The star director of the 1960s Czech new
wave, Milos Forman arrived here following the Warsaw Pact invasion of his native (and now no longer existent) land and went native
with a vengeance.
Forman, the subject of a two-week 17-film retro at the Museum of Modern Art, would become one of the leading directors of Hollywood’s old wave— sweeping the 1975 Oscars with his second American movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and doing it again nine years later with Amadeus. There’s no arguing with that kind of émigré success but, blossoming as it did during the Prague Spring, Forman’s career has the melancholy sense of something irrevocably lost. Indeed, his first American movie, Taking Off (1971), which screens this Friday in the filmmaker’s pristine personal print, might be his last Czech one.
Taking Off is the sweetest of generation-gap movies, shot in and around New York during the summer of 1970 even while the generational nightmare Joe embarked on its reign of terror. A solemn high-school girl (Linnea Heacock) leaves her suburban home and vanishes into the East Village hippie vortex, abandoning her clueless parents (Buck Henry and Lynn Carlin) to essay the counterculture on their own—even joining an organization called the Society for Parents of Fugitive Children. Meanwhile, let loose in America, the filmmaker has a field day orchestrating their confusion.
Forman’s three Czech features—Black Peter (1964), The Loves of a Blonde (1965), and The Fireman’s Ball (1967)—as well as independent documentary Audition (1963), all showing at MOMA, are uniquely dialectical comedies. Forman’s deadpan farces play as funny-sad, his largely nonprofessional actors are at once cute and ugly, his technique is both spontaneous and studied. As epitomized by his quintessential film Loves of a Blonde (which, in conjunction with the MOMA retrospective, begins a week’s run Friday at BAM), Forman’s world is cozy yet bleak, his attitude simultaneously tender and cruel. So, too, Taking Off—which, although equally anecdotal, manages to be wackier and more expansive than its precursors.
Authority is no less hapless here than in The Fireman’s Ball, and the topography of faces is no less vivid than those that Forman mapped in Czechoslovakia. (Were it not for the presence of then-unknowns Kathy Bates and Carly Simon in the extended audition that opens the film, one might suspect that Forman brought his extras from Prague.) Taking Off is also laugh-out-loud funny; epicene Vincent Schiavelli pedantically instructing a ballroom full of anxious parents, including the Warhol superstar Ultra Violent, on how to smoke a joint rivals Peter Seller’s stoned act in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!
Amadeus was shot in Prague, and it’s arguable that, as slick as they are, both One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hair (1979) nevertheless also reflect aspects of Forman’s Czech education. But the Czech style was not one that he would ever revisit. Taking Off was his farewell—it’s the film of a runaway child and a rueful adult. February 14 through 28, MOMA.
Also: Anime has scarcely lacked for exposure and adulation, but, so far as I know, the Japan Society’s “Dawn of Japanese Animation” is the first local survey of its roots. Four programs (“Chambara Action & Adventure,” “Horror & Comedy,” “Propaganda,” and “Music & Dance”) match cartoons from the ’20s and mainly the ’30s with appropriate live-action features, some of which are accompanied by live benshi narration. Comparable in their black-and-white cell animation to second-tier U.S. outfits like Columbia and Van Beuren, the Japanese cartoons are less manic and more abstract than the American variety. The cartoons tend to mix animal with human characters (Mickey Mouse turns out in the audience for an Olympic race) or invite empathy with nonhuman creatures. The Animal Village in Trouble is a clear anticipation of World War II, in which assorted monkeys, bunnies, and raccoons are menaced by flood and organizing for civil defense. Suggestive of Japanese woodcuts, the musical cartoons in which funny animals sing popular songs are among the most charming early talkies I’ve ever seen. February 13 through 16, Japan Society.