This is an excerpt from the introduction to the author’s new book on Mr. Freedom (https://liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/books/isbn/9781800856943/).
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The film calls into question both the American international and domestic policy actions of its time and the entire narrative structure that made those actions possible in the American mind. In this, it partakes in a tradition as long as that of American arts and letters itself, one that uses satire and exaggeration to reflect on the excesses, foibles, and dangers of the stories we tell ourselves. The stories and novels of Mark Twain suggest themselves as obvious predecessors.
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In a brief announcement in 1989 of a screening of William Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1969), the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum noted that the film is “conceivably the most anti-American movie ever made.” It’s a forceful claim, presumably penned by a harried critic on short notice – the screening was to take place on the night of the day the announcement was published – but it serves nicely as a way to frame some of the vexing questions raised by the film. Is it indeed anti-American? If so, in what ways? Through what methods? And most importantly, what does it mean for a film to be anti-anything? The relationship between art and argument and politics is a complex one, and reduction in these matters seems always to hide more than it reveals.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that Mr. Freedom is a satire, and satires, like the irony on which they depend, are notoriously difficult to write about. They pile multiple layers of meaning onto a single story, image, or line of dialogue; the same density that makes them enjoyable for the viewer makes them perilous for the critic. This difficulty is deepened because the best satires are not simply negative or referential; they also incorporate original heroic or tragic elements. A purely referential parody like Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987) is in important ways incomprehensible for the viewer who hasn’t seen Star Wars (1977). Mr. Freedom, on the other hand, is a tragedy and a dystopic film in its own right as well as being a satire of American and British action, spy, adventure, and science fiction genres. Its full range of resonances may not be apparent to a viewer unfamiliar with the conventions of those movies, but its impact is not solely dependent on them. In this sense, it’s similar to something like Our Man Flint (1966) or even Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther series (1963-1978), which are built on genre references but also comprehensible as freestanding films. But to this Mr. Freedom adds a scathing rebuke – the critic Northrop Frye famously called satire “militant irony”1 – of the social and ideological foundations of the movies it parodies. In a sense almost every scene is doubled, serving as both a heroic narrative and a savage tearing-off of the pious masks that our heroic narratives often become.
Mr. Freedom tells the story of the titular American superhero, who travels to France in the wake of the uprisings in 1968 to try to help root out communism in that country. However, instead of finding a population open to his inducements, he finds one resistant to American interference in its affairs. This resistance makes him furious, and in the end, he decides that the country must be annihilated by nuclear weapons in order to be saved.
The film calls into question both the American international and domestic policy actions of its time and the entire narrative structure that made those actions possible in the American mind. In this, it partakes in a tradition as long as that of American arts and letters itself, one that uses satire and exaggeration to reflect on the excesses, foibles, and dangers of the stories we tell ourselves. The stories and novels of Mark Twain suggest themselves as obvious predecessors. In a less satirical, although equally culturally reflective way, so do works such as Melville’s Moby Dick or Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. The twentieth century is overflowing with American novels that desire not only to examine or critique American culture but also the narrative habits of that culture. These extend from the work of William Faulkner and Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony to a vibrant contemporary literature. There is also a distinct vein of fiction written in the 1960s and ’70s that satirizes American wars in general, including among many examples Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. To argue that these authors form some sort of homogeneous bloc, or are not interested in critiquing one another, would of course be ridiculous; in exactly the same way, it would be ridiculous to argue that their critiques, aimed at their country or its artworks, were “anti-American.”
It is instead precisely this critique and counter-critique – revolving in part around the question of what it means to be “American” – that constitutes a good deal of the foundation of American arts and letters. The debate is an infinitely complex one about the experiences of humans and groups, about ways to understand history, about how we ought to treat one another and why we do and don’t do this well, and about how these and uncountable other ideas, pains, triumphs, and sufferings make up some impenetrably nebulous notion of a nation. This is also a conversation, significantly, that involves not simply the content of our stories but also their modes of storytelling. Ellison modeled his novel on a classical, four-part structure and opens it with the image of the near-murder of a white passerby by the black narrator, laying down a metaphor that will undergird everything that follows. Heller’s novel opens with an act of enforced and capricious censorship (our hero is confined to a hospital bed and detailed to cut verboten passages from GIs’ letters home; among other things, he deletes everything but the prepositions and signs his name as Washington Irving) that sets the stage for the novel’s vision of the madness and contingency at the heart of the American war machine as well as the importance of linguistic control in that madness.
