Posted by Susan Doll on December 29, 2008
I am always impressed with the biographies that my fellow Morlocks Moirafinnie and Medusamorlock often pull together for this blog site. Thorough, well researched, and entertaining, these bios are far more informative than most of the blurbs found in film encyclopedias or dictionaries. Inspired by their dedication and sincerity, I thought I would try my hand at writing a bit of biography.
Not too long ago, I saw Milos Forman’s last completed film, Goya’s Ghosts, on DVD. I had wanted to see it on the big screen, but in all of Chicago, it played on only one screen in one theater. It is a crime that big-screen access to a film directed by the man behind Amadeus, Hair, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was so limited, when garbage like The Transformers or Iron Man was shoved down our throats on multiple screens in thousands of cineplexes. Well, I best not get started down that path.
Goya’s Ghosts is a complex biopic by a director who built his Hollywood career pushing the limits of that genre. Amadeus was the story of Mozart told through the perspective of a bitter Salieri, underscoring the idea that point of view is subjective. The People vs. Larry Flynt made a heroic protagonist out of a pornographer, someone we would not normally think of as protagonist material. And, Man on the Moon offered a portrait of an innovative stand-up comedian, Andy Kaufman, by another innovative stand-up comedian, Jim Carrey. Goya’s Ghosts is a biopic of the great painter-printmaker Goya, yet we learn very little about him. Instead, Forman focuses on the fictional characters that Goya comes in contact with and the religious-political milieu that causes them endless suffering. Like all films set in another time and place, Goya’s Ghosts is more about the socio-political era that produced it — i.e., the politics of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism — than it is about the era it is set in.
Sadly, I read no reviews that discussed the film from this angle. How do I know this angle is valid? Because Milos Forman was a master at imbuing his entertaining films with political subtexts when he directed films in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia back in the day. He is adept at telling a story on the surface but offering something more thought-provoking beneath it — if you care to find it. Knowing something about Forman’s life might have helped reviewers to think harder about Goya’s Ghosts instead of dismissing it as a peculiar biopic. That’s the value of reading biographies on the order of Medusamorlock’s and Moirafinnie’s. They prompt you to look at harder at a movie, to make connections and draw conclusions. I thought examining Forman’s life and career before he came to Hollywood might be useful for those who are fans of his American films.
Born in Caslav, Czechoslovakia, on February 18, 1932, Milos Forman was orphaned during World War II, along with two older brothers. His father, Rudolf Forman, was an intellectual and a teacher at the Teachers’ Institute in Caslav, who ran afoul of the Nazis for being part of a resistance group. He was arrested and sent to prison in 1940. Two years later, Forman’s mother, Anna, was falsely accused by a former family employee of distributing anti-Nazi propaganda, and she was arrested. Both parents died in concentration camps.
Forman was raised by a succession of family friends and relatives, including an uncle who owned a small grocery store. The young boy helped out in his uncle’s store, where he found himself observing the parade of people who came and went daily. After the war, he attended a school for war orphans, where he met lifelong friend and frequent collaborator Ivan Passer. Forman graduated from a secondary school in 1950, two years after the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia. According to Forman, the political changes manifested themselves in tighter restrictions on what was studied in school and in a general atmosphere of paranoia.
Forman applied for admission into the drama department of the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (AMU) in Prague, but his application was turned down. He decided to apply to the Film Faculty of the Academy of Dramatic Arts (FAMU), the state-operated film school that is part of AMU. The directors’ section was already overcrowded with students, but he applied to the screenwriting program, and his application was accepted.
In addition to practicing a variety of writing skills, Forman’s four years in the scriptwriting program consisted of reading, analyzing, and critiquing the work of historically important writers. The experience led to a highly literate education, but Forman received little exposure to the filmmaking process. The high point of his stint in the program was when he wrote a comedy for veteran Czech director Martin Fric titled Leave It to Me.
While a student, he made the most of the opportunity to view hundreds of films, including the work of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Marcel Carne, who made a deep impression on him. He used his knowledge of classic films to get a job in television — a burgeoning industry in Czechoslovakia at the time — as the host of a weekly program that featured old movies. Each week, he offered some information about the film being shown; or, sometimes, he interviewed a figure in the film or television industry about their job or career.
After graduating from FAMU in 1954, Forman’s career got off to a slow start. Opportunities were scarce for the writer, though his new bride, Jana Brejchova, enjoyed some success as an up-and-coming actress. A script he had written while at FAMU was eventually approved for production, and Forman was allowed to serve as an assistant director during the shooting of the film. Titled Puppies, the romantic comedy tells the story of a young couple who marry to prevent the girl from being assigned by the government to a dreadful job in the provinces. Though their marriage resolves one problem, it creates another when they realize there is no place for them to live together, mostly due to the housing difficulties in Prague at that time.
