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October 05, 1975 - Image 4

Resource type:
Michigan Daily, 1975-10-05

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Page Four



Sunday, October 5, 19 !5








RAGTIME by E. L. Docto- migrant, his wife and laughter,
row; New York: R a n d o m and the third, a black iaaz mu-
House, 270 pp. $8.95. sician, his beloved, and their
NASHVILLE directed by illegitimate son, become en-
Robert Altman (1975). twined, not only with one an-
other, but with the great cele-
By BRUCE WEBER brities of the day-names we
all k n o w - Sigmund Freud,
EARLIER THIS year, while Harry Houdini, Admiral Perry,
Nashville was still revelling J. P. Morgan, and Henry Ford,
in its first laudatory reviews, it to name a few.
was disclosed that director Rob-
ert Altman had purchased the To notice these unlikely com-
screen rights to E. ,L. Docto- binations as unratifiable coin-
row's novel, Ragtime. cidences is nocriticism; for it
is within these coincidental

At the close of the
first chapter, Docto-
row has a little boy
saying to Houdini:
"Warn t h e Duke,"
which we later find


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Ragtime, which deals with the
y lives of three families in and
about the New York metropoli-
a tan area around the turn of the
2 twentieth century, is so full of
characters whose individuality
is sustained through visual sug-
gestion, and so full of shifting
scenaries and rich, live action,
that not only does the novel
appear to be suref ire movie
material, especially in the hands
of a talent so deft as Altman's
but that in fact, Ragtime is so
well suited to Altman's nega-
tivism towards America and to
Nashville's peculiar, kaleido-
scope style, that the similarity
is disturbing.
RAGTIME TAKES in the en-
tire first decade of this cen-
tury in one huge swoop, much
the way Nashville encompasses
the decade we have lived half-
way through. The long weekend
of the film and the ten years
or so of the novel serve similar
tragic ends. But whereas Docto-
row has relied on history to sup-
,ply his conclusion, Altman had#
the disadvantage of not knowing
the conclusion of the period he
essayed. The novel ends at the
inception of the first World War
and with the imvlication that
America's firm hand on the
world was no small inducement
to that end. Certainly Altman{
could not match the historicalE
authenticity with which Docto-1
row loads his novel and which
urovides the tonnage for the am-
nie power or its conclusion. Yetj
the two works are so in agree-
ment, esuecially about what is
inherently American, that theI
differences in time and n'acej
gtting seem lareely a one-tion
of details. Insofar as w'lat is
imnortant to each of the two,
and both seem inevitablv con-
cerned with what is really im-
nortant to Americans, they areI
remarkably similar.
We are shown, in Nashville,
brief slices of the lives of twen-
ty-four individuals who are gath-
ered in the same vicinity during'
a single weeeknd. Within this
frame the individual coinci-I
dences are amusing, and num-
erous enough to be suspect.
But they pale beneath the
coincidences of Ragtime, where-
in the lives of three families,
one of upper class suburbanites
the second, a poor Jewish im-
i - - - - - -- - - - - -

events that the representation to refer to the Arch-
of life that is realism resides.
In terms of Doctorow's novel, it duke Ferdinand, as-
is important to know what hap-
pens when J. P. Morgan meets sassinated at Sara-
Henry Ford, or when an upper
class executive meets Houdini. jeVO. In DOCorOws
This, in fact, is the 'hrust of
Ragtime - that the important terms, the end of all
issues of the early part of this the iycrisy is ele-
century, that is, important tohyors e -
representative America, are not graphed by the inno-
only reflected and detailed by a
rather motley sampling of cele- Cent. By the t i m e
brities, but pale in importance seventy ears have
themselves against the stature
given these celebrities by Amer- gone by and Nash-
icans.,ville's world has roll-
NTASHVILLE'S world, in the ed around, the inno-
eyes of Robert Altman, is a
hvoocritical one whose tm der- Cent are no longer
side he is always exposing to
the viewer. This underside is an; te le g ra phin g any-
insidions thing, with the aware- i
ness that Altman's viewers now They
have of hypocrisy hin high promulgators of dis-
alaces. We are shown the sense
of cower that vast majortes aster.
endow to such minor heroes es
country musicians, and see that
the power is not only tinde-
served but abused. Altman miss-
es no trick in turning the tables
on those characters he is =attack-
Sing, and it is hard to exempt this fictional reality is more:
nnvone. He constantlv evokes easily judged because we have
the folk myth strroimdine lHs more access to the actual real-
characters as farce. 'The irony ity with which to compare it.
of the final assassination is not Ragtime
thnt the noor singer did not da- two ways. uses ts hiseoy in:
t rh erftlnttnth i w as It begs to have us be-
sorve her fate, but that she lieve in the attitude of a narra-
t e victim istead of the more tor who could not have been
r' nventional one, the politician. rst tm h e bw t-
The Amuman's bullet is aimed present at the time he i3s writ-
"PaTiTyh We are led to believe ing about. It creates a mood
,ll lanek.Wariteis te ndidbe that the narrator was not him-!
all olng that it is the candide self present to feel. And it suc-
who will get it. ceeds by using explicit and im-
But truthfully, the film ends; mediate detail. To wit, a pass-
in an appropriate way. Nash- age concerning New York's im-
ville ccuir .Atately de cts.qtheo Ufl


