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Vol 2, No 32
25 September 2000
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Lasky jedne plavavlaskyCinema in Exile
Are Miloš Forman's American works a departure or a continutation from his earlier films?
Benjamin Halligan

The turning point in the long career of Miloš Forman occurred with that of his native Czechoslovakia: the end of the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion in 1968. Forman—a leading light of the extraordinary Czech New Wave—shakily re-started his career in the West. Specifically, he crashed in the iconoclastic Chelsea Hotel, the milieu of which no doubt informed his two hippie epics—Taking Off (1971) and Hair (1979). But even after the success of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Forman was still to be found there. He was an exile, "used to living out of a suitcase."

Forman remains a distinctive film-maker, even now. His films tend to cut through the window dressing and move straight to the point, often with disconcerting speed. The evocation of the 1970s American porn industry is rapidly ditched in The People vs Larry Flynt (1996) as the film moves to a near-philosophical questioning of the rights of expression, any expression, via a court-room drama. Forman's ability not to get bogged down by period settings and the norms of conventional film narratives means that even in projects with the vast sweep of Amadeus (1984) (and the wild idiosyncrasies of British actors playing nineteenth century Germans with American accents), Forman is able to retain a guiding vision—right the way, in this instance, to the Oscars. He is able to create a context for pomposity—to latch onto the "big idea," the "high concept" that is now central to success with American film audiences.

Perhaps it is his background that accounts for this ability. Most American film-makers are intellectuals trying to talk to the "people"—and this translates as xenophobia, homophobia and "dumbing-down" as the the lowest Amadeuscommon denominators are targeted by market research groups. But Forman had previously needed to talk "to" (and about) the people with a personal mandate to effect change, not to make money. So his relationship with his audience was tempered with the understanding that the debate at hand was handicapped if the film is compromised: the director's job is to bring the audience up to a level, not to talk down to them.

Cinema with a human face

In a 1993 BBC Late Show interview, and juxtaposed with Jiří Menzel (who had remained in Czechoslovakia after the invasion and was so obliged to denounce the "aesthetic excesses" of his 1960s work in order to work again), Forman seemed to suggest that it was more "socialist" to work within the Hollywood system than under the censorious Czech Communist Party. With the latter (as well he knew), a couple of faceless bureaucrats could determine his films from the outset: vetoing scripts, spying on sets (even during Amadeus, which saw Forman return to his native Czechoslovakia for shooting), and banning films. Within Hollywood, however, Forman's censors were ultimately "the people"—who chose to accept or reject his work accordingly.

It's a fascinating insight—especially in light of Czech film production over the last decade. All roads eventually led to the same (post-1989) destination: the demands of the market. Both Forman and his contemporary, the Hungarian auteur István Szabó now fashion big-budget films with an historical sweep and a sense of the "inalienable rights of man": the protests of their generation for "socialism with a human face" collide conveniently with the principals of the American constitution. Forman's examination of free speech as analogous to a free society seems close to Szabó's examination of personality and cultural identity ultimately overwhelming the calamitous events of twentieth century Hungarian history in Sunshine (1999). It's a strange anachronism—finally, expressions of "socialism with a human face" from these two East European film-makers, but via capitalism.

Unfortunately, Forman's 1993 autobiography (Turnaround: A Memoir, written with Jan Novak and published by Faber) is not graced with many such insights. It's a loose and sketchy work, consisting of reminiscences, fragments, colour. The political background—and the sense of dissidence that informed the Czech New Wave—is rarely considered in depth.

Innocence lost

Forman worked his way up from amateur shorts and chaotic live television (rarely more than a few seconds away from accidental anti-Party gaffes) until the international recognition that greeted Lásky jedné plavavlásky (A Blonde in Love/ Loves of a Blonde, 1965) put his name on the world wide film map. It was a gentle film—variations on loneliness, lust and love. Romance itself, impossible, fleeting, ridiculous, is cast as an escape from the harsh life of the soldiers and factory workers—a dream, certainly, but an essential lifeline. In Turnaround Forman related a grimmer story about one of his amateur actresses—"by far the prettiest"—whose shunning by a technician with whom she had had an affair during the making of the film led to delusion, neurosis, prostitution, imprisonment and suicide attempts. Her lifeline—that a break in film would take her out of the factory—was only ever a dream.

It's the kind of story of lost innocence that was echoed in Szabó's own Édes Emma, Drága Böbe (Sweet Emma, Dear Böbe, 1992). It's also the story of a certain generation: those who came to young adulthood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, torn between the impulse to embrace a freer, more modern lifestyle, as their Western counterparts were doing (and as had been briefly institutionalised in the late 1960s during the student rebellions in some East European countries), and the restrictions of the newly regressive states of the early 1970s. This actress is one such: her moody flirtatiousness and carefree sensuality recall Bardot's sunny sexuality or the innocence of Dita Parlo. Her sad fate hangs over Lásky jedné plavavlásky in a way that moves the viewer... and, clearly, Forman too.

