The ’70s Seen: Miloŝ Forman’s Taking Off

Steve Lippman continues his exploration of everyone's favorite cinematic decade by revisiting Forman's inexplicably overlooked social satire.

There’s a sequence mid-point in Miloŝ Forman’s 1971 social-satiric odyssey Taking Off when Lynn and Larry Tyne (played by Lynn Carlin and Buck Henry) drive to upstate New York from Riverdale to find their daughter Jeannie, who’s been missing nearly a week. Police inform them that she’s been arrested for shoplifting a TV, yet they’re relieved she’s been found. Arriving at the station, they find that it’s not Jeannie, but instead her best friend, using Jeannie’s name. Befuddled and desperate, they drive into the night, Lynn crying, and Larry at the wheel defiantly exclaiming: “If we were smart, we’d be having as much fun as she is. That’s what we ought to do, go some place and have some fun, goddammit!” That fun is seeing the Ike and Tina Turner Revue at a Catskills hotel. (Forman lets Ike and Tina’s blistering performance of “Goodbye, So Long” play almost in its entirety, with just a few narrative cutaways to Lynn and Larry in the capacity all-white crowd.)

I was too young to have seen Taking Off when first released, and doubt it was even shown where I lived in South Florida, but I was apparently old enough to have seen the Ike and Tina Turner Revue at the Marco Polo Hotel on Miami Beach in July 1973 with my father and younger brother Peter. My father was as square as Lynn and Larry, so this was an odd yet fortuitous aberration in his taste. I don’t have detailed recall of the show, other than it was my first concert, albeit in a hotel showroom, and that we sat at a long banquet table, and the sequined image of Ike and Tina and the Ikettes felt far away. What does stay with me through this haze of memory was the jolting energy and raw sexuality on stage spilling out into the room, and how urgent and seductive it felt. I had probably seen them before watching The Ed Sullivan Show on TV, but live, Tina’s scorched-earth presence broke from all that permeated my segregated isolated middle-class youth. That excited me, this commanding, rasping, shimmying siren call and reveling in the tangible discovery of something beyond my borders; of immigrating beyond. (Looking back, my enthusiasm is dampened because I suspect, like in the film, the audience was exclusively white, and I now know Tina wasn’t free, except for in performance.)

A similar feeling of discovery and freedom informs Forman’s Taking Off, both for its characters and the filmmaker. His first U.S. English-language work, after Loves of a Blonde and The Fireman’s Ball made his reputation while a Czechoslovakian citizen under Communist rule, Taking Off belongs to a unique subgenre of late ’60s/early ’70s film (Demy’s Model Shop, Varda’s Lions Love, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Lester’s Petulia, Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, for example) in which, observed through the lens of a foreigner, (then) contemporary traditional capitalist American life collides head-on with a sea change of politics, underground cinema, music, theater, the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, civil rights, and the hippie and anti-war movements. As seen by these directors, the U.S. feels mysterious, liberating, curious, uptight and often absurd, but never threatening as it felt to the American establishment. These films revel in the excess, paradox and conflicts of freedom, while observing it at a cultural distance, trying to make sense of it all.

The loose plot of Taking Off revolves around the Tynes’ reaction to Jeannie’s disappearance (though the audience know she’s fine) and how their missing-person search breaks down their staid values and shakes their foundation. The film’s bold assertion is that they’re liberated, and perhaps happier, without their daughter.

Forman threads the film throughout with scenes of the open-call female singer auditions for a record company where Jeannie has been. It’s a counterculture vaudeville: D.P. Miroslav Ondříček’s camera scanning and observing faces, reactions, glances (spot Jessica Harper) in the audition hall with jump cuts collapsing time, conveying the immediacy, anxieties and hopes of the performers, if not a microcosm of American youth culture. The songs and singers are a mosaic of banal to bad to sublime including a hilariously sincere folk satire Ode to a Screw (written by Tom Eyen and Peter Cornell) whose lyrics go, “Who can fuck the lilies and the roses too / You can fuck the maidens who swear they’ve never been screwed”; a just-before fame Carly Simon singing Long Term Physical Effects, whose presence is so potent it may have stopped the film cold had Forman let her whole performance play out; and a beautiful haunting ballad And Even the Horses Had Wings written and sung by Kathy Bates (here billed as “Bobo” Bates.)

In these scenes, Forman is paying homage to himself and his debut 1964 documentary Audition. But where his early film was strictly observational and focused solely on the performers, in Taking Off he expands their meaning using delicate overlapping audio and crosscutting action, the music becoming commentary on the outside world. (Forman dispenses with typical instrumental scoring – the audition songs are the only music for the film, along with the Ike and Tina scene, and “Air” by Incredible String Band that emanates from a turntable.) While this may have descended into grotesque parody or indulgence in lesser hands, Forman is incredibly generous to these young women. Whether good or bad, the camera observes them with equal respect. This carries into the rest of Taking Off, which I think is his best work, as it exposes and dissects with wit and biting satire the safety of 1970s white middle-class comforts, baring these people until, at one point, they are literally naked. Couched in vérité style and improvisational timing, their situations, however broad, are anchored in reality. Similar to Paul Mazursky’s 1969 social comedy masterpiece Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Forman shows enormous compassion and empathy for the characters as they try to figure out their place and search for meaning in a rapidly changing world. (We first meet Taking Off’s Larry Tyne in hypnotherapy to stop smoking: “Are you for living or are you not? Are you for your body or are you not?” intones the hypnotist.)

