The Oxymoronic Gaze
After a series of films in his native Czechoslovakia, including Peter and Pavla, Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen's Ball, Milos Forman, who was born in 1932, and studied at the Prague Film School, FAMU, where one of his teachers was Milan Kundera, found himself marooned in the West. It was during the Russian invasion of his country in the summer of '68, and Forman made the difficult decision to stay. Not only was he leaving behind family; Forman no doubt wondered whether he would be leaving behind what made him an interesting filmmaker: would he be able to take his sensibility into an American cinema without his specialty - observational detail - getting lost? Forman was one of numerous mid-sixties Czech filmmakers influenced by cinema verit and Direct Cinema, by documentary movements interested in capturing reality on the hoof. Indeed his fellow filmmaker and sometime co-scriptwriter Ivan Passer talked of the "obstinate investigation of reality" that marked many films of the period. For all the absurdist touches and exaggerated characterization, these were fiction films attending to the incidental with the attentive gaze not usually demanded of more narratively driven cinema. Alongside Vera Chytilova, Passer, Jiri Menzel and Jaromil Jires, Forman tried to expand the possibilities in life by focusing so concentratedly upon it. The irony in his career wasn't that the radical break from Czechoslovakia to the States damaged his work; it was more the success of his second film Stateside, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Its brilliance lay in an accumulation of small details that showed a deep need to express the human spirit too easily countered by institutional power, and was thus consistent with themes in his Czech work. But Forman was taken up as a master adaptor: anybody that could take Ken Kesey's allegorical early-sixties novel and turn it into an Oscar winning film in the mid-seventies was a filmmaker to be treasured, and much of Forman's work since has been in adapting the novels and plays of others to the screen: Hair, Ragtime, Amadeus, Valmont.
In their article on Czechoslovak film of the Sixties in Cinema - A Critical Dictionary, D and A. J. Liehm talk of Forman's "close ups as punctuation and his sly cruel humour, his ugly beauty", and they capture well Forman's taste for the oxymoronic rather than the ironic, and this could well explain the difference between Forman's Czech and early American films, and the later ones. The oxymoronic offers the mutually incompatible while, as Claire Colebrook observes in her book on Irony, "despite its unwieldy complexity, irony has a frequent and common definition: saying what is contrary to what is meant". The oxymoronic however contains what cannot so easily be separated. It would be ironic to show an ugly woman admiring what she perceives to be her beauty in the mirror; it would be oxymoronic to find in that ugliness a certain beauty. Roger Ebert might have insisted that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest "...achieves its success by deliberately choosing to use the mental patients as comic caricatures", but is that the case or is Forman more interested in capturing the idiosyncrasy of behaviour for the purposes of oxymoronic exploration? While the film frequently works off central character R. P. McMurphy's reaction shots, and that McMurphy's our identificatory character throughout the film, no matter the slight shift in perspective as Randall dies and the silent Indian escapes, McMurphy's reactions are surely quizzical more than comically judging. When he first goes along to the encounter sessions hosted by the buttoned up Nurse Ratched, this is a new milieu, a world unfamiliar but strangely appealing.
Where Ebert sees caricature, we instead propose that Forman's capacity for observation takes us beyond the ironic and the caricatural and into the oxymoronic, from the viewer at one remove from the characters' vanities and inanities, to finding within them principles more significant than the superficial traits. This could of course simply lead to the filmmaker mocking initially before arcing characterization in such a manner that their hideousness gives way to their humanity, but the greatness of Forman's film lies in constantly working the humanity and hideousness in conjunction, not compartmentalizing them for audience identification. Early in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest there is a scene where one of the characters is explaining his problems with his wife, when several of the other characters hysterically react as the uptight figure uses a big word that the others mock. Afterwards the characters are playing cards and a similar scenario develops and the scene ends with McMurphy spraying the uptight character with a hose as the characters haven't become any wiser under McMurphy's tutelage; more that McMurphy has become increasingly infantile under theirs. But then we may recall at the beginning of the film after McMurphy's handcuffs have been taken off that McMurphy had the hyperbolic buffoon in him anyway, and the hospital gives him the opportunity to play the fool. But it is as though the operative word is playing rather than foolishness.
