Reel Dad: Milos Forman – Celebrating genius

Genius can surprise.

In every field, from science and literature to the arts, the achievements of the brilliant stagger the imagination.

Milos Forman — the film director who journeyed from his native Czechoslovakia to his adopted home in Connecticut — understood genius and demonstrated its fruits. When he died last week, at age 86, he left two deserving winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. While each explored elements of genius, Forman’s tribute to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Amadeus may best illustrate the director’s view of his world. Perhaps he was inspired by returning to his native Czechoslovakia to shoot this adaptation of the stage hit. Or maybe he believed that, when we listen to great music, we may never know the genius that creates such amazing sounds.

My son Garrett is a composer and, take it from me, a composer’s mind is like no other. They hear all these sounds in their heads, without editorial control, after which they exhibit the discipline to write down everything they hear. While musical tastes may change over the years, what a composer must go through has not. This is a lonely, at times frustrating, and certainly exhausting work. Without the toil that a composer endures, none of us would have the chance to enjoy the music we savor.

Milos Forman’s film of Amadeus takes us into the mind and heart of one of the most renowned composers of all time. Mozart is, from an early age, a brilliant musical prodigy. His talent is so amazing, in fact, that he attracts the resentment and bitterness of a little talented composer who dedicates his life to bringing the genius down. Amadeus teaches us what jealousy can do, how it can poison people’s lives, and how the gift of beautiful music can survive even the most difficult challenges.

Picture yourself in Vienna, Austria, in the 17th Century. Mozart, a brilliant young composer, is hired to write an opera for the Emperor. But another composer, the less talented Antonio Salieri, is amazed by Mozart’s amazing talent, but can’t believe God would give such talent to such a vile man. That anyone as complex a character could so effortlessly create music so clear creates a compelling case for the brilliance of mind yielding the beauty of the sound.

As a play, Amadeus focused on the mystery of the relationship between Salieri and Mozart, without the texture of the music to help us understand what all the fuss is about in the first place. Director Forman recognizes this is a story of men influenced by music, defined by ambition and thriving in a world of performance. He perfectly uses the music of Mozart as a character in the film to bring to life the brilliance of the man and the tragedy of his outcome.

When Forman won his second Oscar for directing Amadeus, he responded, “I am very proud because this is an American movie on which a lot of Czechoslovakian artists and technicians collaborated. To get this kind of recognition from the members of Academy for this kind of collaboration, I think, is very encouraging for more than artistic or box-office reasons.”

With Amadeus, Milos Forman celebrates genius by revealing the range of a director’s visual sense. By helping us see what brilliance can create, he reminds us of what he brings to the screen. And, thanks to film, Forman’s genius will last forever.

Amadeus, from 1984, won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. The film is rated R for brief nudity and runs 2 hours, 40 minutes. For more about famed film directors, check out the Reel Dad in Arts and Leisure online, at arts.hersamacorn.com.

Stanley Kubrick: One other great director

Celebrating the work of the late Milos Forman brings to mind one other director who dared to share a unique view of his immediate and distant world.

Like Forman, Stanley Kubrick left an indelible print on the world of movies with a small but powerful collection of films now regarded as classics for all time. But unlike Forman — who won two Oscars for directing — Kubrick was a perennial also-ran. Perhaps his peers were intimidated by his genius.

Of Kubrick’s films, Doctor Strangelove may be the one we should watch today.

After all, the threat of nuclear war is not fun and games.

Every generation seems to introduce a few people on earth with the controls in hand that could end civilization. Some are domestic, others are foreign; some are political, others are from the military; some are frightening, others frightened. All we can do is hope that common sense and cool heads prevail. But the severity of what could happen — if the decision to go to war fell into the wrong hands — is a haunting possibility that every generation must confront.

Picture yourself, for 90 minutes or so, living the possibility of the world coming to an end because people make outrageous decisions and refuse to admit their mistakes and correct their errors. Imagine a world so fragile where one person can, on a whim, signal the end of how people live. And consider the very real threat that placing powerful weapons in the wrong hands can create. That is the world of Doctor Strangelove.

In 1964, when the film was made, the reality it creates was all too real to a citizenry in the United States filled with school children who would “duck and cover” under classroom desks and parents who built elaborate bomb shelters in case the inevitable might occur. Because the superpowers of the time — the US and the Soviet Union — each had the ability to destroy the other many times over, people lived in fear that such a doomsday plot could actually happen. So the film, when it opened, was viewed less as fiction than a disturbing interpretation of a feasible reality. Because it all could happen, movie audiences embraced the film as, perhaps, a way to feel better because none of it actually did happen.

Kubrick is too wise to make the film too ominous. Instead he uses humor to examine what inspires leaders to want to destroy the civilized world in the name of supremacy. By putting together such a bizarre collection of characters, and placing them in such hysterical yet plausible situations, he stretches the truth just enough to project what actually could happen if common decency and caring were forgotten long enough to simply push the button to launch a destructive nuclear weapon.

While we did, as a civilization, survive that turbulent time of Cold War, the possibility of global doom never disappears. Only the names of the threatening countries change. So what if the great powers of the world decide to destroy each other? And the people who run strong countries begin to care less about the people they are assigned to protect in the interest of proving who has the most destructive weapons?

What makes Doctor Strangelove so important to experience — nearly 50 years after it was first released — is to notice how little, in fact, the world has changed. Leaders, no matter what they may say to be elected, remain capable of letting petty jealousies and fears cloud their judgment. And the only power that people may have in such turbulent times is to make certain, through how we speak and how we vote, that access is denied to those who do not deserve to know the codes.

Doctor Strangelove, from 1964, is rated PG for thematic elements, some violent content, sexual humor and mild language. The film runs  95 minutes.

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