'Taking Off' is bonkers, but what a debut for Milos Forman

1971's 'Taking Off' was Oscar-winner Milos Forman's first American film

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A scene from the 1971 Milos Forman film "Taking Off."

"Taking Off" is barely a footnote in the renowned career of Czech filmmaker Milos Forman, who won the Oscar for 1975's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" as well as 1984's "Amadeus."

But his first American film? A small-scale 1971 comedy starring Buck Henry and TV actress Lynn Carlin as middle-aged squares dipping their toes into the counter-culture waters? It won the Grand Prix (second prize) at Cannes, and yet it's obscure enough that it requires some digging to find it on DVD. Don't even ask about streaming it from a reputable site. There are snippets on YouTube, but the film is worth seeing in its nutty entirety when it screens Wednesday at the Patio Theater, courtesy of the Northwest Chicago Film Society.

Programmer Julian Antos said he "just sort of stumbled upon it at my other job at the (University of Chicago's) Film Studies Center while I was organizing some DVDs. I knew about Milos Forman's earlier Czech films, but I didn't know about this one. When I saw it, I was totally blown away."

Antos calls it "the kindest, most heartfelt satire I had ever seen. His other American films are more normal, I guess. This film isn't exactly normal, although I do think it's very approachable."

I watched it on a crummy DVD and feel the same. Often films from this era take one side or the other: the kids or the establishment. Here, Forman zings both. "That whole aspect of the early '70s, he's really picking it apart," said Antos, "but appreciating it for what it is — which is very funny and weird."

Henry and Carlin play Larry and Lynn Tyne, the parents of a teenage daughter who may have run away for good — or maybe just wandered off to take part in an open audition for a record label. This segment of the film features an endless parade of wannabes (suggesting a proto-version of "American Idol's" audition process) that seems to last forever, getting funnier as it goes.

At one point the camera focuses on a young woman with a shag haircut and a guitar, singing a lovely folk song, and you think: "She looks an awful lot like a young Kathy Bates." Oh hey, it is Kathy Bates. The role is little more than a cameo, but it marks her first appearance in a feature film. (She's credited, charmingly, as "Bobo Bates.") Carly Simon shows up in yet another cameo. So does Tina Turner.

Meanwhile, back at the homestead, Larry and Lynn are trying to solve the mystery of their daughter's disappearance. Another couple has dropped by to help. "Did you check her room?" one of them asks. What follows is a hilarious series of wordless reaction shots that amount to silent variations on, "Wait, did we?"

The film picks up steam when Henry and Carlin hook up with the Society for Parents of Fugitive Children, a non-existent support group for out-of-touch wealthy types whom Forman envisions in their natural habitat: the black-tie society function.

Dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, a select group attend an after-party where they light up joints at the urging of their host: "For you to understand your youngster and what he's going through, you really have to have a similar experience."

And then, the character actor Vincent Schiavelli (who would appear in later Forman films such as "Man on the Moon" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt," but whom I always remember best as the addled, droopy-eyed biology teacher from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High") begins the instruction.

"This is a joint," he tells the assembled crowd. "After you inhale, you take the joint and you pass it to the person sitting next to you. Do not — repeat — do not hold onto the joint. This is called bogarting the joint and is very rude."

"I think we all had drinks with dinner," one participant says. "Uh, dope and alcohol — do they mix?"

"Oh, they'll mix," says Schiavelli's character.

Later, Larry and Lynn bring another couple back to their home, and it's as if the film has suddenly turned into loopy version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," complete with a game of strip poker. (Carlin's can't-stop-laughing stoned-drunkness is frankly adorable.)

The film was part of an unofficial series from Universal, according to Antos. "They were funding these middle-budget films, under a million dollars, that were made by independent filmmakers."

The sheer number of faces and half-conversations Forman captures with his camera is an exercise in people-watching. The movie critic Vadim Rizov offered some insight on this in a 2008 write-up for the Village Voice.

"When Milos Forman set out to make his first American movie, he moved into a house on Leroy Street for more than a year," Rizov wrote. "The door was always open, and Forman spent most of his time talking to anyone who stopped by.

"Ivan Passer — collaborator, fellow Czech New Waver, and roommate — called it 'amateur sociological research.'"

"Taking Off" screens 7:30 p.m. at the Patio Theater. Go to northwestchicagofilmsociety.org.

Across the pond

The EU Film Festival continues at the Siskel Film Center with screenings of the British film "Everyday" from director Michael Winterbottom ("Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story"). The story revolves around a family (the children are played by four real-life siblings) over a period of five years in rural England. Winterbottom filmed the movie over the five years, capturing the actors as they aged. Plays at 6 p.m. Friday and 3:15 p.m. Saturday. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/everyday.

Chicago indie

A 2013 drama about a lonely college student and the fractured family she encounters over Christmas break, "The Cold and the Quiet" (from local filmmaker Colleen Griffen) is the featured selection Tuesday from the Midwest Independent Film Festival. Evanston's Joe Chappelle (a producer on "Chicago Fire") is the executive producer, and he will be at Tuesday's screening with the cast and crew. Go to midwestfilm.com/nowshowing.

Antiques Roadshow

The PBS series comes to Chicago this summer for an "all-day appraisal event" July 26 (a Saturday) that will be able to accommodate 6,000 people (two items each). Tickets are required, and the deadline for applications is April 7; tickets will be awarded by random drawing. Go to pbs.org/roadshow/tickets.

nmetz@tribune.com

@NinaMetzNews

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