Sunday, February 17, 2008

Retrospective Love for Forman

With two best director Oscars to his credit, Miloš Forman hardly lacks for recognition. However, his early work in the creative vanguard of the Czech new wave is nowhere near as familiar to cineastes as work like Amadeus or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Thanks a current MoMA retrospective, audiences will have an opportunity to enjoy films from both Forman periods in the coming weeks.

The Firemen’s Ball has the distinction of being the last film Forman directed before finding it prudent to leave his home in then Czechoslovakia. It was released shortly before the Soviet invasion. It closed shortly after.

Forman went to the provincial Czech village of Vrchlabí looking for inspiration to strike. It came at the local firemen’s actual ball. A far cry from Socialist realism, Firemen casts a jaundiced eye on the foibles and corruption of a small-time fire department as the try to produce their annual ball. One of the great controversies surrounding the film is whether it is allegorical, or just the victim of very bad timing. Regardless of intent, 1968 just was not a good time to satirize buffoonery in uniform.

Seen even less often is the so-called “jazz opera” A Well Paid Walk (Dobre placená procházka) Forman directed for Czechoslovakian television. The jazz elements are actually quite overstated. Although one song performed by the postman played by lyricist Jiří Suchý makes explicit reference to jazz and incorporates syncopated rhythms for dramatic effect, composer (and co-star) Jiří Šlitr’s music is essentially on-par with that of its Broadway contemporary’s.

Labels aside, the music is pretty catchy, and the story is not at all your typically frothy romance. It starts with an impending divorce between a young couple, however the split is put on hold when a telegram announces a rich American aunt’s intention to leave their as yet unborn baby one million dollars, which was real money in 1966 Czechoslovakia. Suchý’s postman has a habit of advancing the storyline through telegrams that almost veers into David Lynch territory late in the film. Yet in terms of music and attitude, it seems very much a product of its mod times.

While Firemen took on political implications even if it had no such original ambitions, Walk does not lend itself to such interpretations. However, it has shown resiliency as a musical, with Forman collaborating on a stage revival at the National Theater in Prague last year. Both films make for particularly intriguing viewing at the MoMA. (Walk screens again Sun. the 24th and Fireman, plays again on the 25th.)