Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lost in Translation (Part One): E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime

Ask anyone who loves to read books and they'll tell you that there is nothing worse than seeing a good book badly mangled on the screen. I'm not talking about the literary fetishists, either – the ones who want to see every little detail of the book translated faithfully. (Those folks are already predisposed to disparage movies as a lesser art. They're prepared to hate the adaptation because films, especially if they come from Hollywood, are already guaranteed to desecrate the source material.) Nevertheless, there are books that have indeed been ruined, if not rendered unrecognizable by filmmakers – those who appear either incapable of understanding the text, or are willfully misreading it.

E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel Ragtime could well be a victim of both a misunderstanding and a willful misreading. Ragtime is a richly textured parable of American lore in which the author performs masterful tricks with the history we thought we knew. Some historical figures are disguised, others are merely alluded to, while a few others are used by name – popping up in the narrative in the most colourful way. In Ragtime, Doctorow captures the spirit of America in the era between the turn of the twentieth century and World War One. But rather than write a realistic account of the period, he creates a sumptuous pastiche, a flip-book chronicle that is, in many ways, already a movie. "[It was] an extravaganza about the cardboard cutouts in our minds – figures from the movies, newsreels, the popular press, dreams and history, all tossed together," wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker. "Doctorow played virtuoso games with this mixture – games that depended on the reader's having roughly the same store of imagery in his head that the author did." In calling the novel an "elegant gagster's book," Kael underlined how Doctorow cleverly portrayed American history as a confidence game that tested our ability to separate fact from fiction. As Voltaire once remarked, "History is a game we play with the dead."

E.L. Doctorow
The novel opens in 1906 in New Rochelle, New York, with escape artist Harry Houdini swerving his car into a telephone post outside the home of a white affluent family. As the story advances, seemingly random events pop up. J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford meet to exchange thoughts on the subject of reincarnation. Architect Stanford White is assassinated while his mistress, Evelyn Nesbit, becomes political ammunition for anarchist Emma Goldman. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, bickering over the role of the unconscious, turn up on the Lower East Side, with Freud desperate to find a public toilet. After visiting Niagara Falls, the fifty-three-year-old father of modern psychoanalysis has "had enough of America," and sails back to Germany. "He believed the trip had ruined both his stomach and his bladder," Doctorow wrote. All through Ragtime, Doctorow mixes historical icons like J.D. Rockefeller and Booker T. Washington with fictional creations like Younger Brother and black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (based on the hero of Heinrich von Kleist's 1810 literary classic, Michael Kohlhaas), who becomes the victim of a racist practical joke.

The key figure in the novel is an immigrant Jewish merchant referred to as Tateh (Yiddish for "Father"), who lives in a tenement on Hester Street with his young daughter. Tateh cuts out paper portraits of people he meets in the street, an act that develops into flip-page movie books. Eventually, he creates a new identity for himself as the Baron, a film producer. His silhouettes – metaphors for the ongoing assimilation of the immigrant emigrĂ© – become Doctorow's key American emblem. The other, of course, is the ragtime music that gives the novel its title. As a musical form, ragtime appeared in the mid-1890s, piano music defined by Irving Berlin as "virtually any Negro dialect song with medium to lively tempo, or a syncopated rhythm." In other words, it was a musical hybrid, a symbol of the American melting pot. Ragtime music may have had an African-American rhythmic style, but it also drew on the European emphasis on written-out compositions.

By the end of the novel, the Baron sheds his disguise to reveal himself as "a Jewish socialist from Latvia" and proposes marriage to the woman from New Rochelle whose telephone pole had been clobbered by Houdini. They head to Hollywood to produce the Our Gang comedies, which featured an ethnically mixed cast of characters. Drawing the ragtime era to a close just as the First World War emerges, Doctorow declares that "history was no more than a tune on a player piano." What he understood was that America remained a culture in flux, a land where the American identity was never static. Literary critic Leslie Fiedler once wrote that being an American "is precisely to imagine a destiny rather than to inherit one." So Doctorow imagined a country that resembled a lively card game running long into the night, where wild stories were traded, jokes shared and anecdotes laid down with the assurance of a flush hand. His pen dipped in the well of the tall tale, Doctorow took what he knew of historical fact and imagined the outcome.