,7 T

MONDAY, OCT. 20, 1975
8:00 P.M.
sponsored by B NAI BRITH
at U-M
'4 '
Non-students---$5.00 j
A 7
" I

rapher knows his subjxct well
enough to create, from fact, his
personality. It is a relati ilship
that is not altdgether different
from the relationship that ex~sts1
between a fiction writer and his
purely fictional charac-ers.
In Ragtime, the sense one has
of all the characters, real or
fictitious, is on a singlular
plane. They all pop in and out
of the thickening plot with an
irregularity that is coaxing and
it is this, along with the clues
that each of them holds to the
puzzle of the whole, that makes
Ragtime so wonderfully read-
This is not to imply that thej
characters are as fully drawn
as they might be. One would'
like to get to know all of them
thoroughly. Rather I would aug-
gest that what we do know of
them serves perfectly the other
tendencies of the novel - the

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Vil dU~d~ y UPIL C1
shifting cultural emphasis in
this country. Altman recognizes
the irony of our priorities. We4
are directed by a few select
individuals, and an unacceptable
few at that.
* * *
TT IS TIME that a word be
said about the sense of reality
one gets from Ragtime. It is;
important in a historical novel
that the reader have confidenice
in the reality of the descriptive
writing, or else the history sops
working in cahoots with the
fiction. In a contemporary piece
'T -

It I r

cerned with Houdini, but some-
thing in the world which Hou-
.dini affects. Altman's visi n is
slightly more disturbing than
Doctorow's because it .s seem-
ingly concluded without warn-
ing. What -happens when the
world of country music is shot
down is not a part of the film.
Metaphorically, the assassina-
tion is an end in itself. On the
other hand, we know that the
world, and America survived
WWI, which by comparison
makes Ragtime seem inconclu-
sy e.
Yet considered sequentially in
time the inconclusiveness sf the
one evolves to the shocking and
unexpected conclusi :n of the
other. At the close of tie first
chapter, Doctorow has a little
boy saying to Houdini: "Warn
the Duke," which we later find
to refer to the Archduke Fran-
cis Ferdinand, assassinated at
Saraievo. In Doctorow's terms.




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migrant slums:
Pillows were placed onI
sidewalks. Families slept on
stoops and in doorways. Horses
collapsed and died in the'
streets. The Department of
Sanitation sent drays hround
to drag away horses that had
died. But it was not an effi
cient service. Horses exploded
in the heat.' Their exposed in-
testines heaved with rats. And
up through the slum alleys,
through the grey clothes hang-
ing listlessly on lines strung
across air shafts, rose the
smell of fried fish.
Passages such as this speak of
such research so careful that
we have enough coniidence in
the narrator to believe him when
he mentions something as im-
possible to ascertain as the3
smell of fried fish.
SECONDLY, Ragtime asks us
to imagine historically real
characters as they speak fic-
tively, often to characters who
are themselves fictitious. This
also turns out to be OK with the
reader, but for a different rea-
son. We need the mix of fact'
and fiction precisely to make
this book a working fictien. For
in the end, the well known
names lenddtheir reputations to
the novel, but it is the novelist
who must create a zha.'acter
from the reputation.'In a sim-
ilar fashion, the successful biog-

sense of history, the sense of the end of all this hypocrisy is
American values and their i telegraphed by the innocent.
justice, the sense of immediate T h e assassin in Nashville,
place-and that all the faces in though, is completely unsus-
this book are subservient to the pected. One character says of
plot. Doctorow asks no more him. 'He looks like Howdy
than we believe his characters. Doo 'H By the time seventy
It is a reasonable request. Rag- years have gone by the Nash-
time is a prime example of ville's world has rolled around,
what I should call "suitable" the innocent are no longer tele-
writing. That is, it is engineered graphing anything. They are the
to succeed in various ranges of promulgators of disaster.
complexity, and nowhere does
it overstep its self - imposed THE ILLS of this country have
bounds.I h

THOUGH Nashville is set in

not changed in seventy years,
if we are to believe Altman and
£JTInnrn URL IIa nrp Am

the present, the history it bedded in us now, and we a m-
contains, that is, the present bedderuow, and Temy
that it evokes is equally auid. not overcome them. The time
srfor warning the duke is long
It has been criticized as %iaving,
shallow characters but this is gone. And having already tcld
not without reason or advant- 's this, Altman need not return
towhat things used to be Mie.
age. There is a purpose in re- To make a film of Ragtime
vealing only a hypocritical iide would be a step backward.


of a society if hypocrisy is the
object of the study. Nashville is
not concerned with country sing-
ers, just as Ragtime is not con-:

Br: e Weber is a senior ma-
jorin, in English.


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