The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons

Director – Orson Welles

Starring – Joseph Cotton, Delores Costello, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt

Often compared as a bastard sibling to the widely praised Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is the second of Orson Welles’ two picture deal with RKO Pictures.  While he was away filming another feature in Brazil, Ambersons was taken away from Welles by the studio who felt the picture was too slow and somber.  RKO cut roughly 50 minutes of footage from the end, and tacked on a happy ending to appease test audiences who, since it was released after the attack at Pearl Harbor wanted something a bit more cheerful, and with laughs.

Ambersons tells the story of a spoiled little rich kid, George Amberson Minaver, played to cruel, selfish perfection by Tim Holt.  George (apparently based on the somewhat spoiled Orson Welles) is so caught up in himself, and his worries, that he doesn’t allow anyone else in his family the opportunity of their own happiness.  Seeing the affection between his mother, Isabel, and Joseph Cotton’s character Eugene Morgan, as a threat, he firmly plants himself in between the pair willing to go to great lengths to keep them apart.  The families reliance on their seemingly endless wealth threatens to teach them some hard life lessons.  From this brief synopsis, you can see where the story is going, but rest assured you won’t see the abbreviated ending coming.

Despite the new happy ending, The Magnificent Ambersons, as it exists today is incomplete.  The editor, Robert Wise, a director in his own right (The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) was put in charge of cutting the film to its current length.  While salvaging as much as he could of the story, the film still seems to end abruptly, destroying the our investment in the characters as well as the weight and importance of the story.  The cut footage was rumored to have been destroyed to prevent Welles from protesting and producing another cut, all though officially it was to clear space in the studio’s vaults.

Since we will never fully know what this film could have been, it is unfair to say it is as good as Citizen Kane, nor is it fair to put it on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, especially since it isn’t commercially available on DVD in the United States (I watched a decent quality AVI file that I happened upon).  That being said, what is present in the version that I saw, was a prime example of why Orson Welles was (and still is if you ask me) such a revered filmmaker.  The ensemble acting is the quality you might expect of the Mercury players, everyone does a great job, not only of playing their parts, but also of supporting their fellow actors in their roles.

A class could be taught on the cinematography of this film alone.  Stanley Cortez replaces Gregg Toland as Welles’ cinematographer of choice, but none of the elegance inherent in Citizen Kane was lost.  Unlike a lot of films from this era, Welles isn’t afraid of using shadow to dramatic and atmospheric effect.  Character’s, especially female characters, in most american films seem to always find that same pocket of light that illuminates them in just such a way.  In Ambersons, not only is there plenty of darkness, but it is nearly a character all its own.  One that each other character interacts with, and plays against (both physically with the shadows in a scene, and metaphorically with their own motivations and intentions).

Another interesting element deserving of mention is the mammoth estate in which the Amberson’s dwell.  The sense of foreboding and expectation carried by the physical structure that houses this indomitable family affects the story as much as any other element in the story.  The cavernous stairway is host to as many romantic kisses as it is to malicious eavesdropping and tense stand-offs.

Finally it is important to point out the resonance this film has had with one of my favorite films of all time, The Royal Tenenbaums.  Similar to The Magnificent Ambersons, Tenenbaums deals with the perceived mythology of a family of spectacular characters, and juxtaposing that ideal against the reality of the dysfunction that is inherent in family.  Similarities range from the small (the titles are similarly grand) to the grand (the main conflict in both films comes about when love and relationships are threatened by jealousy and depression).  Wes Anderson, to his credit, has managed to finish what Orson Welles was never able to.  With The Royal Tenenbaums he manages to bring closure to the wonderful story that has had a false happy ending on it for nearly 60 years.

Is The Magnificent Ambersons great?  No, not as a whole, but what it’s made of, what it was going to be, and what it has inspired, is far more than great!  It’s Magnificent!


Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club – 1999

Director – David Fincher

Starring – Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter

Firstly, I’d like to mention that this review was a special request from a friend of mine.  Normally all it would get would be a little bullet review simply because I had already seen it, although I do confess it deserves quite a bit more attention.  So, here we go.

