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Forms of Liberation  


If the seventies was the great decade of narrative pessimism and downbeat realism, with film after film ending despairingly, where did that leave such an ostensibly optimistic genre as the musical in troubled times? From Cabaret to All that Jazz from Saturday Night Fever to Hair, it was generally the case that the musical incorporated elements of realism; whether that was in unhappy conclusions, a plausibly realised mise-en-scene, or a vivid sociological environment.

In Czech émigré Milos Forman’s film adaptation of the famous sixties stage musical it incorporates elements of all three. The film’s early scenes for example gives us no hint of the musical to come as Forman opens on an establishing shot of the house in an extreme long shot as a couple of people leave by the front door. This is like an image out of Edward Hopper, and Forman captures the equivalent sense of rural desolation with the use of sound that gives us a sense of domestic life without inviting us into it. As we hear the distant sounds of a dog barking, a cock crowing and of a car starting up, this is a short-hand account of rural living, yet, because of the shot choice, Forman manages to combine beautifully an unequivocal notion in our mind that this is rural life and also that it has its own mysteries and silence that the film respects but has no time upon which to dwell. If it feels like such a seventies opening, it resides in this skilful combination of giving us the necessary information with a yearning sense of a world beyond the frame. As we see horses in front of the house, and a character in the distance riding up to it, we may wonder who it might be on the horse, but Forman has no interest in telling us. During the shot, as a pick-up truck leaves the house, Forman pans right as the truck exits the frame, and then the next shot shows the pick-up entering screen left while the camera pans left as the pick-up passes the church. Forman holds the shot momentarily on the church before the third shot shows the characters entering screen right and the camera dollies back and pans as two characters get out of the pick-up, and the young man gets seen off at the bus stop by someone who is clearly his father; this is a young man whom we later find out is heading to New York before going off to fight in Vietnam.

Though the film’s dance numbers were choreographed by the famous Twyla Tharp, there may be no better choreographed sequence in the film than this account of a young man leaving home. Generally we would expect the pan in the first short to lead to a match on action in the next, but Forman shows the pick-up entering the shot from the opposite direction, and then reverses it again for shot three. By holding the long shot in the first image, and by countering the direction of the first shot with the second, and the second shot with the third, Forman seems to be closer to the expectations of seventies cinema with its querying of space, rather than the musical demands of establishing it. If we compare this opening to a classic musical like Minnelli’s Meet Me in St Louis, which also opens on the establishing shot of a house, with the camera tracking and panning to give us more information before moving into the house’s interior, we can see that at least in its opening moments, Forman seems to be looking for something other than the establishing of both screen and generic space.

Even the colour use in Forman’s early moments seem to defy generic expectation. As David Bordwell and others have noted, certain colours are recessional; others bold – as Bordwell says “regardless of object, lighter, warmer, and more intense colors tend to seem closer than do darker, cooler, and less saturated ones. For example, pure reds and yellows come forward, pure blues retreat.” The musical usually adopts bold colours; realism recessional ones, and this opening scene, with early morning mist and faded colours would indicate realist rather than musical expectations.

This interest in the recessional in all its manifestations over the bold was paradoxically partly why Forman was drawn to making the film. This was Forman’s first movie after the Oscar winning and hugely acclaimed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Forman’s third work in the States after making a series of films in Czechoslovakia in the sixties, including Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball. In an interview in the book Film Forum, Forman says what he liked “in the case of Hair, in the case of any musical, the lyrics took care of the message of the film which was a big relief because then I could concentrate on scenes in the plot that are seemingly very unimportant.” In another interview, in the book The Film Director as Superstar, published in the late sixties, Forman said “film is photography finally, and everything surrounding the actor is real. The trees are real. The earth is real. Everything is real. So I want real people too.”  How to square this with the expectations of the musical, a genre that even in the seventies with films like Grease and The Wiz according to J. P. Tellot – quoted in The Cinema Book – “tend to integrate the musical component at the expense of a realistic plot”?  However, Tellot contrasts this approach with Saturday Night Fever and The Buddy Holly Story, where the music and dance are realistically contained within and motivated by the story. Yet Forman decides to use the musical numbers in the classic mould – as numbers that are not realistically incorporated into the story, with the characters’ performing the music on stage or on the dance-floor, but where they express their thoughts and feelings at any moment.

