234: Ivan Passer (1933-2010)

Archival Spaces 234

Uploaded 10 January 2020

Ivan Passer (1933-2020)

The Czech New Wave writer and director and later émigré to Hollywood, Ivan Passer, died yesterday at the age of 86 years in Reno, Nevada. Many Czechs consider his one and only feature film in Czechoslovakia, Intimate Lighting (1965) to be the best film to come from the Czech New Wave, although he also gained prominence in the West as the co-scriptwriter for Miloš Forman’s  The Loves of a Blonde (1965), and the Oscar- nominated Fireman’s Ball (1968).  

For a brief period in the mid 1960s, Czech cinema was on top of the world, its Nová Vlna directors winning prizes at numerous international film festivals, at least until the Soviet invasion put an end to the so-called “Prague Spring” in August 1968.  Among the most prominent directors of the Czech New Wave were Miloš Forman, Vĕra Chytilová, Evald Schorm, Jiří Menzel, Jan Nĕmec, Juraj Herz, Jaromil Jireš, Ivan Passer, Pavel Juráček, Ester Krumachová, Juraj Jakusbisko and Dušan Hanák, as I noted in a recent blog on Fireman’s Ball (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2019/08/30/revisiting-firemens-ball).

Ivan Passer was born on July 19, 1933, the son of middle class parents. He attended the King George boarding school in Central Bohemia, along with Miloš Foreman, Václav Havel (the first President of the post-Communist Czech Republic), and the Polish filmmaker, Jerzy Skolimowski. While Forman enters film school in 1950, two years after the Communist putsch, Passer, a self-confessed member of the bourgeoisie, remains at sea in the 1950s. Both his background and his high school grades keep him from attending university, finally entering FAMU, the state film school, in the mid-1950s, after he fakes his transcripts. When he is finally caught three years later and expelled, he has already started working as an assistant director for several older generation directors, like Zbynek Brynych and Vojtech Jasný (When the Cat Comes, 1963), as well as writing Forman’s first short feature film, Audition  (1962), and acting as an assistant director for Forman’s Black Peter (1964). The same year, he directs his first short fiction film, A Boring Afternoon, based on a short story by the Czech writer, Bohumil Hrabal, a favorite of the Czech New Wave, whose Closely Watched Trains (1966) won an Oscar for Jiři Menzel. A  closely observed comedy of manners among ordinary people whiling away the hours in a tavern, A Boring Afternoon is almost completely plotless, as is his next directorial effort, Intimate Lighting. The latter feature is a tragicomic observation of two musicians who meet ten years after they attended school together when both attend a funeral. It won the National Film Critics Award in 1970 in America, but by that time had already been banned by the Communists.

As Passer noted in an interview at the Kalovy Vary Film Festival in 2016, when a restored version of Intimate Lighting was premiered: “I believe that the Party was worried when they saw ordinary people, with all their weaknesses and strengths, depicted on the screen. I think they also preferred to be attacked directly rather than to be ignored completely.” That focus on situations, rather than stories, observing the details of life with a deeply Czech melancholy, while finding humor in human foibles, characterized the work of Forman, Passer, and their co-writer, Jaroslav Papoušek, and won praise for all three from Western film critics. Ironically, Czech New Wave directors were severely attacked by Jean-Luc Godard in his severely Maoist phase for producing bourgeois fantasies, leading Passer to counter in an interview with Antonin Liehm: “… when people like that contend that our films are bourgeois, I get the feeling that I know where it comes from: everything that doesn’t stink of blood and gun powder deserves the epithet ‘petty bourgeois’ – except, who knows if it isn’t the other way around.”

When the Soviet bloc troops invaded Czechoslovakia, Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer drove across the border to Austria without an exit visa, thanks to the fact that the border guard liked Forman’s films and let them pass without further questions. Three years later, Passer completed his first American film, Born to Win (1971), a comedy-drama about down and out junkies in New York, starring George Segal, Karen Black, and a young Robert DeNiro (pre-Mean Streets). His next film also played in New York: Law and Disorder (1974), starred Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine as ordinary New Yorkers who join an auxiliary police force, in order to rid their crime infested streets of criminals. The film came closer to the feel of his Czech work than anything else he would produce in America, but both films received mixed reviews and a tepid box office.

After two more Hollywood projects, Passer directed what is considered his best American film, the film noir, Cutter’s Way (1981), starring John Heard and Jeff Bridges, as a Viet Nam vet and playboy, respectively, who together try to solve a murder. Unfortunately, United Artists botched the original release of the film, leading to its commercial failure, although it has since clawed its way from cult status to acknowledged masterpiece. Passer spent the next twenty plus years making mostly TV movies, including the biopic, Stalin (1992), starring Robert Duvall, which won Emmys and Golden Globes for his actors and technical crew.

I met Passer a couple times in Hollywood in this century, after he had retired, and he told me that while he was happy that his country now once again enjoyed democratic freedoms, he was happy living in  Los Angeles. Like many of his characters, he seemed melancholy, but not bitter about his fate as an exile. R.I.P. Ivan Passer.

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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