History And The Imagination

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Hollywood ordinarily leaves American history well alone. But two of the winter’s big movies turn out to be meditations on early twentieth-century America. Ragtime , drawn from E. L. Doctorow’s novel, is set in the period from 1906 to 1908; Reds , based on the lives of John Reed and his wife, Louise Bryant, from 1915 to 1920. Ragtime ’s theme- the dangerous tensions building up under the syncopated cheeriness of American society before the First World War—predicts the revolutionary explosions of Reds . Indeed, the two films nearly had the anarchist Emma Goldman in common as a major character, though in the end the Goldman sequences were cut from Ragtime . The films differ, however, in cinematic style and in attitudes toward history.

As a novel, Ragtime imbedded its theme in a charming and ingenious historical fantasy, playfully mixing real and invented people in fluid dramatic kaleidoscope. The movie, reviewers have commented, is less cinematic than the book; and this is so. Perhaps Robert Altman, the original director, might have managed to transfer the kaleidoscope to the screen and give us a turn-of-the-century Nashville . But Altman was replaced at an early point by the Czech director Milos Forman.

Forman has his own virtues. He brings to Ragtime an immigrant’s fresh eye for the color, bustle, and idiosyncrasy of the American scene. He has a fine sense of atmosphere. But his imagination is more linear than Altman’s, and, whether because Forman was unacquainted with the history of the times, or was uninterested in it, or was baffled by the technical problems of integrating history with plot, he makes only perfunctory gestures at reproducing Doctorow’s intricate panorama. One feels a deficient historical sensitivity from the opening titles when the movie, which after all is called Ragtime, is introduced by a waltz. There is some effective but very limited use of simulated black-and-white newsreels; but the film soon minimizes historical background and concentrates on domestic drama. Not only Emma Goldman but Henry Ford, John J. McGraw, Freud, and Jung disappear, J. P. Morgan is a passing presence, and Houdini becomes so sketchy as to be pointless.

The focus is reduced to two families—the white middleclass family in Scarsdale and the black family of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. The third family in the novel, the immigrant family of Tateh, is a marginal remnant. Still, though indifference to history impoverishes the effect, Forman does preserve Doctorow’s vision of dark destructive urges bursting through an ostensibly optimistic time. The film is a tale of three murderously obsessed men—Harry K. Thaw, obsessed with Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White; Younger Brother, obsessed with some incomprehensible personal quest of his own; Coalhouse Walker, Jr., obsessed with the vindication of his human dignity. The siege of the Morgan Library provides an appropriately violent climax, and one watches it as a forecast of greater violence to come.

The acting—especially Howard E. Rollins as Walker, James Olson as Father, Robert Joy as Thaw, and Kenneth McMillan as the Irish bully who persecutes Walker—is unusually good. Norman Mailer makes an assured and engaging Stanford White, and James Cagney returns a little improbably as a police commissioner named Rheinlander Waldo. But there is something schematic and unreal about it all. The movie grips momentarily. After it is done, the impression fades, and one recalls a shiny and stylish contrivance.

Where Ragtime evades history, Reds revels in it. Reds is the personal creation of Warren Beatty, who brooded about John Reed for a decade, filmed interviews with everyone he could find who had known him, produced the movie, directed it, wrote the screenplay (with the British writer Trevor Griffiths), and acted the leading role.

Beatty’s use of his “witnesses” is a genuine and exciting innovation. The dramatized re-enactment periodically stops to let these survivors offer their own recollections of the Reeds and the times. Harsh lighting brings out every line and wrinkle, and we see a succession of marvelous nonagenarian faces groping through mists of memory to recapture the past: Roger Baldwin, Rebecca West, Henry Miller, Dora Russell, George Seldes, Jay Lovestone, Scott Nearing, Will Durant, even Hamilton Fish, who was a classmate of Reed’s at Harvard and captain of the football team for which Reed was cheerleader. Beatty also interviewed Walter Lippmann, another classmate, but Lippmann regrettably declined to appear on camera.

There are thirty-two witnesses in all; their remarks are brilliantly edited; and their testimony gives an exceptional sense of both immediacy and authenticity. A curious defect is the rather snobbish failure to identify the witnesses, except in an unhelpful list of credits at the end. If it seemed too obvious to subtitle each witness on first appearance, why not flash faces with names in the closing credits, as they used to do in the Warner Brothers films of the thirties? Also one hopes that Beatty will deposit the uncut interviews among the other Reed memorabilia in the Widener Library at Harvard, where they will edify historians of the future.