The Sunday Intertitle: The March of Time

I wanted to say something about the great Milos Forman, who died the other day. And, as it happens, his RAGTIME begins with a silent newsreel and lots of intertitles.

RAGTIME is one of Forman’s great follies. He worked out early that American films had to have clear dramatic focus and conclusive endings in order to make it big with the public. But he’d occasionally find himself making films that hadn’t a prayer, because they were scattershot or their stories fizzled out in ambiguous, frustrating ways. These unloved movies are by no means inferior to his acclaimed, Oscar-winning masterpieces. They’re just less ingratiating. (And, looking at the endings of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and AMADEUS, we may have to redefine what we usually mean by “ingratiating” — but they’re very SATISFYING endings. Oh, GOYA’S GHOSTS was generally not liked by anyone except me and Fiona, and has an ending that redefines grim, but nobody could accuse it of being inconclusive. It’s an ending beyond which there can be nothing.)

Forman was also the king of bad timing. For every movie that somehow came along at the right time — CUCKOO’S NEST was a sixties novel that depicted a mental hospital decades out of time, but turned out to be a movie just right for the seventies, there would be a HAIR (NOBODY wanted to see a film about hippies in 1979, AND it didn’t have a plot — sure, more story than the stage musical, but still, no plot) or VALMONT, a version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that followed the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton adaptation by just a year (“Never make a movie somebody else has just made,” was the lesson the producer drew from that). But those are really good films, I’m SO glad Forman ignored his own sound financial instincts and made them, out of love.

RAGTIME itself has not one story but a bunch, so loosely connected that producer Dino De Laurentiis was able to excise one almost completely, over Forman’s passionate objections. But the real heart of the film is the story of Coalhouse Walker (Howard Rollins Jr.), who is playing piano alongside that newsreel at the start of the film. Original author E.L. Doctorow had basically just plagiarised Heinrich Von Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas (also filmed by Volker Schloendorff) and transposed it to the early twentieth century. Doctorow called it “a quite deliberate hommage” and it’s true that the similarity of names shows he’s not hiding anything. But it’s not a passing nod of the head or tip of the hat — he’s nicked the whole story, the cheeky blighter.

Anyhow, Forman was moved by the story, as Kafka had been before him. It’s a tale of injustice, and injustice ALWAYS MOVES AN AUDIENCE. (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be believed.” — A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.) Forman, having been born in Czechoslovakia with typically interesting timing, knew all about injustice. A man’s beautiful knew carriage and horses/jalopy is gratuitously trashed. He demands reparation. The authorities are weak or corrupt and simply tell him to go away. He won’t. Death and destruction follow. And a moral victory appearing from total ruination.

Baron Harkonnen is fire chief and Cody Jarrett is police chief in this town? We could be in trouble here.

There aren’t enough Milos Forman films. And yet, once you start listing the essential ones, you can’t stop until you’ve named them all.

14 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The March of Time”

  1. Altman was originally going to direct RAGTIME and he was Doctorow’s choice since Nashville had come out just a few years before and reviewers compared Ragtime to that. But relations between Altman and Dino De Laurentiis soured. Doctorow even attended Altman’s memorial and talked about that missed chance. Alan Rudolph also wrote the screenplay for Breakfast for Champions for Altman at the same time and that fell apart for the same reasons, although Rudolph would make that in the 90s (I saw that last week and found it to be a very impressive film).

    As for Forman, I love Firemen’s Ball, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not a movie that has held up well, and you know it’s biggest impact might be in the number of Oscar Bait movies where you have sentimental portrayals of mental illness and cod anti-authoritarian sentiments, and the focus on Nurse Ratched struck me, even as a teenager, as being misogynistic. AMADEUS is likewise a character assassination on Salieri but F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce are so great that it’s easy to forgive. I haven’t seen TAKING OFF yet.

  2. I love Alan Rudolph but I also love Vonnegut and I could never see his film as a version of Breakfast of Champions. It certainly has it’s own thing going on, but I couldn’t get into it.

    Cuckoo’s Nest is problematic in its sexual politics, for sure (with Nicholson as a statutory rapist also) but weirdly, it gets madness right. I don’t find it sentimental, even if its holding the mentally ill up as behaving more appropriately than the authorities. Ratchet is an unfortunate dragon lady, but as played, has a lot of chilling psychological reality, and what Forman is really exorcising is the arbitrary power games rampant in his homeland under communist rule.

    Taking Off is joyous. Recommend Hair, Valmont, Goya’s Ghosts…

  3. Forman reminds me of Bertolucci in that both these 60’s figures started small with intimate films like “Before the Revolution” and “Loves of a Blonde” but followed rather quickly with “Oscar Bait” Mega-Epics like “The Last Emperor” and “Amadeus”

  4. I feel they both somehow stayed true to their strange roots. Last Emperor ends with the rediscovery of a cricket in a box, still alive after decades, and the vanishing into air of its owner, the title character. Amadeus ends with the protagonist blessing the inmates of an asylum for their mediocity. Now, Oscar-bait films are DESIGNED to make Hollywood mediocrities feel better about their lack of vision, but they don’t generally do it as openly as that. Rather subverts the whole enterprise…

  5. bensondonald Says:


    The nervous cop who disarms Harry Thaw after the shooting is John Ratzenberger, who also turned up in “The Emprire Strikes Back” and “Superman” before returning to the states and landing in “Cheers”. These days he’s known for doing a voice in every Pixar feature.