In the same way, the film world has a long tradition of putting paid to sacrosanct claims of American virtue and at the same time questioning the modes through which we tell stories about ourselves. This tradition is so long and deep as to produce innumerable examples; to pick a strand or two in the tangle, one has only to think of the quietly undercutting and double-edged vision of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and the way its most famous line, “This is the West, sir – when the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” arises out of a complex assessment of the roles of violence and virtue in the history of America and the American West. Indeed, the question of violence itself – heroic or tawdry, necessary or excessive? – looms large in a good deal of John Ford’s work, as it does in films like Shane (1953). As relates to the notion of masculinity – also a topic of Mr. Freedom’s satire – one has to think no further than the work of Douglas Sirk or Alfred Hitchcock to find films that might be termed “anti-America” by the right kind of outraged viewer. In terms of non-mainstream or Hollywood film, works as disparate as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978), Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope (1969), Samuel Fuller’s non-studio work, and a virtually uncountable number of horror films provide examples whose aim is at least in part to actively and often radically rearrange the viewer’s understanding of, and relationship to, the myths propounded by the culture around them.
Although this notion of an American tradition of artist critique may seem so capacious as to be almost non-definitional, it is important to remember that Mr. Freedom arises out of it, as well as out of particular trends and experiences – both artistic and historical – of the 1950s and ’60s, again because of the way in which satire operates. Part of the joy of satirical works is that when one watches them one is never simply watching a single narrative: one is, at the same time, being asked to examine all of the artistic and social geology on which that narrative rests. As that hoary old conservative T. S. Eliot might have noted, this kind of story becomes increasingly enjoyable and coherent the more one explores its references, in terms of both the elements being satirized and the ways in which the satire is functioning.
So to try to understand the context of a film like Mr. Freedom is to try to come to terms with at least some of the stories that it is about, as well as the stories in which it partakes; this is in addition to trying to understand the story that it actually tells, which is intimately engaged with the politics of its moment and the relationship of those politics to American history. Perhaps because Klein was also a highly talented photographer who worked in both the high-art and commercial fields, the film also engages in a complex dance with, and critique of, visual culture. All of these threads become elements of its satire; all of them are also elements of its art.
But it is also inescapably true that the film has been controversial since the moment it was released, and has repeatedly incurred exactly the kind of accusations of anti-Americanism that Rosembaum alluded to. It was first shown in the United States in New York City in March 1970, and immediately drew the ire of the reviewing class. Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, called it an “epically mindless parable” and was moved by the intensity of his displeasure to proclaim that “I hope that by some oversight I don’t make any of this sound amusing or thought-provoking. It isn’t.” Instead, he insisted that the film was “so witless that it could give anti-Americanism a bad name” and could only be imagined to appeal to “people who have abandoned thinking as a matter of principle.” Richard Cohen, writing at Women’s Wear Daily (one cannot help but wonder) explained that while Klein “works in a clean and direct style,” the film reminded him of nothing so much as “the kind of thing that sophisticated film-makers in China, say, might make in order to make a political point palatably to an illiterate peasant audience.”2 Jan Dawson noted in the Monthly Film Bulletin that “what could have been both entertaining and effective as a twenty-minute charade becomes merely embarrassing when protracted so far beyond its natural length.”3
Mindless, witless, embarrassing, bad for both the spirit of anti-Americanism and people who haven’t abandoned thinking, certainly neither amusing or thought-provoking, and aimed at something like an illiterate peasant audience. Certainly not something that should appeal to fine, upstanding, intellectually engaged Americans.
The outrage is enough to make one curious.
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Note: All images are screenshots from the film.
Mr. Freedom by Tyler Sage is published in the Constellations series (Auteur/Liverpool University Press) on June 1, 2022. Customers (outside North America) ordering direct from the LUP website can claim a 30% discount by using the code LUP30 (https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/books/id/55117/). North American customers can order via the OUP website and claim the discount with the code ADISTA5 (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/mr-freedom-9781800856943?lang=en&cc=us).