“Plus one and minus one equal nothing.
So you mean I’m nothing in particular?” —Isabel
“Remember you very well indeed.” —George
“George, you never saw me before in your life!” —Eugene
What is this cult I signed up for, the evening, sometime in the early eighties, when the late Paul Nelson introduced me, by way of a VHS-tape version dubbed off a late-night TV broadcast, to The Magnificent Ambersons? My friend was a crypt keeper of ruined or neglected cinema. He’d insist that I see the longer, unmutilated versions of Howard Hawks’s Red River and The Big Sky; that I understand that the consensus that Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was ridiculous was itself ridiculous; that uncanonical, unrestored American Fritz Lang programmers like Human Desire and The Blue Gardenia would speak to me in tongues if I let them. Orson Welles was Paul’s holiest of holies, and Paul’s reverence was stabbed through everywhere with remorse at the state of the films: how they’d been butchered or thwarted, how they’d been robbed, how some could only be dreamed of, had only been dreamed of by Welles himself.
Eventually, certain of these robbed beauties of which we dreamed, or had watched on snowy VHS, as through a glass darkly—Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, It’s All True, Macbeth, The Immortal Story—were miraculously reconstructed, restored, enshrined. (The Other Side of the Wind is promising to join them, in a few months’ time, as I write.) Only Ambersons, maybe the greatest of them all, was the dark tower that remained dark, never to be completed or fixed, not to have even one portico or minaret recovered.
And how can it be that the themes of the film so profoundly conspire with the ache its ruination induces in the viewer? To rewatch Ambersons is not only to rehearse anew its destruction as a formal object. It is also to participate in reassembling the ludicrous greatness and fragility of the Amberson family’s self-myth, and to be seduced by the attendant fantasies about a lost American life. All the while enduring the knowledge that what is left is destined to be picked over by vultures, and that those vultures might be ourselves. To watch it is to indulge the incommensurability of our dream of the past. Aren’t the Ambersons, with their aristocratic entrenchment in a horse-and-buggy world, pathetic? Weren’t the horseless carriage and a grim, commercial egalitarianism always coming to sweep them away? What did we want to see happen here anyway? As Eugene casually reminds us, “When times are gone, they aren’t old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.”
The Magnificent Ambersons that is there isn’t there. The interruptions and truncations grow more and more dislocating, until they turn surreal. Last comes the indignity of the scenes substituted by the studio, as though the film has popped down a handful of Valium in order to endure itself. We watch a living body converted into a ghost each time; we watch the ghost sweep through the rooms of the mansion toward an open window; we think we will at least be allowed to see the ghost exit the room, and to mourn its intangibility. But no. The end always comes in the middle, too soon to accept; the ghost dissolves before it even reaches the window. The Magnificent Ambersons that isn’t there appears instead. The one that isn’t there is the one we have.
So, love the ruin. You could study it forever. The first nine minutes: the cameo-framing, the vignetting that dims the frame’s perimeter; the beguiling, sardonic narration; the Greek chorus of gossiping faces (which includes deft encounters with parts of the cast—Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, Richard Bennett—without identifying them as characters). All these seem an invitation into a tolerably wry approach to the American past. Then, with the push-in through the doors of the mansion at the nine-minute mark, with a sweep of chill wind, we find ourselves in the grip of something deeper and more unnerving. The narration drops away, having announced “the last of the great, long-remembered dances.” We are abandoned to sensation, to the probing of the Welles camera, to the confusions of the overlapping dialogue. It is as though Welles has called our bluff: “You wished to penetrate the past with me? Okay, enough of the picture album—don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Here, we’re invited into a study not merely of history but of the collective psychic conundrum of American Time, that medium in which we swim: amnesiac and nostalgic at once.
The great ballroom sequence (broken, but not fatally, by minutes lopped from its middle) cascades through satirical melodrama to its postlude, up the grand stairs, into escalating darkness. We plunge now into George’s obtuse compensations, and Fanny’s animating seizures of mania, as she positions herself behind the mercilessly placed silhouette of an angry chicken, and begins to shriek. Her neurotic rhythms, in this scene and in the strawberry-shortcake scene and onward, are like nothing to this point in American cinema (surely there’s nothing in Citizen Kane to prepare you). The challenge thrown down won’t be taken up until John Cassavetes’s Faces a quarter of a century later.
On repeated viewing, the fact is unavoidable: George and Fanny are our main characters. This is a world driven by the revenges of the privileged weak. The film’s symbolic index remains merciless, even as its characters struggle to redeem their devastating insight into their system of mutual assured destruction: see how, during the dinner-party argument, Eugene quietly takes his anger out on a silver spoon at the bottom of the frame, while delivering his placid admission that the invention of the automobile may be a catastrophe for human civilization. Is there any director who simultaneously loves and loathes his characters as much as Welles does in Ambersons? He demolishes them like Stanley Kubrick; he adores them like Jean Renoir.
Ambersons gives us nowhere safe. We can’t sleep in the lull of nostalgia for this hierarchical, preening, self-appointed aristocracy. We can’t abide what’s being substituted by the hammer of modernity. So we’re George, we’re Fanny. We’re especially Fanny, the crushed monster, who can’t have Eugene—her own phantasmic past, a fiction she longs to reenter. Yet neither can she live with the destruction she showers on Eugene and Isabel’s chances, by turning loose (her fellow crushed monster) George, to ply his prudish, paranoiac rage as a weapon against them. No wonder the Pomona test-screening audience had to destroy the film. A fulfilled Ambersons might have destroyed us all.