Milos Forman is visiting the Wexner Center on Friday, April 4, to introduce his film Taking Off. Click here for complete details on our film series of his work.
Click Here to Listen to the Essay Along With a Photo Slideshow
The book vividly dramatized the never-ending conflict between the individual and the institution. We invent institutions to help make the world more just, more rational. Life in society would not be possible without orphanages, schools, courts, government offices, and mental hospitals, yet no sooner do they spring into being than they start to control us, regiment us, run our lives. They encourage dependency to perpetuate themselves and are threatened by strong personalities.
â€”Milos Forman, on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, in his memoir, Turnaround
Milos Forman lived the never-ending conflict described above in absurd, tragic extreme. Born in 1932 in Czechoslovakia, he lived through the brutal Nazi occupation and then the totalitarian Communism regime (Stalinist and post-Stalinist) that replaced it. His Jewish father and Protestant mother died in Auschwitz.
Although Forman’s early work in Czechoslovakia (including Loves of Blonde from 1965 and The Fireman’s Ball of 1967) is often compared to Italian neorealism or the films of the French New Wave, it was instead shaped in reaction to the socialist realism films that Forman and all audiences behind the Iron Curtain endured. In an interview on the Criterion Collection’s Loves of a Blonde DVD, Forman describes the utter stupidity of the government-endorsed films and their tendency toward “fake, untrue propaganda.” As a young filmmaker, Forman wanted to bring truth to the screen, to combine documentary technique with narrative filmmaking. In Loves of a Blonde, a factory girl has a fling with a traveling pianist that gives her an all-too-brief glimpse beyond the drudgery of her daily existence. This touching commentary on life in a totalitarian regime is a brilliant marriage of the documentary’s immediacy and the poetry of what makes us human (and which no institution can fully suppress). Forman continued to explore this theme after leaving his native country and as his style evolved to reflect the conditions of commercial filmmaking.
Forman’s preoccupation with the way the system grinds against the individual might easily be attributed to his upbringing under oppressive governments. But where his contemporary Roman Polanski, another Eastern European filmmaker deeply affected by Nazi and Communist regimes, explores the dark and sinister clutches of power structures (in Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant), Forman often portrays the absurdities of the human condition, especially in relation to the institutions and informal systems that shape our lives. In Taking Off (1971), Forman’s first American film, a group of parents turn to a hilarious class on pot smoking to better understand the counterculture that is leading their children astray. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) examines how one of the most disreputable public figures in America became the focus of a symbolic test case regarding many of the freedoms that we as a people supposedly hold so dear. Similarly, Forman explores the degree to which society tolerates individual expression in Man on the Moon (1999), his biopic about comedian Andy Kaufman whose art involved provoking his audience instead of seeking its approval. In the director’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Jack Nicholson’s R. P. McMurphy is the epitome of the strong personality threatening the system (personified by Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched) as he disrupts the monotonous order of a mental hospital by trying to instill some life into the other patients in his ward. And Forman’s Amadeus (1984) places Mozart’s musical genius in the person of an utter vulgarian: a farting, philandering drunkard whose gifts produce a music that is at odds with the taste of the royal court and is fully appreciated only by Salieri, a mediocre court composer whose jealousy of Mozart is all consuming.
Amadeus has two of my favorite scenes in any film and in them offers perhaps the best description of “genius” I know. When Salieri first encounters Mozart’s music he is moved but suspicious of the true nature of Mozart’s talent because of his behavior. “This was a music I’ve never heard.… I was hearing the voice of God.… But why would God choose an obscene child to be his instrument?” Later in the film, Mozart’s wife visits Salieri, hoping he can help direct some commissions Mozart’s way. She brings a collection of Mozart’s compositions. Salieri is stunned to learn they are originals even though they show no corrections; Mozart was writing down music already finished in his head as if he were taking dictation. And it was perfect. “Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.… Here again was the voice of God.”
While Forman clearly sympathizes with the individual instead of the institution or social convention in his work, he presents his characters with enough flaws to avoid moralizing. How does one condemn the royal court for not appreciating Mozart’s gifts when he fails to recognize them himself? How does one condemn the government for finding Larry Flynt repugnant when most of the country feels the same way about his product? How do we appreciate or even evaluate Andy Kaufman’s talent when his goal is to alienate us? This is the wonderful contradiction that permeates Forman’s films and has enabled him to leave his indelible mark on cinema for nearly half a century.
Curator of Film/Video
Wexner Center for the Arts