Reaction to The Magnificent Ambersons


By Tim Barlow

Now this is more like it!  When I agreed to do a blog with the Craig Joseph, curator of galleries, director of theater, writer of poetry (I’m assuming), “Heart and Souls” was not what I was expecting for a first pick.  But now we’re decidedly back on track: black and white movies from established auteurs, but not the expected, well-known options, no, only deep B-sides need apply.  Enter, The Magnificent Ambersons, by none other than Orson effin Welles.

Now, this may come as a bit of a surprise, but I’d never seen an Orson Welles movie, sorry, film (idiot), right, so I had never seen an Orson Welles film before.  Not that I haven’t meant to, or that I’m not smart, it’s just that despite some initial great intentions when I added Citizen Kane to the Netflix queue, it just never seems to find itself at the top spot #SoMuchKatherineHeiglSoLittleTime.  So I was actually kind of glad to be forced into finally sitting down and pressing play on a classic bit-o-cinema.  Broaden my horizons. Impress my bros on Facebook.

But after all that build up, I come away from The Magnificent Ambersons with one overriding thought: I didn’t enjoy watching this movie….BUT I do like it.  Oh boy, as far as thought provoking paradoxes go, that’s not even close to decent, but let me see if I can help it along a bit.

I’ll begin with why it was not enjoyable to watch.  It’s true, I do have a hard time with old movies anyways, especially those I don’t have any sort of personal history with, to transform (now) tired efforts and comically dramatic dialogue into heart-warming nostalgia. But the real reason this movie was tough to watch is a result of Chairmen Welles’ style as writer/director.  The film is made up entirely of short, quick scenes, tossing the viewer along through time and plot, in bursts.  Which feels like experiencing a road trip only through the stops along the way.  Unfortunately, this tactic leaves the viewer feeling like they’re always behind.  And instead of knowing what we’re supposedly supposed to know, when we’re supposed to know it(!), I was left piecing things together after they’ve already moved on to the next stop.

Which brings me to why I like The Magnificent Ambersons….now…later.  After that bumpy ride through olden days, I have to admit, it did leave me thinking.  And the nice part about not being beaten over the head with the point during the movie, is that I’m left wondering on my own, what the point of it all really was; surely he wouldn’t have put me through that without some very good reasons.  And this, this making sense of your viewing experience, can be a nice cathartic process.  Was this all about comeuppance?  Or redemption?  Or did Welles go through all this trouble to impute themes of old money vs. new money?  Or the changing face of American greed?  Is this why Craig likes The Magnificent Ambersons?  Is this the perfect rorschach gift for that lover of all things cinema and self analysis on your list?  Maybe.

But probably the strongest impression I had, was around the role and responsibility of family, personified most cynically by the mother sacrificing her own happiness, and ultimately the long term success of the entire family for the wishes of her insufferable petulant son.  Does Craig’s views on family fit somewhere in here?  Is he Georgie?  Knowing what I know of Craig, I don’t see it.  But maybe he feels it.  Or maybe there is nothing to that at all.  And maybe this is all, this wondering, the highest praise I can offer a piece of art.  That it instilled feelings and questions and doubts and didn’t once presume to know the answers for me, or for you.  It’s just asking, in a calm, grandfatherly way, what do you see?  And it’s nice to be asked every now and then.


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