Alonzo de Monçado: “When a powerful agency is thus exercised on us, – when another undertakes to think, feel, and act for us, we are delighted to transfer to him, not only our physical, but our moral responsibility.”
– Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)
Now known for an American body of work that largely comprises musicals, literary adaptations and elaborate period reconstructions, it comes as a surprise to read early accounts of Milos Forman as a “down-to-earth” realist, an “objective observ[er]” (1). Konkurs (Audition) is generally cited as the first film of the Czech New Wave (2); even if the Liehms credit the Slovak director Štefan Uher’s Sinko v sieti (The Sun in a Net, 1963) with this, they acknowledge Forman as the first to systematically shoot on location (3). His first four films are acclaimed for documenting the look of 1960s Czechoslovakia, not just the surfaces of clothes and hairstyles, the mannerisms and vocal inflections of people, or the way streets, living quarters and other locations appeared (4), but in pinpointing the attitudes and frustrations of different generations just below them.
Nevertheless, and despite the dutiful name-checking of the neo-realists, the British New Wave (cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek would go on to shoot Lindsay Anderson’s The White Bus , if… , and O Lucky Man! ) and cinéma-vérité (5), Forman’s “realism” is in the mould of Jean Renoir, a comparison that helps us see that the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the scrappy naturalism of his Cerný Petr (Black Peter, 1964) and the gilded histrionics of Amadeus (1984) is the same crossed by the maker of La chienne (1931) and Le carrosse d’or (The Golden Coach, 1952). Like Renoir, Forman is a man of the theatre – he spent much of his adolescence with his brother, a set designer for the Eastern Bohemian Repertory Theatre (6); he only entered FAMU, the Prague Film Academy, when he was rejected for drama school (7), and worked with notable theatre companies, notably Alfred Radok’s Laterna Magika stage production at the 1958 Brussels Exposition, where he lodged with members of the Semafor cabaret troupe (8). This bent and experience manifests itself in a fascination with the structures (rather than the content) of theatre: staging, performance, and the way these interact with, or shape, “real” life. The rich comedy of all Forman’s films derives from conflicts between the ideals behind organised, social, performative events – dances, ceremonies, competitions, concerts – and the “real” people who generally make a mess negotiating them.
Konkurs is in fact two shorts welded together: “Kdyby ty muziky nebyly” (“If There Were No Music”) and “Konkurs” (“Audition”) (9). Forman and his friends, Ondrícek and co-writer and assistant director Ivan Passer, began shooting a 16mm documentary about Semafor after their Brussels meeting, and showed their footage to the Šebor-Bor production team, who would oversee all Forman’s Czech films. They asked him to expand it into a 15-minute short; when he came back with 45 minutes (having added the fictional strand following Vĕra Křesadlová [Forman’s future second wife] and the beautician), the only way it could be distributed was with the addition of another short to make a feature-length programme, hence “If There Were No Music” (10).
Whether or not it was intended that way, the two shorts inevitably play off each other. Both have the backstage aspects of musical performance as their subject – rehearsals of two brass bands for a championship in Kolin; auditions for musical theatre. A series of oppositions is set up – between classical music and pop, European tradition and American popular culture, local/parochial and international, public and private, group and individual, work and leisure, old and young, male and female. They catalogue the different stages of a theatrical show – auditions, jams and rehearsals, make-up and costumes, performance, audience reaction and evaluation – as well as different musical settings, “official” ceremonies, dance halls, concerts, contests, pubs. If the shorts together illustrate a generation gap, this is the specific theme of “If There Were No Music”, which contrasts the geriatric, civic-oriented, brass band culture, with its slow, static, repetitive rituals, its structure of patriarchal authority guiding a group through the same rule book (the score), with an emerging, though potentially just as alienating, youth culture, as shown in dynamic, noisy sequences of motorcycling; both worlds are linked by the character played by Vladimir Pucholt.
Forman’s films are bleaker than their reputed “smile at reality” (11) initially suggests. Both shorts in Konkurs are circular, with no progress made – the orchestras in “If There Were No Music” creak on, the sacked musicians merely swap groups; the two heroines of “Audition” return to their day jobs – in any case, despite the female focus of this short, their options seem limited to various forms of male domination (signaled in its opening sequence, with an actress in a dressing-room while her master’s voice booms over the intercom). In the heartrending climax of “Audition”, when the beautician asks if she’s been successful, we realise the stakes are higher than a mere desire to tread the boards – as in all Forman’s Czech films, everyday life here comprises drudge work, dreary entertainments and unsatisfying relationships.
