Archive for Milos Forman

Composing and Arranging

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2017 by dcairns

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I showed my students a scene from AMADEUS the other week. Happily, they seemed to enjoy it, but I think I screwed up — I don’t think I pointed out the best thing about it, as a piece of screenwriting.

The scene is the first meeting between Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Mozart and the Emperor (Jeffrey Jones) plus his various musical flunkies. What I want to say is that the scene beautifully supplies each character with a distinct attitude.

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The Emperor is an idiot, but a happy one because he doesn’t know it, and he has a whole palace of underlings dedicated to seeing that he never finds out. His good-natured imbecility is a joy to behold. Director Milos Forman originally planned to use Brits in the roles of those in the court, and Americans for the Salzburg interlopers like Hulce/Mozart, but he abandoned this promising scheme in favour of simply casting the best actors he could get, and never regretted it. Jones is superb, and his loss to cinema, owing to his unpleasant offscreen activities, is a huge shame.

The Emperor must be kept happy, which gives the scene a good chunk of its dynamic — a clear goal for all the surrounding characters is to make him happy, or to make sure anyway that THEY’RE not the cause of him being unhappy. The vicious rivalry among them means that they wouldn’t mind him being discomfited a bit as long as THEY couldn’t be blamed.

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Salieri, the court composer is the film’s most fascinating character. The real Salieri was essentially forgotten when Anthony Peter Shaffer’s play came out, followed by the film. And then you got a lot of commentary about how Salieri wasn’t mediocre at all, but a very talented guy. but that’s the point, isn’t it? Compared to genius, talent looks and feels mediocre. Salieri has the truly dynamic role in this scene, his sincere admiration for Mozart’s talent rapidly curdling, his intentions turning to the malign — how can I do this guy some harm? His whole stance in the movie is to be outraged that God has given a sublime musical skill to a gibbering ape while HE, Salieri the virtuous, can only pen forgettable trifles. Of course, it’s obvious that Salieri is not an inherently good man at all, but he’s nevertheless largely correct — genius is not dispensed in a fair fashion (otherwise everyone would have a share).

But the other underlings all have their own distinct attitudes. The rotund Kappelmeister Bonno (Patrick Hines, to the right of Salieri) seems a jolly old duffer, but he’s possessed of a jocular malignity — nothing pleases him more than seeing his rivals squirm, so this whole scene is hugely amusing to him; Count Orsini-Rosenberg (Charles Kay) is a chilly authoritarian, viewing Mozart as if her eyeglasses were a microscope affording a too-detailed view of a particularly unpleasant paramecium — when has asks if Mozart has shown him his libretto and Mozart cheerfully says No, but he’ll be sure to, the Count’s reply, “I think you’d better,” comes with a steely glint and a tiny smile more menacing than any frown — it doesn’t even need a closeup to strike home ~

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There are a couple of other characters here who get lines — Baron Von Swieten (Jonathan Moore) seems uniquely fair and decent throughout, and in objecting to the racy content of  The Abduction from the Seraglio he may well be trying to protect Herr Mozart, while another functionary, a guy with clown hair who spends most of the scene eclipsed by Jones, and who doesn’t rate an introduction to Mozart, seems perpetually peeved, maybe because he didn’t rate an introduction to Mozart or maybe because he’s eclipsed by Jones. Sorry, fella, without the introduction I can’t find out who’s playing you.

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Into this muso-political vespiary is thrust Mozart, who unsettles everyone with his oafish lack of correct court decorum — only Swieten seems willing to overlook this on the basis that the young man evidently means no offense. The Emperor exercises noblesse oblige like it was going out of style, and the other snakes move in for the kill, sensing easy prey.

The fact that the character who leaves the scene wounded is Salieri is not due to any guile on Mozart’s part — it’s his insensitivity to others and his casual acceptance of his own megatalent that allows him to crush Salieri so thoroughly.

Oh, I remember why I forgot to point out the dynamic range of attitudes in this scene — I was concentrating on subtext, because all the backstabbing and angling for promotion occurs via a discussion of opera. a subject that only really concerns one character — Mozart.

It’s no surprise that this film won the Oscar, of course, because like SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, it’s as much about Hollywood as it is about its ostensible historic locale. There are geniuses, there are talents, there are mediocrities, there are snakes, and there are those with power, who lack the perspicacity to tell one species of underling from another. Everyone is at the mercy of powerful fools.

Milos Forman notes that the Count’s later line, “Too many notes,” has haunted him, being unfailingly uttered by screenwriters at the end of exhaustive story conferences. Of course it would be!

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The Whiteness

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2013 by dcairns

TelluridePhil

The author meets the auteur: Philip Kaufman and a dazed man in a borrowed hat.

One of the results of meeting Philip Kaufman in Telluride (above) was the realization that, despite loving a number of his films (I have literally no idea how many times I saw THE RIGHT STUFF in the eighties, at the cinema and on VHS) there were big holes in my knowledge of his career. One movie he mentioned as being a little neglected was THE WHITE DAWN (1974), which I’d heard of but never seen.

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It proves to be an excellent film, and I’m not just saying that because Mr. Kaufman was so nice (if I didn’t like this one, I’d find something else to talk about). It’s really one of the best films about intercultural failure of communication, standing comparison with MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE, which it’s arguably better than because it doesn’t have David Bowie in a school uniform. Instead it has Timothy Bottoms, Warren Oates and Louis Gossett, Jnr, a near-unbeatable trio of axioms of 1970s American cinema, acting against a genuine selection of non-professional actors gathered from a single Inuit tribe.

