Archive for Milos Forman

Porn Again

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2018 by dcairns

Probably we’ll be revisiting a few Milos Forman films, in the wake of his passing, but the one I dropped in the player was THE PEOPLE VERSUS LARRY FLYNT, mainly because we hadn’t seen it since it came out. It’s still very amusing and affecting — Courtney Love provides the untrained quality Forman admired as Althea Flynt, and Woody Harrelson brings the more actorly professionalism, creating the perfect blendship. It comes across as a genuinely sweet relationship between two filthy people in love. And Harrelson’s brother Brett is really good, he should do more.

Since then, screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski have brought us The People Versus O.J. Simpson on TV plus several more biopics of Great American Weirdos. including Forman’s follow-up MAN IN THE MOON. I think this is one of their most successful attempts at character portraiture in their specialised sub-genre, the one in which character is in constant flux and motivation is often inexplicable, two challenges which would derail most writers.

Away from the human element — the movie does pretty well with its mercurial madman hero — it’s a defence of free speech, and the movie is effective enough here, but sort of slanted.

Firstly, feminist criticism of porn doesn’t exist in this film, so Flynt’s legal opponents are bluenoses and creeps like Jerry Falwell. This is fair enough in narrative terms, since those guys threatened the real-life Flynt more than attacks by Andrea Dworkin. But it leaves out a whole aspect of the subject, which could potentially enrich the movie. Ed Norton — playing a composite of all Flynt’s actual lawyers through the tears — yet appearing in the end-of-film summary as if he were a real person — talks about finding Hustler magazine distasteful, and Harrelson’s Flynt himself says, “The most I’m guilty of is BAD TASTE!” — a good line — but might there have been room for a more nuanced consideration? The weird effect is that the movie seems to take place in an alternative version of the 60s, 70s and 80s in which feminism never happened.

You can make up your own pearl necklace joke, if you absolutely have to.

Secondly, that analysis of what’s actually in Hustler is limited by censorship — the movie can’t actually show a real centrefold from the magazine, because vaginas are bad. So it can get a lot of good comedy value out of showing prudes at a fundraiser gaping in horror at unseen images, but it can’t let the other audience, us, view those images and make up our own minds. In other circumstances, this could make us imagine that the skinzine contains images of UNIMAGINABLE HORROR, I suppose, but instead it’s more like a suggestion of “nothing to see here.”

I’m not completely sold on my own suggestion that an analysis of the feminist objections to Hustler would improve the movie. Storywise, it’s not certain that feminism ever posed a threat to, or otherwise impinged on the life of Mr. Flynt whatsoever. The movie also omits three of his marriages and five children, including the one who claims he sexually abused her. And in today’s climate, it’s easier to say he may well have done. Apart from the fact that most such accusations tend to be truthful, Flynt was, in his youth, obviously highly sexed and sexual, morally flexible, mentally somewhat unbalanced (not that any of that automatically makes you a rapist). He makes a good suspect. How does that suspicion make the film play? More uncomfortably, which may be a good thing. The movie is a little too sure of itself.

We have to factor in Forman’s Goyaesque side, too, even though he hadn’t made GOYA’S GHOSTS yet. In fairness, Flynt’s staffers are a carnivalesque bunch of freakazoids, with Forman fave Vincent Schiavelli vying with sleepy-eyed Crispin Glover for physiognomy first prize, but it’s the prosecutors attacking Flynt who get the really repulsive reaction shots. All this is complicated a bit more by Flynt’s own cameo as a biassed judge, his flat delivery and bulbous features making for a caricature that works against both himself and his opponents. The satirical laser bounces between two funhouse mirrors and ends up just making the room seem hot.

The tendency to slant things towards Flynt is maybe most apparent in the scene where Love’s character drowns in the bath — while Flynt is on the phone trying to get her more medical help for her AIDS and drug addiction. It’s a pat, inelegant construction in an otherwise very smart screenplay, because it seems to be trying to force sympathy out of us that we should be quite willing to give freely. I don’t know, maybe that’s exactly how it happened in real life, but real life can sometimes need a rewrite.

But! I’d missed the news that the guy who shot Flynt, paralysing him, had actually been caught and executed. And Flynt campaigned to save his life because he’s opposed to the death penalty. That is some serious Christian forgiveness from a proud atheist. (Maybe atheists are more Christian than the Christians? I can’t imagine Falwell doing that.)

 

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The Sunday Intertitle: The March of Time

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2018 by dcairns

I wanted to say something about the great Milos Forman, who died the other day. And, as it happens, his RAGTIME begins with a silent newsreel and lots of intertitles.

RAGTIME is one of Forman’s great follies. He worked out early that American films had to have clear dramatic focus and conclusive endings in order to make it big with the public. But he’d occasionally find himself making films that hadn’t a prayer, because they were scattershot or their stories fizzled out in ambiguous, frustrating ways. These unloved movies are by no means inferior to his acclaimed, Oscar-winning masterpieces. They’re just less ingratiating. (And, looking at the endings of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and AMADEUS, we may have to redefine what we usually mean by “ingratiating” — but they’re very SATISFYING endings. Oh, GOYA’S GHOSTS was generally not liked by anyone except me and Fiona, and has an ending that redefines grim, but nobody could accuse it of being inconclusive. It’s an ending beyond which there can be nothing.)

Forman was also the king of bad timing. For every movie that somehow came along at the right time — CUCKOO’S NEST was a sixties novel that depicted a mental hospital decades out of time, but turned out to be a movie just right for the seventies, there would be a HAIR (NOBODY wanted to see a film about hippies in 1979, AND it didn’t have a plot — sure, more story than the stage musical, but still, no plot) or VALMONT, a version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that followed the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton adaptation by just a year (“Never make a movie somebody else has just made,” was the lesson the producer drew from that). But those are really good films, I’m SO glad Forman ignored his own sound financial instincts and made them, out of love.

RAGTIME itself has not one story but a bunch, so loosely connected that producer Dino De Laurentiis was able to excise one almost completely, over Forman’s passionate objections. But the real heart of the film is the story of Coalhouse Walker (Howard Rollins Jr.), who is playing piano alongside that newsreel at the start of the film. Original author E.L. Doctorow had basically just plagiarised Heinrich Von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas (also filmed by Volker Schloendorff) and transposed it to the early twentieth century. Doctorow called it “a quite deliberate hommage” and it’s true that the similarity of names shows he’s not hiding anything. But it’s not a passing nod of the head or tip of the hat — he’s nicked the whole story, the cheeky blighter.

Anyhow, Forman was moved by the story, as Kafka had been before him. It’s a tale of injustice, and injustice ALWAYS MOVES AN AUDIENCE. (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be believed.” — A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.) Forman, having been born in Czechoslovakia with typically interesting timing, knew all about injustice. A man’s beautiful knew carriage and horses/jalopy is gratuitously trashed. He demands reparation. The authorities are weak or corrupt and simply tell him to go away. He won’t. Death and destruction follow. And a moral victory appearing from total ruination.

Baron Harkonnen is fire chief and Cody Jarrett is police chief in this town? We could be in trouble here.

There aren’t enough Milos Forman films. And yet, once you start listing the essential ones, you can’t stop until you’ve named them all.

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!