An ironist might wish to show that we are all fools, but Forman as 'oxymoronist' wants to show instead that the world is a potential playground. What matters isn't arcing behaviour so that we can see that the mad are as sane as the rest of us, or at least as worthy of our sympathies; more that the world is playful but the capacity for playfulness is constantly limited by the functional seriousness expected of us. In this sense Cuckoo's Nest should be seen not as the relatively sane McMurphy institutionalized with a bunch of 'wackos', more a character at play capable of generating recreation in a staid environment. Throughout the film Forman shows us McMurphy's enthusiasm for life, as if the sort of questions the doctors and nurses concern themselves with over sanity and insanity are irrelevant next to the question of generating playful energy. Whether it is McMurphy playing basketball or taking the inmates on a fishing trip, what counts is the human spirit as energetic purpose. In this sense even if many of the inmates are crazy next to the doctors and nurses, they seem much closer to the oxymoronic possibilities in energetic recreation. When we insist that Forman is interested in the oxymoron it rests in making one respond not with the detachment of irony, but the engagement of seeing beyond a surface to its inner texture. If we locate ourselves at one remove from the film we note that Nurse Ratched is as insane in her rationality as many of the inmates are in their irrationality, and we are left musing whether such a woman of institutionalised normalization isn't finally crazier than the people she is responsible for. But if we see that each character contains within them paradoxical behaviour, the film can show different perspectives whist still holding on to its central idea of the world at play. When Stanley Kauffmann in the review collection Before My Eyes has a problem with the film for what he perceives as its glorification of McMurphy, we might note that Randall isn't glorified; more energized. Ratched isn't demonised; but we notice she is atrophied. There are moments in the film where Forman seems to observe Ratched's face as though looking to see twitches of energy around the corners of her mouth, to see if there is any life left in those eyes. If we come away from the film hating Nurse Ratched, and, as some critics claim, seeing misogyny in evidence, then the film hasn't quite worked.
Forman we may notice is often a fine director of the victims of temperament as readily as circumstance. McMurphy dies horribly as the victim of the latter, but Ratched has been dying for a long time it seems as a victim of the former. We may also notice that the father in Taking Off is also a victim of temperament, and indeed many of the other parents who join the group searching for missing children. As Buck Henry goes looking for the daughter he and his wife believe has become a runaway, so they end up at a special parent's meeting where they are introduced to the problem of drugs. Many youngsters are taking hash, so the parents are expected to sample the evil weed. With the parents consequently loosening up, the film's dramatic climax comes when the daughter who's been home and has presumably been asleep for hours, looks over the balcony from the door of her upstairs bedroom and notices her father standing on the table more or less naked and singing. This is ostensibly an ironic situation as Forman shows the teenage girl bemused by her father's stoned state, but is it that the director creates victims of both circumstances and temperaments that lead to a more nuanced feeling? Hence, when Ewa Mazierska says in Masculinities in Polish, Czech and Slovak Cinema "the films of Milos Forman are an excellent illustration of a rebellious attitude", that is a truth but only a half truth. The other half consists in noting how rebellious characters are also contrasted with conformist characters; with one group often victims of circumstances created by the older generation, but the others, the older generation or conservative group, are the victims of temperaments that require an internal shift. Clearly for Ratched this proves impossible; for Henry and his wife surprisingly feasible. Throughout the film the emphasis is, like in Cuckoo's Nest, on play, both in the musical sense as the film's opening stages crosscut between the parents and the daughter who is auditioning as a singer, and also both in the hash-smoking that is presented as an opportunity for the parents to become like their children, and the game of strip poker the parents are playing when their daughter wakes up and wonders what they are doing. By the end of the film the music playing boyfriend that Jeannie has been disappearing to see, comes round for dinner, and when Henry asks him how much he earns, he replies two hundred and ninety thousand dollars - before tax. At the very end of the film we see the young couple sitting watching as dad sings. What are we to make of this scene that perfunctorily ends the movie? There is certainly irony shortly before when the father asks over dinner whether the boyfriend makes any money at music, but that irony gives way to a deeper feeling when the father ends up singing for the kids. Yet this is consistent with Forman's interest in play, and the contrast he has worked throughout the film between the youngsters who have been trying to escape from their circumstances and parents escaping from their temperaments.
As the film focuses chiefly on various youngsters auditioning in the opening few minutes, with the occasional cross-cut to Buck Henry and his wife, so Forman, by many people's standards, would be indulging the performers without giving us any new narrative information. There is conventional truth in this; but it as though Forman has not so much a story to tell as a perplexing theme to explore. As we watch these various singers audition so we may muse over what Forman is getting at as the singing is not always good and not always bad, and as there is no suspense to the sequence, and no discernible character with whom we're identifying. Forman seems to be setting up a space of enquiry more than setting a story in motion. It is why we find it more useful to talk about the film's thematic structure, a structure consistent with a number of Forman's other works where the oxymoronic and the issue of temperaments prove vital. An ironic ending would have left us well aware of the young man's earnings, and aware that he earns far more than Henry's white collar hard worker, but instead Forman ends with the father singing ineptly as the kids passively sit and watch. It may seem that the youngsters are looking to let out their creative side, but actually that isn't much of a problem, as we see in the first few minutes of the film. Indeed the one person who can't is Jeannie as she flunks the audition, as though she is suffering her own momentary failure of temperament: an example of the older generation creating neurosis in the younger one, perhaps, so that they become victims of temperament themselves, but out of the constraints of their elders.
