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"When tou make a film, you realize that the audience will be powerless to stop it, or flip back to refresh their memories, or skip the boring parts. They are at the mercy of your storytelling. If you want to keep their attention for 21/2 hours, you have to follow the story. Whatever doesn't contribute to the main plot line has to be sacrificed. You make the choices instinctively. Only then do you analyze them rationally.''

A lot of Tateh's story was cut because it doesn't intertwine with the rest of the action. Similarly, the filmmakers tried hard to keep Emma Goldman in the script, but Forman claims that her scenes ''stopped the flow of the action.'' Anyway, the director says, ''those scenes are in the book to tell you about the class structure of the society then. But I saw no reason to underestimate the visualm power of the film. We don't have to talk about it, because we will see the class structure with our own eyes - how people dressed and walked and talked on the Lower East Side, and how the upper class looked and lived.''

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Theme and image are close in ''Ragtime,'' and that's a key to Forman's brand of filmmaking. It's also a reason, he thinks, for his success with international audiences. ''Themes are more universal than you'd expect,'' he says, maintaining that ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'' was watched all over the world, while ''Hair'' was twice as successful abroad as it was with American audiences.

As for ''Ragtime,'' the director feels it has ''a very universal theme,'' especially in the sequences that deal with Coalhouse, the black musician whose mistreatment by bigoted whites drives him into a sweeping and murderous revenge. As filmmaker Forman sees it, ''the basic drama of Coalhouse is not a racial problem. Rather, it's a man's pride being hurt. Because he's black, everything is much sharper, and that's good for the drama. But this kind of problem always exists, regardless of race. It has to do with a big dilemma, which every civilized human being faces: What do you call people like this, revolutionaries or terrorists?''

Though this may sound like a side issue to readers of Doctorow's freewheeling novel, it's at the heart of the story as far as Forman is concerned. ''I'm not talking about hired hands,'' he says. ''They are terrorists, and there's no excuse for them. And I'm not talking about people who choose violence when they could achieve a goal by peaceful means. There's a sadistic aspect to that behavior.''

''As for myself,'' Forman continues, ''I am absolutely against any violence. But what about basically honest people - not criminals - who are turned to violence after their pride is hurt? I can't call certain people terrorists, because I understand and feel strong compassion for a frustration that goes past certain limits, past what a person's pride can hold. Problems like this pose disturbing dilemmas for all of us.''

Forman is not condoning any violence; indeed, he emphasizes his opposition to violent acts. But he is concerned with the proper label for people who are driven to desperation, and feels that ''terrorist'' is too broad and imprecise a term to be universally applied. In part, ''Ragtime'' is an exploration of such moral and philosophical questions. But does the director feel it will actually trigger new thought and discussion among audiences?

''As always with art,'' he says, ''the answer is no for the majority, but yes for a few. It's very individual.''

Is it possible for the filmmaker to shape his work so it will communicate serious ideas - and stimulate serious thought -- in more rather than less of his audience? ''I don't think so,'' says Forman, ''because if you get too deep, people just won't come to your film. The movie 'Pixote' shows that,'' he continues, referring to a very responsible but very brutal Brazilian film of recent vintage, dealing with juvenile delinquency. ''It's very well done, artistic, and personal. But it's obviously a political statement, and people are staying away from it. I'm sure the people who do come have their thinking stimulated. But how about all the people who are being kept away?''

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Is it impossible for popular films to be truly provocative, then? Forman answers: ''The main effect must be entertainment. Then, for the people whowantm other things, you can provide other levels underneath. 'West Side Story' is a fine example of this. So is 'The Godfather.' And there are others.''

Also, don't forget the financial realities of Hollywood moviemaking. As director Forman puts it, ''When someone puts up $22 million, I can't tell them to get lost because I'm doing this for my friends!''

This doesn't imply any cynicism toward Hollywood on Forman's part, though. In fact, he says, Hollywood is ''relatively the healthiest place in the world for films. It's way ahead of Europe, where an ambitious, good, meaningful film is a rare bird nowadays. American films are reaching in more intelligent and redeeming directions than any others.''

But there's nothing to be smug about. In the aftermath of the ''Heaven's Gate'' disaster, Hollywood may abandon serious filmmaking if certain movies -- such as ''Prince of the City,'' ''Reds,'' and ''The French Lieutenant's Woman'' -- don't fare well at the box office. ''The executives of Hollywood will panic if these flop,'' Forman says, ''and they won't put any more money into ambitious projects for the next two or three years. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed for all these films to succeed.''

As long as the studios stay active, Forman feels, there will always be a place for movies, even in the age of super-cable TV and home video that's supposedly around the corner. ''People will always want that community experience of watching a good film in the company of others,'' he says.

And one suspects he will always treasure that community experience of making ambitious films in the company of movie folks who share his own enthusiasm. He relished the shooting of ''Ragtime,'' especially when it meant fulfilling an impossible dream like working with the legendary Cagney -- who is still such a pro that he needs little in the way of directing, according to the director.

And it was fun discovering fresher talent, too, at which Forman excels. From conception to casting, he seems to relish every aspect of the filmmaking process. If his enthusiasm proves infectious, ''Ragtime'' should fare very well indeed.ra River.

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