Недавно по совету друга посмотрел фильм Рэгтайм. Впечатление, надо сказать, неоднозначное. Долго писал отзыв... пыхтел, разбирался, но когда опубликовал, особого интереса не было. Так что опубликую здесь на английском, а если кто-то заинтересуется, тогда уже переведу.
Regtime (the movie)
Amadeus was the first movie of Miloš Forman’s that I’ve seen and I was charmed. To this day I love to watch some of its iconic scenes.
This one is where to a priest saying “All people are equal in God’s eyes” Salieri responds “Are they?”
This one that is one of the best depictions of a creative process
And, of course, this one when Mozart makes Salieri look mediocre in front of the emperor
Then, a few years ago, I watched Forman’s movie Goya’s Ghost I was hugely disappointed. Goya is one of my favorite painters and I have a certain image of him from his paintings and also from namesake book by Lion Feuchtwanger.
Everything in this movie contradicted that image starting from the wrong actor cast for the role of a sucked out of the finger story. So the pendulum of my regard for Forman’s movie moved all the way from “very much” to “not at all.”
Naturally, that when a friend advised watching another Forman’s movie “Ragtime,” I was cautious.
Probably, like most the people, my knowledge of this time mostly comes from famous Scot Joplin’s rags “Entertainment” and “Maple Leaf.”
and this little charming clip of piano contest from the movie about him
Other than that, Ragtime in my perception was the time when people walked making jerky choppy movements like so.
Anyhow, I watched the move something about it bothered me. That “something” was hard to pinpoint. The acting was good, and the overall background that conveyed this comic herky-jerkiness of the time, the music, and somewhat chaotic movements of the crowds on the streets. Perhaps this was Forman’s intent, similar to the one in “Goya’s Ghost” movie, make a viewer “feel the pulse of time” so to speak.
I’d say that his view on Ragtime in the movie is not realistic, more of a caricature, homage to silent movies with its primitive cinematographic techniques, and low-frequency frame rate. Still, that wasn’t it. That actually resonated with my perception of that time.
However, the background alone cannot hold the viewer’s attention. The movie needed some supportive stories. Having not read the underlying novel, I don’t know how much of the movie’s story was adopted and how much of it was Foreman’s rework.
The overall movie canvas is composed of many threads that lack a thoughtful unity. Instead, it feels like a blanket made if patches connected to each other by a loose thread. Perhaps Forman wanted to make them having equal demonstrative weight. That didn’t come out as one of the stories turned out to have much more gravity and overpowered all others like a vortex that spins everything around it. Then again, this could be deliberate. It’s hard to say.
In an odd way, all people are connected just by mare fact that they live at the same time or exist in the same space. We live next to neighbors to the right and to the left, tell them “hi” when we meet, but might never have any contact that affects our life, and in real life this is ok. However, in a novel or a movie, several narrative threads should converge in some meaningful way. At least, this is my personal preference.
Let’s take a famous movie like Pulp Fiction. There are many characters that are involved in several parallel narrative threads. However, they are all equally important in the overall composition, at some point they converse in a meaningful way so that yanking out one of them would damage the overall understanding.
In Ragtime, however, that is not so, or at least, it didn’t seem so to me.
The theme of the movie was to show how unfairly biased was the contemporary law toward black people.
Illustrating this theme is the story of a deliberate and useless insult to a black man-made by racist white men, and the subsequent attempt of the black man by the name of Coalhouse Walker Jr, to defend his honor in all possible legal ways. Then, seeing that the law was completely biased against him, he resorted to violence, and died in the pursuit of regaining his honor.
One of the important moments of the movie was Coalhouse’s dialog with Mr. Washington who was a proponent of peaceful protest against the biased law. Regardless of what was directors’ intent for inserting these scenes, this was a solid narrative, a good enough story in its own right, perhaps deserving a standalone movie.
However, apparently, this wasn’t enough for the director and he piggybacked to it another story of a crazy white man, industrialist Harry Kendall, whom the same law allowed to get away with murder literally and figuratively. When a famous architect Stanford White unveils a nude statue, modeled after former chorus girl Evelin and now Kendall’s wife, Kendall demands White to remove the statue, and when White refuses, shoots him dead.
In the director’s mind, this was the cornerstone conflict of that historical period and that’s why this story dominated the movie.
After Kendall’s short stay in the nuthouse, he was released.
In the movie this event sequenced right after the moment when police kill unarmed Coalhouse, who came out of the building where he hid, to give himself up. Kendall’s release was that red-herring that pointed at a complete impropriety and the biased nature of the “Ragtime” law.
These two threads were independent and could have been easily formatted as separate films. However, being in the same movie, they needed some convergence and the screenwriter/director attempted to build the connective “wrapper” around them. That wrapper is what made the movie so discouraging for me to watch.
I would have to give a short description of the transpired events to make sure my point comes across as the movie apparently is considered iconic and made a big splash in its time.
So the wrapper...
It started with a black baby being abandoned in their garden of a well off white family. The police intend to charge the child's mother, with abandonment and attempted murder. However, the liberal and compassionate wife of the house owner (referred to in the movie as Mother) invited the black lady in and allowed her to stay in the house with the baby to the displeasure of her conservative husband (referred to in the movie as Father) who didn’t feel that this was their problem.
Father as it further unveiled was the owner of a pyrotechnic company. This detail turned out to be very important and played a crucial role in the further development. Mother’s younger brother (referred to in the movie surprisingly as Younger Brother), who was also an engineer pyrotechnic, later became the bomb maker for Coalhouse, when he will proceed to his rampage.
