Monday, January 27, 2014

I'm way behind #13: Taking Off (Milos Forman)

The Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin recently programmed a short, four-film series of overlooked dark comedies from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The series, called "Mixed Nuts," included Milos Forman's American debut, Taking Off; Elaine May's first film as director, A New Leaf; hack television director Noel Black's atypical oddity Pretty Poison; and the film adaptation of Jules Feiffer's play Little Murders, directed by the actor Alan Arkin. I'll write about the rest of them later, with the exception of Little Murders (I skipped that screening because I'd watched the film on DVD just a few weeks prior.)

Even though Milos Forman's American work includes such well-known films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Hair, Amadeus, and The People vs. Larry Flynt, his first American movie after leaving the former Czechoslovakia, 1971's Taking Off, suffers from neglect and obscurity. Taking Off's lack of availability is the primary reason for this neglect, and to this day, the film has never been released on VHS, DVD, or Blu-Ray in this country. (I first saw it 12 years ago on a bootleg VHS.) Taking Off is closer in structure and spirit to Forman's Czech films like Black Peter and The Firemen's Ball than the accomplished but more conventional American films that followed. Like its darkly comic predecessors, Taking Off has a deceptively loose narrative that only seems undisciplined and chaotic until you relax into its pace. It's then that the careful structure and discipline subtly and slowly reveal themselves. There's a controlled anarchy and inspired common-sense lunacy here that Forman left behind on his subsequent projects. As much as I've enjoyed the later films, especially Amadeus, I feel more personally connected to the early work. I prefer the tiny, infinite playgrounds of the small, personal, loose, and weird to the narrow vastness of the big canvas, the prestige picture, the postcard lighting, and the based-on-a-true-story.
Taking Off is a film that takes its pessimistic message (parents will never understand their children, especially if they try to understand them) and turns it into a party. Suburban New York parents Lynn and Larry Tyne (Lynn Carlin and Buck Henry) are worried because their teenage daughter Jeannie (Linnea Hancock, in her only film role) hasn't come home. They don't know that she wandered off to the city, got a little high, and impulsively signed up for an open audition casting call for a musical, even though she's not much of a singer. The film spends the bulk of its first third alternating between Carlin and Henry as the parents debating what they should do and scenes of various young women auditioning for the role in the musical, including before-they-were-famous Carly Simon, Jessica Harper, and Kathy Bates, who was then trying to make it as a folk singer under the name Bobo Bates, which is how she's billed here.
The Tynes soon begin a countercultural post-hippie burnout-culture New York and New Jersey odyssey attempting to find their daughter and understand her once they've found her, which enters multiple phases when the girl returns home and wanders off again twice more. The odyssey will encompass bars, jails, diners, a hotel/casino where Ike & Tina Turner are performing and a swinger played by Allen Garfield hits on Lynn, a meeting of a society of parents of runaway children where a representative of the freak scene (Vincent Schiavelli) is invited to turn the martini-and-cigarette generation on to the wonders of marijuana so they can try to understand their stoned teenagers, and a return to the Tynes' apartment with the now-stoned parents of another missing teenager (Paul Benedict and Audra Lindley) for an epic game of strip poker. All of this is very funny, with a quiet thrum of panic and hysteria vibrating in every joke. No one is any closer to understanding each other by the film's end, but Forman and his screenwriting partners Jean-Claude Carriere (a collaborator of Bunuel's), John Guare, and John Klein see this as comedy, not tragedy. If you get a chance to see this one, do it.

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