Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Beginning To Feel Something

This is one of those days where I’m trying to figure out what to say, how to write it. Maybe I’ve forgotten how but I’m not sure at the moment. At least I still remember how to type. But what do you say when you encounter a film that you love so much that you barely know where to even begin and you find yourself as clueless as that film’s characters? The trip out to Santa Monica to go to the Aero for American Cinematheque programming seems to get longer every time I do it but it’s worth it when it turns out to be something like the tribute to Buck Henry that was on Sunday night. The evening included an appearance by Buck Henry in person and a screening of gorgeous prints of two films from a key period of his career: Mike Nichols’ extraordinary CATCH-22, which Henry scripted and co-starred in and what was for me the real find of the night, a film which starred the man normally best known for writing, playing supporting roles and multiple appearances hosting SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Released in 1971, Milos Forman’s TAKING OFF is practically unknown these days no doubt partly due to its never being released on video in any format but seeing it here for the first time felt to me like a revelation, a scrappy little film that to me was quite extraordinary in its small way, a counterculture generation gap comedy that feels somehow different, funnier yet more human, from many of the others from that time. Almost from the first song heard at the very beginning something in me clicked with it in a way that I almost can’t fully express. Largely improvisatory and at times almost unbearably funny, it has practically nothing to do with the Milos Forman we know of who made epics like AMADEUS and there’s a freedom to every single shot, every single frame that I find truly, unmistakably beautiful in more ways than I can say. I felt so lifted up by it that I wanted to ask someone around me, “Is this as good as I think it is?” Maybe they wouldn’t agree but then I probably wouldn’t want to talk to them anyway. Naturally dated yet still managing to be relevant in its portrayal of feeling totally at a loss of how to sometimes survive in a world that is never quite what you expect it to be, it’s a dead-on satire that to me feels nothing but compassion for every single person in it.

Shortly after visiting his psychiatrist to cure him of his smoking habit milquetoast husband and father Larry Tyne (Buck Henry) discovers that his teenage daughter Jeannie (Linnea Heacock) has disappeared, perhaps run away. With him and his wife Lynn (Lynn Carlin) extremely worried he begins to look for her and when a brief return by Jeannie ends disastrously, Larry extends his search, resulting in he and his wife getting involved with the SPFC, the “Society for the Parents of Fugitive Children” in a desperate attempt to locate and somehow understand their missing daughter.

Elliptical in its plotting, extremely improvisatory in nature, the story of TAKING OFF isn’t the issue as much as just observing the characters of the parents, two people who are totally clueless yet never just shallow caricatures who don’t understand the younger generation. Their lives are vague with nothing really to define them so it makes sense that they have a painting in their living room which changes its image depending on which vantage point you look at it—they don’t even have any firm feelings on what to hang up in their home. They’re foolish, but no more than anyone else on the planet earth and they’re each clearly trying to understand what’s going on with their daughter (“No, she’s just a baby,” says Carlin when asked if their fifteen year-old has a diaphragm), who barely seems able to say a single word to them whenever we see her. The laughs in TAKING OFF are at times random but continuous—Buck Henry trying to a hard boiled egg while drunk, him dealing with the awkwardness of carrying around a giant framed photo of his missing daughter, his anti-smoking exercise mistaken for a black power salute, what results when he suddenly gets involved with another teenage girl who’s missing that he randomly spots, not to mention at one point seeing more of Buck Henry than you probably ever thought you’d see. Possibly best of all is an extended sequence of parents at an SPFC meeting trying to understand their offspring by attempting “an experiment”: smoking marijuana for the first time, guided into this uncharted territory by an expert played by eventual Milos Forman regular Vincent Schiavelli, who is absolutely unforgettable in his film debut as he explains what to do in the most methodical way possible. (“The remnant is a roach?” asks one mother to clarify as she jots down this piece of information) The continuous stream of oddball dialogue coming from these people (“Can you speak freely? Just answer yes or no,” says one parent to a mysterious phone call), most of it improvised, makes one wonder how any of these adults can understand each other, let alone any of their children.

