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.

233: Robert Frank (1924-2019)

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Archival Spaces 233

Jan-Christopher Horak

This is the first blog on my new website, but is a continuation of a blog I have been writing for over ten years. I started it on an Ithaca College website in 2009 at the invitation of my colleague Patty Zimmermann. In 2011, I moved it to the UCLA Film & Television website, when I became Director. This obituary was written in September 2019, but was not published, because I left UCLA. I offer it now on my own site.



Robert Frank (1924-2019)

One of the greatest American photographers of the 20th century, Robert Frank, passed away on September 9, 2019, at the age of 94 in his home in Nova Scotia. Born in Switzerland, Frank came to the United States in 1947 and toiled for more than a decade without recognition. When his book of photographs, The Americans, was published in 1958 in Paris (no American press would touch it), it was savagely attacked by critics, but is today considered one of the masterpieces of the century, its unvarnished look at America influencing all subsequent generations of photographers. An American edition was published in 1959 by Grove Press with an introduction by Jack Kerouac, and it was with Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg that Frank made his first film, Pull My Daisy (1959), now considered a classic document of the Beat Generation. The general public probably remembers Robert Frank for his long banned Rolling Stones film, Cocksucker Blues (1972) and his photography on the album, Exile on Main Street.

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I met Robert Frank a couple of times in the late 1980s/early 1990s, while I was curator at Eastman Museum. At the time, I wrote a long essay on Robert Frank’s film work, “Daddy Looking for the Truth: The Films of Robert Frank,“ which was initially published in Afterimage (1989) and then revised for my book, Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema(1997). I was shocked to hear Frank himself quote the title of my piece in his one hour, one take video, C’est vrai (1990), and then noticed that in a revised edition of his book,The Lines in My Hand, Frank had written under a frame enlargement of himself holding the camera from Home Improvements(1985): “Daddy looking for the truth.” I don’t know whether Frank was being ironic or not, because like all artists he hated definitions, as I note in an excerpt from my piece:

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Frank’s films, like his photographs but in a more direct and personal sense, continually decry the intolerable schism between the outside world, the physical realm of real life, that portion of the universe which is beholden to the physics of light, optics and photo-chemistry and the inner world of the spirit, of human emotions. Frank keeps hoping that there is a connection, that the meaning of images can be read as semaphore of the soul. At the same time he documents their failure to communicate, their opacity when the concerns of the father are to be articulated to the off-spring. Frank’s desire that photographic images function as memory is continually thwarted, because the past is a foreign place, because the father’s narrative of history is perceived by the son as a means of controlling the present, of defining power relations.      

In all of his film work, Robert Frank, the artist, the husband, the father, is the subject. Although he never appears in the scene, he is omnipresent through the surrogate, through the camera eye. A number of critics have remarked on the “rather self-obsessed group of autobiographical films.” Marita Sturken). But are they? Are we getting the real Robert Frank, or only his image? A screen persona, an aesthetic construction, a fetish? Frank remains an enigma, an image, undecodable, forever trapped on the other side of the lens. He resists interpretation, definitions crowd him, like just so many armored tank traps at the Swiss border in 1940. “It’s the misinformation that is important,” Frank once said in reference to Brookman’s biographical video on Frank, Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank (1986). For all their autobiography, Frank’s films are not consciously revealing. He keeps the audience at a distance, just as he uses the camera to keep his distance from those around him. Being close and yet keeping distance is the key to Frank’s voyeuristic gaze, as Christian Metz has pointed out: “The voyeur is careful to maintain a gulf, an empty space between the object and the eye, the object and his own body: his look fastens the object at the right distance…”

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Referring to Frank, Jonas Mekas once asked: “Where does this morbidness come from? From this world, you fool…”  But it is not the world, it is rather an obsession with images of the world, silent, incommunicado, which give his films their nihilistic tinge. In Home Improvements (1984) Frank notes, while his camera is pointed at a window of his house, allowing him to film his reflection, filming the artist:

          I’m always doing the same images. I’m always looking outside, trying to look

          inside. Trying to tell something that is true. But maybe nothing is true. Except

          what’s out there. And what’s out there is always different.

As he speaks the camera pans away from the window to a completely empty landscape, then to a barren, wintry shot of the same scene. Inside/outside, a world of reflections in which everything is an illusion, because emotions are by definition as fleeting as the images which supposedly capture them. Inside/outside, Frank positions himself as subject in a voyeuristic spectacle, where his desire depends on the continual pursuit of an absent object, the camera a permanent barrier between himself and the object.

R.I.P. Robert. Your journey is done.