Ragtime (Part 2 of 2)
So the wrapper...
It started with a black baby being abandoned in their garden of a well off white family. The police intend to charge the child's mother, with abandonment and attempted murder. However, the liberal and compassionate wife of the house owner (referred to in the movie as Mother) invited the black lady in and allowed her to stay in the house with the baby to the displeasure of her conservative husband (referred to in the movie as Father) who didn’t feel that this was their problem.
Father as it further unveiled was the owner of a pyrotechnic company. This detail turned out to be very important and played a crucial role in the further development. Mother’s younger brother (referred to in the movie surprisingly as Younger Brother), who was also an engineer pyrotechnic, later became the bomb maker for Coalhouse, when he will proceed to his rampage.
While the black lady (Sarah) stayed in the house with the baby, the main character appeared. Coalhouse is full of devotion to her and is declaring his intention to marry her.
Things were going well and moved toward the wedding when the major problem has happened.
As you can see from the above clip, it wasn’t physical harm but the insult of Coalhouse’s honor. It made no practical sense as the white firemen didn’t gain anything from it besides the ill-conceived satisfaction of showing the black man its place. Subsequently, this thread shows Coalhouse trying to obtain justice in all possible legal ways.
However, after the death of Sarah, beaten to death by police batons, he and his comrade in arms go on a destructive rampage.
While this is happening, in a parallel thread, the movie shows the younger brother falling in love with Evelin, the ex-wife of Harry Kendall. He follows her around and then confronts her. This scene takes an extra-long time where the younger brother, tongue-tied and clumsy, tries to persuade Evelin to date him.
Then the movie jumps to the scene where they are so far in their relationship that Evelin undressed to the bare essentials at younger brother’s arrival. Such a shortcut seems strange and is out of the pace, given how long the initial scene took. I even thought that some scenes, devoted to their affair, were cut out.
In the next scene, Evelin dumps younger brother and goes on to become an actress. This development is just as unclear as her initial agreement to become his girlfriend. Initially, I didn’t even understand the necessity of including this thread, to begin with.
The frustrated younger brother is apparently so heartbroken that he seeks Coalhouse and his gang and offers them his services as a bomb maker.
The movie has yet another narrative thread that is as tangential to the Coalhouse’s thread as it is to Kendall’s.
At first, she’s scared of him and then unexplainably agrees. Her sudden agreement seems strange as Evelin is so much better in the looks department than him, and now when she’s rich after the divorce settlement, could have just about anybody.
This is a thread of a street artist Russian Jewish immigrant Tateh, who leaves in New York his unfaithful wife and travels with his daughter, selling the flipbooks he created.
Later he becomes a silent movie director and Evelin, whom he had an accidental acquaintanceship in New York, starring in his movie.
To a viewer, (well to me), this is fragmented and seemingly disjointed.
However, if you look at it from the director’s point of view, it all makes sense. For example, the only purpose of the relationship between Evelin and younger brother is to create the link between Coalhouse and Kendall’s threads. That’s why once the link was established the relationship didn’t last. They already played their role.
The younger brother was also a key figure in the successive bombing of fire stations. Sarah was a necessary plot anchor. Without her, Coalhouse wouldn’t meet the younger brother. Also, her death at the hands of police became the catalyst that propels Coalhouse to his rampage.
Of course, it was unclear why such a positive and proud man, dumped his lady-love with his child so that she had no other solution but to abandon the baby?
Stranger things happen in real life. A person could be a real dick when it comes to women and then turns around to marry them. This happens but not if we look through in the prism of the likelihood of that happening.
My guess is that this consideration didn’t cross the writer’s mind right away as his goal was to connect Coalhouse with the future bomb maker.
In the movie, Father points this out to Coalhouse. Coalhouse’s response was obscure “I had some difficulties.” In my view, this patch only passes the buck of the plot flaw onto the character.
However, if this would be the only movie flaw, I would let it slide. What I didn’t like the most was the fact that the director presented The Ragtime with stories of a high probability of happening while connecting them with the wrapper that had a low probability of happening.
Both situations with Coalhouse and Kendall are typical. That is, the probability of them happening during ragtime reality was very high. On the other hand, the threads that the director used to hold them together (what I call the wrapper) are very flimsy, or the probability of them happening is low.
For example, is it possible that at those severely racist times, a white family would let a black lady with a newborn baby stay in their house? Possible.
However, the chances of this happening are very slim. Most likely, they would let the police handle the matter.
Add to it the chance that the owner of the house, out of all possible occupations, would be the owner of a pyrotechnic company? Possible? Yes, but the chances of this happening are also very slim.
Add to it the fact that younger brother, who is a pyrotechnic wiz, would be so taken by the unfairness of what’s went on with Coalhouse that he joins him on his rampage.
Add to it the fact of younger brother out of all possible young women fell in love with the ex-wife of a murder Kendall and what is even more problematic than she instantly opens her arms to him. Their subsequent parting is just as strange. Not because love affairs were supposed to last the entire movie, but because of the lack of due diligence to this thread in the movie, to the degree that it seemed that some scenes were cut out.
Multiply these possibilities, and the outcome of these coincidences would be infinitesimal. Still, it’s not that a series of such coincidences could not happen in a real life. Stranger things happened. However, one shouldn’t make inferences about the entire historical period based on a series of peculiar incidences.
And this is a major hick-up in the overall movie narrative. The director had his agenda, and this is ok. However, it was not ok to butcher the plot by unlikely narrative threads in service of this agenda.
For example, what was the purpose of perusing street artist Tateh thread? It had no connection to either Coalhouse or Kendall’s threads.
Why including him at all?
At the end of the movie, Tateh is getting together with the progressive mother, thus punishing the cullus father for his reluctance in taking the black lady to stay in his house.
That’s why the original scene of Tateh’s wife’s spousal betrayal is necessary. Should she remain faithful, how would positive character Tateh could get together with another woman?
Now let’s see what the movie has in the remainder? What happened with the good guys, and what happened with the bad guys? Overall the bad guys win. The overall system is horrible and unfair. At least, that is the feeling that a viewer is supposed to get out of it. The overall liveliness of people in the streets and the good quality of the cinematography only exacerbate that impression.
So in the end it was tiresome to watch not because it was multithreaded, but because the threads weren’t put together well. Especially in view of the fact that the movie didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already.
And that is my beef with the movie. 😉