    “Ragtime” was eventually adapted as a stage musical, giving more time to the immigrant who goes from peddling hand-drawn flip books to directing films. In the end he’s credited with inventing Our Gang, his dream of all races and creeds living in harmony. Don’t know how it did on Broadway, but it has a pretty strong life in regional and college theater. Not to be confused with “Rags”, another show focused on an immigrant mother and son around the time of the Triangle factory fire.

    Evelyn Nesbit was the subject of “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing”, a sterile biopic starring Joan Collins. Lots of talk and guilt; not enough velvet and swinging. White was presented as a good enough man but for his “flings”; any actual sex was implied if that. Thaw was a mean nut case. Nesbit starts out young and susceptible, but ends as a disillusioned Fallen Woman, swinging on her swing before a theater full of hooting cads.

  6. Starting small and then making mega-epics is common across film history for it to be a general thing against Bertolucci and Forman. David Lean is a famous example, and for a long time the critical orthodoxy was that his “early English” films were his best as opposed to Lawrence of Arabia, when today that is happily not at all entertained. I mean people still prefer the early Lean films or these days the Middle Lean films (the ones like Sound Barrier, Hobson’s Choice etc) but few would say that the Lean epics aren’t central to he guy. Then Fellini started making small neorealist films, as did Visconti, before making films that were bigger, grander, more stylized and on a bigger scale.

    In the case of Bertolucci, once he went big he never could go small again. Like he made Novecento and then after that he did La Luna and Tragedy of Ridiculous Man, and the latter two especially Ridiculous Man have some great touches but basically he couldn’t go back small again after going big (as La Luna proves). The Last Emperor is a great film likewise and one of his most personal works.

    Bertolucci and Forman also resemble each other in that you can say they both peaked early. Arguably in the case of Forman since I haven’t seen Goya’s Ghosts but I did see Man on the Moon, and didn’t care for it.

    Getting back to One Flew Over…there’s a case to be made that that movie’s portrayal of mental illness and demonizing the shrinks fed into the Reagan era clampdown on mental illness clinics and psychology in general. Reagan says government is the problem and One Flew Over literally portrays the mental clinic supervisor of a state institution as a soulless emasculating harridan and the misogyny (also a feature of Reaganism) intersected there with that anti-institutional focus. I mean psychology has never really been shown sympathetically or accurately in mainstream movies but it got worse since the 70s. Scorsese’s Shutter Island was a long-delayed corrective to that, albeit one that came too late.

  7. Hollywood in the 40s LOVED psychoanalysis and psychology! The Snake Pit sounds like it’s going to be negative, but it’s a real booster for mental health. Hitchcock was a little skeptical privately, but he made sure his movies showed the talking cure in an overtly positive light. Most of the screenwriters and producers were in therapy and they all wanted to show how great it was.

    Movies dealing with the psych ward were often grim and showed unsympathetic staff and disturbing patients… but that’s not exactly inaccurate. You can meet some lovely people in those places, but the less lovely ones are memorable.

    I’m not very sympathetic to the bedlam stereotype seen in too many horror films, though Lewton’s movie of that name is sort of authentic.

    Mandy Patinkin’s role as the immigrant in Ragtime was the bit that DeLaurentiis hacked out.

    And yes, Ray Milland in Red Velvet Swing is cast as a lovable roue, when the real guy was like the Bill Cosby of his day.

  8. About as small as Bertolucci could get after his epics was “The Sheltering Sky” — one of his very best. An intimate story on a visually enormous stage.

    In his masterful “A Girl Cut in Two” Chabrol created a modern dress version of the Evelyn Nesbit / Stanford White / Harry K. Thaw triangle set in a small town in France.

    I saw the “Ragtime” musical. It was OK but no “Showboat.”

  9. Someone I knew over the internet reported seeing Bertolucci and not being able to resist asking, “Those colours in The Sheltering Sky, were they real or were they created?”

    Bert (as Peter O’Toole called him) replied with a twinkle, “They were created… for YOU.”

    He CAN be very sweet.

    Storaro did a fine BBC doc where he shows off his array of graded filters to make the sky bluer and the desert redder.

  10. Matthew Davis Says:

    John Ratzenberger lived in Britain most of the 70s (which means he was always available to play small American speaking parts in any number of big studio UK films) because he kept getting Arts Council money for his 2 man theatre group “Sal’s Meat market”. SMM would put on stage “movies” with dozens of characters all played by the two men. They would be a big influence on a young Peter Richardson in his own early Alternative Comedy work with Nigel Planer which would end up becoming the Comic Strip Films.

  11. WOW! As I recall, he turns up in Ken’s Valentino as a Noo Yawk pressman.

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