MOVIES | William Klein’s “Mr. Freedom”: A satirical showcase of American boobs (in both senses of the word)

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I wouldn’t be in my job if I didn’t take art seriously, and it would normally never occur to me to suggest that you partake of a psychoactive substance before attending a cultural event. I make an exception, however, for William Klein’s Mr. Freedom. It’s an important movie, and you should see it—but if you stroll down to Lyle’s and get a little lubricated before the show, it will numb the pain and you’ll get just as much out of it. Trust me.

The 1969 film is an over-the-top satire of U.S. political, military, and cultural imperialism. John Abbey plays the eponymous protagonist, by day a cop and by night a superhero in football pads who fights for the American way in the employ of a not-so-secret paramilitary force. The movie’s plot is barely comprehensible, but it basically involves Mr. Freedom being dispatched to Paris to save the French from a communist invasion masterminded by a stereotypical Russian and an inflatable Chinese dragon. In Mr. Freedom’s aid are a motley collection of (exclusively, and very pointedly, Caucasian) underground fighters who fall all over one another in a competition to be the most bigoted and xenophobic. In the process—this being, after all, a 1969 art film—several of the ultrasexualized women fall right out of their shirts. When you cast Serge Gainsbourg in a supporting role, that kind of thing is just going to happen.

mr. freedom, a film written and directed by william klein. playing may 15 at the walker art center, 1750 hennepin ave., minneapolis. for tickets ($8) and information, see walkerart.org.

The film unfolds as a parade of variably coherent set pieces, all of which viciously skewer what Klein portrays as America’s empty, destructive braggadocio. Visually, a couple of the scenes—notably Mr. Freedom’s battle with his French counterpart and his minions in their sterile striped lair—have a Kubrickian intensity, and will linger in your mind no matter how many two-for-ones you enjoyed beforehand.

Critic Jonathan Rosenbuam called Mr. Freedom “the most anti-American film ever made,” and he wasn’t exaggerating; Klein (an American who has lived, for most of his life, in France) is bitterly relentless in holding our feet to the fire. It’s disturbing how prescient the Vietnam-era Mr. Freedom seems in the wake of of the Bush Administration’s 21st century hubris—and it’s still relevant even in the Obama era. In Mr. Freedom‘s opening scene, the hero breaks into an African-American family’s dining room, delivers a thundering lecture on the American Way, and opens fire apropos of nothing but the color of the family’s skin. This weekend, I stopped at a Wisconsin gas station that was selling oversized stickers: illegal immigrant hunting permit—no limit. “Freedom,” it seems, is still armed and dangerous.

Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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