Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Forman's Faces

I recently watched Milos Forman's Loves of a Blonde (1967) for the first time, and although I've not viewed all his early output, I can safely say that the younger Czech director is the superior to the Hollywood prestige director. There's a case to be made for Forman as subversive, in his snarky early digs on Communist dogma and his later treatment of supposedly subversive material (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Hair.) Leaving this aside, I'd prefer to remark on a trademark visual technique of three early works- Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen's Ball (1966), and Taking Off (1971)- as a perhaps more sublime portrayal of a radical/humanist ethic. That is, the predominance of the human face in both mise en scene and narrative, an emphasis not at all avant garde, but certainly distinctive from typical film form.

This representative shot from Loves of a Blonde shows a typical Forman composition: a tight arrangement around one or several inert bodies, usually from the waist up, in which the facial expressions of the actors subtly push along a narrative in lieu of a continuous expository dialogue. In this instance, three young factory girls find themselves at a mixer to welcome a troop of middle-aged reservist soldiers to their drab provincial town. Three fumbling soldiers eye them across the room, and this one still expresses almost entirely their half-bemused, half-curious response. This sequence forms a bulk of the film's middle part, and like a silent film can be understood with the subtitles turned off. As girls and men look warily at their own and their awkward opposites, the audience is presented with a rotation of 9 distinct faces in unison or alone, and a coterie of anonymous mugs in various states tending toward the banal. An emotional force of small narratives emerges through these precise montages- a technique used in a similar way in the elongated, farcical party that constitutes The Firemen's Ball.

And the faces themselves? Perhaps the best can be politely called provincially pretty, but Forman's true delight at this time is a density of faces that express the full variety of eye, ear, nose, hair, and mouth variations in the Czech hinterlands. This holds his work apart from both silent film's adoration of expressive beauty and Hollywood's star fawning. Rather, there's a certain egalitarian beauty of "the people" broadly distributed over each individual face, such that one feels something of an appreciation of the true community in which these slight films are set, even as the physical locations are limited. It should be noted that Forman is not here obsessed with the face as such (as opposed to Warhol's screen tests, for instance), but rather deftly utilizes it for narrative and, I think, political/ethical purposes. The tension between individual and social interest (The Firemen's Ball), or economy and the erotic (Loves of a Blonde) take shape as much through facial tics as plotting. Despite the slightness of both films, a plethora of small themes and micro-narratives play out in the cinematic space between glances and smiles. This is not to say that Forman dispenses with story or some conventions of form (these are social satires, not experimental adventures), but rather to point to this particular technique as what I feel distinguishes these films and places them among the best of the late 1960s.

But what is so different in Forman's faces, then, say the Hollywood close-up? Whereas the close-up usually conveys a heightened emotional state in contrast to physical action or to punctuate important moments of narrative, Forman's faces seem to need no such justification. Indeed, they typically express the more banal emotions- boredom, awkwardness, embarassment, mild disappointment, slight irritation or anxiety, and petty joys of conversation. And, as in life, they hide as much as they reveal, even when what they have to hide may be of no importance. This prevents easy generic typing and colors these films with unique characterizations. Although we can recognize a few types- the anxious, bumbling authorities in both films (fireman and foreman), for instance, how are we to characterize Loves of a Blonde's Andula and friends? It is a testament to Forman's remarkable direction of expression that we feel for the characters of these brief films without really getting to know them. Every understated face at the party has a story to tell, it seems, and Forman has merely picked a few at random to spin out in past and future.

Taking Off- Forman's first American film- begins with a variation of his face forward technique. Throughout the title sequence and in subsequent bits, auditioners face the camera against a black background and sing, sing, sing! The second such sequence features dozens of young female crooners slogging their way through "Lets Get a Little Sentimental." Its an intensification of the his Czech faces- more rapidly sequenced, framed squarely against a black background- couched within a neat construct that introduces us to the wayward youngster Jeannie and presents the film's general theme of the counterculture's intrusion into traditional American society. What is not abandoned is Forman's determined embrace of facial variety- in this example the mean which could perhaps be averaged out as outer borough pretty. Significantly, these faces are performing, striving- a transposition perhaps of the overriding Czech communist anxiety for social harmony to the more American liberal concerns of individualist achievement and the mass media complex.

Nifty formal and aesthetic moves, but political as well. The lack of glamour and expressive beauty in Forman's faces is an expression of egalitarian solidarity, even more powerful in that it subverts the officially egalitarian dogma of Czech communism, and the anti-egalitarian spirit of American individualism. While perhaps taking a cue from socialist realism or even Italian neo-realism, Forman's faces are not mere vehicles for blunt politics or the weather-worn skin of workerism. Its a generous humanism, one that embraces kind-of-pretty shy young girls as proletariat and would-be glamour pusses as proletariat in denial. As is often noted, while social satire, Forman's films are almost never mocking, and certainly never cruel. As each of his faces has its flaws, every person, regardless of their ideological placement, has their foibles. It is good, these films imply, to be amongst these people and their faults, their small beauties and small ugliness. It is debatable how much this ethic continued through Forman's later films, but most certainly his faces largely disappeared into the rush of the conventional film format.