Milos Forman’s Genius Before He Went “Cuckoo”

Cinematic Triumphs that Preceded the Auteur’s Star Turn with Jack Nicholson

By Nathan Roberts

Cheswick, sporting an exaggerated frown like a stubborn toddler, stands and interrupts a group therapy session in a fleeting impulse of civil disobedience.

“May I have my cigarettes please, Nurse Ratched?”

Ratched juts out her jaw, widening her fiery eyes: “Mr. Cheswick, you sit down!”

Cheswick sits, arms crossed, anxiety practically dripping from his pores. McMurphy tries to appease the squirmy man by playing off of Harding’s better nature. Harding, ever the intellectual, refuses to let Cheswick have his last cigarette: “I’m not running a charity ward, see.” Martini, grinning impishly, snatches this “last cigarette” from Harding’s hand and gives it one puff before tossing it across the circle. A game of “cigarette catch” begins, tensions rise, and Cheswick stands again to bellow in pure, bloated agony: “I want MY cigarettes, Nurse Ratched! I want MINE, Nurse Ratched!”

*****

As I was recently watching “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” for the first time in years, this scene pierced me with an initially inexplicable power. After all, it is a minor scene early in the film that bares few immediate dramatic repercussions: McMurphy, Jack Nicholson’s self-appointed liberator of the repressive insane asylum, isn’t at his rebellious best; Nurse Ratched, the asylum’s ice-cold dictator, isn’t at the height of her domineering terror; Chief, McMurphy’s silent, steadfast compatriot, is nowhere to be seen. Formally, Milos Forman’s direction seems rather banal; he merely cuts between medium-shots of each therapy session participant. And yet, hidden in this apparent simplicity lies the heart of Forman’s impressive directorial talent, the heart that makes “Cuckoo’s Nest” one of the most cherished films ever made. For in this short scene, Forman first displays his bold drive to turn this film from a quirky portrait of idiosyncratic misfits to a tragicomic vision of human longing.

Behind these images lies a pathos willing to stare at faces in their most raw and unattractive contortions, a soul willing to decry the notion that comedy and tragedy belong separated by distant isles at the video store (or in separate Netflix cues, as it were). In this scene alone, Forman plays a striking witness to elements of the human experience: fear, power, whimsy, strength, ambition, and pain. To suggest that “Cuckoos Nest” garners its success from literary origins or social allegory is to deny the striking power held in the subtle humanistic touch of Milos Forman.

After making a film so revered, it seems peculiar that Forman lacks the eager following of other American “auteurs” who gained success in the 1970s like Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola. Even though “Cuckoos Nest” is a beloved classic, most American audiences are only familiar with Forman’s other Oscar-winner, “Amadeus”; few have seen films he directed before immigrating to America to escape Communist-imposed “normalization” in 1968. Fortunately, all of his 1960s Czech New Wave films, excluding his debut documentary “The Competition,” are readily available in the United States, and all reward patient viewing. None of these films are as broad, literary, or melodramatic as “Cuckoos Nest,” but all are punctuated by the warm, character-centered mix of comedy and tragedy that makes “Cuckoos Nest” an American classic.

Black Peter

Black Peter

Peter is lectured by his long-winded father.
Photo courtesy of http://www.milosforman.com

Forman’s debut fiction film “Black Peter” (or “Peter and Paula,” as American translators sometimes inexplicably rename it) focuses on Peter first’s job at a grocery store. His job description seems simple: inconspicuously watch customers to make sure they’re not stealing. Yet for Peter, a lanky, socially awkward late adolescent with a perpetually dazed expression, it is difficult enough to appear inconspicuous in every-day situations, much less when his career is on the line. Subtly is a skill he hasn’t quite acquired. When even greater challenges for a teenage boy arise, such as nonchalantly sizing up his friend Paula’s curvaceous, bikinied figure, she sees right through his pretense (“Some girls wear even small bathing suits than me,” she nonchalantly reminds him). When the two dance, he squints and stares at her shimmying body as if he’s trying to find his way through a blizzard; professional espionage certainly doesn’t belong on his resume.

This is most hilariously revealed in the film’s deadpan opening when, after being repeatedly reprimanded by his boss for his all-too-invasive plainclothes patrolling,  Peter thinks he sees a mustached man swipe some groceries. On a clerk’s suggestion, Peter chases the man out of the store and yet—still trying to perfect his grace and disguise—refuses to confront him. Logically, he follows the man all afternoon, perfecting the fine art of acting innocuous without actually saving the groceries.

“Behind these images lies a pathos willing to stare at faces in their most raw and unattractive contortions, a soul willing to decry the notion that comedy and tragedy belong separated by distant isles at the video store.”

Orchestrated to a wonky, distorted electronic arrangement of the “March of The Toy Soldiers” from “The Nutcracker,” this opening immediately conjures the tone of quirky American Independent comedies. “Black Peter” feels like a “Napoleon Dynamite”-esque coming-of-age narrative by way of “Clerks” style banality, punctuated with the sort of circular dialogue utilized in Coen brothers’ comedies: many words are said in short, clipped sentences, yet very little is actually communicated. The characters seem more interested in staking out their own positions than actively communicating. “Black Peter” lingers on Peter’s lengthy conversations with his mother and father, all which devolve into some of the most the most exasperating parent-son arguments interactions I’ve seen since George Costanza argued with his parents on “Seinfeld.” By the end of the film, after a winding, seemingly endless barrage of accusations and retorts, Peter’s father literally runs out of words to say.