Back in 1999, before I had read the book, learned the rules, and become swept up in the fervor that was Fight Club, I was blissfully unaware of what lay before me.  At the time, I was living in an apartment with 3 other guys, all of which lifted weights, and were at least partially if not completely into the pathos of the film.  All of us were in our twenties, none of us were in solid relationships and each of us was steeped in the malaise of the 90’s.  Everything about Fight Club not only seemed fresh, it was fresh.  Released the same year as the other major 1999 film with a genre defining plot twist, The Sixth Sense, I had no clue as to where Chuck Palahniuk’s tale of hard-won maturity was taking me.

Whether or not you like the film, Fight Club grabs away your attention, and doesn’t let you have it back until finished.  As the very definition of slick and flashy, but with the added bonus of subtext, the film sets forth with a social commentary unique to its place in time.  Equal parts special effects display, close examination of the modern-male condition, romance, and suspense film, Fight Club is unapologetically brazen and wonderful.

For those lucky enough to not know what it’s all about, here’s a brief rundown of the plot (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it).  The narrator, sometimes referred to as Jack (although we never actually learn his name), is stuck.  He finds himself constantly running the treadmill of the daily working-grind.  Business trips, catalog shopping, and time spent avoiding everything of substance in his life is taking its toll, and he finds himself unable to sleep.  In an attempt to turn his life right side up, Jack meets a girl (Marla), makes new friends (Tyler), and goes through the process of systematically dismantling his life in an attempt to put it back together again.  From nameless worker bee, to co-founding an underground street fighting ring, to working to bring down the system all in the name finding cure for the omnipresent male aggression that he suffers from, Jack walks a very long path to find himself in very familiar territory.

Despite its somewhat fractured method of telling it’s story, Fight Club is a fairly straightforward film.  Using a very visual, and interactive method of walking us through the narrative, we are placed directly into the character’s nerve center.  We see first hand, from Jack’s point of view, his plain, drab apartment being populated with equally plain, drab furniture.  We watch as his work-life gets drowned out by his new passion for fighting, and we feel the same panic when the boundaries of his comfort zone are reached.

Fincher utilizes the same grimy chic aesthetic that he used in Seven, and would later use in Panic Room.  Going along with the themes of the source material, everything is worn, threadbare, and ultimately falling apart.  From the house that Jack and Tyler move into on Paper St. to the tenuous relationships that hold our main character to his old life, we watch as the very fabric of his life is torn apart.  Aside from dressing the set accordingly, Fincher utilizes destructive imagery, achieved through the combination of CGI and simple practical effects.  Lighting, post-production coloration of the film, as well as on and off-screen narration provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the distressed mind of our main character.

What to say about the acting…I’ve never liked Brad Pitt better than I do in his role of Tyler Durden, and Edward Norton, coming off of his fantastic run of Primal Fear, and American History X, achieved a level in his career that he hasn’t before, or since.  Helena Bonham Carter provides the perfect foil to the Pitt/Norton duo, by playing crazy with issues in a really grounded sort of way, and numerous wonderful supporting roles are filled out by familiar faces, such as Meatloaf, Zach Grenier, Jared Leto, and a whole host of others that you’ve seen even if you don’t know their names yet.

Since my initial viewing, I’ve come to watch the film time and again on DVD, and I find that the story has changed a bit.  Coming out of the theater the first time, I felt empowered as a film student, a movie goer, and as a young man who didn’t quite know what he wanted out of life.  The macho posturing and gratuitous justification of the character’s extreme measures seemed completely justified to me.  Damn right I wanted to take something back from the world that had taken so much from me!  I too, wanted to punch my way into a happier life, have my anger and discontent work for me instead of against me, and find that dysfunctional, messed up girl who “got” me. (What!?  I said I was in my 20’s.)  Needless to say, I grew up.  My selfish view of the world changed, and I stopped being so focused on my own problems.  As I grew, and watched the film again, I realized there was a satirical bent to the film that I didn’t see when I was steeped in selfishness.  Now that I had a changed view of the world, and myself in it, I could understand the fact that the film wasn’t preaching anarchy, or violence.  Instead it was illustrating the nature of youth, and the power of experience, and acceptance as a means of learning and growing out of it.

Fight Club is a near perfect film, right up there with The Royal Tenebaums, The Big Lebowski, and Children of Men.  A true 10!

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“That dude is the other dude, and then he shoots himself.” – Ashley