Amadeus director Milos Forman started small, with the counterculture comedy Taking Off
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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Last Stand, the first American film by gifted Korean director Kim Ji-woon (I Saw The Devil, A Tale Of Two Sisters), has us thinking about foreign directors working in America for the first time.
Taking Off (1971)
Milos Forman was a well-established New Wave director in his native Czechoslovakia before political unrest and the Soviet invasion of 1968 drove him to America. At home, he was a New Wave pioneer with rawly observational films like Loves Of A Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball; in America, he earned acclaim and Best Director Oscars for high-profile studio fare like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. But the transition point between the two eras was his first English-language film, Taking Off, a Universal Pictures-backed movie that nonetheless feels like a scrappy indie, heavily inflected by his New Wave past.
Buck Henry and Lynn Carlin star as a self-absorbed square couple whose teenage daughter (Linnea Heacock) runs away from home. Henry and Carlin fight, fuss, and make uptight fools of themselves, with Carlin bullying Henry into taking the search to the streets, and Henry using the opportunity to get falling-down drunk. When Heacock does eventually return, it’s to Henry singing naked atop a table, amid a drunken game of strip cards with another couple. In Taking Off’s view, the counterculture is about the younger generation banding together to fumble their way through an exploration of something deep, true, and sometimes emotionally painful. Forman observes it mostly from a respectful distance, capturing cuts from a Tina Turner concert and a musical audition (which features, among other things, extended performances from Carly Simon and a young Kathy Bates) without choreographing or framing them. While the young people express themselves through art, and Heacock mostly stays silent and takes it all in simply and uncritically, the adults bray out their windy opinions and self-serving nonsense, and generally act more immature than their kids.
The film is a collection of often awkward, uncomfortable but bitterly funny vignettes, none more memorable than the comic sequence where character actor Vincent Schiavelli, in his film debut, assiduously leads a group of parents with missing kids through their first pot-smoking experience. Ostensibly, it’s a field trip to their kids’ world, so they can understand what their offspring are up to. But Schiavelli’s serious, scholarly explanation of bogarting and roaches, and the parents’ college-course sedulousness and eventual goofy stabs at self-expression, turns the whole thing hilarious and illustrates why the generation gap is uncrossable. The kids are trying to find something real they can own. The adults are trying to understand it by co-opting it. But by definition, what the kids want most is a place their fumbling parents can’t comprehend, can’t reach, and can’t ruin.
Availability: Taking Off isn’t available for home viewing in America, reportedly due to music-rights issues, but it’s available in its entirety on YouTube.