Saturday, September 27, 2008

'Mr. Freedom'

Somewhere in America, a lone sheriff drives through a city on fire, riots, deployed National Guardsmen and mass arrests of blacks. He lets himself into his office, sloppily eats a sandwich, drinks a Colt 45, adjusts his cowboy hat and seems to be wondering what to do next.

Drawing aside a massive wall-sized flag, he reveals a hidden chamber where he changes into his other uniform: American flag pants, weightlifting belt, football shoulder pads, a catcher's mask and hockey gloves and, of course, a gun. Later, he'll even wear a fighter pilot's helmet. He is Mr. Freedom.

His first order of business requires shooting several black people who have looted while the city is ablaze. The ones he does not shoot, he tries to convert by singing a song about why he's shooting them. He's shooting them for freedom. Before he can finish, a call comes over his watch communicator. It's Dr. Freedom. He needs Mr. Freedom right away.

Dr. Freedom works for Freedom Inc., on the 25th story of a large city building. It isn't the only company in the building, though. Judging by the menu of floors on the elevator, these companies also rent space:
11 - Texaco
13 - Shell
15 - Aramco
17 - General Motors
19 - Standard Oil
21 - United Fruit
23 - Unilever
The elevator locks down once Mr. Freedom enters it. Dr. Freedom's face, lights and music bombard him. The tautologies fly. "The world is divided in two parts. On the one side is right, and on the other side is wrong," Dr. Freedom says. "Right is red, white and blue. Right is might and right is—"

"Freedom!" shouts, Mr. Freedom. The Doctor approves. "Yes, sir. Our Freedom."

New York-born expatriate filmmaker William Klein made Mr. Freedom in France in 1969, but if it proves anything, it's that political banality and hypocrisy are immutable and immortal. Oddly, though it ridicules the emptiness and malevolence of American rhetoric (for example: Mr. Freedom delivers a speech about freedom while blithely hurling an innocent worker off a balcony), it is the rhetoric that seems most resonant. The plot itself takes a backseat to the authenticity and timelessness of the film's language.

In brief: Paris, 1968, is a hotbed of socialism and red communism. While it's not important that "we" have France, it's important that The Reds (championed by Moujik Man) and the Red Chinese (championed by Red Chinaman, a giant inflatable dragon) don't get their hands on it. As France goes, so goes Europe. Recently, someone murdered Mr. Formidable, France's last bulwark against the commies. Thus, Dr. Freedom (Donald Pleasance) dispatches Mr. Freedom (John Abbey) to save the French again. The French, as he points out, haven't been able to stand on their own two feet since Napoleon, and he was Corsican anyway. While trying to rescue the country, Mr. Freedom beds Mr. Formidable's beautiful assistant, Marie-Madeleine (Delphine Seyrig), locks horns with the Soviets, Chinese and French radicals and murders a lot of people without a second thought.

The first half of the film exceeds expectations. Some satires are so serious about setting up all their straw men that they forget to be funny. Others want to persuade without giving offense and instead give the audience nothing to engage. Mr. Freedom avoids both pitfalls, delivering both goofy comedy and acid commentary. In one scene, Mr. Freedom barks into a telephone:
Mr. Freedom: Ja! Nein! Ja! Nein! Ja! Nein! Ja!
Marie-Madeleine: (cooing) You speak German.
In the next, he delivers a cliché-choked speech at something halfway between a Nuremberg rally and a pep rally, telling the French, "There are only two threats. Your own Stendhal understood this. The red and the black."

Other scenes wonderfully mix sight gags, broad humor and castigation of the United States. A short film of what The Land of Freedom is all about is pretty much just a series of commercials and magazine ads interspersed with periodic images of riots, fires, bloodied protestors and United States soldiers dragging a Vietnamese person around, tied to a rope to the back of their jeep. Later, Mr. Freedom visits the U.S. embassy, revealing it to be a giant department store selling enormous, choking quantities of food and staffed exclusively by blonde bimbos in sneakers.

Unfortunately, like a lot of satires, Mr. Freedom loses steam about halfway through. A long sequence in Marie-Madeleine's bedroom brings the film's pace to a screeching halt while delivering few laughs and muddying the intellectual waters. Mr. Freedom develops stigmata; Marie-Madeleine has a giant portrait of Hitler in her apartment. Although amusingly perverse, it doesn't make much sense. As is also the case with many satires, the alienating and cruel ending can be seen a ways off and scraps most of the comedy for social horror. It isn't comical so much as it is inevitable.

Other problems drag the film down somewhat. Most of the dialogue sounds like it has been looped and not particularly well. Perhaps some of the actors spoke in French and were overdubbed, but many of them clearly speak in English, just one or two seconds behind their mouth movements. Jump cuts plague other scenes, and don't appear to have been made as part of a stylistic point. Some critics have panned the broad, hammy acting and cornball potboiler dialogue, but both of these features enhance the comedy and the sense of unreality pervading the social and geopolitical positions advocated.

The movie can be enjoyed just for its dialogue alone, however inexpertly recorded. Anyone who's paid attention to the last seven years of rhetoric in Washington will immediately recognize the aggressive, Manichean worldview, the bullying and myopathy, the cruel stupidity:
"You want peace. We want peace. But your leaders do not want peace."

"They're bastards. Ungrateful, treacherous... different. You can't imagine what they're like."

"We shall not give in to threats or to aggression. We shall attack."

"You with me, or you against me?"
While the film, like many satires, doesn't succeed from start to finish, its first half is so winning, so manically funny and so freely critical that it engenders enough goodwill for the second half. The production values might leave something to be desired, but its attitude and arguments hit all their marks fluidly.

Forty years later, this movie shouldn't still be a spot-on condemnation of current American foreign policy, unchecked imperialism and contempt for the vast majority of the globe. What stands as a credit to the movie indicts the United States and four decades of lessons unlearned.