Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I recommend spending Christmas with the Ambersons

Of all the films that seem to me most quintessentially Christmas movies, The Magnificent Ambersons is the least obviously relevant to the festive season.
True, it does feature charming, and beautifully realised, studio-shot sequences of jingle bells and dashing through the snow, but it is not set at Christmastime, nor does it abound in the yuletide cheer that radiates from On Moonlight Bay, Holiday Affair or Bell, Book and Candle. It is as moving as It's a Wonderful Life, but less effusive, and perhaps a little less certain that every story can end happily if we only wish it so.
And yet, at that more thoughtful hour, at the end of the day, with the presents long opened, the wine all drunk, the fire only faintly glowing, and not a creature stirring all through the house, when our thoughts drift to Christmases past, absent friends and, perhaps, dreams unfulfilled... then there can be no better cinematic accompaniment to our ruminations than this, the most humane and moving film Orson Welles ever made.
It is not, let me rush to stress, a morose film. There are powerfully moving passages, for sure, but much of it is light; it's very funny in parts, and full of charming social detail. But at the same time, in its very simplicity and reticence it finds its way to a very deep place, and says more about the bonds of family, of the loves we strive for and define ourselves by, and of the passing of the years, than any other film I know.
It is a story about things ending, and of the need to make our peace with time, the enemy we cannot possibly outwit. And it speaks, consolingly but not sentimentally, of our need, like the effigy atop Larkin's Arundel Tomb, "to prove our almost-instinct almost-true: what will survive of us is love."
At one time it was the last film in the world to need trumpeting. It was almost Citizen Kane, not as precocious perhaps, but, except for the effects of studio interference, every bit as good.
But it rarely troubles the 100-best lists these days, due in part to the inevitable, lazily iconoclastic backlash against Kane itself, now routinely punished for the crime of being so long hailed the best film ever, and in retaliation against its appropriation as shorthand by critics who refuse to look beyond the milestones of cinema history. (A couple of years ago British film critic Chris Tookey wrote of an already forgotten film called There Will Be Blood that it “even surpasses the greatness of Citizen Kane”! In what department?) And as Kane's stock fell, so did Touch of Evil's rise, because it’s genre and there’s stranglings and shootings and corruption and you don’t have to think much about it.
While all this was happening, Ambersons seemed to just fall away, like melting snow, or memories of a childhood Christmas.
Personally, I like Kane and Evil very much (and also The Stranger, still underrated) - but my favourite Welles by a wide margin remains Ambersons. Kane is an obvious tour de force, a technical marvel and a work of great brio, but in its striving for profundity it is clearly a young man's film. Ambersons is a quieter work in its mechanics, but as drama it's streets ahead.
The film is based on a book by Booth Tarkington, whom I have never read, but who seems to specialise in nostalgia Americana: he also wrote the Penrod stories, on which were based those two delightful Doris Day movies On Moonlight Bay and By the Light of the Silvery Moon.
As befits the subject, Welles’s work as director is never ostentatious or distractingly showy; it is a far more integrated job of work than Kane, that at all times allows the drama to lead the presentation. (Though when the moment does call for the grand effect, Welles pulls off some of his most impressive: witness the reverse tracking shot through several doorways.)
Welles wrote, directed and narrates the film but does not appear, allowing the other members of his Mercury players their chance to shine, which they certainly do.
Agnes Moorehead was never better. I hate to think what this woman could have done in movies and never got to show us. She's like an exposed electric wire one minute, cracked china the next; just amazing. This is my favourite Joseph Cotten performance too (with the possible exception of his work in that other great non-Christmas Christmas movie Portrait of Jennie: oh what a double-bill they make!): praise indeed for that most reliable of actors.
And there are striking contributions too from a very young Anne Baxter and from Tim Holt, a likeable actor who, in a long and busy career, never gave a performance this good again.
True, the film was grievously compromised by a frankly vengeful RKO who, fed up that their much ballyhooed boy wonder had turned into a white elephant almost overnight, hacked at the concluding reels, took out half an hour and re-shot a new, hurried finale. But the amazing thing is that it still works as well as it does. The new bits are obvious if you look for them, but not really obtrusive if you don’t (they were supervised by Robert Wise, the film’s editor and himself a stylish and intelligent director). At most one is aware of an unwise acceleration to the final scenes, but the first hour is sublime.
No other film has achieved (or perhaps sought) its texture. It starts like a documentary and slowly segues into drama, in which an entire time and place, its rise and fall, is mirrored in the rise and fall of one family, whose members we are carefully introduced to and whose paths we follow in tandem.
By the time it has established all of its major themes and characters it has settled into a unique rhythm that is warm, elegiac, delicate in the extreme, but also poignant, cinematically very effective, and quite stunning in its careful but never unnecessary attention to historical detail.
It may be possible, but mistaken, to dismiss the film as an insufficiency of drama in a surfeit of detail. This is because Welles adopts the very opposite approach to most dramatists, who pride themselves on creating human situations that ring true in any surroundings and convey themselves to us with the minimum of effort and adjustment. But the personal dramas here are indivisible from their location and their moment (and so carefully and beautifully are the latter evoked, the film seems often almost eerily like a vanished age come to life). Somehow it uses its specificity of setting and circumstance to reveal its essential truths all the more potently; it reminds us that the universe cares nothing for the complexity and intensity of our lived moments: all we are is the connections we make, and eventually we, and everything we know and see and experience, will be forgotten utterly.
Welles achieves this, paradoxically it might seem, by deliberately concentrating on the tiny details rather than the large. His opening monologue pinpoints both theme and era exactly by the seemingly irrelevant distraction of listing various changes in men’s fashion against a montage of Joseph Cotten trying on the different items in front of a mirror.
The whole film is built around the same understanding: that a change as seemingly mundane as the transition from horses to automobiles is in fact one that transforms everything and everyone it touches, that instantly ends one age and starts another, and cuts off the former from all possibility of recall. It is by concentrating on the small details that the larger themes come into focus.
Thus neither narrative nor backdrop are appendage to or metaphor for the other, rather they are two perfectly integrated halves of the same story.
There is a sad wisdom here, never stated outright but potently conveyed all the same. The story of the Ambersons themselves seems inevitable, somehow, in the context of the wider setting Welles evokes for them to reside in.
I usually try to find time around Christmas for this wise, generous-hearted, rueful little film, and every year, as I get older, it seems to have more to tell me. Great drama, as Hemingway told us, is a matter of truth. The Magnificent Ambersons, never harsh or bitter or neglectful of drama's obligation to enchant, is nonetheless one of the truest films I have ever seen.
(A much shorter version of this was originally posted in a different form in March 2008)