Category Archives: Overdoses

Overdose: Orson Welles, Part Two

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

On first impression, The Magnificent Ambersons was a real surprise. I came into the film on the back of watching Citizen Kane for the first time in decades, but that was not what was influencing me the most in my expectations. Instead, I was expecting a film more tonally along the lines of the film it probably most heavily influenced: Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).  The opening of the film, while clearly emulated in style (and Wes Anderson is nothing if not at least a cinematic stylist) by Mr. Anderson, offers the first hints that Mr. Welles’s film will not strike the breezy irony that Mr. Anderson’s films have become so identified with. Mr. Welles’s voice over narration is sombre and serious in a way that Alec Baldwin’s deadpan delivery is not, and neither is it leavened by pop orchestration of a “Hey Jude” cover. Mr. Welles is offering a history and a context for the eponymous  family rather than just the history of  the individuals that make it up. Both, however, do serve their respective films very well. Still, with the comic missteps of Eugene Morgan and his double-bass, I was still on the path of mis-expectation. As the film unfolds, it slowly and gently pulls the viewer into its sad morality tale. Then, with signature deep focus shots and long takes, the viewer is compelled to view the downward spiral of the Ambersons from the outside. As the title directs, they are magnificent and clearly separated from the ordinary citizens who are, of course, the diegetic audience while we, the cinema audience, remain even further removed. Made immediately after Citizen KaneThe Magnificent Ambersons is clearly its very close relative, but they are not twins. If Kane is a hybrid of European expressionism and good ol’ American realism, Ambersons is, to me, a study in Bazin’s cinematic realism. Narratively, Kane is fractured and subjective; it’s a story told in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards from six narrative points-of-view. These narratives, while presented pretty chronologically, are bookended by sequences that are highly expressionistic with noir-esque cinematography, horror film allusions, dramatic use of music, and employment of distortion and canted angles. The Magnificent Ambersons on the other hand is detached in its perspective and with those long takes (the final ball of the Ambersons is such a beautiful use of camera and set working together) and the deep focus shots it asks the audience to coldly observe. While George is a young boy and young man we partake in the expectation the townsfolk have of relishing his comeuppance, but when it does arrive the citizens have forgotten and we, now the only audience remaining, are left with ambivalence as we watch not what is expressed, but what is being reported to us.

A lot has been written and said about how Mr. Welles, through circumstances mostly out of his control — the Pearl Harbour attack, for one — The Magnificent Ambersons that has been left with us is not the film its director would have delivered (about 40 minutes is missing from Mr. Welles’s original cut). However, precisely because these losses have been so lamented, Mr. Welles’s intent is easy to place in the viewer’s mind and the film’s original spirit can be evoked, especially if watched shortly after a viewing of Citizen Kane.

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Overdose: Orson Welles, Part One ~ Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)

A Note on Overdoses:

The idea is a blatant theft of the Filmspotting podcast’s Marathons. Every once in a while I will either gorge myself on or shame myself into (usually) a director’s work that I love or want to love. I thought the first Overdose was going to by Jean-Luc Godard (as it states on the Coming Attractions) page. However, while I did watch four Godard films over my winter break in January, I still have three more on my list to watch. And so, the honour of being the subject of my very first Overdose goes to the man who may just be responsible for the existence of the American Auteur and whose work is the greatest influence on many of my favourite films and film-makers: Orson Welles.

Not by coincidence, the class I am teaching this semester is opening our screenings with Welles’s first two films. I had seen Citizen Kane many years ago, but The Magnificent Ambersons is new to me. The whole experience (from discussing the basics of shot making and cinematography to watching the films) thus far has been thrilling. I am so glad that students approached me to open this course and grateful to the students preceding them that inspired me to strive for more. I’m also very lucky that I work at a high school that has a curriculum flexible enough to allow students to request courses that meet their own academic interests.

Now, on to Citizen Kane

It is perhaps difficult to appreciate Citizen Kane without paying attention to its mastery and innovation of film craft. That’s not to say that the narrative isn’t compelling; it is, and full of wonderful performances (Welles himself is charismatic, bombastic, blustery, commands the attention fitting to a character as large as Kane; Dorothy Comingmore is pitch-perfect as the increasingly hysterical Susan Alexander Kane; and Agnes Moorehead, as Kane’s mother, has only one scene (but what a scene!) in which to deliver to the audience her conflicted nature that is as icy as the weather beyond to window of the Kane ancestral shack). When you pause to consider the interaction between this narrative, the deep focus photography, the low-key cinematography, the sound, and the use of both long takes and montage, the true pleasures of the film are unfurled. There is far, far too much to be written about this film in a single blog post, so I will save myself and focus on what occupies my mind at this time: realism in narrative.

The narrative is told not in a straightforward, chronologically sequenced manner. This may not be such a big deal to audiences today with their familiarity with such looping and unreliable narratives as Memento(dir. Christopher Nolan, 2000) and Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1994), but I’m going to guess it was pretty ground-breaking in 1941. The difference, of course, is one of time, but not just of time; it is a difference of purpose or philosophy. Whereas, Pulp Fiction to a great extent  is a postmodern pastiche of winking self-awareness, Citizen Kane is a piece of modern direction in which the camera informs the narrative voice as much (if not more so) than the characters actions and words. Starting with it omniscient opening sequence of shots and then shifting from character narrator to character narrator, backwards and forwards through time, never giving the viewer anything other than one kind of or one person’s truth until the very end. Even then when we retreat out of Xanadu, borne away by Welles’s camera at a god-like perspective, we are given no real resolution. We have the identity of Rosebud, we have the fractured pieces of Kane’s life as told by the fractured parties who dealt with him, but we are also given the ambiguity of the film’s penultimate lines:

Female reporter: If you could’ve found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would’ve explained everything. 

Thompson: No, I don’t think so; no. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.

And, it’s final words: “No Trespassing”.

Put together, the dialogue, the final frames, and the camera perspective provide a perfect example of Chekhovian irresolution. There are no answers here; Welles has aksed the questions and left us to contemplate and provide our own conclusions.

In Overdose: Orson Welles, Part 2The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil.

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