Given the dozens of global unspoolings at the Palm Springs Intl. Film Fest and the worldwide range of the fest’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Milos Forman’s work, even a brief conversation with the Czech-born Oscar winner turns to the subject of American vs. European cinema.
A veritable one-man melting pot of diverse cultural ideas and influences, Forman’s filmography spans intimate Czechoslovakian comedies, the Euro-lensed biopic “Amadeus,” Euro-based “Valmont” and quintessentially American adaptations such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Ragtime.” His last two films, “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and his current Oscar contender, the Jim Carrey-starrer “Man on the Moon,” focus with laser-like precision on quirky American anti-heroes.
What U.S. and Euro movies have in common, despite their disparate national origins, says Forman, is that “usually American and European movies have the same departing point: good guys fighting the bad guys.” But Forman says that’s where the similarities end.
“Generalizations are dangerous because you’ll always find exceptions,” says Forman, but “at the risk of exaggeration,” he proceeds with his thesis.
The difference, says Forman is that “while in American movies the good guys mostly win at the end, the European films pride themselves in the fact that at the end nobody wins. You can loosely describe the majority of European movies as being basically a masochistic slice of dreary life, while American movies are basically macho fairy tales.”
Drawing a positive attribute from this disparity, Forman takes glee in the interchange of talents fueled by this difference.
“It’s interesting that some American filmmakers are attracted to this kind of European nihilism while some European directors dream of coming to America to make the fairy tales,” he says.
As for his own work, Forman acknowledges the Czech influence on his American career, noting “if there is a ‘Czech’ film among my American movies, it’s ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ because it’s basically about a life in a totalitarian system similar to the one I lived in half my life.”
“Moon” on the other hand, brings out a conflicted response from Forman.
“I consider ‘Man on the Moon’ to be very American, because for me, the only way to describe Andy Kaufman is: ONLY IN AMERICA! The Czech element in it is perhaps my astonishment. Nowhere in Europe could somebody like Andy attract so much attention and find so many admirers. But I’ll contradict myself. Andy was very European because in his fight for glory, during his lifetime, nobody won.”
The questions of art and origin for Forman aren’t merely aesthetic constructs, but foundations of his identity as an artist and, says the helmer, as a parent. The proud father of twins (named James and Andrew after Carrey and Kaufman) has already created a viewing list for the infants.
“I will start with ‘Snow White’ just to amaze them. Then I’ll add American silent comedies: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, just to teach them the funny side and to show them that people on the screen do not have to talk all the time. Then will come ‘E.T.,’ ‘American Graffiti,’ ‘Children of Paradise’ and ‘Two Pennies of Hope’ to wake up their compassion for their fellow human beings. Finally, I will show them ‘The Great Dictator,’ ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Grand Illusion’ to start them to think.”
In case you’re keeping track, that’s five American films, including one helmed by a Brit emigre, four U.S. performers, including same Brit emigre and one more, two French films and one Italian. And just so Forman’s children (and our readers) don’t have to look it up, the Italian film, “Two Pennies of Hope” was directed by Renato Castellani. Variety’s review from the 1952 Cannes Fest where it took the top prize said it “should have universal appeal,” just like Forman and his latest honor.