Saturday, April 11, 2015

In Those Days, They Had Time for Everything

The second film screening I have been able to attend from the Orson Welles retrospective was also projected in 35mm.

How fresh the beginning of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) remains. The quaint homespun narration voiced over by Welles, the digression into the evolution of men's dress during the nineteenth century somewhere back East, and the picturesque bucolic tone of sentiment and genuine fondness for a bygone era are warming and retain an innocence that is untarnished and eloquent.

The Amberson estate is baroque and the more access we gain upon entry, the more we realize the same space never seems to appear twice. The shadows and low key lighting are complemented by a camera that waltzes through the interiors with poised grace.

The dialogue is typically radio Wellesian with its brisk pacing, snappy comedic punctuations, and see saw balance that levels the playing field regardless of sex, income, or intellect.

And there's that staircase. That magnificent staircase. It is a visual key. From the moment George Amberson Minafer begins pursuing Lucy Morgan--an instance of high class courting low class--he guides her. After their back and forth struggle of wills, he is about to lead her up that grand staircase just as she abruptly cuts him off to reveal that Eugene Morgan, "that queer looking duck," is her father. George will never get Lucy up those stairs. A parallel to this motif is after the midpoint when Eugene returns to fight his way back into the mansion for one last attempt to see the dying Isabel, the love of his life. Uncle Jack appears on the upper floor at the railing of the staircase and asks Eugene, who's down at the bottom floor, to please come back later. Of course, Isabel dies and Eugene will never make it up that staircase (or see her again).

The Magnificent Ambersons is a tonal study. The luminescent innocence of the film's opening that culminates in the carriage ride through the snow--snow symbolizes the loss of youth in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, as George, Lucy, Isabel, Eugene, Fanny and Jack sing gaily, and significantly trail into the deep background to be irised in on, is eclipsed by the bulk of the latter two thirds of the narrative. Dark tragedy engulfs the film like a cancer. Aunt Fanny's breakdown is bleak and hopeless. And, General Amberson's death scene, with its surreal tone, the frontal framing of his withering visage and rambling pleas accompanied by Welles's eulogizing mournful almost whispering narration, ends as a sublimely melancholy piece of cinema.

Georgy drives the narrative. What a toxic breed he starts out as, a borderline sociopath who views the lower class as riff raff. The coy framing in wide angle of his speech in defense of attacking the other boy with him center weighted and postured level to the camera as he mocks the adult who turned him in as he self-righteously confesses that the man wouldn't be fit to shine the general's shoe is another of Welles's finest achievements.

Georgy is a monster, and that he desires Lucy as his bride dooms him to rejection, but his comeuppance is so much more. This is a film about social tragedy. The Morgans are such good people, and because Isabel Amberson is good-natured and sweet, Eugene is ideally suited for her. The twist that Georgy could actually stop this match is heartbreaking, but wonderfully paints the reality these characters are confronted with.

This proves the fondness and mastery of melancholy and melodrama Welles was apt at executing.


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