Tag Archives: Milos Forman

wendy2

Blu-ray Review Round-up: Films by Kelly Reichardt, Hong Sangsoo, Bill Gunn & more!

WendyWendy and Lucy (2008)
Oscilloscope Laboratories

There’s a scene in Kelly Reichardt’s first masterpiece, Wendy and Lucy, when Michelle Williams’ Wendy is apprehended by a self-righteous teenager working at a small-town Oregon grocery store. She’s trying to shoplift a few cans of barf diet for dogs, Lucy, who’s tied up outside. He hauls her back to the manager’s office, with an indignant quaver in his voice. “The rules apply to everyone equally,” he says. Reichardt, who’s quite possibly the greatest working American filmmaker, keeps the camera on Williams, whose hardened gaze flickers for a moment of incredulity at this statement. The rules apply to everyone equally? Like hell they do.

Wendy and Lucy is one of the most affecting portraits of working-class disaffection in American film. A life on the margins is acutely felt in Reichardt’s images of a gas-station bathroom, a desolate parking lot, a quieted port town, the inside of a busted Honda Accord. There’s beauty too: a stranger who’s kind for no reason other than being kind or the relationship one has with a dog. Lucy, played by Reichardt’s own dog, is a symbol of unadulterated good in a world that takes very little notice of her owner, a woman chasing opportunity in Alaska, if she can only get there.

Reichardt’s eye for striking, unexpected compositions reveals the strangeness in ordinary life and the inner turmoil that’s often hiding underneath a placid surface. There have been a lot of great performances in Reichardt films, particularly in her most recent film, Certain Women, which would have made Lily Gladstone a major star in a just world. But Williams is her ideal collaborator, a performer who pulls back the veil on an inner life with the slightest of gestures. Wendy and Lucy is often described as a small film but it’s not; it’s an expansive one, every character movement and pillow shot of Pacific Northwest terrain building to a devastating emotional climax.

After months of kicking myself for not picking up Soda’s UK Reichardt Blu-ray box before it went OOP, I’m grateful to Oscilloscope for upgrading Wendy and Lucy. (Now we could just use an Old Joy upgrade stateside.) The 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is very pleasing, significantly improving on the DVD’s handling of the 16mm grain, which looks natural and well-supported here. Colors are true and clarity is strong. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent. Some retrospective extras would have been welcome for a film of this stature, but nothing new is added from the DVD. The intriguing selection of experimental films by Reichardt’s Bard College colleagues remains a great bonus feature though.

Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2008 / Color / 1.78:1 / 80 min / $32.99

PersonalPersonal Problems (1980-1981)
Kino Lorber

A fascinating work of collaboration and experimentation, the “meta-soap opera” Personal Problems is a landmark of Black independent filmmaking, resurrected from the ashes of deteriorating video tape with a new restoration from Kino. Conceived by Ishmael Reed, Steve Cannon and director Bill Gunn, the two-part film/television hybrid casts a restless eye on a family led by the irrepressible Johnnie Mae (Vertamae Grosvenor), an emergency room nurse in Harlem.

Consisting of direct-to-camera address, kitchen-sink domestic strife, musical interludes, nature interludes, juicy if undecipherable gossip and what seems like the whole range of human emotions, Personal Problems contains multitudes. It’s compelling and enervating in almost equal parts. Gunn’s curious video camera always seems to be in the right place to catch a moment, and the smearing inherent in the format lends both a verité-like realism and an otherworldly effect.

Part one, which revels in Gunn’s unusual cutting a little more, features an indelible performance from Grosvenor, whose Johnnie Mae is caught in a love triangle with her emotionally inconsistent husband (Walter Cotton, one of the project’s other originators) and a musician (Sam Waymon, Nina Simone’s brother). Though Personal Problems possesses the building blocks of soap-opera drama — affairs, unwelcome family members, unexpected death — it’s not organized around them. Though the film would benefit from staying centered on Johnnie Mae’s experiences, as Grosvenor is easily its standout actor, it’s approach is far too diffuse to be satisfied by that.

In part two, the focus tightens some with a very long scene set at a wake, and the complaints of a grieving family member become as grating to the viewer as they do the characters. One longs for the “unfocused” escape the first part would have provided. Personal Problems doesn’t play by the rules of narrative though — even rules it seemed to be following just minutes earlier. One can only imagine what a full season of this would have looked like.