This adaptation is basically a hybrid in this sense of the classic musical and the realist musical Telotte sees, and we may suspect that Forman wanted to create a film that would be contained by that melancholic and mysterious opening sequence of a young man leaving home. As John Savage’s character, Claude, meets up with various hippies in the city, and falls in love with a high class debutante, Forman works with not so much the optimism of the musical as its liberatory energy – the degree to which the musical is a form for releasing repressed thought and feeling, a theme that has interested Forman in much of his work (from Loves of a Blonde to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, from Amadeus to The People Versus Larry Flynt). This is partly why authority figures appear so prominently in his films; they represent the oppressive and suppressive forces that want order over freedom. This might seem an especially pressing issue for a filmmaker who came from Czechoslovakia and was witness to its hard-line methods in the fifties, its thawing during the Prague Spring, and was out of the country, and decided to remain so, after the tanks rolled in during August 1968.

But we can also usefully mention Robert M. Pirsig’s ideas on dynamic and static energy to understand something of Forman’s preoccupations. In a passage in Lila, An Inquiry into Morals, Pirsig proposes that “in a metaphysics in which static universal laws are considered fundamental, the idea that life is evolving away from any law just draws a baffled question mark…It seems to say that all life is headed towards chaos, since chaos is the only alternative to structural patterns that a law bound metaphysics can conceive.” Like many another filmmaker of the period, Forman seemed more interested in the dynamic than the static: in creating characters of liberation against characters of oppression, and though this may seem true of the musical of the past also, taking into account Thomas Elsaesser’s idea that in Minnelli’s musicals “the central characters are engaged in a struggle to assert their identity, to articulate their vision of the world”, we need to say why it is still more true of Hair. We need to recall Forman’s comments about his interest in the real, and compare it to Minnelli and others’ notion of the integrated musical. In a sub-chapter on the genre in The Cinema Book, written by Steve Neale, Neale talks of the integrity of certain musicals, and means chiefly by this “the body and the space within which it moves”. Critic Pauline Kael noted however that Hair doesn’t have that type of unity, and said that “everything that should have been flowing was chopped up – it was over-edited.”

But Forman seems less interested in the integrity of the musical numbers than the liberation of energy, and where in most musicals this is an end in-itself, as we get lost in the liberation of the body in space, in Forman’s film the body’s liberation is only part of the story. He is interested in a broader liberty that incorporates the socio-political, and in this sense One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hair are very much seventies companion pieces. When one of the characters sings about life during a dance number at an upmarket social event, this could be R. P. McMurphy taking on Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo’s Nest. What interests Forman is the liberatory potential within the social over the bodily liberation we find when Gene Kelly sings and dances in the rain. To compare the grace and skill of Kelly to Treat Williams’s movements in Forman’s film would be to show up Williams’ weaknesses, though his way into film was through Broadway musicals.  But Forman’s film isn’t about the body’s grace but one’s social place, and one’s attempt to create a freedom so much greater than the body in its immediate environment. It is true as Kael says that by a musical’s standard the film is over-edited, but for better or worse Forman is a director of the reaction shot. Whether it is in a scene in Valmont where the titular character tells a young woman’s mother that she doesn’t know what is best for her daughter in front of various other onlookers, or the group encounter sessions in Cuckoo’s Nest, with constant cutaways, Forman is a director who carves up space as he captures not the body unfettered but the social body oppressive and the individual findings ways to release themselves from it.

Hair may not finally be either a great Forman film or a great musical: it is caught between Forman’s interest in carving up space for socio-political observation, and the musical’s fascination with the body’s grace. As it follows Claude’s engagement with the hippies in New York, his basic training, the moment Berger (Williams) swaps places with him so that Claude can have a few hours with Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo), the film doesn’t quite find the observational sense that Forman talks of seeking, and the opening sequence so beautifully captures. A number of critics have talked of it being outdated. That a sixties musical gets a treatment ten years too late. But One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a great early sixties counter-cultural book that proved pertinent to mid-seventies culture, though it is true Hair is more obviously of its time in fashion and attitude than Kesey’s book. However it is more a case finally of a director whose inclinations reside in what his fellow Czech émigré, the novelist Josef Skvorecky has called his ‘comedie humaine’ – the focus on the foibles of life rather than its grace. Forman may have believed that the musical would take care of the plot and he could get on with the observation, but that there is nothing to match those opening three shots in the rest of the film before the music starts indicates that for all the musical’s liberatory energy, did it not paradoxically fetter Forman?


©Tony McKibbin