Bracketing all this as counterpoint to these confused adults are continuous audition scenes of countless young girls, including Jeannie, singing various songs including one extended sequence of many of them singing a song called “Let’s Get A Little Sentimental”. This is where much of Forman’s fascination with America comes into play with continuous shots of these girls, some weird, some sweet-looking, all somehow unique as totally untalented as many of them are. Included in this (essentially) documentary footage among the singers is Carly Simon, unknown at this point but looking ready and confident for fame to happen. More surprisingly we also get a glimpse of a very, very young Kathy Bates, billed as Bobo Bates, (the gasp heard from the Aero audience was audible at this point) singing the strangely haunting “Even the Horses Had Wings”. The continued effect of all the music throughout, from what is heard during these sections to the harshly dissonant classical sounds that accompany Buck Henry’s search through lower Manhattan, the surprise of the acoustic “Ode to a Screw” as well as the jolting appearance of the Ike and Tina Turner revue is much of what gives the film its unique lifeforce that several days later I still can’t fully shake.

TAKING OFF is short (93 minutes), maybe shorter than I realized it would be while watching it and maybe it doesn’t say anything other than just gathering up the courage to sing for someone is about as brave as you can ever get. Or maybe it’s not saying anything and is just a quiet observation of how there is no way for two generations like this to ever understand each other and we may as well relax about it all. There’s something truly freeing in how the movie expresses that. Henry and Carlin as the two leads are wonderful with each person becoming flat-out touching in the totally earnest and confused sincerity. Georgia Engel & Tony Harvey nail the flat suburban feel as their friends with more going on than we first realize but even better is the unforgettable combination of Audra Lindley and Paul Benedict as a couple they meet through the SPFC and eventually involve them in a game of strip poker—I love Benedict’s moment when he tries to describe what he thinks he’s beginning to feel as he tries marijuana for the first time. The use of what are obviously non-actors throughout pays off amazingly well particularly in the case of Linnea Heacock as Jeannie who has just a few lines but a hauntingly beguiling look on her face each time we see her, no doubt with director Forman’s help, which makes it clear just how lost she is and just as clear that we’re never going to know why. Allen Garfield plays a guy in a bar who hits on Carlin, going a little too far in trying to pursue her and a young Jessica Harper can be quickly spotted in the crowd waiting to audition with even her name audibly getting called at one point.

The post-film discussion featured Buck Henry being interviewed by Larry Karaszewski (co-screenwriter of ED WOOD and Forman’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT) shed some light on all this madness but even to this day Henry seems not entirely sure exactly why he was cast beyond possibly having what Forman thought of as “a sad face”. He talked about how the film, the director’s first in America after arriving from Czechoslovakia was put into production when Universal began a system to fund several low-budget films (also including TWO LANE BLACKTOP) around this period in the wake of the massive success of EASY RIDER. Henry says it was all essentially improvised with Forman providing specific instructions to the actors and he never saw any kind of script (Forman, John Guare, Jean-Claude Carrière and Jon Klein are all credited for writing it nonetheless). He talked about how Forman actually got Lynn Carlin drunk for the strip poker scene when her character is meant to be and more surprisingly remembers the lengthy pot smoking sequence as only taking a day to shoot. As for the intriguing Linnea Heacock, who never made another film, apparently even Milos Forman has no idea whatever happened to her. Larry Karaszewski commented that one reason why he and partner Scott Alexander wanted Forman to direct THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT was due to how something like this film revealed how well he can combine comedy and drama to the point where the two almost blend together. The film unfortunately remains unreleased in video in any format due to the enormous complications of the music rights but Karaszewski reported to the crowd that he’s heard it’s in the pipeline at Criterion. I hope that happens.

Apparently after the film flopped on release, Forman expressed regret that in making something like this he had made a Czechoslovakian film, not an American film. Maybe this feeling is what to the projects he chose in the future—of course, just a few years later he won the Oscar for directing ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. So maybe it makes sense that in TAKING OFF, a film with different possible interpretations depending on which way you look at it, one character says, “I accept contradictions.” It might be the wisest thing spoken by anyone on either side of the generation gap during the entire film and naturally it comes from just about the least likely person to say it. I can’t fully express why I love this film that I just encountered for the first time so much. I wish I could. But in trying to come up with the words I feel as helpless as this film’s characters in trying to say anything about what’s really going on. Which maybe isn’t so bad.

