freedom

Director: William Klein
Viewed from: The Balcony (International House Philadelphia)

Is Donald Trump really Mr. Freedom (John Abbey), a comic-book live-action superhero entrusted to "save" the French from the Red Menace of China and Russia in 1969? Take away about forty years, put him in the gym for a few months, squint, and just maybe...

No, not really, but the America currently supporting Trump is the America parodied in the film Mr. Freedom, a wild, gonzo avant la lettre, art-house trip of a provocation that lands all the right blows, if only a few decades in advance of their target. What likely looked to 1969 audiences as an art troupe run amok with occasional slapdash and unsophisticated politics now looks like a dead-on satire of American ignorance and obsession with sex, violence, and the repression of women and non-white men. Those in 1969 had good reason to oppose a number of both foreign and domestic policies, but at least the Americans who supported policies in Vietnam and America did so because they believed in the goodness and decency of their leaders. It's hard to believe that anything so noble is motivating Trump backers today.

Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1991 called Mr. Freedom "conceivably the most anti-American movie ever made," and I'm not sure what it means in 2016 then to champion its relevance. Maybe I don't want to know. But here is the case:

Mr. Freedom (seen above) is the alter-ego of a "Sheriff", who we only see briefly in police attire. His first job, however, is to spread freedom to African-Americans, and so we seem him (amidst the backdrop of screeching sirens) burst into a party, jump on the table of a black family, and demand they embrace American freedom or suffer the consequences. Firing two pistols, he manages only to wound one African-American man who protests his authority.

The repression of internal threats seemingly assured, Mr. Freedom is sent to France by a shadowy figure named...Dr. Freedom (a creepy Donald Pleasance, letting loose a monster far scarier than Michael Myers). The job is simple: avenge the death of France's own great superhero - Captain Formidable - and save the French from two competing monsters: Moujik Man and Red Chinaman, both played in absurd costumes needed to be seen to be believed (lots of great stills can be found here). There is also Super Frenchman, probably one of the most delightful characters I've seen, surrounded by hilarious little henchman (left) who must have been a joy to design. If nothing else, this is a brilliant use of an artist sensibility in film; a lot of work went into making what looks like a very cheap film.

The plot from here devolves into a brutally violent war whereby American aggression ultimately undermines not only the French, but Mr. Freedom himself. An obvious parable of Vietnam and Cold War hysterics, it seems equally apt for the Age of Terror and the American adventurism of the 2000s. Though most of the violence is rendered in comic and absurd fashion, there is at least one scene - a kind of violence training that for some reason recalled Anthony Quinn's gladiator combat scenes from Barabbas - where the actors "practice" rapes and murders and the response moves from comic to disturbing. There is also a guy who when I saw him, about thirty minutes in, I thought to myself "hey, he kinda looks like the guy who played Serge Gainsbourg in that movie," This guy turns out to be none other than Serge Gainsbourg, who not only stars as one of the French leaders of freedom but also contributed to the score.

Against the backdrop of this is a constant echoing of "freedom," a word repeated so often in the film that it looses all meaning (and by this I mean like 15 minutes in). Like maybe hearing that America will be "great again." Backers of Mr. Freedom are even offered limited time shares and branded "Freedom" gear (see Freedom Spray at right) to garner their support. All that's needed is complete submission to authority and a willingness to commit murder and rape. And although Mr. Freedom is all bombast and excitement, it turns out his outward aggression and bullying are actual reflections of his own deep insecurities. When not insulting others, he's easily wounded and petulant.

Still not convinced that Klein knew someone like Trump was coming (it can be argued, also, that Ronald Regan actually makes a better Mr. Freedom). The Donald may talk about limited intervention now, but does anyone really doubt that he wouldn't direct the country to war on even the slightest pretense if he thought it would boost his standing?

Of course, the idea that America would let itself be run by a fool is not new. Sinclair Lewis gave us Buzz Windrip in It Can't Happen Here (1935) and David Foster Wallace's Johnny Gentle showed how easily America might be captured by a celebrity politician. But there's nothing quite like seeing the rally posted below to understand how it's possible for one of the two major parties to possibly elect a self-aggrandizing fool. (Incidentally, the montage beginning at about 4:48 says more in a few minutes about the triumph of American "civilization" over nature than ten slogs through The Revenant).

Here it must be said that if the clip didn't resonate, it may be because you watched it by yourself. And most people who have seen Mr. Freedom I'm guessing have seen it on video. And I can understand those who might critique its absurdist plot or unrelenting satire; parts of the movie (especially Moujik Man) are damn near impossible to hear or understand, and there is little in the way of actual drama to keep a viewer invested. But with a group, man is this stuff fun to see. The International House, just a few blocks from the University of Pennsylvania and the People's Republic of West Philadelphia, included a very raucous audience happy to see their own frustrations with the country presented in such a clear-sighted manner.

In many ways, for many people (not the least those not white and not men and not hetero-normative) America does often seem like a big bullying bastard dressed in sporting gear who laughs away his violence and repression. Mr. Freedom is the very dark side of Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy, a big rich white man who just wants to play golf and be left alone. It's not just that today Americans make mistakes in foreign and domestic policy - perhaps a plausible argument for the policies of the 1960s - it's that the decisions are not being made by serious people but by hypocritical caricatures. Those who dismissed Mr. Freedom in 1970 as "epically mindless" might have had good reason to do so in an era when people in the Senate were nice to each other and even the biggest bad guys had long careers in public service and operated publicly within the bounds of good taste and decorum. No one I'm sure could have envisioned an outwardly aggressive thrice-married real estate mogul with a crazy haircut and numerous public tawdry affairs as a statesmen.

But William Klein might have had a sense that all that seeming seriousness of politics was a cover for the basic hypocrisy of an American leadership who really did want to simply shout freedom so they could watch sports, ogle women (if not outright rape them or buy them), commit violence against those who cannot protect themselves, and make a steady profit off of it to boot. As Paul Krugman pointed out, Trump's cons are really just poorly spun cons that have been in place for years (and many would say since the country's inception). And if you truly believe that this is all there is to America, that Mr. Freedom is America, then you really are anti-American (and should be!).

But satire is not reality, and for everyone who might show up at a Mr. Freedom rally, there are dozens who would condemn it. If there is a fault in Klein's work, it is that while he does show a Trumplike figure in Mr. Freedom, he doesn't bother to show the multitudes who would oppose him. While there was a Vietnam prosecuted by Americans, there were also Americans who worked to end it, and all but a small minority today view it a blemish on American history. As long as there are people still laughing and resisting this kind of stuff, Klein might need to be reminded, there is also an opposition to the America of Mr. Freedom. We'll find out if there really is in a few months time.

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