Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Magnificent Ambersons

Dir. Orson Welles

Imagine making the follow up to Citizen Kane. Granted, Citizen Kane wasn't immediately and obviously accepted as the greatest film of all time, as it is now so often called by those who know, but it is undeniable that it was a film the likes of which Hollywood had never seen. Orson Welles had his fair share of trouble with the producers and Hollywood executives who, even in the 40s, were busy meddling in the work of cinematic artists. Those troubles didn't cease with Welles' second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, which, after production went over budget and time constraints, was seized by RKO, the distributer, and promptly dismantled. RKO cut over 40 minutes of the film and changed the ending, which is obvious as it is rather optimistic for Welles. Still, despite how comparatively Wellesian the film is or is not, it is still a stunning piece of progressive cinema. Suffice it to say that you'd have to do quite a lot to take the Orson Welles out of an Orson Welles film, and The Magnificent Ambersons still reeks of the perpetual dissatisfaction, autobiographical egomania, and forward looking auteur-ism that made Citizen Kane and so many of his subsequent films both memorable and grossly unnerving.

The Magnificent Ambersons relates the fall of a family like the fall of an empire, with all the inclinations towards incestuous behavior and outrageous disconnect with reality. At the focal point is young Mr. George Amberson-Minifer (Tim Holt, a Wellesian protege if there ever was one) and his backwards upbringing of never being denied anything and thus becoming an insatiable and delinquent young man. His mother, Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), has always doted on him, and denied herself everything, even the man she has always loved, inventor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton). The Ambersons' family affairs begin to spiral out of control after the death of George's father and the ensuing love affair between Eugene and Isabel, of which George greatly disapproves. Conniving and pathetic Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) attempts at helping George disintegrate the love affair, but suffers from chronic nervous breakdowns that confuse the hell out of poor George who believes that he is not keeping his mother and Eugene from happiness out of malice, but out of his respect for his family's “good name”. Like in Citizen Kane George succeeds in self-destructing not only his own life but his family's as well, when his mother dies after returning home from Paris with him, his uncle leaves, his grand father dies leaving all his money to Fanny who invests poorly and loses all of it. All the while George is trying to court the lovely Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter) and ultimately fails in that endeavor as well. The film somehow manages to end happily with a near-death experience causing George to beg forgiveness from Eugene who he has treated with such deep seated lack of consideration all throughout the film. No doubt RKO found this ending to be more suitable, despite the conspicuous lack of continuity.

While keeping his hand well into the film (he did direct, write the adaptation of, and narrate the film after all), Welles keeps his face out of it. I couldn't help thinking that had he performed the part of George it would have had a little more life to it; an air of mystery and a greater sense of repressed self-loathing. Still, it was probably in his best interest to stay off screen for this film lest he give critics anymore reason to point out his characteristic narcissism. Without Welles on screen his arrogance and contempt for humanity reveals itself in different ways. Welles spreads his knack for understanding the bastardized ways humans can act towards each other over a number of characters. Its not that the characters in Citzen Kane weren't all impressively well developed, but Charles Arthur Kane was the focal point of that film and the majority of Welles' insight at that time went into making the most oppressively realistic titan ever to be captured on the silver screen. Conversely in The Magnificent Ambersons he widens his scope but also dulls his impact noticeably. The film still boasts sophisticated psychology but in 90 minutes there is only so many moments of revolting insincerity and unconscious self-deprecation that can be shown. Still, who knows whether the original cut and that deleted extra hour of footage would have helped in developing the characters of The Magnificent Ambersons.

I feel sorry for Orson Welles, even though he's dead and far more famous than I will ever be. I feel sorry for him because Citizen Kane was the first film he ever made and despite the critical praise lavished on The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil among others, his memory will never outlive it's legacy. When one talks or writes about any Orson Welles movie they are desperately trying to avoid mentioning Citizen Kane with the dual concern that it will obscure the quality of whichever film they are writing about but that it will also make them seem as though they view Welles' entire career in the context of that single film. The Magnificent Ambersons is not Citizen Kane, but that's a good thing. Welles succeeded in making a number films after Citizen Kane that were insightful and incisive, and comparatively disheartening as well. He was a sad but irrefutably vital figure in the world of cinema that, in the 40s, was just coming into bloom. Through his own personal and artistic hardship he paved the way for so many great filmmakers from around the world, with both his inspirational film making and deeply controversial subject matter. The Magnificent Ambersons is a synecdoche: an essential part of a larger canon of film that forever shaped the way people watch and make movies.

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