PRINT Summer 2001


William Klein

“I DREAMED I WAS PLAYING Handel's Messiah,” a temporarily overworked cellist told me one Christmas, “and then I woke up and it was true!” Handel's musical depiction of the passion and resurrection of Christ has provided seasonal employment for musicians since its premiere in 1742. Even in our impious times it remains well loved. But if it's not religious fervor that brings audiences to their feet for the Hallelujah chorus, what is it? Photographer William Klein's 1999 film Messiah—which only recently received its American debut, at New York's Florence Gould Hall—can be taken as a stab at this question, investigated by means of a direct confrontation between Handel's oratorio and images of late-modern life in such disparate places as New York, Las Vegas, Paris, and Jakarta.

These documentary images are cut into the backbone of the film, an excellent full-length performance by soloists, chorus, and period-instrument orchestra conducted by Marc Minkowski. Along with standard concert-film footage of singers vocalizing and violinists sawing away, Klein gives us close-ups of the soloists, alternately beautiful and grotesque (the facial effort required to project the meaning of the words isn't always pretty). The hostility this device manifests toward Charles Jennens's libretto is exhibited elsewhere by ironic juxtapositions like the placement of the aria “If God be for us, who can be against us?” behind shots of factory workers on the assembly line.

On other occasions, though, Klein plays it straight, matching “Every valley shall be exalted” with New York skyscrapers and “The people that walked in darkness” with conventional slum imagery. Sometimes the footage illustrates the text (“Why do the nations furiously rage together?” accompanied by scenes of war and civil disturbance); sometimes it provides an interesting commentary (suckers playing the slots allegorize the hope of salvation); sometimes it assaults Handel's work directly (the glorious aria announcing the Resurrection, “The trumpet shall sound,” is destroyed with footage of Bodybuilders for Christ smashing blocks of ice with their heads).

Messiah is Klein's fourteenth feature film, and the images here are often as striking as the best of his still photography. (Two exhibitions of his photographic work—“Vintage Prints 1954-64” at Howard Greenberg Gallery, through June 9, and “Painted Contacts 1996-2001” at Charles Cowles Gallery—opened the weekend of the Messiah screening.) This effort, however, lacks filmic structure, and Klein's interpretative vision is no match for the ideological and musical consistency of Handel's masterpiece.

Paul Mattick is a writer and critic living in New York.