The story, based on James Houston’s novel in turn based on true incidents, deals with three whalers stranded in the arctic who are taken in by an Inuit tribe. The initially friendly approach of the natives ultimately takes a tragic turn as the interlopers fail to fit in, contribute, or understand the people they’ve become dependent on. While the reliably surly Oates is an obvious walking trouble-spot, Bottoms and Gossett’s response to the apparent free love offered by the community also seems likely to cause problems, with the sensitive young Bottoms becoming enamoured and possessive of one young woman (Pilitak).

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The blend of languages and acting styles works remarkably well. “The trouble with non-professionals is they’re not professional enough. And the trouble with professionals is they’re too professional.” ~ Milos Forman. “When you put a non-professional and a professional together the effect is immediately to show up the artificiality of the professional.” ~ Alexander Mackendrick. And the movie manages to create sympathy for both sides — its theme has never been more timely, and it’s regrettable that the movie isn’t easier to see (according to its director, no good 35mm print of this handsome film, shot by Michael Chapman, exists anywhere in the world).

If everyone saw it and absorbed its theme, it could actually save us.

I have THE GREAT MINNESOTA NORTHFIELD RAID lined up next.

My Kaufman essay can be bought as a bonus along with: Invasion of the Body Snatchers [Blu-ray]

White Dawn

The ’68 Comeback Special: The Fireman’s Ball

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Welcome. Scout Tafoya and I are blogging the entire line-up of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival — the Cannes that never was. Previous installments here and here.

I love this one. Milos Forman manages to square a number of circles here — he was able to make a film in communist Czechoslovakia with funding from capitalist Carlo Ponti. And he was able to combine Tatiesque behavioural comedy and comedy of movement with a documentary style, something even Tati couldn’t quite do (he tried, in TRAFIC). The stylistic trope is a success, though the financial one proved problematic, with Forman getting buffeted by censorship from the Czechs and lawsuits from the Italian.

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The movie is a pretty courageous attack on a system that doesn’t work because it fails to take account of human weakness and corruption — that’s maybe the mildest critique one could make of soviet-style communism, but it’s a critique all the same, and thus dangerous. (When I screened the film for students they found it so plain enjoyable they didn’t want to hear about deeper meanings — “An allegory? That’s spoiling it!”) The authorities objected strongly to the portrayal of regional firemen as incompetent and venal. In an effort to provoke a controversy they could use against the film, they screened it to a real fire department, only to find the Czech firefighters largely agreeing with the film’s depiction, and reminiscing about their most spectacular bungles, which topped anything Forman had dared to portray.

As for Ponti, he objected to the film’s very short running time and claimed Forman had failed to live up to his contract by delivering a film of less than feature-length. Forman argued, rightly, that the film was the perfect length for what it was (it’s not exactly slight, but it would start to seem slight if you inflated it). For a while, a huge and terrifying lawsuit dangled over Forman’s head.

The film itself pulls off an exceptional balance between affection — I think Forman loves his subjects, non-professional actors whose hesitant performances manage the difficult job of seeming realistic rather than amateur — and cruelty — the comic developments are mercilessly observed and much of the humour downright mean. How does he even get away with reducing to a shambles the ceremony intended to honour an ancient fireman, now apparently about to expire from cancer? By making it something that’s more important to the ball organizers, a bunch of stuffed-shirt bureaucrats (though again, observed with affection) rather than the recipient, who attends more out of a sense of solemn duty than pride. Bow-legged and befuddled, he seems impervious to harm, whereas the gradual disintegration of the ceremony is mortifying to the idiots in charge. Thus, tragedy is circumvented and comedy achieved.

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This strategy, whereby the real victims in the film are unable to suffer, is a very useful one. The climax, when a house burns down under the fire brigade’s noses, is kind of melancholic, but still hilarious, and part of its bittersweet ludicrousness comes from the fact that for once it shows the people acting together and trying to do some good, but in the most misguided way. The old man whose house is on fire is frail, so they sit him in a chair, one of the few belongings rescued from the blaze. Then they worry that he’ll be cold, so they move him closer to the fire. Then they worry that the sight of his life going up in smoke will be distressing to him, so they turn him around so he can’t see. Of course, the man shows no sign of distress, just bafflement at this odd behaviour.

There is a bit of pathos — somehow, speaking for myself, anyway, I’m able to laugh and feel pity and not blame the filmmaker for being a bastard,

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Oh, and another thing that strikes me as near-miraculous — the beauty pageant. It’s a good, but risky, anti-communist joke, the beauty contest where the girls are all selected for political reasons and do not exactly fulfill the normal criteria for Miss World. Kind of chimes with western jokes about female shot-putters and stuff. But of course the danger here is more cruelty, and sexism to boot. Forman manages to make the sweaty firemen the butt of the joke, and the more attractive girls, the ones they want desperately to take part, are all really odd-looking too, so the parade becomes a celebration of physical idiosyncrasy, rather than a nasty put-down of females who fail to come up to some societal standard. In the context of this movie full of wonderfully odd-looking characters, the girls are all rather lovely.

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I got the making-of info from Forman’s excellent memoir, Turnaround.

Buy this —