Visiting foreign observers to the Republic of the United States of America have always been easily taken with its amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesty; its natural wonders, so to speak. Its people and its culture, however, have proven harder to latch onto and describe.
Travelling through the USA at the dawn of the Jacksonian era – a time of increased voting rights, territorial acquisition and expansion, and economic reform – the British author Frances Trollope was one of the first visitors to be truly concerned and perplexed by the country’s odd manners. In her travel book Domestic Manners of the Americans, she wrote:
Had I, during my residence in the United States, observed any single feature in their national character that could justify their eternal boast of liberality and the love of freedom, I might have respected them, however much my taste might have been offended by what was peculiar in their manners and customs. But it is impossible for any mind of common honesty not to be revolted by the contradictions in their principles and practice. (1)
Trollope saw in America an impossible synthesis of attitudes that were at once restrictive and risqué – the country’s interior and exterior morals and codes, its public versus private personas, a melting pot of the conservative, cosmopolitan and crass.
If we jump ahead around 140 years we can find a talented young foreigner-in-exile and filmmaker by the name of Milos Forman similarly concerned and perplexed with the USA at a another time of increased voting rights, territorial acquisition and expansion, and economic reform: namely, the tail end of the 1960s and the dawn of the 1970s.
Forman had escaped to the USA after the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of his native country, Czechoslovakia. He had made several successful films in Czechoslovakia which had garnered international attention for their innovative editing techniques and camerawork, as well as for their wry mix of the cynical with the humanist. Taking Off was his first “take” on America. As David Thomson writes:
It indicates Forman’s preference for the everyday rather than the melodramatic that the modest Taking Off was derived from a newspaper story in which an apparently diligent teenager was one day found murdered. The idea that intrigued Forman was that the daughter and parents could be leading intense private lives out of sight of the common family ground. Perhaps it is because a Czech coming to America has known more brutal disruptions of life that Taking Off is so charmingly unemphatic. (2)
It is to Forman’s great credit that Taking Off does not become a tale of the young versus the old, the cool versus the square. Rather, Forman uses the tale of a perpetual runaway daughter and her parent’s reaction to look more broadly at the USA and, to a large extent, critique “both” sides of any such equation. Unlike in his later films, where Forman creates a hero and clearly identifies which side he is on, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996), Taking Off asks us to question whether it is the runaway daughter or her confused father that is the film’s protagonist. This allows the film to both avoid becoming a polemic and care equally for its characters, creating, in the process, a humane looseness that is more interested in people than politics. This is far from the “us versus them attitude” of Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) or M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970).
In Taking Off hypocrisy runs both ways. On the daughter’s first return home after running away her parents worry she may have taken some type of drug. She is distant and quiet but it remains unclear what she has imbibed. Her mother calls their family doctor who answers the late-night phone-call while knocking over his overflowing bedside ashtray. As this is going on, the daughter’s father enters the home drunk after searching for her at a local bar. The argument here seems to be that although the substances may be different, each generation abuses or uses drugs in its own way (whether cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine or LSD).
At a Society for Parents of Fugitive Children gathering (SPFC for short – after all Americans do love their acronyms), a returned fugitive daughter offers to look at photographs of other children to see if she recognises any of them from her “hippie” travels. She thinks she may have seen one girl, only to discover that the photograph is of a boy – the length of his hair has even confused his own generation. Later in the meeting the substance-abuse “joke” is carried even further. The group passes around marijuana so that parents can understand their children’s urges and desires.
Throughout the film a folk music audition is intercut with the rest of the narrative. It takes up most of the film’s opening 20 minutes, and returns from time-to-time throughout to comment on the action. At one point, a Fellini-esque run of faces of nearly 50 different girls brings a touching awareness to the awkwardness of adolescence, its oddity and natural beauty. Yet, this scene of supposed purity is subsequently undermined when we see what are loosely defined as the “counter-culture” leaders quickly dismissing performer after performer. For them it is ultimately still a matter of business rather than the freedom of expression.
The film ends with the return of the daughter and a scene in which she brings her new boyfriend to dinner. The boyfriend says little. He criticises the government in typically leftist ways, but then quickly comes around to a classic conservative argument, one we could readily expect any of the parents from the SPFC meeting to make: he does not like it that his hard-earned money is taxed to pay for things he does not want.
The boyfriend concludes with a fitting summation of Forman’s ambivalent embrace of his new American home: “but then, I accept contradictions”.
- Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, Penguin, London, 1997, p. 168.
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th ed., Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002, p. 307.
Taking Off (1971 USA 93 mins)
Prod Co: Universal Pictures Prod: Alfred W. Crown Dir: Milos Forman Scr: Jean-Claude Carrière, Milos Forman, John Guare, John Klein Phot: Miroslav Ondricek Ed: John Carter Art Dir: Robert Wightman
Cast: Lynn Carlin, Buck Henry, Georgia Engel, Tony Harvey, Audra Lindley, Paul Benedict, Vincent Schiavelli, David Gittler