Forman cast the film with professional and non-professional actors. His razor-sharp skilled actors find unexpected rhythms in the dialogue and spaces in-between, while the aloof deadpan expressions of well-placed amateurs, including Linnea Heacock as Jeannie, only heighten the film’s thematic generational and cultural divides. The great Lynn Carlin, who was in John Cassavetes’ Faces three years earlier, inhabits similarly bared complexity playing Lynn Tyne, though here she’s dialed for satire. There’s sexiness in her laughing-for-crying. She’s the perfect partner for Buck Henry’s four-eyed minimalist bemusement. Together, there’s no question they’re a familiar couple.

Paul Benedict, Georgia Engel, Audra Lindley, Allen Garfield and Vincent Schiavelli – faces that would soon help define ’70s American TV and film – all make striking early career or screen debut appearances here. Engel, whose mouth seems poised in a perpetual “oh” waiting for a revelation that never arrives, is a great slow-take comedienne. When she tells of her husband’s voracious sexual appetite, her wide-eyed expression and baby-toned voice makes her story even dirtier and funnier. Lindley plays Ann Lockston, who’s also looking for her missing daughter. (Ann: “How long has she be gone, Mr.Tyne?” Larry: “About a week. What about your girl?” Ann, browsing a menu: “Oh, mine’s been gone for seven months.”) She brilliantly inhabits oblivion with a hint of madness; she whirls into the film with her white summer dress and hat, and freckled tan complexion looking and sounding like Doris Day after a bender. When she tells Larry about SPFC (“The Society of Parents of Fugitive Children – it was featured in Time magazine”), she makes it seem like the most common useful information, like someone recommending a better brand of aspirin.

Schiavelli, who would become a Forman cast regular, appears as the guest SPFC seminar leader who teaches a room of parents how to smoke pot: “This a joint. The joint has two ends. Don’t hold onto the joint. This is called bogarting the joint and it is very rude.” It’s the film’s funniest sequence, yet within the bravura hilarity, there’s something touching and melancholic about these people letting go. Freedom is too frightening to them on their own accord.

Taking Off was made for Universal Pictures as part of a slate of early 1970s films greenlit by the studio in the wake of the massive low-budget high-return success of 1969’s Easy Rider. The deal gave the filmmakers complete artistic freedom as long as the budget came in under $1 million. Among the work that resulted: John Cassavetes’ Minnie & Moskowitz; Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife; Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand; Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider follow-up, The Last Movie. The directors only got paid if the film turned a profit. Taking Off was released to critical praise, but little to no audience. Forman, broke but not wanting to return to communist Czechoslovakia, found salvation when Royal Crown Cola hired him to direct a commercial based on the montage of auditions in Taking Off. The budget for the spot was $1 million, more in total than his whole movie. As Forman explains: “This was my education in capitalism.”

That American capitalist lesson can also be found in a prescient scene near the end of Taking Off. Jeannie, now back home, introduces her musician boyfriend (who she met at the auditions) to her parents over an awkwardly silent dinner. Larry, making parental small talk, asks him what he does and how much he makes. “Last year I made $290,000. Before taxes. It’s a kinda funny thing. You see a lot of things that the government is doing that make you kinda angry, so you write some songs about it and try and reach as many people as you can and you end up paying for those same things that made you angry in the first place. I guess I accept contradictions.”

Larry’s response in the next scene is to sing “Stranger in Paradise”: Take my hand / I’m a stranger in paradise. It’s a show-off show tune, sung in Buck Henry’s bad earnest way, but there’s truth and poetry in there for Forman. And it’s no accident that the melody is from a 1890 Russian Borodin opera, then appropriated by American musical theater (Kismet) and turned into a hit pop song. Immigration is everywhere.

Steve Lippman aka FLIP has directed music short films/videos/documentaries for David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash, Esperanza Spalding, Jorge Drexler, Joe Henry,  Carly Simon, Bette Midler, and more. His work has screened at film festivals worldwide including Cannes, London, Berlin, Tribeca, and Denver. Imagery from his music films has been featured in major concert tours for David Bowie, Rosanne Cash and Dolly Parton. Flip directed Behind the Lid, a feature-length film version of the acclaimed theatrical experience co-created by avant-garde playwright/performer Lee Nagrin and master puppeteer/performer Basil Twist. The film premiered at BAM. He resides in Brooklyn and works globally.