Criterion Fridays – Loves of a Blonde

Loves of a Blonde (1965, dir. Milos Forman)

My familiarity with director Milos Forman comes mainly from his work in English language cinema (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, Man in the Moon), but I have been aware for a long time of the movies he honed his craft with in his native Czechoslovakia. I didn’t know much about them, other than from reviews and criticisms they were akin to the French New Wave youth culture movies, but with a more anti-authoritarian bite. One thing I’ve found in art that is hard to translate between languages and culture is humor. Jokes are a product of the experiences and philosophies of a specific group of people, and the broader the joke (i.e. slapstick comedy) the larger the audience you can appeal to. Humor of language or subtle situations is much harder to get a foreign audience to laugh at. However, Forman conquers that challenge with expertise.

Hana lives and works in a rural Czech village whose economy revolves around a textile factory. The factory employs primarily women so the demographics are 16:1 in favor of women. The factory owner petitions the military to station some soldiers there as a way to provide some relief for the tension building amongst the workers. They get sent a group of thirty-something, slightly balding reservists and most of the girls decide to just go with the flow, despite their disappointment. Hana avoids the leers of these men, most of whom are married already, and ends up in the room of a visiting musician more her age. The problem with Hana is that every week she seems to have a new true love and these dreams and wishes get the best of her.

I found myself laughing many times at Loves, particularly in moments where the dialogue was greatly improvised. A trio of reservists looking to lure in some of the young women reveal themselves as inept buffoons as they waste most of their time debating how many of them should approach the table where their prey is sitting. They send a bottle of wine over, but it gets delivered to the wrong table and they tell it to take it from the women who believe they were picked. Soon after, one of the reservists slips off his wedding ring, its kicked across the dance floor and under the table of the spurned women which he must now crawl under.

It’s rare that I find a film from Europe during this period which doesn’t have sequences that seem to drag and pull me out of the picture. Here I was completely engaged from the start, due in part to some very skillful editing and language-transcendent humor. The circumstances that these characters experience are universal to all people: unwanted affections from suitors, allowing oneself to get caught up in what you think is love, and a general sense of dissatisfaction with mundane and repetitive life. Once again, Forman delivers a highly entertaining film with truly funny comedy.

Film 2010 #32 – Ragtime


Ragtime (1981, dir. Milos Forman)

Starring Elizabeth McGovern, Mary Steenburgen, Brad Dourif, James Cagney, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer, Moses Gunn, Debbie Allen, Donald O’Conner, Howard Rollins Jr.
I first became familiar with the story of Ragtime from the 1996 Broadway musical, script written by the talented Terrence McNally and based on the novel by E.L. Doctrow. The story (in all mediums) is an attempt to create a slice of life in America right before World War I broke out. Milos Forman was an interesting choice to helm this project; he doesn’t really take on historical epics, instead when he does period pieces he chooses to focus on specific individuals and analyze them down to the grain. In Ragtime, we get broad painted strokes that only give us glimpses.
The interwoven plots contain a mix of fictional characters given vague names like Father, Mother, Younger Brother and historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and Evelyn Nesbit (the focal point of what was called the Scandal of the Century at the time). The novel and musical version contain even more historical figures including Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Admiral Peary, and Emma Goldman, but I assume they were cut for the sake of time.
In the core plot of the film an upper middle class family in New Rochelle, New York discovers an African-American infant crying in their garden. The police bring a young woman to their house who admits the child is hers and that the father abandoned them. Mother decides to take Sarah, the girl into their home against the wishes of Father. Eventually, piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. arrives on their doorstep revealed to be the father of the child and stating that now that he has a job he is willing to ready to provide for his family. However, tragedy occurs that sets the characters down a path where they witness a change in the entire world. Alongside this plot, Mother’s Younger Brother falls in love with former dance hall girl Evelyn Nesbit and is played for a fool. There’s also Tateh, a Jewish immigrant talented in making silhouettes who eventually makes it big as an early silent filmmaker.
The film presents the world of New York in 1917 with amazing accuracy. Clothing and vehicles and set dressing are spot on and anachronisms are non-existent. However, the broad nature of the film left me feeling indifferent about every character on screen. Every thing feels like it is played towards cliche rather than reality. Part of me feels that uber-producer Dino de Laurentiis played a part in the films broad, flat nature. It’s an interesting film, most notable for the costume design and art direction, but definitely a weaker entry into Milos Forman’s work.