Forman found work as the assistant director on Magic Lantern, an audiovisual production that united projected images, music, and live performance into a unique stage experience. Created by stage designer Josef Svoboda and directed by Alfred Radok, Magic Lantern won a gold medal at the World Expo in Brussels in 1958. The success of the show pleased the Communist bureaucrats, and Radok was asked to do a new, more exciting version, with Forman as the writer. This edition, which focused on the folk life of Bohemia, was as big a failure with the bureaucrats as the first one had been a success, spelling dismissal for Radok. Forman stayed on to rewrite the show so it could make its exhibition schedule in London, but he was dismissed shortly thereafter because he was deemed “politically unreliable.”
The early 1960s proved a low point for Forman. His marriage to Jana Brejchova had failed; he had been dismissed from Magic Lantern; and his oldest brother, Blahoslav, was killed in a mountain-climbing accident. A turning point came through his commitment to two semi-documentary films. The two films were eventually packaged together to make a feature length presentation under the collective title of Audition. One film was about two girls auditioning to be pop singers at a theater in Prague; the other, originally titled If Only They Ain’t Had Them Bands, was about two young men who play hooky from their jobs as trumpet players in brass bands. The slight stories provided the excuse for documenting the milieus of each film. Influenced by documentary techniques and aesthetics, Forman — the perpetual observer — was interested in capturing life around him. In addition, the films shared in common a focus on the concerns, attitudes, and lifestyles of youth. Forman was 30, but he had a keen interest in the generation behind him. Rock ‘n’ roll had been introduced in Czechoslovakia in 1961, which helped galvanize the nation’s teenagers into a generation decidedly different from any of its predecessors. The gap in generations was the central thread in his first feature film as a director, Black Peter, which was shot simultaneously with If Only They Ain’t Had Them Bands to reduce costs.
The title character in Black Peter is a teenage boy who lands a job in a grocery store as a “detective,” which really means that he spies on the customers to snare shoplifters. Peter despises the work, and he is not particularly good at it, but the job pleases his pompous, conventional father, who regularly pontificates to his son about responsibility, values, and having the proper direction in life. The father’s views are little more than empty banalities to Peter, and the distance between father and son seems unbridgeable by the end of the film. Peter experiences better luck with his love life than his home life, despite his youthful awkwardness with romance.
Episodic in structure and slight in plot, Black Peter works as a coming-of-age story, rendered in a boldly realistic style through its documentary techniques. Significant to the film is the generation gap between Peter and his father, because it is more than a gap in age. The two characters represent the foibles and failings of their generations. The father, who has a rigid, authoritarian manner, is all too willing to rationalize spying on one’s friends and neighbors as a legitimate job. This suggests a compromise of moral values in order to live a comfortable, though not gratifying, life.
Written by a sculptor named Jaroslav Papousek, the story appealed to Forman because it reminded him of his youth, when he lived with his uncle and worked in his store. He collaborated on the script with Papousek and Ivan Passer, but, as the director, it was his responsibility to visualize the script. His ability to painstakingly focus on the smallest details of his characters’ lives-shopping in the grocery store, eating a meal, attending a concert, holding a conversation in a park — created a portrait of ordinary people and their daily existence. That detail, rather than a tightly constructed linear plot, provides the fabric of the film. Forman’s use of nonactors in key roles adds a sense of freshness and spontaneity to the overall naturalism.
Between the depiction of Peter’s father as an authoritarian and the detailed observations of everyday life, film scholars have interpreted Black Peter as a criticism of life under Soviet-style Communism. Forman in his autobiography, Turnaround, does not offer a definitive interpretation of the film but does acknowledge that his purpose was to “collect the ‘most real,’ that is, the flattest snippets of life to make a deadly satire of it.” In an interview in 1976 for Stories by Milos Forman, he speculated that the bureaucrats who screened the film before it was released laughed at the humorous moments and concluded that the film was only a comedy and therefore safe viewing for the public.
Attracting attention because of its fresh style, Black Peter aligned the young director with others who had caught the wave of liberalization surging through Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s that allowed them to make films of daring and innovation. Influenced by both the subjectivity of the French New Wave and the documentary objectivity of cinema verite and Italian Neorealism, the directors who became known as the Czech New Wave worked within the bounds of these two influences. They used documentary techniques to create fresh-looking fictional narratives. Nonprofessional actors, improvised dialogue, gritty camera work, and keen observations of everyday life were combined with allegory and surreal content to produce highly personal filmmaking styles. Themes involving inhumanity, limitations placed on everyday people, and the moral issues of modern life dominated these films.