The film is filled with the breaking of tensions of an earlier period of neo-regression, post-1956 and the invasion of Hungary, through the portrait of this certain generation. When the film was made rock and roll was officially only four years old in Czechoslovakia. The film begins with a rock and roll song and progresses to a scene of free love (of sorts), punctuated by a discussion about Picasso. The film also reaches for a greater freedom too, with its New Wave structure and filming techniques. It doesn't fetishise bountiful corn fields or sleek factory equipment, the vocabulary of Socialist Realism, but rather blonde hair falling around a face and smooth, soft skin.

Satire and reality

For Forman, the round of international film festivals followed, laying the way for a difficult start in Hollywood. Along the way, in Turnaround, anecdotes, broken relationships, struggles, stories, exile. The one imperative that underlies the journey is the need to express life cinematically. This imperative was shared by the film-makers of the suppressed Czech New Wave.

Perhaps when life itself had descended to the "unreal" with the problematic relationship with Stalinism in the late 1950s and 1960s in Czechoslovakia, and the struggle for liberalisation, only the moving image could capture the truth of reality, could document the here and now, could fix the transient. And, after the dictates of Socialist Realism were relaxed in the wake of Stalin death, there was a feeling that it was time to rediscover—to reinvent, even—cinema. It was a process that had also politicised the film-makers. It was a time fuelled by anachronism on a national scale. Fellow Czech New Wave auteur Menzel described the contradictions of the Czech New Wave as

Something like that can happen only in a state like ours, because only in a state where no one is responsible for anything can funds on the order of millions be placed in the hands of people who are entirely unknown. The mess that makes it possible for a barber, say, to become director of a factory also made possible, in fact, the birth of the Czechoslovak nouvelle vague. In a certain sense, then, I suppose I'd be in favour of this chaotic disorder continuing.

These contradictions informed Hoří, má panenko (The Fireman's Ball, 1967). It was an outright, but unspoken, condemnation of a stagnant and bureaucratic society in an advanced state of decay. That such critiques were sanctioned, made and (mostly) shown is indicative of the untenable position the Czech Communist Party in the mid-1960s. President Novotný had requested a private screening of Hoří, má panenko and had "climbed the walls" when he saw it. Yet the film was still briefly seen. Forman found that

In this story of the looted raffle, the guiding lights of the Czech Communist Party saw a satire of themselves. In the past, they would simply have prohibited the showing of the film, but in that strange era before the Prague Spring, the Communist leadership was losing its nerve and had started to finesse its unpopular decisions. Now they would set up a screening of a film they wanted to ban before an invited audience. They planted a few provocateurs in the crowd to shout that the movie insulted the working people, then ordered the film removed from distribution on the grounds that the "people" had demanded it.

Such oscillation reflects the political uncertainty of the Czech Communist Party at this time. Hoří, má panenko was banned in 1967 and un-banned in the summer of 1968 after Dubček came to power. From August 1968 it was banned
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for another twenty years. It also led to a near-lawsuit from its Italian producer, Carlo Ponti (the film was two minutes under the contractual minimum running time)—dropped once Forman explained to a startled Ponti that such a lawsuit would put him in gaol for financially damaging the Czech government.

Forman in Hollywood was, on one level, a very different beast to the Forman of the Czech New Wave. Subtle nuance was replaced with narrative drive, Czech minimalism with Hollywood detritus. The brilliance of Lásky jedné plavavlásky and Hoří, má panenko derived directly from their atmosphere of vague absurdity: furtive firemen stealing raffle prizes and holding an impromptu beauty contest; young, single factory workers chasing after wildly inappropriate middle-aged army men since men are in such short supply. The People vs Larry FlyntForman used silences, dilapidation, authority figures who no longer believed in their authority and a misleadingly "naïve" approach to film-making in Czechoslovakia. The mindset of the characters he showed, against the tatty mise-en-scène, created an exacting sense of break-down and of exhaustion. Beneath the comedy, it was a demand for change.

As in the 1960s films of Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev, comedy was a weapon, and its populism represented a great danger for their respective communist parties. Although lacking in polemics or direct political comment, Forman's 1960s films reverberated with discontent and youthful rebellion. In this respect, McMurphy (in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Mozart (in Amadeus), Valmont (in the film of the same name), Larry Flynt (in The People vs Larry Flynt) and even Andy Kaufman (in Man on the Moon, 1999) are all children of Czechoslovakia.

Benjamin Halligan, 25 September 2000

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