Kino’s Blu-ray offers a 1080p, 1.33:1 image that is obviously limited by the capabilities of the 3/4” U-matic tape Personal Problems was shot on. But taking the smearing, ghosting and interlacing as a feature not a bug, it’s easy to appreciate the relative clarity of the image. Hiss is persistent, if not omnipresent, and the audio is pretty clean otherwise, taking into account the intentionally muffled sound of some overlapping dialogue. The disc is also a carefully assembled special edition, with preliminary video and radio versions, deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, Q&A from the restoration premiere and a booklet with essays by Reed and author Nicholas Forster.

Kino Lorber / 1980-1981 / Color / 1.33:1 / 164 min / $29.95

MatterA Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Criterion Collection

Before viewing the new Criterion disc, it had been a while since I’d seen A Matter of Life and Death, and in my memory, it was mid-lower tier Powell and Pressburger, which is hardly faint praise given the high quality of the pair’s output. But still, it wasn’t major in my recollection. Well, that was a stupid thought.

The new 4K restoration of the three-strip Technicolor is certainly a factor — those reds, my god — but I’m not sure how I missed the reality that this is just a perfect movie, a fantasy in which the universe’s most ecstatic pleasures are earthly delights. The inversion of the expected — heaven’s scenes are in black and white, earth’s are in color — is a brilliant conceit. When WWII RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) cheats death by surviving a jump from his burning plane, he emerges from the sea reborn into an idyllic paradise. Who can fault him for thinking he died and went to beachfront heaven? (Meanwhile, in the strict environs of the real thing, his dead buddy is bending the rules simply by waiting for him to arrive.)

When Peter realizes he hasn’t died, and he can actually pursue a relationship with the woman he fell for over the radio in his presumed final moments, he grabs the opportunity wholeheartedly, as does June (Kim Hunter), the American radio operator. And if love weren’t enough of a reason to exult in living, how about friendship, as offered by the magnanimous Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey, never more rakishly charming).

When the forces of heaven try to correct their accounting to atone for Peter’s accidental survival, the trio must mount a defense. A Matter of Life and Death seamlessly shifts from ebullient love story to wry celestial courtroom drama as metaphor for US-Britain-European relations, which might be the most ringing endorsement of Pressburger’s screenwriting adroitness there is. Powell, Pressburger, cinematographer Jack Cardiff and production designer Alfred Junge made so many capital-G Great films, it’s almost mind-boggling. To think I once thought A Matter of Life and Death wasn’t among them? Stupid.

Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray presentation of the 4K restoration is remarkable, showcasing exceptional depth, astounding color and perfectly clean black and white images. The three-strip Technicolor restoration is impeccable, with none of the color inconsistencies that were present on the old Sony DVD release. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is exceptionally clean. A stunning disc for a stunning film. Ported over from the Sony DVD are Ian Christie’s audio commentary and a Martin Scorsese introduction. Newly filmed are an interview with Thelma Schoonmaker and a featurette on the film’s visual effects. A 1986 episode of The South Bank Show features Powell, while short doc The Colour Merchant focuses on Cardiff’s career. A restoration demonstration and an insert with an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek are also included.

Criterion Collection / 1946 / Color/Black and white / 1.37:1 / 104 min / $39.95

RoccoRocco and His Brothers (1960)
Milestone Films

Is Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers a work of neorealism or melodrama? Certainly, the film sits somewhere at the intersection of the two, but for me, the film can be most appreciated for its bravura emotional flourishes. It may depict hardscrabble lives, but it does so with the same operatic charge given to the depiction of aristocracies in Senso and The Leopard.

The apparent neatness of the structure, in which each of the five brothers of a working-class Italian family is afforded a delineated section, belies the film’s messy sprawl, which Visconti luxuriates in. The intra-country fractures are writ small, playing out in the conflicts of a family who moves north to Milan.

The major players, brothers Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon), clash over their dispositional differences — Simone is a pugilist inside and outside of the ring, Rocco is sensitive — and their shared interest in Nadia (Annie Girardot), a prostitute who both brothers use and abuse in different ways. While Simone’s actions are far more egregious, Rocco’s attempts to play savior aren’t necessarily any better for Nadia, or for the family at large.

