Milos Forman only made eight English-language features in five decades, but many of his contributions became synonymous with the legacy of American movies. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus” have a powerful resonance in popular culture, while later efforts “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on the Moon” showed a resilient filmmaker keen on exploring iconoclastic figures by pushing the boundaries of commercial cinema. However, in the wake of his death, no appreciation of Forman’s talent is complete without an acknowledgement of the masterful black comedies he made in the first stage of his career.
Less prophet of doom than a chronicler of contemporary despair, Forman meshed satire with realism and wielded irony as a cultural weapon. In the early ‘60s, Forman was a leading figure of the Czechoslovak New Wave by transforming the pratfalls of disaffected youth into punchlines. The humor emerged as a natural reflex — nervous laughter over the uncertainties of strange times.
Forman’s first feature, “Black Peter” (1964), meshes offbeat situational humor with a conventional coming-of-age story. Soft-spoken teen Peter (Ladislav Jakim) lands a thankless job at the local grocery store, where he’s asked to apprehend thieving shoppers. Hardly the aggressive type, he prefers to wander the hills with newfound friends. The ongoing joke of his dead-end job clashes hard with the demands of nascent responsibilities. Forman’s use of non-professional actors and real settings give the movie a documentary-like resonance. With Peter, Forman explores the early stirrings of rebellious instincts among a new generation on the brink of the enlightenment known as the Prague Spring.
In “Loves of a Blonde” (1965), meek college student Andula (Hana Brejchova) deflects the propositions of unruly soldiers only to fall for a slick, carefree musician. The naive young woman mistakes his seductive advances for sincere affection, and after she follows the hustler to his parents’ house, the puzzled elders struggle to make her leave. (Think of it as the original “Meet the Parents” with no guarantee of a happy ending.) Andula’s situation is tragic — but the circumstances reach such a high pitch of frantic absurdity that the scenario winds up as a comedy of errors anyway.
Forman’s first two features could be combined as a three-hour riff on young adulthood. These early masterpieces emerged at the forefront of a cinematic renaissance that took place in tandem with the early days of the French New Wave. Whereas Godard’s “Breathless” mocked juvenile flights of fantasy by situating its rebels in exaggerated gangster tropes, Forman showed a greater degree of empathy for his forlorn young protagonists. In both “Black Peter” and “Loves of a Blonde,” older characters deliver whiny lectures to members of a younger generation that couldn’t care less. Forman took greater issue with didacticism than irresponsibility. (No wonder he later directed the big-screen adaptation of “Hair.”)
He moved beyond that focus with a broader satiric lens in his final Czech effort, the concise 1967 comedy “The Firemen’s Ball.” This brilliant tale of bureaucratic mismanagement was banned by the Czechoslovak government at the time of Soviet dominance for its blatant anti-Socialist perspective. Its slapdash story finds a group of firefighters throwing a bash for their dying colleague, as they attempt to blend their professionalism with good-natured cheer. They mean well, but the Keystone Cops-like scenario finds them careening toward catastophe. The group’s plans literally go up in smoke, leading to a tantalizing finale that’s at once absurd and melancholic.
All three features set the stage for the tonal complexity of Forman’s American career. The quintessential Jack Nicholson zaniness in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” oozes with a contempt for institutional control even as Jack Nicholson radiates a comedic sensibility. By siding with the hospital inmates rather than the totalitarian staff, it positions Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy as a crazed Moses leading his team of loonies to a non-existent promised land.
None of Forman’s movies can be reduced to a single genre: Drama bleeds into comedy; exuberance leads to solemn contemplation. Forman was a cinematic poet of social decay. That meant he was well-qualified to tackle an America divided against itself — indeed, the nation could use his voice today — but as his earlier works prove, Forman’s genius transcended the boundaries of one country’s problems. His movies spoke to all of us.