Has it been 35 years since film director Ivan Passer, who died Jan. 9, explained to me why horror movies will never stop getting financed and distributed? “They don’t give their producers any sleepless nights,” the sage Czech maestro quietly noted, summing up a multitude of film business realities in a simple haiku.
And how many decades ago was it when I was first gripped by Passer’s greatest film, “Cutter’s Way,” a completely uncompromising and richly drawn portrait of young Americans facing down the Masters of War that Bob Dylan sang about?
When did I first marvel at the wit and compassion Passer brought to the screenplays of his great fellow countryman Milos Forman? I saw their unforgettable social satire “The Firemen’s Ball” when it first graced our American shores and scored a best foreign language film nomination in the late ’60s.
Forman’s Czech New Wave classic “Loves of a Blonde,” co-written by Passer and also Oscar-nominated, was first savored decades after its 1966 U.S. release. Passer’s own directorial debut, “Intimate Lighting,” scored a National Society of Film Critics Award in 1970 “for a first film or great originality.” I only discovered it after meeting Passer in Los Angeles in the late 1970s.
Somewhere in those arthouse nights in the ’70s, when my brain was getting stimulated by visions on screens and from conversations around the Laurel Canyon fireplace of my mentor Monte Hellman, Passer was one of the Euro/New Hollywood auteur film tribal leaders I seemed to encounter every week. Their names were Jacques Demy, Barbet Schroeder, Agnes Varda, Wim Wenders, Sam Fuller, Nestor Almendros, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Nicolas Roeg, Jerry Schatzberg, Nikita Mikhalkov, Andrei Konchalovsky, Bertrand Tavernier, Ivan Passer, et al.
They never talked about film grosses.
Their films never stopped talking about humanity, while constantly shaking up my own.
So many of Passer’s films from those long-ago times feel like vague, distant memories, vestiges of my own youthful cinematic excursions, but films that nevertheless remain indelible, their emotions and provocations as alive in my mind as if I’d encountered them yesterday.
Their permanence and connectivity are not accidental. Each of Passer’s films were forged in his experience of coming of age during World War II and living as a young artist under communism. He and Forman lived out their own perilous adventure. Call it “The Unbearable Rightness of Fleeing.”
The characters he conjured up in his films, whether they be adaptations of books or original scripts he co-authored, could only come from Passer’s Slavic soul. Mordant wit filled every frame, a distinctly Czech response to centuries of abuse at the hands and weapons of more powerful neighbors. But sometimes, ironic detachment just doesn’t cut it.
“Cutter’s Way,” starring John Heard and Jeff Bridges, weeps with the tragic condition of its Vietnam war-ravaged hero and revels in the love in the hearts of the trio at the center of the tale. But when it comes time to pull the trigger and bring down the very real American war profiteer whose villainy, Passer insists, must be held accountable for 58,000 American body bags and countless Asian casualties, there’s no ambiguity in the moral equation that must be calculated.
There must be blood.
In his less fierce tales, Passer’s players were armed with their wits, and never more than a passionate embrace away from life-sustaining love, lust and laughter.
“Silver Bears” was an elegant breezy romp infused with affection for its rascals and buzzing with appreciation for those foolish enough to believe their crooked pursuit of wealth would ever bring them more than a Dom Perignon hangover.
“Law and Disorder” takes the piss out of vigilantism and “Creator” defuses our terror of the terrible turns science keeps taking on its path toward making our humanity obsolete.
“Haunted Summer,” one of Passer’s most exquisite gems and virtually unseen, slipped out of the dodgy Cannon Films factory one summer day in 1988 and quickly faded from view. What could have less chance in the cold world of B-movie marketing than a Czech New Waver’s poetic rumination on the shimmering 1816 Geneva firelight that spawned a timeless monster from the mind of Mary Godwin?
I saw them all some time between Kent State and Iran-Contra.
Passer was a storyteller and probably the greatest I’ve had the pleasure to sit and listen to entranced. During one of those long ago nights I sat mesmerized over margaritas at El Cholo as Passer told me the entire history of the region where my paternal grandparent hailed from. Once known as Ruthenia, he explained, it was the homeland of some of the most important, inventive and dynamic figures of the 20th century.
I ran out and read books on the subject and even visited that part of the world near the Ukraine border. But it was never again as magical and powerful a land as the one conjured through those soft Slavic tones and painterly turns of phrase.
But Passer was also the consummate filmmaker and his work with actors never failed to bring out something unique, fresh, unmasked, personal, off-kilter.
Here’s who he worked with: Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine, Mick Jagger, Barbara Hershey, Bridges, Mariel Hemingway, Heard, George Segal, Ernest Borgnine, Karen Black, Robert De Niro, Laura Dern, Cybill Shepherd, Jay Leno, Louis Jourdan, Stephane Audran, David Warner, Omar Sharif, Robert Duvall. Every performance gleams in my memory and there are many more from names you’ll not recognize.
No one ever got rich from an Ivan Passer film.
No one ever got an Oscar.
All of Ivan Passer’s films gave their producers many sleepless nights.