O Captain! My Captain! Is resistance so futile?

Milo Forman’s retrospective at the Walker sticks its nose in a generational gap.

Miloö Forman’s films, satires really, they’re flatulent affairs. But the gas they burn has an odd odor, as if it originated elsewhere, from some other place and some other time, so their derision feels safely distanced from current affairs. “Cinema of Resistance,” indeed, as the Walker Art Center calls the current retrospective of the Czech director’s career.

Miloö Forman: Cinema of Resistance

WHERE: Walker Art Center
WHEN: Through April 22, www.walkerart.org

Each of Forman’s films involves a gentle tugging on either side of a prominent if underwhelming war. Authority is clearly drawn with a red pen, and its marks are always those of a stoic and a square. Conductors of orchestras are dressed in penguin suits; heads of wards have dark bags under their eyes; the head Father of the Spanish Inquisition wears a liturgical robe that is actually dyed a fiery red; and parents, authority’s most frequent stand-in, are unsurprisingly concerned and overbearing. The resistant, the oppressed, they’re the vagabond types, independent spirits and rogues, your generational and even epochal iconoclasts – types that chase their liquor with another shot of intoxicating charisma. Their faults are made likable because the faults of those who wield the power are so damnable. But for a 2008 college audience in America, I wonder: Does something as real as “resistance” resonate with us in any way other than as romantic fancy, like Rousseau powdering his wigs with Kirsten Dunst to Gang of Four and New Order in “Marie Antoinette”?

Among the films still to screen is Forman’s first, from 1963, “Audition” (April 22). It’s a curious one too, as they all are. But this first even has an experimental form that distinguishes it an extra degree from his more commercial features – “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus” and “The People vs. Larry Flint.” It’s a wonderful, grizzly, black-and-white thing with a lot of close-ups that plays in two parts, and runs just over an hour. The first 40 minutes are scored by two orchestras rehearsing for a national commemoration. The sound of the brass is empowering, and the sweaty (and fat) conductor won’t settle for anything less than mastery. The second half is staged in a performance studio, as countless young women audition for a musical contract by singing bubbly ’50s pop songs. Each half is given its own credit sequence, but a seemingly misplaced saxophone line transitions into the pop soundtrack of the second half, before the impression of the first half has faded. It’s as if a musical bridge were laid between allegiances. On the one side, a nation meticulously arranges and tunes itself into a working machine. On the other, we see the individual – individuals actually, let us not forget the plural so often united in the singular – at odds with the judges who determine their success. The two meet at the center of the bridge and the structure begins to sway.

“Could you tell me if I succeeded or not,” one girl says after giving a performance on par with a shy woodland elf. “You see, I need to know today because Ö they didn’t give me a leave from work, so I ran away.”

“Okay,” the judge says. “Then you did not succeed.” It’s a less spectacular American Idol, and a similar sequence is repeated in Forman’s first American film, 1971’s “Taking Off” (Friday, April 11), an offbeat comedy about a runaway girl and her desperate parents’ trip to track her down. It includes, among its rebels, a young musician whose scrawny physique and admirable beard make the identically garbed and facially grown Devendra Banhart seem like a work of postmodern sculpture.

“And have you made any money yet?” the girl’s father snidely asks Devendra Banhart Sr. about his musical career.

He nods his head. “Last year I made 290,000 – 290,000, before taxes.” The dismayed father chokes on the contents of his highball, though he’s visibly pleased his daughter’s found such a profitable companion.

Music is a significant method of resisting for Forman (read Becky Lang’s essay on the musical “Hair” in this issue), yet his cynicism keeps his irony in place. He’s aware of how the seduction of a tune can work in either favor, and so his youthful muses teeter between using their talents as modes of self-expression and resistance, and being exploited for the benefit of a despotic republic (Forman’s Czech was that of the communist Czechoslovakia, pre-Berlin tumble).

Here, as an American audience, we can imagine Maya Angelou’s caged bird singing from behind shiny brass bars. But for many of us – and this is why I think it is so frustrating to try to locate resistance in our generation, or even anything to resist – our singing seems reserved for that weekly, hour-long episode of American Idol.

Few of us, myself included, have lived through an experience in which we were suddenly forced to understand the meaning of “I sang my heart out.” Those involved in the civil rights movement might have sung their hearts out; I imagine most of you have only sung while standing atop risers to a gymnasium full of nodding parents, and for some, parents who were nodding off. Maybe you held your right hand over your heart. I doubt your heart was anywhere other than securely behind your ribs, maybe beating a measure or two quicker, but not about to leap out of its cage. I know this from personal experience.

This is the mass appeal of these films, the American ones in particular. They can always be construed as studies of patrimony (a term bound to history, I’m not out to slight the mothers). Only the dishonest among us haven’t clashed with a parent.

As in his most recent film, “Goya’s Ghosts” (2006, starring Natalie Portman and Javier Bardem), Forman confronts inheritance with his own brand of the enfeebled artist. Instead of song, the artist Francisco Goya paints. His explicit subjects are his form of resistance, depicted with bold, distorted detail, a nude woman lying prone on a giant down pillow, for instance, or, slightly more perverse, a victim of war held shoulders to the ground and taken to the genitals with a swift-looking scabbard – the caption: “What more can one do?”

He is the esteemed painter to the king, as he mentions several times when it works to his advantage. A plausible explanation for the absence of song in “Goya’s Ghosts” is that Goya went deaf in 1792. But I suspect Forman chose Goya specifically for this reason, as a metaphor for a world brimming with multiculturalism and stuffed with multi-national capital (Spain, France, England and America all feud in the film). The question posed by the metaphor: Have we gone deaf to the sound of resistance? And if so, what sort of a state does that leave us in?

So it’s rather appropriate when an offended Goya asks Bardem’s Father Lorenzo: “Are you calling me a whore?”

At this moment, Goya’s hearing returns briefly, sharp like a pin stuck straight through the drum.

“Look at you,” Father Lorenzo says, disgusted. “You work for anyone who pays.”

And that’s a shot of truthiness every starving artist understands, and every college student knows. It’s a temptation no American can resist. Man’s gotta get paid. Woman’s gotta get paid equally. Kids, future rockers (hardcore New York punks of the ’80s especially), gotta kill their idols. I have no doubt that this is why American Idol, for all of its obvious faults, is so massively popular and has been for seven seasons, without changing its formula and only varying the face, and to a negligible extent, the sound of its winner. That and the fact that it’s funny, make it a program that’s hard to resist.

Yes, it’s sad. It’s a hard-knock life, for us. Except that it isn’t.