“Black Peter” is not a landmark debut, but it doesn’t intend to be one either. Its meandering pace and loose narrative feel more like the films of Ivan Passer, Forman’s close collaborator (most well known for his 1965 film “Intimate Lighting”), than Forman’s later work. And yet, right from the start, Forman is clearly developing his predilection for flawed, endearing, and altogether human characters.

Loves of a Blonde

In some senses, “Loves of a Blonde” begins where “Black Peter” left off, continuing Forman’s exploration of young romantic romance and maturing adolescence. The film’s first act, transpiring in a public dance hall where middle-aged army reservists have been sent to appease the “sexually starved” young women of a small village, much to the women’s collective dismay, contains stronger visual humor and cause-and-effect comedy than the similar dance hall sequence in “Black Peter.” There’s even a simple, hilarious masturbation gag thrown in: a reservist takes off his wedding ring as a young woman comes to his table, proceeding to rub out its indentation on his finger beneath the tablecloth. From the poor woman’s point of view, this concealed rubbing does not paint a pretty picture. These sorts of comedic setups grow stronger and stronger.

However, by its second act, “Loves of A Blonde” takes on a more wistful, romantic tone than “Black Peter.” After the blonde, pouty Andula successfully evades the reservists’ blunt advances, she meets Milda, the dance hall pianist, on her way out the door. And as the two tenderly bed each other, Forman transforms his film into a sensitive, intimate romance with striking vulnerability. As Milda lies against Andula’s softly lit naked body, strategically covered up in a tactful medium shot, their interactions turn simple and poetic: “Some girls’ bodies are smooth like guitars,” Milda says, drawing curves in the air, “You’re like a guitar, too, but one painted by Picasso.”

And yet, when Andula bravely ventures into Prague to surprise Milda at his parents’ apartment, this romanticism is cruelly shorted when her presence causes Milda’s family to engage in an argument far more anguished and endless than anything in “Black Peter.” This melancholy conclusion embodies Forman’s first tentative wade into the depths of human tragedy; just as McMurphy’s idealistic crusade is bound for failure in “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Andula’s young love is bound for similar failure when it enters the reality of the domestic sphere.

With this three-act shift from broad comedy to intimate romance to domestic disappointment, Forman artfully tinkers with thematic motifs in segments that could almost function as individual short films. He seems a bit like a painter carefully creating and testing his general palate, preparing to mix and match tones with peerless verve in later masterworks.

The Firemen’s Ball

The Firemen's Ball

The fire chief deals with––and perpetuates-–incompetence.
Photo courtesy of http://www.milosforman.com

Of all of Forman’s early films Czech films, 1967’s “The Firemen’s Ball” is his most drily hilarious and brilliantly crafted work. After touching on botched public dances gone wrong in “Black Peter” and “Loves of A Blonde,” “The Firemen’s Ball” examines the full-on riot of a fire department’s yearly fundraising gala gone to hell. Forman foreshadows impending disaster with great economy through the final image before the opening credits: a banner picturing firemen exterminating a local blaze swings limply from the event hall ceiling, burning to bits itself. This image encompasses the dour, brilliant irony that will pervade the rest of the film as those responsible for putting out fires are slowly engulfed in the flames of their own human imperfection.

First and foremost, “The Firemen’s Ball” functions as a brilliant farce. As any fan of “The Nightman Cometh” episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” will giddily tell you, there is something inherently entertaining in witnessing carefully produced productions dissipate into disaster. And at a lean 71 minutes, “The Firemen’s Ball” wastes no time in waiting to push over the proverbial Tower of Babel. Every setup is executed with simple efficiency and yet the jokes keep coming.

One of many brilliant comic threads: an old man’s house burns down during the ceremony. The firemen, unable to stop the inferno due to a stalled truck, sit him down in front of the wreckage on a salvaged chair.  They turn him away from the fire out of sensitivity; he cranes his neck to see the disaster anyway. In an attempt to keep the man warm, they decidedly drag him closer to the burning house. After the decimation is complete, the gala atendees offer him raffle tickets as a means of sympathetic compensation. “I don’t need prizes, I need money…” he quietly moans. Perhaps his reluctance is a good thing, since gala attendees have stolen most of the raffle prizes anyhow.

The film paces along in this manner, always in directions that are simultaneously hilarious, surprising, ironic, and bittersweet. While the farce itself is worthy of Moliere or Shakespeare, juggling multiple comic threads with striking ease, this wonderfully mixed tone is all Forman. Even though Shakespeare’s pathos often allows for extreme comedy and extreme tragedy to coexist within the same work, Forman’s quiet push against theatricality (like his earlier films, he’s not working with professional actors in “The Firemen’s Ball”) allows for both emotions to present themselves at the same instant. When the newly homeless burn victim is presented with raffle tickets, we laugh at the gift’s impracticality while we feel simultaneous compassion for the man and the attendees who are trying to help him. The film’s deadpan spirit springs from deep courtesy for its characters and their situational realities.

In “The Firemen’s Ball,” Forman most lucidly demonstrates the deficit we face when we forget that the same human imperfections that lead us to laughter also lead us to tears. And yet, to deny comedy in the wake of destruction is to blind oneself to the joys found in human exertion, in the hopeful spirit of McMurphy, Peter, Andula and the ever-optimistic firemen. The world might be on fire, but you have to find a way to warm yourself somehow, right? Forman beckons you: bring out your chair and bask in the glow.

Nathan Roberts is in the NYU Gallatin Class of 2015. For more of his writing, go to nathandroberts.com. His hometown is San Antonio, Texas.

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Categories: Culture, Fall 2013 Issue Number 2

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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