Milos At The Movies

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Milos Forman, A Retrospective
at MoMA February 14-28

Loves of a Blonde
at BAMcinématek Feb. 15-21

The funny moments in a Milos Forman movie are nearly indistinguishable from the sad ones. Not a prophet of doom as much as a chronicler of contemporary despair, Forman meshes satire with realism and wields irony as a cultural weapon. From his early efforts as a progenitor of the Czech New Wave in the 1960s through his landmark contributions to the golden age of American cinema in the 1970s and continuing in his recent works, Forman has maintained a consistently dour tone. The humor emerges as a natural reflex—nervous laughter over the uncertainty of our times.

In “Milos Forman, A Retrospective,” the series running at the Museum of Modern Art for two weeks starting February 14, the distinctive mood permeating his oeuvre gets comprehensively surveyed. His first feature, Black Peter (Feb. 19 & 21), embraces the offbeat situational humor perfected by Prague-based writer Franz Kafka and matches it with a conventional youth narrative. Soft-spoken teen Peter (Ladislav Jakim) lands a thankless job at the local grocery store, where he’s asked to apprehend thieving shoppers. Hardly the aggressive type, he prefers to meander in the hills with newfound friends. The ongoing joke of his dead-end job clashes hard with the demands of nascent responsibilities.

No less a conflict emerges for Peter’s feminine equivalent in Loves of a Blonde (screening Feb. 15-21 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a fresh print and at MoMA on Feb. 14 & 25), where meek college cutie Andula (Hana Brejchova) deflects the propositions of unruly soldiers only to fall for a slick, carefree musician. Naively mistaking his seduction for sincere affection, she follows the hustler to his parents’ house, where an extensive sequence finds the puzzled elders unable to undo their kid’s conjugal mishap. Andula emerges as an object of pity, but her misguidance retains an endearing charm.

These early Forman masterpieces—from 1964 and 1965, respectively—emerged at the forefront of Czechoslovakia’s cinematic renaissance, concurrent with the early days of the French New Wave. The two movements share an independence of vision when contrasted with American studio product, but where Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless mocked juvenile flights of fantasy by playfully situating them in exaggerated gangster tropes, Forman displayed substantial pity for youngster plights. Black Peter and Loves of a Blonde both contain prolonged lectures delivered by older characters to disinterested protagonists—and they don’t yield any positive results. With these titles, Forman spoofed grown-up didacticism more than immaturity, and his first two features could be combined as a three-hour riff on young adulthood.

Although the themes of adolescence were short-lived, a definite sense of freedom continued to dominate Forman’s output. The concise 1967 comedy The Firemen’s Ball (Feb. 16 & 25), surely among the director’s finest accomplishments, was banned by the Czech government at the time of Soviet dominance for its blatant anti-Socialist perspective. The slapdash story of firefighters throwing a bash for their dying colleague has a quirky mentality about middle-aged everymen trying to blend their professionalism with good-natured cheer. They’re like portly Keystone Cops. The group’s organizational skills literally go up in smoke; collective honor collides with self-interest. The conclusion is simultaneously bizarre, heartfelt and solemn. 

That magnificent triple combo of emotions continues in Forman’s American films. The quintessential Jack Nicholson zaniness in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Feb. 15 & 23) has more cynical Forman in it than the legend of Jack might have you believe. The movie radically sides with the disparate mental hospital inmates rather than the totalitarian staff, while Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy becomes a crazed Moses leading his team of loonies to a non-existent promised land. What’s so funny about that? Many things, actually, but McMurphy’s abrupt fate introduces a broad tragic stroke. 

Despite collaborating with a stream of movie stars over the past thirty years, Forman never made an overtly commercial picture. None of his work can be reduced to a single genre: Drama bleeds into comedy; exuberance begets contemplation. Amadeus (Feb. 18 & 28) basically tracks the struggles of the world’s first rock star, and The People vs. Larry Flynt (Feb. 20 & 24) romanticizes the First Amendment struggles of a porn king. Man on the Moon (Feb. 22 & 27) starred Jim Carrey as ill-fated comedian Andy Kaufman before Carrey demonstrated his range, and yet Kaufman’s risky performance art gives way to his somber alienation. Even Forman’s last endeavor, the monumentally flawed Goya’s Ghosts (Feb. 17 & 28), targeted Spanish Inquisition–era torture with a morbidly comic pitch. Steadily aiming for expressive diversity, Forman remains a cinematic poet of social decay.

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