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RIP Miloš Forman, a True Hollywood Anti-Authoritarian

From One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Black Peter, the Czech-born Oscar-winner championed eccentric individuals and artists over small-minded bureaucrats and a stifling state.

Miloš Forman, one of the great anti-authoritarian directors in film history, died on Friday at age 86 near his home in Connecticut. The son of parents who were killed in the Holocaust, the Czech-born Forman fled his native country after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968, eventually becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in the place where he'd find his greatest success. "Well," he explained while accepting his first Academy Award for Best Director, "America still is big, beautiful, hospitable, and open country."

Forman was best known for his Oscar-sweeping pictures One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), which between them encapsulate the two major themes of his work: the importance and dignity of the iconoclastic individual vis-à-vis a stifling state, and the heroism of the transgressive artist. Here's a scene from Cuckoo's Nest that, while still true to the 1962 Ken Kesey novel, nonetheless works as symbolism for both Forman's own émigré story and the entire 1963–'75 generational struggle we loosely characterize as "the sixties." As Charles F. Barr wrote contemporaneously in Reason, "The parallels between the movie's mental ward and society at large are simply too obvious to miss":

If Forman's second great theme, the artist-as-hero, feels played out now, as it began to in his hagiographic 1999 Andy Kaufmann biopic Man on the Moon, that's partly because Hollywood has since then indulged in the persistent self-congratulation of Birdman, The Artist, and Argo. But it's also because 2018 America, regardless of how heroic its dissenters may feel at a given moment, cannot compare to the artist-vs.-authoritarian drama of 1960s Prague, where Forman helped kick-start the influential Czech New Wave with a troika of terrific movies.

Communist-era Czechoslovakia was one of the most repressive East Bloc regimes for most of its 1948–'89 run, ranking right down there with the police states of East Germany and Albania. The only real loosening during that time came from 1963 to the first half of 1968, when novelists, playwrights, musicians, poets, visual artists, and film directors waged a multi-front assault on the state's censoriousness, using a mixture of wink-nod political symbolism, direct lobbying to widen the band of permissible expression, and a straight-up explosion of artistic creativity. Prague, that centuries-old center for cosmopolitan culture and literal capital of Bohemia, proved an uncomfortable fit for top-down, closed-border censorship. The space these artists fought to create—heroically, even!—led directly to the series of early-1968 political reforms known as the Prague Spring, which thrilled the world with its all-too-temporary decontrols on media, speech, and the administrative state.

Forman's two best-known movies during this period, 1965's Loves of a Blonde and 1967's The Firemen's Ball, were both Best Foreign Picture nominees that made darkly comedic sport with small-minded, over-empowered bureaucrats. (The latter film in particular was a pretty direct political critique, and it found itself banned after Soviet tanks crushed Prague Spring.) But ask Czechs to name their favorite Forman and they'll almost universally tell you it was his less internationally heralded debut feature, 1964's Černý Petr (Black Peter). That film, despite being a low-budget black-and-white offering from communist Czechoslovakia, was almost startlingly modern—a generational conflict centered on an awkward and blasé young man a good three years before The Graduate; a story about nothing three decades before Seinfeld; an exercise in cinéma vérité and overheard conversations more convincingly authentic (in part due to Forman's reliance on non-actors) than what Robert Altman would produce the following decade.

That sense of naturalism is what ultimately makes the movie so beloved back in Forman's homeland: Black Peter, like the writings of Bohumil Hrabal, is just so unmistakably Czech. Particularly in its conveyance of that hard-to-define Czech cultural trait known locally as "black humor." Here's the trailer:

Forman's best movies feel like immersive experiences in place and time. Cuckoo's Nest (which—fun fact!—was filmed at an Oregon mental hospital where my mom used to work), is a tactile snapshot of the Pacific Northwest matched only by Gus Van Sant. Ragtime (1981) is an evocative throwback to early 20th century New Jersey and New York. Amadeus may not be authentic Vienna, but by shooting it in Prague and other Czech locations Forman* infused the production with an ecstatic Mitteleuropean sensibility that at the time stood in stark contrast to what his old '60s comrades were allowed to get away with. Looking at his track record, one of the great unmade movies of all time has to be Ghost of Munich, Forman's examination of the 1938 Munich Agreement based on a screenplay by Václav Havel (!), which was scuttled after the financial crisis of 2008–'09.

"You know the censorship itself, that's not the worst evil," Forman said in a late-career CNN interview segment that also included his old schoolmate Havel. "The worst evil is—and that's the product of censorship—is the self-censorship. Because that...destroys my character." A generation of anti-communists, now slowly dying off, understood intrinsically that the biggest threat of totalitarianism is what it can warp within the privacy of your own soul. Miloš Forman sought to demonstrate in both artistic practice and subject matter the heroism of men and women choosing to act freely, if not always wisely, in a less-than-free world. RIP.

* Was originally "Kundera," which is a hilariously bad mistake.

Photo Credit: United Artists

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Am I the only the only one who realized that in telling who was voluntary and who wasn't Ratched violated HIPAA bigtime?

  • Brian||

    Was HIPAA retroactive?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Otherwise, what's the point.

