There's a lot of interesting stuff in the theaters at this time, but for now I've decided to look back at a movie that I've long cherished but that's received little recognition. Czech filmmaker Milos Forman is most famous in the U.S. for his American productions Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but Ragtime (1981) is an equally ambitious film, a lavish period piece weaving multiple characters and storylines into a grand vision of our country at the turn of the twentieth century. If certainly not a perfect film, Ragtime is an eccentric take on America that deserves far more attention than it has received.
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, the film primarily involves a small, middle-class family; a black pianist, named Coalhouse Walker, Jr., who emerges in the second half as the driving force and the most discernible protagonist; and the aftermath of the true-life scandal of millionaire Stanford White and his chorus girls. In her withering review of the film, Pauline Kael noted that it feels “more chewed up than edited,” and, admittedly, the switches from one narrative to another are often awkwardly handled. Forman does not display the same grace and facility in weaving together his tapestry that are the hallmarks of a director like Robert Altman. Indeed, Altman was originally intended to be the director of Ragtime, and it is tempting to speculate how much better the movie might have been in his hands.
Such thoughts are, however, misguided, for Forman brings a decidedly unique vision to the material. One of the things he does best, as exemplified in his more recognized triumph Amadeus, is melding the soundtrack into the narrative. Randy Newman’s score runs the gamut from plaintive string lines to jaunty dance-hall tunes, and it never feels out of place. Instead, it helps distance the viewer from the material in a way that is hard to imagine Altman doing. Consider the scene in which Coalhouse Walker, Jr. runs up the stairs to meet his estranged lover, Sarah, who he now wants to marry. She steps back, frightened, and he stands in place, as if pleading. The orchestral music swells dramatically, and not a word is spoken between the two characters. The result feels a bit cheesy, and yet it is perfect because it is so reminiscent of an earlier form of cinema: the overt nature of the musical cue renders the scene more abstract, as if we were watching a silent movie. There’s an antique feeling to the moment between these two characters: it is overplayed and over-scored, so that a sense of the theatrical emerges from their confrontation and ultimate reconciliation.
If that kind of overloading of image and musicin the tradition of the musical comedies and dance-hall burlesques which Ragtime consistently evokesremoves the spectacle from reality, a notable contrast may be found in a far more melodramatic scene earlier in the film. Harry K. Thaw, the disgruntled husband of one of Stanford White’s chorus girls, spots White at Madison Square Garden (which looks charmingly quaint in its turn-of-the-century form) and shoots him in the back of the head. Onstage, a man and a line of chorus girls (appropriately enough) are performing a jovial dance tune, “I Could Love a Million Girls.” The anempathetic music (to borrow Michel Chion's term) serves as counterpoint to a moment of grisly violence, and, ironically, makes the violence all the more grisly. In other words, where the music does not fit the action, the corresponding scene is stripped of spectacle and, in its jarring juxtaposition of sound and image, rendered more realistic.
The fact that Forman can achieve both these contrasting effects with his use of music is a testament to his skill as a director, and to what he has achieved in Ragtime. For this epic film, in its obsessive indictment of American injustices (particularly racism) as well as its love of Americana, is an amazingly rich and textured view of the country that might not have been possible from a native-born director. We sense the outsider behind the camera whenever fragments of our nation’s cultural and pop history emerge onscreen: the flip-book, precursor of the animated movie; the silent damsel-in-distress film production; the ice cream sundaes and crowded New York streets; and, of course, the ragtime itself (though most of the film’s music is actually not ragtime). Booker T. Washington and Teddy Roosevelt make appearances, but these are not moments lifted from a history textbook; they pulsate with vitality precisely because we are allowed to feel and partake in Forman’s fascination with them. In the end, the precise nature of Ragtime’s vision is hard to put a finger on: it is a movie that is at once realist and theatrical, epic and eccentric, critical of America and deeply in love with it. Indeed, when one considers these attributes, it’s hard to imagine anyone but an outsiderFormanmaking the movie and lending his particularly removed perspective on this complex setting.