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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

DVD Geek: The Magnificent Ambersons

Exactly 15 years after DVDs were introduced to the home video market place, Warner Home Video has finally released the last significantly important, classic motion picture in the format, The Magnificent Ambersons, and like the opinions of the townspeople on the fates of the characters at the end of the film, no one cares. DVDs are horse drawn carriages, being sent to the glue factory in favor of Internet downloads, which takes the possession of a film out of the hands of the collector and places it back in the hands of the film company. We have come full circle. Blockbuster stores are closing, stores that do still sell home video software give more and more shelf space to Blu-rays every day, and only extreme enthusiasts like ourselves, the sort who used to pore over newsprint magazines such as Movie Collector’s World in the past, are supporting the market for ‘made to order’ DVDs (as opposed to mass produced DVDs) of obscure, forgotten film titles. But I digress. Orson Welles’ outstanding 1942 RKO Pictures adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel suffered a similar fate, the same fate as its characters. As a production, it began with great promise, and as a movie, it begins with great promise. But gradually, as a production, it over-extended itself and its backers lost interest in seeing it through, so that, as a movie, it falls to pieces and punishes anyone who has made an emotional investment in it. Running just 88 minutes, it is brilliantly staged, brilliantly acted and brilliantly conceived, but it flames out, rushing through a truncated version of the characters coming to terms with their failures to wrap things up before the final fadeout. If you are familiar with the film and familiar with these failures, then you can readily look past them to see what a magnificent work of art it is, an aching, unrequited cry for the protective mother’s embrace of nostalgia against the unstoppable seepage of progress.

Unless you count the English, French and Spanish subtitles (“George Amberson Minafer avait eu ce qu’il méritait.”), the disc has no special features whatsoever. There is not even a chapter guide. The full screen black-and-white picture looks okay, with no distracting flaws, but there is undoubtedly room for improvement. The monophonic sound has a natural but sometimes cumbersome background noise that can become more pronounced if you try to push the volume on Bernard Herrmann’s musical score.

In 2001, Alfonso Arau made a cable film of Welles’ complete script for The Magnificent Ambersons, which is available from A&E. Unfortunately, it is an idea that would have been best left on the drawing boards. Short or lengthened, the story is a downer. As a novel, it is rescued by the beauty of Tarkington’s prose, and as a film, it succeeded through the dazzling expression of talents overseen by Welles, but Arau has a cable movie budget and no interest in the absolutely intrinsic link between the characters and the nostalgic elements of their environment (at one point, he has the characters performing a tango, which would be appropriate in a Latin-American fantasy novel, but is a jarring anachronism to what Tarkington and Welles were striving for, by at least a decade). Indeed, Arau did not even bother to include my favorite ‘missing scene’ (Welles’ script was part of the excellent Criterion Collection Laser Disc release of the original film), where a car is ‘put to bed’ for the night in a stable. Another scene, in which a young woman describes her feelings for the hero through a made up story about Native Americans, is actually shorter in the cable version than it is in the original film. Running 140 minutes, it is difficult to pinpoint where, actually, the cable film has been expanded. It just seems to take longer to get through the regular scenes, perhaps because, unlike Welles’ staging, the characters here stop moving when they talk. Nevertheless, the film does at least suggest what is missing from the Welles version. Unlike the uncomfortable, bullet-point rush through the last act in the Welles movie, the downward spiral of the various characters are more drawn out and less disorienting. As one character explains, talking about life but reflecting the pathway of the original film, “The things that we have and we think are so solid, they’re like smoke, and time is like the sky the smoke disappears into.” It is entirely possible that if Welles’ cast, his production designers, his cinematographer and so on were tackling the material it would have been more palatable and the film would have sustained its amazing synthesis of aesthetic glory and narrative purgatory, but such resources were the smoke that Arau could never retrieve.

Set at the turn of the previous century, the story, though broken up and focusing on several characters, is centered around a spoiled rich boy, played with an under appreciated sweetness by Tim Holt in the original film and by a more aggressive but still effective Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in the cable feature. Jennifer Tilly seems completely lost attempting to fill Agnes Moorehead’s shoes as his alcoholic maiden aunt. Madeleine Stowe plays his mother in the remake, somewhat unpersuasively, while Dolores Costello had the part in the original. Bruce Greenwood, although he doesn’t age much, captures aspects of his character, a former beau of Stowe’s character, that Joseph Cotten fails to convey in the original. Anne Baxter played the daughter of Cotten’s character and Gretchen Mol covers the part in the remake reasonably well, although she is not given the same opportunities to shine that Baxter had.

The picture is presented in full screen format only. The colors are a little yellowed at times, but are usually presentable. The stereo sound is generally centered, and there is no captioning. Along with text profiles of Welles and the cast (but not Arau), there is a passable 22-minute promotional documentary (although Rhys-Meyers, in one interview, sounds almost resentful that he has been cast in it).

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The Ultimate DVD Geek

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon