I Saw the Signs

Jan 16, 2009

I have never seen New York look so beautifully grand as it did during my trip to Paris this New Year’s. Maybe I should explain.

It was my great fortune to be visiting the City of Light while the intensely illuminative exhibition Dans la nuit, des images was still on display. For this dazzling presentation, the interior (and thanks to one artist, exterior) of the Grand Palais exhibition hall had been transformed into a multimedia showcase. From December 18 to January 1, once the sun went down, the doors of the Palais would open to a cavernous, multilayered multiplex of sorts, in which about 140 works by some of today’s (and yesterday’s) most renowned visual artists commingled in the dark, their images projected from every possible angle onto screens hanging every which way. Thanks to the guidance of Alain Fleischer, artistic director of Le Fresnoy (the National Studio of Contemporary Arts), there was an embarrassment of avant-garde riches in this massive, free-to-the-public installation, from digital to traditional film projection, and even some interactive works. But for me, the sweetest, most thrilling surprise was being able to see William Klein’s groundbreaking 1958 short Broadway by Light, emanating boldly from an IMAX-sized screen that seemed to intimidate not just us viewers but also the works surrounding it.

Having worked so closely on last year’s Eclipse set The Delirious Fictions of William Klein, I had become intimate with a handful of the works of this important New York photographer turned expatriate filmmaker in France. In my research, I had read a lot about Broadway by Light, which was Klein’s first cinematic experimentation and which many had considered the “first pop film.” On the strength and askew beauty of his first collection of photography, Life Is Good and Good for You in New York, initially published only in Paris, up-and-coming French filmmakers Alain Resnais and Anatole Dauman helped finance this witty, abstract collage of the neon signs, overwhelming ads, and glowing marquees that make up Manhattan’s Times Square.

To my knowledge, this film has never been available in any home video format, and seeing it projected onto such a huge screen (it must have been at least fifty feet high!), I can understand why. It really needs to be seen on a big scale: the film is massive and magnificently disorienting, its sharp, shocking angles and blazing colors purposely defamiliarizing the seemingly familiar. Klein even weaves in a stunning series of shots in which Broadway’s gorgeously garish crimsons and blues are reflected in sidewalk puddles, a moody, noirish touch. In its mix of the crass and the conceptual, one can certainly see how Broadway by Light leads directly to the feverish flamboyance of his surreal fashion takedown Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? and the brash, star-spangled satire Mr. Freedom.

Intensifying this odd experience of looking at images of New York in the Grand Palais was the view from a landing erected in the center of the hall, at eye level with the screen, which made it feel more like you were floating in the image, and was near vertigo inducing.

And then the sun came up. This was, for me, the most miraculous, unexpected moment. The climax to this twelve-minute film becomes more like “Broadway by Sunlight”—as warm morning beams poke through the corners of signs and billboards, the film feels close to a requiem. There were plenty of works by other terrific artists throughout Dans la nuit, des images (including Chris Marker, Michael Snow, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Nam June Païk, and Manoel de Oliveira), but none moved me more than William Klein’s first film, which made me, yes, delirious.