Film 2010 #32 – Ragtime


Ragtime (1981, dir. Milos Forman)

Starring Elizabeth McGovern, Mary Steenburgen, Brad Dourif, James Cagney, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer, Moses Gunn, Debbie Allen, Donald O’Conner, Howard Rollins Jr.
I first became familiar with the story of Ragtime from the 1996 Broadway musical, script written by the talented Terrence McNally and based on the novel by E.L. Doctrow. The story (in all mediums) is an attempt to create a slice of life in America right before World War I broke out. Milos Forman was an interesting choice to helm this project; he doesn’t really take on historical epics, instead when he does period pieces he chooses to focus on specific individuals and analyze them down to the grain. In Ragtime, we get broad painted strokes that only give us glimpses.
The interwoven plots contain a mix of fictional characters given vague names like Father, Mother, Younger Brother and historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and Evelyn Nesbit (the focal point of what was called the Scandal of the Century at the time). The novel and musical version contain even more historical figures including Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Admiral Peary, and Emma Goldman, but I assume they were cut for the sake of time.
In the core plot of the film an upper middle class family in New Rochelle, New York discovers an African-American infant crying in their garden. The police bring a young woman to their house who admits the child is hers and that the father abandoned them. Mother decides to take Sarah, the girl into their home against the wishes of Father. Eventually, piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. arrives on their doorstep revealed to be the father of the child and stating that now that he has a job he is willing to ready to provide for his family. However, tragedy occurs that sets the characters down a path where they witness a change in the entire world. Alongside this plot, Mother’s Younger Brother falls in love with former dance hall girl Evelyn Nesbit and is played for a fool. There’s also Tateh, a Jewish immigrant talented in making silhouettes who eventually makes it big as an early silent filmmaker.
The film presents the world of New York in 1917 with amazing accuracy. Clothing and vehicles and set dressing are spot on and anachronisms are non-existent. However, the broad nature of the film left me feeling indifferent about every character on screen. Every thing feels like it is played towards cliche rather than reality. Part of me feels that uber-producer Dino de Laurentiis played a part in the films broad, flat nature. It’s an interesting film, most notable for the costume design and art direction, but definitely a weaker entry into Milos Forman’s work.
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