“The other thing you must remember is that after you inhale, you take the joint and you pass it to the person sitting next to you. Do not—repeat—do not hold onto the joint. This is called Bogarting the joint and it is very rude.”


Griff said...

Mr. Peel, you've just expertly described almost everything I felt when I first saw TAKING OFF in the Spring of 1971. I was high for days. The cumulative effect of the humor, atmosphere, attitude and humanity was extraordinary. I wished more movies could be like this -- I still do. [I still wish Forman, who has nothing left to prove to anyone, would one day make another movie something like this one: Milos, it isn't a Czecholovakian film -- it is an American picture!]

I'd seen Forman's Czechoslovakian features; the improvisitory feel and humor are unmistakably similar. I knew Lynn Carlin from Cassavetes' FACES, and remembered Buck Henry from the Nichols films and some of his television work. [I didn't know Simon, Bates or Harper, or course.] I assumed the film, which had already won a prize at Cannes, would be good, but I didn't expect to be bowled over. Aren't Carlin and Henry wonderful? "Milquetoast" and "clueless" sort of begin to describe the parents, but they're both so original... two characters you never expected to be showcased in a feature film, but somehow they are fascinatingly human and hilarious. As are nearly all of the characters in the entire picture, even the bit players.

I must confess that I owned the soundtrack album, and my favorite cut was Henry's polite, plaintive effort to stop time -- his short rendition of part of "Stranger in Paradise." What a beautiful end note.

mscapone said...

I was there on Sunday and had never seen Taking Off. I thought it was brilliant. I felt just like you did. Alone in a theater, thinking to myself, "is it really this good?" It was achingly beautiful. And hilarious. I keep trying to describe it to people and no one seems to get it the way I want them to get it. Because until you see it, you just can't feel how special and affecting the movie is. That, AND getting to hear Buck Henry speak AND getting to see Catch 22 on the big screen (a first for me) - what a great night.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks very much for your recollections of the film and when you say "I wish more movies could be like this -- I still do" that's pretty much what I was thinking. Carlin and Henry are indeed wonderful--the moment near the end which is basically the climax for her character is truly touching. I'm sure that it's a wonderful album...


It's good to know that I wasn't the only one in the Aero with that reaction to it all--what you just described is exactly how I felt about the night. The film really is achingly beautiful and there's almost no way to say exactly why that is. Thanks again.

christian said...

Damn, I'm pissed I was out of town
(tho I had a lovely time). Glad you got to make the scene.

CATCH-22 is a huge favorite and boy, Austin Pendleton told me great stories about working with (or against) Orson Welles (which you can read in SHOCK CINEMA 33).

TAKING-OFF is very unique and I think Schiavelli has possibly the best pot-smoking scene in film history. Possibly.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Sorry you missed it, Christian!

Austin Pendleton is definitely a longtime favorite of mine--it's very fun to watch what he's doing on the side of the frame in CATCH-22.

And while there might be some pot smoking scene out there that I'm forgetting I have no problem with you making that statement. I remember seeing Schiavelli at Ray's Pizza in the Village way back in the 80s--boy do I wish that I'd seen this film so I could have told him how amazing he is in it.

lily said...

Such a collection!!!!!! Thank you for your collection and comment. Like them

Ned Merrill said...

I had the pleasure of programming TAKING OFF several years ago for a non-canonical American New Wave series I put together at Doc Films in Chicago. It remains a most singular film in my movie-watching experience and I found myself wishing more people had an opportunity to see it and that it had not slipped through the cracks as much as it has. Highlights for me were the aforementioned Schiavelli scene, the appearance by Ike and Tina, and Buck Henry and Lynn Carlin's priceless reactions to the craziness ensuing around them. Milos Forman was at Film Forum a few months back with TAKING OFF and now I'm kicking myself for staying in that night.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


It's a shame you missed Forman speaking at a screening but I love your comments about when you showed it in Chicago. Thank you for that. It's very nice to hear from other people out there who felt about it as I do. I truly hope that I get a chance to show it to other people at some point in the future. It really deserves to be much better known.

Anonymous said...

it sounds liike great american movie