While all five brothers are constantly trying and failing to live up to the expectations of their religious, domineering mother (Katina Paxinou), it’s Rocco who takes on the biggest burden, and perhaps sets himself up for the most failure. Visconti raises the stakes expertly, every small disappointment or minor fit of rage a stepping stone toward the ultimate tragedy to come. The tragedy is both deeply personal and emblematic of the violent cultural and class shifts in postwar Italy. Looking at it from that perspective, the divide between melodrama and neorealism isn’t so obvious.

Milestone’s Blu-ray release features a 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer sourced from the same 4K restoration as the earlier UK Masters of Cinema release. Largely, this is an excellent transfer, full of impressive levels of fine detail and excellent grayscale reproduction. Image density and clarity can be inconsistent due to the condition of the elements, but the restoration has largely mitigated the damage that’s to blame for this. Overall, the film looks great, and the 2.0 uncompressed mono audio is solid, given the expected limitations of Italian post-sync dubbing of the era.

Milestone has wisely given the nearly three-hour film its own disc, shared just with the Martin Scorsese introduction. Disc two features a newly filmed interview with Caterina d’Amico, daughter of screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, as well as archival cast and crew interviews, a brief selection of outtakes and a restoration demonstration.

Milestone Films / 1960 / Black and white / 1.85:1 / 177 min / $39.95

HongTwo Films by Hong Sangsoo: Woman is the Future of Man (2004) and Tale of Cinema (2005)
Arrow Academy

It can be difficult to keep up or catch up with South Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo, both because of his prolific output (he’s made about two-dozen features in just over two decades) and because many of his early films aren’t easily available in quality English-friendly versions. Arrow kicks off what is hopefully an outpouring of Hong Blu-ray upgrades with a twofer of early films in a US/UK release.

Though one could probably find thematic echoes in most pairs of Hong films, these two are well-suited to be presented together. In both, mirror images of two men reveal their unique brands of misogyny. In Woman is the Future of Man, Hong’s approach is blunt and acrid. Two friends, Lee Munho (Yoo Jitae) and Kim Hyeongon (Kim Taewoo), reunite and discover in their reminiscing that they dated the same woman, Park Seonhwa (Sung Hyunah). Munho seems to be the boorish, ostentatious antithesis to the meek Hyeongon, but flashbacks to their past interactions with Seonhwa complicate this idea. When they decide to go find her in the present, their fundamental similarities become even more apparent.

Tale of Cinema is more melancholy and beguiling, and its aims aren’t as immediately apparent. The emotionally damaged Jeon Sangwon (Lee Kiwoo) clings to the attention of Choi Youngshil (Uhm Jiwon), going so far as to convince her to overdose on sleeping pills with him in a suicide pact. Some of the drama feels a bit overdetermined, and Hong’s typical even-keeled stylistic approach is replaced with a more mobile, zooming camera. The reason becomes apparent in the film’s second half, which introduces a metafictional wrinkle and a new character: the blissfully oblivious Kim Dongsoo (Kim Sangkyung), a source of plenty of cringe comedy in his interactions with Youngshil and others, and a way for Hong to tease out an examination of the divide between film and real life.

Both films share a disc in Arrow’s release, which features two solid 1080p, 1.85:1 transfers. Visuals in both can be a little flat, but clarity and sharpness are strong. Digital manipulation doesn’t appear to be an issue. 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD tracks are available for both films, offering clean if understandably sedate dialogue-heavy presentations. Extras include introductions by Tony Rayns and Martin Scorsese, a making-of for Woman and cast interviews for both films. Trailers, galleries and a booklet with an essay by critic Michael Sicinski are also included.

Arrow Academy / 2004/2005 / Color / 1.85:1 / 88 min/89 min / $39.95

PeterBlack Peter (Černý Petr, 1964)
Second Run

Miloš Forman’s debut feature is mostly a modest affair, with a gentler satiric tone than his later Czech films, but its pleasures are numerous, from its wry depiction of the frustrations of teenaged life to the sense that its protagonist’s aimlessness could result in the film going in just about any direction. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call Black Peter unpredictable, but when sullen Petr (Ladislav Jakim) leaves the grocery store where he works to follow a customer he suspects of shoplifting, one could easily see the film following his detours through the streets for the rest of its running time.

