Monday, December 5, 2016

The Magnificent Ambersons

(Orson Welles, USA, 1942)

Welles' second filmed masterpiece, of the several he would make throughout his life, is as absorbing as it is expressionistically lush.  Ambersons is surprisingly affecting, especially considering its focus is the downfall of a not-especially sympathetic American family.  It was Welles' precocious genius that recognized The Ambersons as avatars of a peculiarly American brand of folly, based around aristocratic pretensions that were swallowed by the great American cult of Progress.  As a culture with a profound and dangerous allergy to historical perspective, we seem immune from tragedy.  The tragic requires an adequate reckoning with what is lost over time, and we tend not to count our losses or notice time passing.  But our best artists have always told us (not that we listen) that there are tragedies everywhere, and the greatest of all, as chronicled in Ambersons, is our blindness to them.

Welles was a radically omnivorous artist.  Every film was a fork in his creative path, promising new heights that remained unrealized until years or decades later.  He was ahead of his time (and still is, in many ways), but he was also often ahead of himself.  What was gleefully heterogeneous - the famous toy train set - in Kane is compressed and refined in Ambersons.  The film plays like an expressionistic dream of a chamber drama, full of cavernous spaces and stark shadow.  Like all of Welles' work, it also bubbles with life; boisterous humor, cutting satire, intimations of mortal terror. 

What was he after, when all is said and done?  His famously eclectic appetite, which ran the gamut from high to low, won't give us much of a hint.  There was something haunted about Welles, something fractured.  He seemed to have seen the world as a trap, and to have spent his life devising escape mechanisms, the most powerful of which required the apparatus of cinema.  His appraisal of worldly beauty and possibility - and he was notoriously indulgent of these properties - is everywhere tinged with a skepticism, almost a repulsion.  Even as an old man, creaky and overblown, he seemed to be the scared, clever boy, running from nightmares.

Ambersons is affecting because we can recognize our own sentimentality in that of the Amberson family, and in that of Welles.  We too have precious hopes and memories, and imagine that there exists some way of protecting them from time.  Welles knows better, but he also knows that time is its own kind of illusion.  He was quite a bit like Houdini, the magician who knows that his tricks are all fake, but who yearns for some real magic, some undiscovered reality behind the illusion.  In The Magnificent Ambersons, we're liable to yearn along with him, and perhaps believe.


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