Black Peter

The other night we watched Miloš Forman’s early feature, Black Peter. Not so well known as Loves of a Blonde or The Fireman’s Ball, it is a slow, dreamlike evocation of an adolescent summer of dances, awkward flirtation, crap jobs and oppressive—but far from monstrous—parents. It invites comparison with certain films of Bresson and Rohmer. Not as dark as the former or as self-consciously intellectual as the latter, Black Peter is very funny, in that deadpan, slow-motion, ironical, sex-obsessed way of the marvelous Czech cinema of the 1960s.

The DVD includes an interview with Forman taped for an Australian film school in 1986, after Forman had become famous for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. We learn that film-making conditions during the period of the Czech New Wave were “ideal” because there was no commercial pressure (the industry was state-owned) and, for a brief window of time, no ideological pressure. Conditions in America, on the other hand, are also “ideal” because so many films are made (most of them awful, admittedly) that eventually you will find somebody to bankroll your projects.

One might take such expressions as signs of the deepest cynicism—nothing there about aesthetic or moral traditions or professional or artistic relationships—but perhaps these are only the kinds of things you say in an interview when you are bored with it, as Forman appeared to be.

Forman’s English was of course American English. Not a generic American English (if there is such a thing), more a particular gravelly, lowish-medium, side-of-the-mouth, flat, no-nonsense American voice, its register neither specifically formal nor specifically colloquial, speech requiring no movement of either lips or eyebrows, a nowhere dialect whose native territory one thinks of as Hollywood big-shots, neo-cons in think tanks, sellers of Ponzi schemes. Binyamin Netanyahu has also this American English. It is as though the element of the foreign accent, rather than diluting the adopted idiom only lays bare its essential brutalism. The Australian interviewer was utterly intimidated.

The only important thing to know about Miloš Forman is that he made two good films in America about the crushing effects of malevolence, spite and envy on a free spirit. When you watch Black Peter you see that everything essential to those films, everything enduringly interesting in them, comes from Europe.