Instead, the film’s episodic structure sees Petr trying to please his imperious boss, who extols the integrity of his customers while urging Petr to watch them closely for any suspicious behavior, and clumsily wooing the girlfriend (Pavla Martínková) of an acquaintance. He jockeys for social positioning with another teenager, Čenda (Vladimír Pucholt), who first comes across as a boorish asshole before we realize how pathetic he is. And naturally for a Forman film, there’s a wide disconnect between generations; Petr’s imperious father (Jan Vostrčil) doesn’t need much of a reason to berate his son, and his haranguing makes for the film’s most overt “fuck you” to authority with its final freeze-framed image.

Second Run’s region-free Blu-ray marks a vast improvement over the old Facets DVD (a statement that probably always goes without saying). Sourced from the Czech National Film Archive’s 4K restoration, the 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer displays excellent depth and healthy fine detail. A few shots have some inconsistent softness, but it’s minor. Damage is limited to a few isolated incidents. The 2.0 uncompressed mono soundtrack is clean and clear. A nice slate of extras accompanies the film: a typically detailed Michael Brooke audio commentary, a new interview with Martínková and an archival Forman interview about the production of the film. A booklet features an essay on Forman and the film by Jonathan Owen.

Second Run / 1964 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 90 min / £19.99

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

HW2

Haskell Wexler and the Making of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

            After Francis Ford Coppola fired him from The Conversation and replaced him with Bill Butler, Haskell Wexler was devastated. He would not have agreed to shoot his next feature, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, had he known he would once again be fired and replaced with Bill Butler.

            From the mid-1960s to early 1970s, Wexler was active in the anti-war and hippie movements, and he knew Cuckoo’s Nest co-producer Saul Zaentz from attending demonstrations in Berkeley and San Francisco. At the time, Zaentz was co-owner of Fantasy Records, based in Berkeley. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest would be his first film with another novice producer, the actor Michael Douglas. Douglas had acquired the rights to Ken Kesey’s highly acclaimed novel, published in 1962, from his father, Kirk, and had asked Zaentz to collaborate with him in making it into a film.

            The screenplay, by Larry Hauben and Bo Goldman, concerns R.P. McMurphy, a patient who’s been sent for evaluation to Oregon State Mental Hospital, where he shakes things up. McMurphy (like Wexler) questions rules and conventions, and challenges authority.  His nemesis, Nurse Ratched is a rigid, sadistic disciplinarian who, under the guise of helping her charges, irreparably harms them.

HW featured

Jack Nicholson, whom Wexler had known since they’d worked together on Studs Lonigan in 1960, would play McMurphy. Louise Fletcher would play Nurse Ratched and Milos Forman would direct. Forman had directed The Firemen’s Ball and Loves of a Blonde, both Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, in his native Czechoslovakia. The small film Taking Off (1971) had been his first American movie.

When the producers suggested Wexler as cinematographer, Forman was concerned that, since Wexler had directed a film, he might try to encroach on Forman’s job. Nevertheless, he admired Wexler’s work, so he had dinner with him to see how they’d get along. Forman wrote in his memoir: “He struck me as the gentle, quiet type. He was very enthusiastic about Kesey’s book and the screenplay, which Larry Hauben and Bo Goldman had written. I wanted a sort of a raw, realistic look for the film, but not so tawdry that it would pull attention away from the story. Wexler said he knew exactly how to give me this look, so I offered him the job.”

Wexler can be extremely congenial, and he believes it’s his job to stay on schedule and on budget, make the leading lady look good (when the script calls for it), enhance the story’s interest with lighting, framing and emphasis, and help the director. And while often cooperative, he is also extremely independent. Unlike most other directors of photography, Wexler owned his own equipment and rented it to the production company. He said that studios discourage this because they relinquish some control. “It has to do with studios wanting to hire below-the-line workers, and they don’t want you to be loan-out companies or little entrepreneurs on your own,” he said. That view is shortsighted, he thinks, because cameramen who buy their equipment maintain it well and are accustomed to it, enabling them to do their job better than if they use rentals they need to get used to.