Howard Rollins as Coalhouse Walker

If Doctorow's shrewdly mischievous sense of fun informed Ragtime, the story couldn't have been more ill-suited to emigrĂ© film director Milos Forman. In his Czech films, especially Loves of a Blonde (1967) and The Fireman's Ball (1971), Forman had developed a politically charged neorealistic comic style, but it had huge shortcomings. Whether he wanted audiences to identify with or laugh at the follies of ordinary people, the tone often came across as churlish. It wasn't that Forman hated his characters exactly, but he didn't trust the transformative magic of movie art to make human absurdity engaging. This may be one reason why Forman's films are not only visually drab, but his characters always seem to be pinioned in front of the camera. When Forman came to the United States, his movies developed another problem – they appeared to be largely out of touch with the culture. With the exception of his superb adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), in which he wisely eliminated some of the excesses of Kesey's parable, Forman's other American films are hollow and shrill. His adaptation of the musical Hair (1979), despite its energy, completely missed the childlike spontaneity of hippie rebellion captured in the stage version. Like many other Eastern European artists who lived under the repression of Communism, what Forman truly lacked was an appreciation for the vulgar juices that propel American popular culture – exactly what Doctorow celebrates in Ragtime.

Milos Forman directs James Cagney 

Milos Forman wasn't the first choice to direct the film. After Ragtime was published, three things looked certain: Dino De Laurentiis would produce the movie, E.L. Doctorow would write the script, and Robert Altman would direct it. In the end, only De Laurentiis would survive the trio. Altman already had a string of films, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974) and Nashville (1975) demonstrating quite convincingly why he was ideal for the project. He had an amazing aptitude for mixing genres, he worked brilliantly with large casts and he had an unparalleled intuitive grasp of the layered textures of American popular culture. Not surprisingly, he was excited about the possibilities of directing Ragtime. Maybe a little too excited; he started doing his own version of Ragtime while still directing Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), mixing and matching historical and fictional figures. But somehow Altman wasn't able to bring the Buffalo Bill myth to life and the film came across as cluttered. It bombed both critically and commercially. This turned out to be unfortunate. De Laurentiis, who had money invested in Buffalo Bill, also owned the rights to Ragtime. When Buffalo Bill tanked, he took Ragtime out of Altman's hands and gave it to Milos Forman. Since Doctorow was wedded to the Altman deal, he was pushed out and Forman chose a new script from Michael Weller, the screenwriter who worked with him on Hair.

Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians

It's hard to say just what Forman and Weller thought they were aiming for in their version of Ragtime, since the movie misses the mark in just about every conceivable way. The film doesn't even begin to approximate the themes in Doctorow's novel. Many of the historical figures – Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington and Stanford White – are either tangential to the story, relegated to a newsreel, or given graceless cameos. Emma Goldman, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Emiliano Zapata don't even appear in the film. Despite the elegant casting of James Cagney (emerging from a twenty-year retirement to play Police Commissioner Waldo), Pat O'Brien as a lawyer and Donald O'Connor as – what else? – a choreographer, Forman doesn't develop their scenes; his only apparent purpose in casting the characters is simply to have them appear on screen. Ragtime is essentially reduced to one story: Coalhouse Walker Jr's.

Instead of creating a panoramic entertainment, where American history could be understood as much through our consciousness of it as it is from our grasping of facts, Forman interpreted Ragtime, with its emotionally scarred black piano player, as a solemn and literal civil rights story. In doing so, what Forman missed out on conveying was Doctorow's more spirited and wildly playful American jamboree.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.          

No comments:

Post a Comment