While the black lady (Sarah) stayed in the house with the baby, the main character appeared. Coalhouse is full of devotion to her and is declaring his intention to marry her.
Things were going well and moved toward the wedding when the major problem has happened.
As you can see from the above clip, it wasn’t physical harm but the insult of Coalhouse’s honor. It made no practical sense as the white firemen didn’t gain anything from it besides the ill-conceived satisfaction of showing the black man its place. Subsequently, this thread shows Coalhouse trying to obtain justice in all possible legal ways.
However, after the death of Sarah, beaten to death by police batons, he and his comrade in arms go on a destructive rampage.
While this is happening, in a parallel thread, the movie shows the younger brother falling in love with Evelin, the ex-wife of Harry Kendall. He follows her around and then confronts her. This scene takes an extra-long time where the younger brother, tongue-tied and clumsy, tries to persuade Evelin to date him.
Then the movie jumps to the scene where they are so far in their relationship that Evelin undressed to the bare essentials at younger brother’s arrival. Such a shortcut seems strange and is out of the pace, given how long the initial scene took. I even thought that some scenes, devoted to their affair, were cut out.
In the next scene, Evelin dumps younger brother and goes on to become an actress. This development is just as unclear as her initial agreement to become his girlfriend. Initially, I didn’t even understand the necessity of including this thread, to begin with.
The frustrated younger brother is apparently so heartbroken that he seeks Coalhouse and his gang and offers them his services as a bomb maker.
The movie has yet another narrative thread that is as tangential to the Coalhouse’s thread as it is to Kendall’s.
At first, she’s scared of him and then unexplainably agrees. Her sudden agreement seems strange as Evelin is so much better in the looks department than him, and now when she’s rich after the divorce settlement, could have just about anybody.
This is a thread of a street artist Russian Jewish immigrant Tateh, who leaves in New York his unfaithful wife and travels with his daughter, selling the flipbooks he created.
Later he becomes a silent movie director and Evelin, whom he had an accidental acquaintanceship in New York, starring in his movie.
To a viewer, (well to me), this is fragmented and seemingly disjointed.
However, if you look at it from the director’s point of view, it all makes sense. For example, the only purpose of the relationship between Evelin and younger brother is to create the link between Coalhouse and Kendall’s threads. That’s why once the link was established the relationship didn’t last. They already played their role.
The younger brother was also a key figure in the successive bombing of fire stations. Sarah was a necessary plot anchor. Without her, Coalhouse wouldn’t meet the younger brother. Also, her death at the hands of police became the catalyst that propels Coalhouse to his rampage.
Of course, it was unclear why such a positive and proud man, dumped his lady-love with his child so that she had no other solution but to abandon the baby?
Stranger things happen in real life. A person could be a real dick when it comes to women and then turns around to marry them. This happens but not if we look through in the prism of the likelihood of that happening.
My guess is that this consideration didn’t cross the writer’s mind right away as his goal was to connect Coalhouse with the future bomb maker.
In the movie, Father points this out to Coalhouse. Coalhouse’s response was obscure “I had some difficulties.” In my view, this patch only passes the buck of the plot flaw onto the character.
However, if this would be the only movie flaw, I would let it slide. What I didn’t like the most was the fact that the director presented The Ragtime with stories of a high probability of happening while connecting them with the wrapper that had a low probability of happening.
Both situations with Coalhouse and Kendall are typical. That is, the probability of them happening during ragtime reality was very high. On the other hand, the threads that the director used to hold them together (what I call the wrapper) are very flimsy, or the probability of them happening is low.
For example, is it possible that at those severely racist times, a white family would let a black lady with a newborn baby stay in their house? Possible.
However, the chances of this happening are very slim. Most likely, they would let the police handle the matter.
Add to it the chance that the owner of the house, out of all possible occupations, would be the owner of a pyrotechnic company? Possible? Yes, but the chances of this happening are also very slim.
Add to it the fact that younger brother, who is a pyrotechnic wiz, would be so taken by the unfairness of what’s went on with Coalhouse that he joins him on his rampage.
Add to it the fact of younger brother out of all possible young women fell in love with the ex-wife of a murder Kendall and what is even more problematic than she instantly opens her arms to him. Their subsequent parting is just as strange. Not because love affairs were supposed to last the entire movie, but because of the lack of due diligence to this thread in the movie, to the degree that it seemed that some scenes were cut out.
Multiply these possibilities, and the outcome of these coincidences would be infinitesimal. Still, it’s not that a series of such coincidences could not happen in a real life. Stranger things happened. However, one shouldn’t make inferences about the entire historical period based on a series of peculiar incidences.
And this is a major hick-up in the overall movie narrative. The director had his agenda, and this is ok. However, it was not ok to butcher the plot by unlikely narrative threads in service of this agenda.
For example, what was the purpose of perusing street artist Tateh thread? It had no connection to either Coalhouse or Kendall’s threads.
Why including him at all?
At the end of the movie, Tateh is getting together with the progressive mother, thus punishing the cullus father for his reluctance in taking the black lady to stay in his house.
That’s why the original scene of Tateh’s wife’s spousal betrayal is necessary. Should she remain faithful, how would positive character Tateh could get together with another woman?
Now let’s see what the movie has in the remainder? What happened with the good guys, and what happened with the bad guys? Overall the bad guys win. The overall system is horrible and unfair. At least, that is the feeling that a viewer is supposed to get out of it. The overall liveliness of people in the streets and the good quality of the cinematography only exacerbate that impression.
So in the end it was tiresome to watch not because it was multithreaded, but because the threads weren’t put together well. Especially in view of the fact that the movie didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already.
And that is my beef with the movie. 😉