There are only a very few European film directors who were ever able to make the transition to Hollywood cinema - and arguably none who made an impact like Milos Forman - the Czech-born filmmaker whose One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest became the first film since 1934 to win all five major Academy Awards. Forman, whose Amadeus introduced millions of Americans to Mozart as genius but also as an impetuous young man, whose high-pitched laughter - the laughter of a child - erased the stodgy portrait of the composer we all learned about in school. It took a director with a strong sense of humour to do and perhaps a European background. But also enough honesty and interest to bring characters' weaknesses to the fore, contrasted with fleeting moments of beauty, accomplishment, sometimes transcendence, as well as elusive moments of happiness. Moments that are rare in life, but are the focus of much of Milos Forman's work.
Whether describing the life of a girl working in a small town factory with few options and too many dreams, as in Forman's early film Loves of a Blonde, or the squandered life of a U.S. porn king in The People VS. Larry Flynt - Milos Forman's starting point has always been the individual - he has been fascinated with examining the motivations and mistakes of characters and the growing desperation they find themselves in. It is no accident that in most of his films the protagonists have been underdogs struggling in circumstances beyond their control. Especially in his early films - like Loves of a Blonde and The Fireman's Ball - the director often relied on satire to depict the confines of Czech small town life; but even when he was poking fun he always displayed empathy for his leads. The director's use of cinema verite techniques to photograph settings and people gave his early films documentary-like realism, reinforced by the director's use of non-actors in smaller roles, and occasional improvisation. This allowed Forman to stylise a poignant backdrop that poked fun but also showed a sensitivity towards the interactions of ordinary people and ordinary lives - like interaction at the local ballroom, or between parents in the bedroom. Such "set-pieces" often worked as a comedic counterpoint to a more serious message. One example is Forman's Loves of a Blonde.
In a small town full of factory seamstresses - young women await the arrival of new conscripts at a nearby base, clearly looking forward to spending the evening with a prince charming at last. What a shock when they discover the army has not sent young men but reservists in their stead, men in their mid or late thirties! Still, a ball at the nearby dance hall goes ahead as planned. The boredom is acute and visible, especially on the faces of three young women, led by actress Hana Brejchova. The situation grows worse when they discover they've begun to attract the attention of three middle-aged soldiers, who think they stand a chance. It is an absurd situation with no escape...
What follows is so cutting and farcical it almost hurts, but is also very funny. First, we witness the trio of soldiers, led by actor Vladimir Mensik, bolster themselves with beer and the usual pep talk. This is ridiculous enough. But then we see the soldiers send a bottle of wine to the wrong table. Finally, perhaps the most sorry of the bunch - a man with a sheepish look and coke-bottle glasses, removes his wedding ring in anticipation of picking someone up, only to have the ring slip from his hand. Inevitably it gets kicked away, in a series of clever cuts, rolling under an opposite table. He goes in search of it and, in a crowning moment, crawls right under a table amongst the women's legs. In the process he succeeds in finding the ring, but also knocks over a glass of beer, which spills all the way down his back.
This is life in a small town as Forman shows it - and the comedy is hilarious. But, there are more serious aspects too: as we follow the small odyssey of sweet Hana Brejchova as tries to find someone to love, we slowly realise there simply is no escape from the industrial town, no escape from the dreariness of her factory job. At best one can imagine her getting pregnant at the hands of some young cad. By the time the film draws to a close we no longer believe the dreams Hana Brejchova tells her roommate at night. A moment that is deeply saddening, there is nothing to be done.
The trend towards smaller, personal but also critical Czech films in the 1960s was all of course part of the Czech New Wave, a wave of films Professor of Film Studies at Prague's Charles University- Galina Kopaneva - who studied with Milos Forman - says embodied a new social consciousness and criticism, and above all auteur approach.
"The new often springs from disillusionment over the old - so that was an impulse. It was the 1960s and the old rules no longer applied. There was a new "auteur" approach with a new way of seeing the world, people, the classification of good and evil, criticism - always an attribute of youth - so those were the impulses. Also, the Czech New Wave sprang from others that came before - in Poland, in France, in America, and Britain's Angry Young Men. It was quite simply a break."
Milos Forman's style, developed in joint collaboration with scriptwriters Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papousek in Czechoslovakia, would change somewhat when he moved to America and eventually broke into studio filmmaking on the greatest scale. Still, it is fair to say he never lost his sense for irreverence and keen sense of humour - some would say typical Czech humour - the developed in his early comedies. It is hard to conceive, after all, of a more spoiled and irreverent Mozart his, mocking our preconceptions of how a great composer should act. It is precisely that paradox in character that is so intriguing, even some twenty years down the line.
"You don't know where you are. Here, everything goes backwards..."
Equally audacious: to take the life of a porn baron Larry Flynt and make him the subject for our empathy.
"You guys read Playboy?..."
More than about freedom of speech The People VS. Larry Flynt is about one man's personal tragedy; though and arguably successful - he is a person who will no longer ever be happy: paralysed from the waist down, he is left alone in the end, to rewind old video tapes of better days when his wife was alive and both were successful and young. In this sense The People VS. Larry Flynt was never meant to be a biopic - what intrigues Forman are the contours of a character - a character he for the most part "invents", who pays the price for his excesses.
Finally, in an interview by Kevin Lewis titled "Milos Forman defender of the Artist and the Common Man" Lewis notes that the director "doesn't glorify his characters... the director shows them in their mileu, acting out of their character, rather than out of an ideology" - while the director simply notes it is the "emotional impact" of a story that ultimately allow Forman to decide which films are worth making and which are not. For all of Milos Forman's films characters are the key.
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