  • Iheartskeet||

    As entertainment, Nest is great. The tragedy is that this propelled emotion-based changes in our nations care of the mentally ill that have been tragic. Even more tragic, is the role Thomas Szasz, a prominent libertarian, played in this. His denial of the existence of metal illness is a stark absurdity. This move did not lead to more humane care for the mentally ill, but rather no care...indeed their widespread discharge for which they were unprepared, and will never be prepared.

    I've posted it before, but a superb book on this is "My Brother Ron". The heartbreak of this book isn't in its emotional appeal, but its very sobriety.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Did you ever read "The Myth of Mental Illness"? It's interesting and logical, if nothing else. If someone isn't harming others they shouldn't be caged.

  • Iheartskeet||

    Part of it...the book "My Brother Ron" I'd say is a counterpoint to it in many ways. Its apparent Szasz overstates his case to the point it amounts to an absurdity, lacking connection to reality. Or, I should say, the reality of what happened to many who were released at Szasz's urging.

    As far as the phrase "caged", there are people who are sincerely mentally ill, who cannot care for themselves, who require medication (and supervision) to function, and whose families lack the ability, funds, or legal status to care for. The shame is people think the only choice for these people is "freely" living on the street, or caging them like in Cuckoo's Nest. This is a false choice.

  • Agammamon||

    The people who 'needed' care are not justification for caging up the rest 'just in case'.

    That was Szaz' whole point.

    Yes, the turning out of the seriously mentally ill has been a tragedy - its less of a tragedy than the involuntary confinement of a vastly larger number of people who didn't need to be confined.

  • Iheartskeet||

    Nope.

    Szasz's belief was that mental illness is an illusion, and that unless people committed a specific crime, they should not be confined. Indeed, he played a major role in the mass de-institutionalizing the mentally ill. To Szasz, a schizophrenia is just behavior, not a disease.

    You appear to completely misunderstand him, and project what you WANT his argument to be, perhaps because it beggars belief that someone would want these people abandoned.

    I am not arguing for confining those that don't need to be, and I don't have any idea where you'd get that. But, there ARE people that should be involuntarily confined.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    This move did not lead to more humane care for the mentally ill, but rather no care...indeed their widespread discharge for which they were unprepared, and will never be prepared.

    That's a bit of an overstatement on your part, if you believe there is no treatment for mental illness these days. It's alive and well.

  • Iheartskeet||

    The book goes into great detail of the kind of treatment the severely mentally ill get, indeed it chronicles the author's brothers treatment (IIRC schizophrenia). Too much to go into here, but broadly deinstitutionalization was handled poorly, with a great many not able to be managed on an outpatient basis...with the result that many ended up homeless on the street.

    I did indeed overstate it by saying "no care", however the reckless changes this movie drove (cheered on by Szasz's denial that mental illness exists) are not libertarianism's shining moment.

  • ||

    Nurse Ratchet is the epitome of evil and she still rankles me.

    Today's Hollywood elites have no balls. No courage. They move as one like sheep. Their increasingly didactic product is rooted in groupthink and it shows.

    Why would they exhibit independent thought? They never experienced anything that challenged humanity's liberty. Instead, you get Kimmel's tears, you get O'Brien going to Haiti, Penn acting like a jerk off, you get Affleck, Clooney and Queen of the farts Streep, you get Steely Dan actively telling Republicans not to go to their concerts and Roger Waters and his flatulence. Add to it the grotesque censorship practices on social media from Dorsey's Twitter, to Zuckerberg and youtube and you have a foundation of intellectual cowards and misguide illiterates who can't see beyond their stunted fingertips the trouble they cause.

    These people aren't 'resisting' or talking 'truth to power'. They're just faux self-righteous twits.

    Good article.

  • BigT||

    Excellent rant!!!!

  • mtrueman||

    "which was scuttled after the financial crisis of 2008–'09."

    Good to see we have our own forms of censorship the communists never imagined.

  • Slocum||

    I don't think Forman's anti-authoritarianism is quite dead in Hollywood. Off the top of my head, I can think of two recent-day Nurse Ratchets -- Tilda Swinton's 'Social Services' character in Moonrise Kingdom and Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    You could even make the case for anti-authoritarianism in the "Dirty Harry" franchise

  • meister574||

    I am surprised, especially here at Reason, no mention of The People vs. Larry Flint.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    FYI: Larry Flynt was shot in Lawrenceville Georgia while returning to a court case for obscenity. The shooter was never convicted but a white supremacist admitted to the shooting because of an interracial nude shoot in Hustler.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    As for self-censorship, let's not pretend that we in "the land of the free" stand on any great height as compared to the totalitarian states. Is expression truly free in this country? Are the media free to all? Are opposing or controversial views welcomed? Once we allowed the term "politically correct" to gain traction we surrendered any claim to defending freedom of speech and thought. We have met the enemy, and he are us.

  • The Real Jose||

    I guess "émigré" is what an immigrant becomes when he wins an Oscar.

  • mtrueman||

    Even better: living anti-Hollywood anti-authoritarians: Woody Allen and Roman Polanski.

  • prediksi hk||

    hollywood is the best

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