Archive for Howard Rollins Jr

The Sunday Intertitle: The March of Time

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2018 by dcairns

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.

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