"He is a super-American," says dapper young professor Finlay Campbell after Cassius Clay's cocksure, smart-alecky press conference. It's 1964, and the 22-year-old Clay has just defeated Sonny Liston, heretofore the Heavyweight Champion of the World. "Using the technique of PR, where you can transform something which seems nothing into the most desirable object available, and doing it on his own, he has fulfilled Madison Avenue at its best. Or worst." But Campbell knows that more is at stake than merely a boxing title. Unfettered and infectious, Clay's bravado threatens the already creaky social order. The Louisville Syndicate, the whiskey-pickled cracker barrel of rich, old, white Southerners who financed Clay, aren't too comfortable with this new Negro with ego. But the generous return on investment has kept them quiet. "Cassius Clay beat them," exults Campbell. "Beat them at their own game. He is the independent hipster. The jazzman turned boxer. That is Cassius Clay."
This is a central argument of William Klein's fleet-footed documentary portrait, Muhammad Ali, the Greatest 1964-74that the rise of Ali's stardom and African American political consciousness are tightly intertwined. Malcolm X, interviewed only two weeks before his assassination, explains the threat more bluntly. "If people started identifying with Cassius," he says, "there'd be Negroes running around everywhere saying, 'I am the greatest.' " After Clay's victory, Klein's camera follows black children reciting "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," sly Harlem drama students acting out his TV interviews, and a minister incorporating boxing news into his sermon. A former fashion photographer, Klein is obsessed with the power of the media image.
Fight footage is kept to a minimum; in this film, the boxer's best one-two's don't hit inside the ring. Clay's ingenious hype-baiting moxie drives the first half, cut to a nouvelle pop beat. He launches zingers amid flashbulb firestorms, rubbernecking cameramen, and nests of snippet-horny microphones. Pre-Liston, Clay wags a Teddy Roosevelt-sized stick, mock-threatening his opponent with a dose of pre-show whup-ass, ensconced within a gaggle of delighted pressmen. "I am the biggest thing in history! I'm a baaad man!" he crows, laying out boasts brazen enough to make Mike Fink blush. Like Nixon versus Kennedy, Liston's no match for Clay; he mumbles into the mic and poses stiffly for cameras. After the match, Clay joshes around with the Fab Four for a photo op. "The Beatles want my autograph!" he whoops.
Unlike Leon Gast's When We Were Kings, Klein's film does not reconstruct a historical moment from multiple sources. The only feed is Klein's own camera; the moment is always Now. Klein's structure is a song of innocence (Clay's earliest fights in 1964 and subsequent conversion to Islam, shot in mod monochrome) and experience (1974's "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman in Mobutu's Zaire, shot in blazing, tropical color). The first half is tight and lean, but Klein's eye wanders in Africa, entranced by chanting armies of child revolutionaries, street carnivals, and Mobutu himselfthe best-dressed dictator since Mussolini. Drunk on color, Klein veers toward surrealism. One of the most insane images is a Zairean state broadcast, filmed off a TV: Mobutu's disembodied head slowly grows to fill the screen, superimposed upon an image of clouds in the sky, set to drumbeats and melodic chants of his name.
Though New York-born, filmmaker-photographer Klein has lived in France since the '40s. A politically sharp Franco-American frisson pervades his only two features: Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966), a wacky pop existentialist fantasy set in the Paris fashion world, starring real-life American model Dorothy McGowan, and Mister Freedom (1969), a bizarre Krofft Superstars-meets-SDS Cold War superhero allegory whose actors include Donald Pleasence, Delphine Seyrig, and Serge Gainsbourg. The latter spoof is timely: American superhero Mister Freedom is sent to France to squelch Communist supervillains Moujik Man and Red China Man, as well as "anti-Freedom" forces. "Everything that I have destroyed, I will rebuild better than before!" Mister Freedom promisesright before he nukes Paris.
A grittier residue of '60s pop surrealism erupts in the works of Wheeler Winston Dixon. Though he's best known today as a scholarhis 1997 book The Exploding Eye provides a who's who of 1960s experimentalistsDixon's short films of the '70s and '80s are themselves visual catalogs of underground techniques: snarky Bruce Conner-ish montage, psychoactive Conrad/Sharits flicker effects, and Mekasian home-movie diaries. The distinctive Dixon kick comes from witty edits to far-out music. His loopy Americana remix Serial Metaphysics (1984-86) grooves to an increasingly trippy reverb and teen portrait The DC5 Memorial Film (1969) prowls through Charles Ives, while the magnificent acid-structuralist London Clouds (1986) rocks to a Henri Pousser electronic psych-out. The rich filmic collapse of personal memory into cultural history is summed up at the end of A Quick Constant and Solid Instant (1969), a Fluxus performance set to a Gerard Malanga poetry reading. "It will take you a long time," intones Malanga, "to understand why I wrote poems for you."
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.