Friday, May 18, 2012

Lost In Amber

The Magnificent Ambersons faded in fiction as it was mutilated by Hollywood. Orson Welles' adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel remains an enigma to cineastes, the ultimate What Might Have Been.

A handful of people saw Welles' 132-minute version before RKO slashed it to 88, then slapped on a re-shot "happy" ending. A minor industry has tried to find and piece together the original cut, with few results. What Welles wanted us to see is gone. Only some stills (the above shows the deserted Amberson mansion) remain.

It's a tribute to Welles' talent that the existing cut is as remarkable as it is. I can't think of many films that could withstand what The Magnificent Ambersons did and still be considered classic. RKO assaulted Ambersons, yet it kept moving; its pace compromised but not thwarted.

That experience made Welles appreciate Citizen Kane even more. He had final cut and Kane never previewed. If RKO had its way, Welles was convinced that Kane would have been tarnished as well.

Yet Welles' creative saga is not what attracts me to Ambersons. I'm drawn to its theme of lost time and altered lives. I first saw it in 1980-81 at the Irvington Theater in Indianapolis. I'd seen Citizen Kane, but Ambersons wasn't shown all that much back then -- certainly not in central Indiana. I went with a couple of friends, and as Welles' opening narration took hold, I forgot they were there. I was lulled into a world I knew little about, young eyes wide, eager.

As much as I enjoyed and respected Kane, Ambersons felt deeper, richer. Kane dazzled; Ambersons caressed. Lighting and staging appeared similar, though Welles used a different director of photography for each film.

But Ambersons gradually unfolded, moving in late-19th century time. You became intimate with the Amberson mansion. Its long dark corridors and winding staircases home to hushed emotions and hurt feelings. The family drifting in shadow and muted sunlight. A cavernous refuge doomed to oblivion. Lives soon to be irrelevant.

The advent of the automobile is considered the main culprit, revealed in this tense exchange at the dinner table:

But cars were merely the harbingers of hated change. Information technology was right behind the gas engine, and as Joseph Cotten's Eugene stated, there was no stopping it. It's pointless to despise the inevitable, much less fear it. Yet you can't escape a certain sadness, or at least I can't. Perhaps my primary current weakness.

And that's the chief emotion I felt re-watching The Magnificent Ambersons recently. Not for the onscreen family, nor for Welles' artistic pain. But for my personal displacement over time.

When I first saw this film, I was 20-21. Filled with ambition, hunger. Ambersons inspired me to do more than just write jokes. It lit my heart while sharpening my desire. I saw it twice more before it closed and thought of ways to approximate its texture in my early work. I didn't come close, but I was too young to be dissuaded.

Watching Ambersons now reminds me of that period. Three decades on and I still feel that ache. My outlook is different, but that young writer remains in me. He had everything in front of him. He was inspired by and absorbed so much. Moreover, he was fearless -- at least when it came to the work.

This is what happens when you reflect on a half-century of life in a reactionary state of mind. It's one area where radicalism not only doesn't appeal to me, it feels like a threat. An aging house crumbling under the weight of time, covered by cheap cement.