After Wexler was hired, Paul Sylbert, who won an Oscar a few years later for Heaven Can Wait, signed on as production designer. By January, 1975, the production company had been in Salem for a few months assembling a cast and preparing. They were shooting the film in an unused ward at Oregon State Mental Hospital in Salem, where the book is set. The hospital’s director, Dr. Dean R. Brooks, would play the head of the institution, and other patients and staff had small roles.

One day, about a week into rehearsals, Sylbert was in the production office trying to get some money for his crew, who had not been paid because the production had temporarily run out of money. Dr. Brooks came in with two women — the head psychiatrist and the head nurse– and told Sylbert he wanted to go to the ward where the actors were rehearsing, and where they would film. Sylbert said he’d accompany him. When they arrived, they walked to the front of the ward where the actors were rehearsing the pill distribution scene early in the film, where a nurse and orderlies give the patients medication. Sylbert recalled that he and Dr. Brooks were shocked to see that “It was bedlam. Milos was having them drag these patients to the pills, it was just like they were doing a 19th century madhouse.” Some of the patients were forced out of their wheelchairs and hauled across the floor.

Sylbert had had an intimation that Forman might want to portray an antiquated and inhumane mental hospital because the only research he’d given the production designer to guide him in devising the sets was a Life magazine article from the 1940s on institutions of the period. The story had pictures of patients in long smocks, walking like zombies and being treated horribly. Also, Forman had screened Frederick Wiseman’s 1966 documentary Titicut Follies for the cast and crew. That film, set in the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, chronicles brutal guards bullying, taunting and humiliating inmates, who are confined, naked, in barren cells.

HW4

Sylbert continued, “Brooks was standing next to me, and he was a big guy, bigger than I am, anyway, and I could feel the heat rising in him. And all of a sudden, he let out a bellow and he said, ‘This has got to stop!’ And he charged toward Milos with the two women on his trail, saying, ‘This has got to stop! You have been here for weeks, months, don’t you have any idea how an institution is run?’ He chewed Milos’s ass up one side and down the other. And this is in front of everybody,” in the cast and crew.

Dr. Brooks was understandably concerned that an inhumane and inaccurate depiction of his hospital could damage its reputation and mislead audiences about treatment of mental patients in general. Additionally, portraying the hospital as chaotic at the beginning of the movie would undercut the drama and destroy the premise. Sylbert explained, “What you wanted was a calm, tranquilized, literally – that’s what a pill scene is, a tranquilized environment – in which somebody throws a rock. And that’s Randall McMurphy; he comes splashing into the institution. But if it’s not quiet and calm and tranquil to begin with, you don’t have a place to go.”

`           Two days later, Sylbert had dinner at the steakhouse at his hotel in downtown Salem with William Redfield, who plays the patient Harding in Cuckoo’s Nest. At the time, the two men had been close friends for more than 20 years. Redfield told Sylbert, “Jack has taken over directing the actors.” Redfield said that every night a group of key actors who played poker in the film met in Nicholson’s room and rehearsed the following day’s scenes. According to Redfield, Nicholson’s confidence in Forman had been utterly destroyed when Dr. Brooks bawled him out, and Nicholson was directing the movie and refusing to speak to Forman. Years later, Sylbert confirmed Redfield’s account when he worked on Biloxi Blues with Wexler’s eventual replacement on Cuckoo’s Nest, cinematographer Bill Butler. Sylbert told Butler he’d heard that the actors met in Nicholson’s room each night to rehearse and that Nicholson refused to speak to the director. When Sylbert asked if that was true, Butler told him, “Yes. He never talked to Milos at all, he only talked to me.”

Unwilling to speak to the director, Nicholson turned to Wexler for guidance. After a take, he would sometimes look at Wexler to see how he responded to the performance. As well as making suggestions that Nicholson followed, Wexler also changed some dialogue. For example, after Big Chief says his first words, and takes another piece of gum from McMurphy, in the script he says, “Oh, gum.” Wexler suggested, “What if he says, ‘Juicy Fruit?’” Forman shot Wexler a dubious look but Nicholson piped up, “Yeah! Say ‘Juicy Fruit!’”  So he did.

