“He Don’t Believe in Anything” – Mr. Freedom

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To view Mr. Freedom click here.

There’s a scene in Arthur Miller’s American Clock, a lesser known and not very successful later work of his, where a father and son go to a government office during the Depression to try and get the son a work voucher since the father won’t let him live at home. The government worker doesn’t believe the son needs assistance because he doesn’t believe the father would keep his own son out of his house. As the father becomes more agitated, explaining that he, the father, makes only a tenth of a cent per sale at his job, the government worker asks, “So you won’t let him in the house?” “I won’t let him in my house!” the father screams, “He don’t believe in anything.” The father walks away and the son gets his voucher. I thought of this scene while watching Mr. Freedom (1969) and I may be the only person in history that thought of that scene while watching Mr. Freedom (hell, I might be the only person in history who’s actually seen both!). Mr. Freedom is the satire written and directed by William Klein that critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called “conceivably the most anti-American movie ever made” before also stating it was “hilarious.” Clearly, Mr. Rosenbaum and I have very different concepts of hilarity. But more importantly, is it the most anti-American movie ever made? Not really. Mainly, it’s just the most childish.

First, let me clarify something that I feel is important in writing opinion pieces for a blog such as this. Our purpose here is not to cheer on individual titles week in and week out but to express our views on the film or films in question and, hopefully, engender discussion. I’m not here to recommend movies to you, but discuss them. Now, I do recommend Mr. Freedom, but not for the reasons one might normally suspect. I recommend it in a sense that it is an important record of its time. A record of how independent movies were made, how they were presented and what passed for satire at the time. As a movie, I find it to be almost a complete failure. As a satire, it takes the obvious, wraps it in the predictable and then fires it off as a joke that a fourteen-year-old would probably pass on thinking, “No, that’s too easy.” It’s not that its humor misses the mark, it’s that the mark is far too easy to hit. Here’s the joke: America is a big bully that throws its weight around the world, preaching freedom and democracy while being blind to its own injustices. Got it? Good. Now repeat that for a little over an hour and a half and you’ve got Mr. Freedom. And whatever you do, don’t make the jokes clever. In fact, the less clever, the better. Just show the big American guy pushing everyone around and saying racist things and that should suffice.

Mr. Freedom himself is a big, burly man (John Abbey) who dresses up in a red, white and blue uniform with shoulder pads and a helmet and fights for freedom. He works for an organization that promotes freedom, headed up by Dr. Freedom (Donald Pleasence), and travels to France to stop Communists from taking it over. There he is aided by the wonderful Delphine Seyrig as Marie-Madeleine, fighting for the same organization. After an appallingly poorly staged opening sequence, in which Mr. Freedom terrorizes an apartment full of African-American looters during a riot, he shows up in France and gives a speech before a gathering of like-minded freedom fighters. The speech is all about how America believes in freedom and yet everything he does clearly runs counter to that, like pushing people around, stealing their stuff and shooting unarmed citizens. See? Get it? Get it?!? Surprisingly, given how many times Mr. Klein drives the point home, it would appear he thinks you don’t get it.

Within the same speech, Mr. Freedom talks about the differences between the two countries, America and France, concluding they are worth helping because “at least you’re white.” In a later scene, he complains to Marie that “foreigners and n******” are to blame for the problems in America. Here’s the thing: the jokes are so bad that despite the intention of them coming off as a precision pass thrown at America’s racism, they simply make the movie itself seem racist. How you fumble that football, Mr. Freedom, I couldn’t even begin to guess.

Yet, amazingly, in the middle of that speech there is a montage that predates the famous montage in The Parallax View (1974) by half a decade. As Mr. Freedom makes his statements about freedom, the movie shifts to a photo montage (Klein was a celebrated photographer before turning to film) that uses music and images to make the most pungent points of the film. It is entirely successful, for a couple of minutes, before returning to the drudgery of Mr. Freedom’s lowest possible hanging fruit jokes in the universe. Still, for those couple of minutes alone, the movie is important document of the power of the photo montage.

I suppose one of the most inadvertently humorous parts of the whole affair is the fact that William Klein was an American expatriate, living in France, making a movie mocking America’s supposed imperialist designs in Vietnam, a country whose disastrous mid to late 20th century history was almost entirely the fault of the colonialist French. However, from both watching the movie and reading interviews with Klein about the movie, it would appear, in all seriousness, that this was lost on him.

Which brings us to that American Clock reference I made at the top of the piece. Mr. Freedom is fascinating in many ways because it would seem that Mr. Klein has no belief in anything. He wants to mock America but doesn’t have a solid platform from which to launch said attack. As a result, it all just feels like empty mockery. The movie has the overwhelming tone of a teenager discovering for the first time in their life that America has done some bad things and saying so makes them seem a little cooler to their friends.

I don’t often recommend movies solely on their time capsule qualities, but this is one of those times. Mr. Freedom is a time capsule of anti-American sentiment of the late 1960s and a look at what independent film used to mean: low-budget, minimal sets, low level effects, etc. William Klein has a good eye and as a professional photographer he knew how to frame a shot. But his talent for satire was limited, severely limited. Satirizing Americanism is an easy target but it can be done well (The Americanization of Emily [1964], Dr. Strangelove [1964], Being There [1979], Robocop [1987]), making Mr. Freedom all the more frustrating for its infantile jokes and a myriad of missed opportunities.

Greg Ferrara

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