Saturday, December 28, 2013
The Magnificent Ambersons
Lucy (Ann Baxter) in Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” tells a parable to her father played by Joseph Cotton. She pretends that her parable recounts an old Indian legend called “They Couldn’t Help Themselves” -- purportedly the name of the place where the tragic tale took place. In the story, Lucy says that there was a young Indian so proud that “he wore iron shoes so that he could walk on the faces of people.” Lucy and her father are posed against a velvet grey sky, fringed by the mournful-looking fronds, a kind of morbid Victorian tableaux like many of the images in the film. The scene is a sequence-shot -- everything done in a single extended take. (It is hard to determine whether this mise-en-scene is a result of Welles’ intentions or whether these sequences were simply incomplete, someone editing the film together from master-shots and not taking the time to insert close-ups and images showing the character’s reactions to one another. Certainly, the sound is dead throughout much of the movie: it has the inert tonal quality of a dubbed European film, something by Fellini with raw-sounding American voices bullying the subtle and elegant pictures.) The rhetoric about pride and people’s faces being crushed by iron shoes is startlingly brutal but consistent with most of the film. “The Magnificent Ambersons” is not as popular as “Citizen Kane” because the film is far more harsh, indeed, in some scenes almost unbearably cruel. The long takes, sometimes, erupting into hysteria (usually featuring Agnes Moorhead as the thwarted Aunt Fanny) have an inescapable, inexorable quality -- you can’t look away although what you are seeing is horrendous. Welles’ stages the picture as a nightmare: décor overwhelms the actors -- on the great stairs, the tragic protagonists, Georgie (Tim Holt)and Aunt Fanny, both virtuosi of taut hysteria, are shot against a savage cubist collage of finials, angular stairs and indescribably complex jigsaw forms of timber and strut, all bathed in the deepest and most funereal shadow. Coffered ceilings bear down on the characters like the force of destiny and the heavy cornices of the houses, the squat columns of the banks and the finicky roof-lines and gables all shape the landscape into a vast cemetery, a huge mausoleum. The interiors of the Amberson mansion are clogged with inky darkness, and Welles films many scenes in chiaroscuro so dense that his characters are visible only as moving clots of shadow. Darkness falls like drapery from the ceilings where immense chandeliers squat like malevolent spiders and, sometimes, peoples’ faces and chests are obscured by black bars, like dark bands worn around the upper arm to signify mourning. In the early scenes, supposedly showing people happy in their wealth and Victorian certitudes, everyone talks at the same time and each scene is frenzy of action and counter-action, sequences filmed contrapuntally unlike the more explicitly tragic content to follow -- those images shot in mortuary crepe and silks, dark, motionless, embalmed. Welles’ boldness is to show two generations ruined by a single instant, the moment when a drunken suitor intent upon a serenade stumbles, falls through his bass violin, destroying it on the lawn -- this sudden image, lasting only a second, followed by a close-up of a woman’s white face contorted with shame. From this single instant, the entire tragedy, then, evolves, a scene shot like farce, a throwaway that turns out to carry the key to the whole calamity that we see unfolding as the movie progresses. Everyone in the film is doomed by pride: the heiress to the Amberson fortunes ruins her life because she can’t marry a man who has made a public fool of himself (the incident with the string bass), Georgie, her son, thwarts his mother’s happiness out of misguided pride in preserving the family name, and Lucy, who loves Georgie, is too proud to risk rejection and declare herself to the man she loves -- instead, she smiles idiotically at him as he pleads for some sign of affection from her, keeps smiling and, then, as he departs, rushes into a pharmacy to collapse on the floor in a swoon. Everyone knows what they must do to achieve happiness and everyone also knows that their pride will never allow them to take those measures, that they will doom themselves to misery -- the machinery of their pride, the terrible furniture of their disastrous arrogance are those cornices, those chandeliers, the heavy woodwork, the great ornamental stair case leading up toward steeples of irredeemable darkness.