In Taking Off this is basically resolved: the older generation and the younger one seem to 'take off' enough for the film to arrive at a bemused but satisfactory compromise between the apparent arbiters of authority (the parents), and those at the mercy of them, (the kids). But two things come to mind here. One is that the subject of runaway kids was a topic addressed by a number of seventies films (including Joe, Taxi Driver and Hardcore), and the darkness of the other three is alluded to in a scene that is both convolutedly comic and at the same time addresses the issue all the more worryingly by all but ignoring it. Henry goes into a diner and asks an immigrant woman behind the counter if she has seen his daughter, and leaves a picture saying that if she sees her then to get in touch. At the same time as he leafs through the pictures of other missing girls, he notices one is identical to a girl sitting in the very diner. He goes and phones the number on the back of the picture, and the parents say they'll come, but just then the girl, her boyfriend and a couple of his friends get up to leave. A farcical scene develops with the mother and Henry chasing after the girl, while the taxi driver (whom the mother forgot to pay) and the boyfriend, who's taken umbrage to Henry's interference, go after them. But inside this funny chase scene is darkness visible: the timidity of the girl as the boyfriend looks like he possesses the young woman in every sense of the term. She seems like the flipside of Henry's daughter. If Jeannie is a bit insecure because of her parents' obsessive concern; is the other girl losing all sense of identity in the arms of her beefy, hippie boyfriend?
The other thing that stops Forman arriving at ready and easy irony is how such conflict between opposing values can generate just as readily the tragic as the comic, but that in Cuckoo's Nest and Taking Off, as in his Czech work, he maintains the tension between them. If in Taking Off Forman arrives at the comic, in the next three films he would make he concludes on the tragic. However, if One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest retains the comic within the tragic, Hair and Ragtime, like Cuckoo's Nest, conclude on the leading characters' deaths, but it's as though while Forman wanted to explore the dynamics of opposing visions of America, seeing the country not as a bureaucratic bungle (as in his Czech works), but a dialectical conflict, this conflict becomes increasingly external and lacking nuance. This is more and more evident as the films become ever broader in their exploration. The oxymoronic dimension which came out of cinema verit and lead to Passer's belief in the obstinate investigation, increasingly gave way to the broad ambitions of comprehending American conflict, evident for example in the story that takes up the second half of Ragtime, as a black musician becomes involved in terrorist activities after being humiliated by a white fireman, and in the clash between the hippies and authorities in Hair. The obstinate investigation of Taking Off and One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest, though, works off the smaller conflicts of the familial and institutional and render the tensions within, resolving one comically, the other tragically.
They basically work because they are a continuation of Forman's interests in his Czech films. When Forman says of the last film he made in Czecholovakia, The Firemen's Ball, "I wanted just to make a comedy knowing that if I'll be real, if I'll be true, the film will automatically reveal an allegorical sense", we would replace the allegorical with the oxymoronic capacity to explore the inner contradictions of truth, and the clash between victims of circumstances and victims of their own temperaments colliding. The first are likely to be caught in fixed situations; the latter in fixed idea. But if the balance between the two is lost, the film lacks the requisite tension to arrive at the real. In Hair, for example, Forman opens his film as beautifully as any of his works as we see the farm boy leaving home and travelling to New York while he prepares to get drafted to Vietnam. As Forman offers the sort of melancholy long shots that open and close Cuckoo's Nest, he indicates a world of isolation and quiet contemplation as we see a boy leave home perhaps never to return. At this stage we don't know that he has been drafted, but in purely visual terms Forman has set up a world of quiet consistency that someone seems to be leaving behind. But thereafter the musical numbers take over, and the interrogation of reality gives way to broad clashes of conflict between the hippies and the authorities, evident in the musical number where the hippie group the young man has now joined, sing and dance on the tables at an upmarket social event. Forman, who has always been a filmmaker interested in the reaction shot, nevertheless here allows it to become the stale device it so often is, as onlookers are suitably horrified.
Now this isn't asking for socio-political even-handedness; it is more to wonder what it is that makes Forman's work sometimes so meaningful. Perhaps it has to do with the difference between illustration and exploration; that Forman can offer a reaction shot that explores a face or illustrates a situation. For example there are numerous moments in both Taking Off and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest where the characters are observed or observe, as if Forman wanted to take not so much their temperature as their temperament, the camera the optical equivalent of the thermometer. We might think of the scene in Taking Off where Henry's character tries to put his jacket on at the same time as he is trying to carry a framed picture of Jeannie, or the scene where he eats a hard boiled egg whilst drunk and realises as he eats it that he has only partly peeled the egg. Then there are the reaction shots at the auditions, curiously inscrutable looks as various musicians and judges look on, and Forman seems momentarily more interested in their look than what they are looking at. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Forman might often be accused of caricaturing because of the way he holds on images of faces that are unusual: from Michael Berryman to Vincent Schiavelli, or fairly standard faces wearing outlandish expressions, like Christopher Lloyd, or possessed of exaggerated tics, like Brad Dourif's stutter. But in each instance one feels there is a world within each character that, however briefly, Forman respects and explores. Perhaps this is at the heart of his capacity for the oxymoronic, and at the same time the emotional heart of his work.
© Tony McKibbin