When Milos Forman set out to make his first American movie, he moved into a house on Leroy Street for more than a year. The door was always open, and Forman spent most of his time talking to anyone who stopped by. Ivan Passer—collaborator, fellow Czech new waver, and roommate—called it “amateur sociological research.” Frustrated after producer Carlo Ponti rejected, of all things, an adaptation of Kafka’s Amerika, Forman made 1971’s Taking Off. Even taking into account the ambitious biographical sweep of later projects like The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, it remains his best film in and about America.
Taking Off begins where 1963’s Audition left off: in the thick of too many teenagers aiming for one swift shot at fame. Forman’s first feature set up a dialectic between anachronistic Czech brass bands and bop-loving young folk. Taking Off does something similar. All the worst musical trends of the summer of 1970 are in evidence at the film’s rock audition: a trilling faerie girl whose melismas are about nothing more than fucking everything in sight; a not-yet-famous Carly Simon exhorting everyone to toke up with a stirring blues-rock groove. Plot emerges with characteristic diffidence: While the girls at the tryout never clarify how they got there, at least one—Jeannie Tyne (Linnea Heacock)—is on the lam from parents Lynn (Lynn Carlin) and Larry (Buck Henry).
Jeannie returns home, but soon she’s off again—a near-silent figure, it’s impossible to tell if she leaves because Larry drunkenly slaps her or if she’s just doing her generational thing. The auditions keep going for nearly half the movie—as he was in Czechoslovakia, Forman here is still addicted to weird editing devices that deliberately keep momentum at bay. Getting used to his sensibility is still a challenge. What seems like dead comic air gradually emerges as an attenuated pace that brings the stark weirdness of ’70s life into sharp relief.
Whether Taking Off is caricature or dead-on is, presumably, all a matter of perspective and distance, and I can’t resolve it—I wasn’t even embryonic at the time. But it’s definitely hilarious: A deadpan Henry effortlessly dominates as a milquetoast, and the supporting weirdos are all aces. (In his first on-screen appearance, Vincent Schiavelli leads a pot-smoking tutorial for concerned parents wanting to understand their runaways better: “That’s called ‘bogarting’ the joint, and it’s very rude.”) It’s also a true New York movie, as in not just the city: Forman goes upstate and into the suburbs, too, with an understanding that all those runaway kids were fleeing something more than just picket-fence oppression.