The most celebrated sequence of Konkurs – repeated as a calling-card-cum-statement-of-continuity in Forman’s first American film, Taking Off (1971) – shows a montage of hopeful applicants seeming to sing the same song in real time. This is “playful” and charming, and at first suggests a kind of social cohesiveness through popular culture, but it also points to a lack of differentiation, an assembly line of products rather than individuals (12). This “serial” effect is a trademark of Forman’s: reproduced in “If There Were No Music”, with the various orchestras playing at the brass band competition; in “Audition”, bored listeners eat as the beautician sings her solo song; in the credit sequence of Black Peter, as the shop assistants come to work, and later as the gormless store detective eyes potential shoplifters; the sequences of factory women in Lásky jedné plavovlásky (Loves of a Blonde, 1966); and the whole beauty contest farrago of Horí, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball, 1967).
Konkurs’ main importance lies in the introduction of Forman’s Czech stock company. Pichult, mentioned above, is an extraordinary clown, who – his face as expressive and mobile as his gangling body and gauche verbiage – will provoke most of the laughs in Black Peter and Loves of a Blonde. Black Peter himself (Ladislav Jakim) appears as the beautician’s boyfriend in “Audition”. But it is the inimitable Jan Vostrcil as the conductor who makes Konkurs essential viewing. A monstre sacré, proudly exhibiting his middle-aged paunch in a sweaty undershirt, bald and Hitler-moustached as he launches into interminable monologues that are part-demagoguery, part-buffoonery, he affirms pompous platitudes as if they were the wisdom of the ages, and glues his captive, hung-over audience to their seats, his self-generating verbosity contrasted with the youths’ inarticulacy. A musician in real life, Vostrcil appears in all Forman’s Czech films – perhaps most memorably as another brass band conductor, Black Peter’s father, a sublime riff on his role in Konkurs; and most poignantly as another musical father in Passer’s Intimni osvetleni (Intimate Lighting, 1965), my own favourite film of the Czech New Wave.
- Claire Clouzot, “Intimate Lighting”, Film Quarterly vol. 20, no. 3, Spring 1967, p. 39. The epithet “realist” is repeated in David Thomson, “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, Allen Lane, London, 2008, p. 497.
- Peter Hames, The Czechoslovak New Wave, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1985, p. 92.
- D. and A. J. Liehm, “Czechoslovak Cinema of the 60s”, Cinema, a Critical Dictionary: The Major Film-makers – From Aldrich to King, ed. Richard Roud, Secker and Warburg, London, 1980, pp. 244, 245.
- Hames, p. 119.
- Forman in Joseph Gelmis, The Film Director as Superstar, Secker and Warburg, London, 1971, p. 130; David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, William Morrow, New York, 1976, p. 187; Hames, p. 119.
- Hames, p. 121.
- Hames, p. 121.
- Hames, p. 122; Phillip Bergson, essay included in Second Run’s DVD release of Audition/Talent Competition (Konkurs), 2005.
- Although “Audition” was filmed first, this is the order in which I’ve seen them; the Liehms suggest “Audition” comes first. Liehm and Liehm, p. 245. The structure may be the result of accident, but the diptych film was relatively familiar in the Eastern European cinema of the period – see, for example, Eroica (Andrzej Munk, 1958) and Každý mladý muž (Every Young Man, Pavel Juráček, 1965).
- Forman in Gelmis, pp. 128-129.
- Josef Škvorecký, quoted in Hames, p. 100.
- Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, p. 187, on the sequence from Taking Off.
Konkurs/Audition/Talent Competition (1963 Czechoslovakia 79 mins)
Prod Co: Filmove Studio Barrandov Dir: Milos Forman Scr: Milos Forman, Ivan Passer Phot: Miroslav Ondricek Ed: Miroslav Hajek
“If There Were No Music”
Prod: Rudolf Hajek
Cast: Jan Vostrcil, Frantisek Zeman, Vladimir Pucholt, Vaclav Blumental
Prod: Milos Bergl Mus: Jiri Slitr, Jiri Such
Cast: Marketku Krotkou, Veru Kresadlovou, Ladislav Jakima, Petra Brozka, Karla Marese, Frantiska Pokorneho