The death of director extraordinaire Milos Forman this week makes one remember a time when movies were movies.
What do we mean by that?
Well, quite simply, he didn’t have a genre. He wasn’t an actor’s director. And his films weren’t all about how they looked, or how they were edited or how they sounded.
He didn’t really have a STYLE.
His movies were not all about the MESSAGE they sent.
Once upon a time, in a world that grows farther and farther away, movies were simply stories. About people. Who wanted something that was difficult or near impossible to get.
They had real and imagined obstacles to get these things and whether they did or did not get them it was usually, at the end of the day, only about a handful of simple things: love, family, justice, or simply finding a place to belong where they could feel less alone.
This is generally why we tell stories. Yes, to be heard. But mostly, to feel less alone.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The People vs Larry Flynt (1996)
Man on the Moon (1999)
Every one of them was about a recognizable person living on this planet. NONE of them had superpowers or were set safely in a dystopian future or reimagined past.
This is not a knock to sci-fi or action or horror or even the Marvel Universe. They can make for great stories on both the big and small screen. Heck, they’re even the setting for some cool books. Anyone remember those?
These days we have a ton of imagined worlds and past, future and parallel-present imposing end-of-the-universe experiences. There is no lack of people who have cyborg-ish limbs which can throw an object the size of, say, the Empire State Building, from one coast to the other. Or perhaps even THE Empire State Building.
What we don’t have anymore are future movies from filmmakers like Milos Forman and very many film studios or large production companies willing to finance them.
One can argue every film creates its own pushed reality and exists in an alternate universe with larger than life characters not entirely of this world. Certainly Mr. Forman’s movies did just that.
I remember very distinctly seeing Hair at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and being transported into a 1960s universe in Central Park exactly how I wished it could be – but probably never was – with the help of sound, editing and great music that enabled a group of joyous actors to simply do their thing.
Or the anger and rage at the government that The People vs Larry Flynt gave voice to at what still felt like for me to be the height of the AIDS crisis.
Not to mention the comic hysteria and sheer tribute to artistic will expressed in Man on the Moon that somehow became oddly healing to a generation of us moviegoers still idealistic enough to believe somewhere deep down that iconoclastic comedian Andy Kaufman had not really died of cancer at the age of 35.
Or how the behaviors of all the supposedly insane characters in One Flew Cuckoo’s Nest exactly mirrored what all of the rest of us normal people on the outside saw or even exhibited on any given day in the 1970s.
And, finally — the way the same group of petty, racist and haughty rich, straight white people manage to show up generation after generation, in decade after decade in various modes of dress illustrated in films like Amadeus, Ragtime and Valmont – films that managed to give many of us OTHERS hope because they showed us categorically that the Haughties will always be defeated either by themselves or some other group of more thoughtful and ingenious OTHERS. People who were, more or less, just like us.
Mr. Forman made just seven major studio movies in over 24 years where he managed to win two best director Oscars for himself, another two best picture Oscars for his producers and countless other nominations in pretty much every other category of excellence offered by the Academy and elsewhere all over the world.
These films also generated enough revenue, attention and critical acclaim for him to be given subsequent chance after chance (nee $$$) by the powers-that-be to produce the kind of work that would change the lives of several generations of filmgoers, many of them aspiring artists themselves who would go on to inspire still others, in the process. (Note: And if you think those facts are being overstated, just read the endless tributes on Twitter).
Point being, this was all done without EVER having to leave the planet, imagining a dystopic and/or end of the world scenario, inventing a superpower or coming up with a single tacky line, scene or sequence offensive enough to alienate any one marginalized group of people.
Some might say, Well, everything was different back then.
To which we all might consider the one question that all of Mr. Forman’s films did manage to ask – and answer:
Were they, really?