While the political climate in Czechoslovakia had opened up sufficiently to allow these films to be produced and released, the filmmakers still faced official disapproval and controversy, even as they attracted international attention and acclaim. As the decade progressed, such directors as Evald Schorm and Jan Nemec would be associated with the group called the Czech New Wave by historians and critics, with Jiri Menzel reaching a peak of popularity and recognition in 1966 with the international acclaim for his film Closely Watched Trains.
The acceptance of Black Peter into several film festivals, including Locarno and the New York Film Festival, ensured that Forman would have a higher profile at Barrandov Studios. His next two films, Loves of a Blonde and Firemen’s Ball, garnered him international critical acclaim but also unwanted attention from bureaucrats and politicians.
The title character in Loves of a Blonde is a young girl from a small factory town who spends the night with a piano player on the road with his band. A visit to the musician’s home in Prague reveals to the girl that the encounter meant little to him. When she returns to her dreary existence in her small town, she spins fanciful tales about her adventures to her friends. Firemen’s Ball is a black comedy about a provincial fire brigade who throw a retirement party for a fire chief, complete with a banquet and beauty pageant. The occasion is ruined by theft and ineptitude, which exposes the firemen’s station as a nightmare of bureaucracy and corruption. Both films extended the style of Black Peter, with their documentary techniques, ironic comic moments, and keen interest in the milieus of ordinary people. The major difference is that Firemen’s Ball is in color, because financial backing by Italian producer Carlo Ponti enabled Forman to afford color film stock.
Firemen’s Ball was attacked by the Communist Party’s cultural department, and it infuriated Czech President Antonin Novotny. The official declaration was that the film mocked the working class, but Forman knew that the party officials saw the film as a satire of themselves. Thousands of firemen were angered by the film, a factor used by the party to support its position. Firemen’s Ball was quickly banned.
The film had been released in late 1967, a turbulent time in Czech history. The next year, Antonin Novotny’s hard-line regime came to an end, and Alexander Dubcek became president in January 1968, setting off a brief liberal interlude in the spring of that year. The ban on Firemen’s Ball was lifted, and it was released in the summer of 1968 to enthusiastic audiences. The film was shown in London and Paris, and it was also chosen to close the New York Film Festival. Later, it was nominated for an Academy Award
Forman wanted to make a film in America, and, based on the international acclaim of Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde, and Firemen’s Ball, Paramount Pictures offered him the chance to do so. While he was in Paris working on a script, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, reestablishing a more conservative, harsher regime with hardline communist politics. After the Soviet invasion, conditions in the Czech film industry tightened considerably. The Czech film industry was reorganized, centralized, and rigidly controlled. The films preferred by the new Czech government included straightforward stories of industrial heroes, films based on classic literature and fairy stories, and domestic and detective comedies. Not surprisingly, Firemen’s Ball was banned again.
Forman remained in Paris and the following year, he came to New York with Ivan Passer. The Paramount deal fell through, but Universal backed his first Hollywood film, Taking Off. The film flopped at the box office, and Forman had some difficulty adjusting to Hollywood moviemaking, but his career was secured when he directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. That was also the year he became an American citizen. Forman did not return to Czechoslovakia until the early 1980s, when he shot Amadeus there.
If most viewers know of Forman only through his American films, it is because the publicity and attention that accompanies a Hollywood career shifted the spotlight away from his bold, ground-breaking Czech films. Now considered a respected member of the Hollywood industry, he is a high-profile member of the Directors Guild. Currently, he is heavily involved in protecting directors’ rights, particularly in the home-entertainment industry where films are sometimes colorized, cut, altered, or remixed. In 1997, he was given the John Huston Award for Artists Rights from the Artists Rights Foundation. Backed by the major studios, his big-budget, large-scale Hollywood films seem miles away from his little Czech films, yet his Hollywood work retained his technique of combining actors and nonactors, his fondness for moments of ironic comedy, and his interest in themes involving discontent with political regimes and social institutions.
In recent years, Forman’s films have not enjoyed the success of his early Hollywood hits, in part because the industry (studios, distributors, and theaters) currently caters to the youth demographic at the expense of everyone else. The studios have squandered craftsmanship, talent, and artistry to appeal to the youth market who are entertained by . . . well, Iron Man and The Transformers. When asked to comment on the differences between working in Czechoslovakia and directing in Hollywood for the studios, Forman wryly noted that working under the tyranny of Communism was nothing compared to working under the tyranny of the box office.
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