When the inmates were waiting in line in front of the glass booth for their medication, Wexler told Nicholson that he remembered at summer camp kids had spread the rumor that counselors were giving them saltpeter. So Nicholson added the line, “I don’t want to be slipped saltpeter.”

In another scene in the glass booth, Wexler wanted Nurse Ratched to look more sympathetic than in other shots. In some scenes he filmed her to make her look as if she were wearing a shiny white mask, since her habitually placid expression conceals the rage, frustration and hatred roiling beneath the surface. Louise Fletcher was in the booth and Wexler and his gaffer, Gary Holt, were 20 or 30 feet away setting up the shot. Wexler recalled, “I said, ‘Gary, what the fuck are we going to do about her face? It’s so flat. I’ve got to give her some kind of look.’ So, I don’t know what we worked out, but anyway, the next day she said to me, ‘Oh, Haskell, you don’t like my fucking flat face?’ So I thought, ‘Well, Gary Holt spilled the beans.’ That’s not the kind of thing you say to an actress. So I said, ‘Where did you hear that?’ and she said, ‘I read your lips.’” Fletcher’s parents were deaf so she read lips, and when she won the Oscar for Best Actress for Cuckoo’s Nest, she translated her acceptance speech into sign language.

HW1

The hallway lighting caused another problem for Wexler. Guided by an image of Nurse Ratched as a fiendish mother hen smothering the eggs in her nest with her so-called love, Paul Sylbert had the hospital ward’s walls painted the shades of brown eggs; a brown dado with off-white above. Wexler installed fluorescent lights in the hall, but in those days no fluorescent lights were made specifically to be filmed. In an early scene Nurse Ratched walked down the hall, Wexler observed, “And really looked green. I mean a really bad green.” Apparently the paint had an undercoat of green that the fluorescents picked up. So, at night, Wexler had the standby painter repaint the hall to eliminate the green.  Michael Douglas, Wexler recalled, was furious that he hadn’t discussed this beforehand with Sylbert, since this was the production designer’s purview.

Wexler was also challenged shooting the group therapy scenes. Forman wanted to have one camera constantly roving from actor to actor, so they would always give their best performances. Wexler operated the A camera, and had two other cameras moving among the actors, documentary style. However, as Forman noted, shooting this way prevented Wexler from lighting each actor as carefully as he could if the camera were more stationary. Forman later said, “It was not easy on the cameraman, the director of photography, because he had to light a space – practically 180 degrees of the space had to be lit – so it would be usable in the film for the wandering camera. And because when you are shooting in a real location you don’t have the height of a studio where you can hide and hang however many lights and lamps you wish, we had a low ceiling. So the whole job of lighting the scenes was very elaborate and very cleverly done by the cameraman I worked with, Haskell Wexler.”

Shooting on location also irked Wexler. Forman, on his DVD commentary over a group therapy scene, said, “These kinds of situations, when you are shooting on location, are driving the directors of photography crazy. You can see the windows, you can see that it is pretty bright on the outside. But you shoot this whole scene, this whole scene, it took a day or two to shoot  and if you watch really carefully you see how difficult it is to control the same kind of mood behind the windows because the weather changes during the day. For a while it’s sunny, it becomes cloudy, it’s raining, but in the film you have to feel it’s the same all the time or you have to do it in a way that nobody notices these changes, which I think was accomplished by the cinematographer.”

Since most of the movie takes place inside, Wexler thought they should film in a warehouse or soundstage. He recalled, “Of course being the kind of person I am, I let everybody know it would be much better to just get a nice, big, huge set and we wouldn’t have to have all the problems we were going to have.” To simulate sunlight, they put arc lights outside the windows. But the carbon rods inside the arc lights burn down and must be replaced from time to time, and sometimes they had to put gel filters over the lights to simulate a different time of day.

Additionally, Wexler thought an American director would have been better suited to tell the story, and that a Czech might not fully understand the World Series or a Native American character such as Big Chief. Wexler felt that Forman needed help, but to others the cinematographer’s efforts amounted to meddling.

