Paramount’s reissue of Ragtime, the Milos Forman adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s literary chef d’oeuvre, makes you realize that American movies about culture, politics, race, and social responsibility have stagnated during the past 40 years.
Doctorow’s jamboree novel was very much of its time. The multicharacter plot and satirical perspective on 20th-century American history — the past personally felt in the present — was a serendipitous complement to Robert Altman’s film epic Nashville and the prismatic confession-celebration of Broadway’s A Chorus Line. All three landmarks premiered in 1975. So when Forman’s film came out in 1981, it felt embarrassingly behind the times.
Czechoslovakian Forman (known for his native films The Fireman’s Ball, Loves of a Blonde) was prone to mismatched projects — his immigrant American films Taking Off, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the catastrophic Hair and Amadeus. Even The People vs. Larry Flynt, his most apposite venture, proved that he lacked the instinct to convey American irony, which is what gave power to Altman’s movie, the quintessential Broadway showpiece by Michael Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch, and Doctorow’s book. Each one anticipated bicentennial consciousness.
Forman’s inadequacy perfectly anticipates today’s politically correct culture. Trying to do the right Hollywood thing on Doctorow’s story, Forman fell into the same traps that hobble contemporary films. Doctorow’s playful panoply of the American melting pot — diverse classes and races audaciously intersecting — climaxed in a double tragedy analogous to the Trayvon Martin–George Floyd smash-up. It revealed the danger that’s inherent when cultural mixing and misunderstanding test democracy. Or, as Doctorow put it, “there are correspondences you see, our lives correspond, our spirits touch each other like notes in harmony, and in the total human fate we are sisters.”
That speech came from anarchist Emma Goldman, one of the real-life personages that Doctorow mixed with his fictional characters to complete his depiction of America’s native and immigrant experience. His tendency to explain it through leftist politics is the same inclination that infects recent inferior literary agitprop such as Between the World and Me, The Underground Railroad, and Citizen: An American Lyric.
In The New Republic, critic Stanley Kauffman said Doctorow “depicted the ideological climate of mid-century: showing how political radicalism had been brought to this country from Central and Eastern Europe, how it had flourished under the economic pressures of the Thirties, and how the predominantly Anglo-Saxon, gently meliorist qualities of this country had been irrevocably changed.”
But little has changed since Forman’s Ragtime. Hollywood’s idea of progress has been less subtle and less imaginative. (“Change!” media fanatics scream.)
Paramount’s Blu-Ray release of Ragtime includes an interview with Forman in which he explains his connection to Doctorow’s story: “I lived too many years in Communist country where swallowing your pride was everyday food.” Yet the Communist sympathy and exploitation of race politics that played a large part in Doctorow’s Americana persists. Unable to duplicate the novel’s tour de force ragtime rhythm and delightful cultural catalog (everything from Freud to Houdini, here reduced to fake newsreel footage), Forman settles into Hollywood formula — Communist narrative manipulation.
The film’s assorted white characters are so much less interesting than its black protagonist, Coalhouse Walker (effectively played by Howard Rollins), who seeks revenge for the humiliation he suffers from a cadre of Irish volunteer firemen.
The Coalhouse Walker subplot (a tribute to Heinrich Von Kleist’s 1808 social-justice novel Michael Kohlhaas) gave Doctorow his narrative climax, but Forman’s race story is facile and condescending just like today’s patronizing social-justice stories, whether The Nickel Boys or Judas and the Black Messiah (the worst film of 2021 so far).
In the Coalhouse Walker scenes, it’s obvious that liberal Forman doesn’t relate to the black actors or to American patois. Doctorow’s ingenious war of words between fictitious Walker and social pioneer Booker T. Washington (Moses Gunn) becomes Forman’s dreadful clash of generational wokeness.
Gunn’s Washington perseveres, saying, “My enemies are won over because they honor and respect me.” This contrasts with today’s deification of black criminals. But Walker counters, “You speak like an angel, Mr. Washington. It’s too bad, we’re living on the earth.” This exchange doesn’t resonate after Black Lives Matter’s exploitation. But it didn’t work in 1981, either. It still feels like a do-gooder afterthought. Ragtime remains an artistic and political failure.
Ragtime’s cinematic cultural assessment is the dull fiasco (based on a best seller, with a big-star cast including James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Donald O’Connor, and Norman Mailer) that people wrongly blame on De Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Ragtime goes wrong from the opening credits when Forman skips Scott Joplin syncopation for a loony Twyla Tharp waltz. It comes down to a lack of film smarts.
Regretfully, Forman leaves out Doctorow’s memorable anticipation of cinematic democracy:
An idea for a film. A bunch of children who were pals, white black, fat thin, rich poor, all kinds, mischievous little urchins who would have funny adventures in their own neighborhood, a society of ragamuffins, like all of us, a gang, getting into trouble and getting out again. Actually not one movie but several made of this vision.
Doctorow envisioned America as a version of Our Gang and The Little Rascals. Altman might have preserved such wit, but according to industry scuttlebutt, producer Dino De Laurentiis deliberately gave the project to the wrong director. (Doctorow participated in Altman’s brilliant Buffalo Bill and the Indians as a test run for their own version of Ragtime and De Laurentiis punished them for Buffalo Bill’s box-office flop.) Ragtime now shows us that woke Hollywood always went in the wrong direction.