Indirectly and inadvertently, Wexler also spooked the producers. The FBI came snooping around the production offices, housed in a motel, asking questions about Wexler. He’d been under FBI surveillance intermittently since eighth grade, when he’d belonged to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group that supported Spanish Republicans fighting Franco and the Spanish Nationalists in their civil war. Now, agents were looking into his association with the Weathermen, a radical left group that bombed government buildings and banks. In January of 1975 they bombed the U.S. State Department, to protest the escalation of the Vietnam War. Wexler was friends of two of the group’s leaders, Bernardine Dohrn and Billy Ayers; he agreed with many of their ideas but deplored their methods. He explained, “This is an obvious case where all the good things they were for – being against racism, thinking about poor people – all the things which I very much agree with, go down the sewer by their choosing a path of violence.”

The same year as Cuckoo’s Nest, Wexler shot a film of the Weathermen, Underground, when the FBI was searching for them because of the State Department bombing and they were fugitives. Wexler remembered that contacting them was a cloak-and-dagger affair. First, the director Emile de Antonio called and asked Wexler if he would like to be considered to shoot “some secret stuff.” De Antonio told him that his name had been presented to the fugitives as someone who might be trustworthy. Knowing that de Antonio had directed Point of Order, a documentary about the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, Wexler agreed. Then, Wexler said, he was given elaborate instructions to shake a potential tail. He was told to drive down Highland Avenue to Wilshire Boulevard, and go into a Bob’s Big Boy there. He was to wait at the restaurant before going to a nearby phone booth and dialing a number. Then, he walked to Los Angeles High School Memorial Park, where a man wearing a fake beard was sitting on a bench. The fellow said, “Hello, Haskell,” and questioned him about where he’d been, what he’d seen.

They continued to vet him, intermittently, until one night they blindfolded him with a bandana and put him on the floor of a car. He was taken to a house that he concluded was near the beach because he could smell the ocean. Some of the Weathermen wore ski masks over their faces. Wexler shot the backs of their heads through cheesecloth as they talked. While he was filming them, Wexler remembered, “I said, ‘What a waste of dedicated, bright young people to have their lives chopped off because of their stupid decision to be violent.’ I said as much, diplomatically, but it was cut out of the film.”

So, although the FBI didn’t suspect Wexler of bombing any buildings, agents were keeping an eye on him, and their presence exacerbated the friction he was causing on the set. Forman later maintained that Wexler’s complaints jeopardized the picture: a few actors “told me that Wexler had been expressing his doubts as to whether I was competent enough to make this particular movie. Before long, the producers heard the same mutterings. They weren’t about to let the situation simmer; they had the most to lose if morale started to suffer.”

Wexler is sufficiently honest and self-aware to admit he was interfering: “I was my usual smartass, let’s put it that way. In areas and places where people shouldn’t be told, ‘Dummy, you’re doing it the wrong way.’”  Sylbert observed of Wexler, “It’s his feeling that he’s better than anybody he’s working with, in any area.”

Wexler’s hubris doomed him. Forman had his big opportunity to film an acclaimed book with a star actor. But he was threatened when Nicholson stopped talking to him and started communicating to him through Wexler, an aggressive, opinionated cameraman who was also a respected director. Sylbert thought that with Wexler’s “attitude toward directors, thinking he was better than they are – when you’ve got a director, when you’ve got blood in the water and you’ve got a shark like Wexler – Milos must have felt he was going to be killed.”

Instead, Forman survived and Michael Douglas fired Wexler, when he had nearly finished shooting the movie. The producers hired Bill Butler to film the final scenes —the party and its aftermath. The production then went over schedule, Butler had to leave for another commitment, and William Fraker shot the fishing expedition.

Wexler said he was crushed over being fired from his second Hollywood film in a row: “I wanted to commit suicide. I was so depressed. I was so hit by this kind of firing. I mean, I’m not exaggerating, I was just wiped out.”

Douglas has always said he fired Wexler because of creative differences, not his cinematography. Wexler was on schedule and he said everybody patted each other on the back when they saw his dailies. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest for Best Cinematography. The nomination went to Bill Butler as well as Wexler, because Butler is credited with “additional photography” on the film. The award went to John Alcott for Barry Lyndon instead. But Cuckoo’s Nest was the first film since It Happened One Night in 1934 to sweep the top five Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role.