The Magnificent Ambersons

Loving the Ruins; or, Does The Magnificent Ambersons Exist?

Loving the Ruins; or, Does <em>The Magnificent Ambersons </em>Exist?

“Plus one and minus one equal nothing. 
So you mean I’m nothing in particular?” —Isabel

“Remember you very well indeed.” —George
“George, you never saw me before in your life!” —Eugene

What is this cult I signed up for, the evening, sometime in the early eighties, when the late Paul Nelson introduced me, by way of a VHS-tape version dubbed off a late-night TV broadcast, to The Magnificent Ambersons? My friend was a crypt keeper of ruined or neglected cinema. He’d insist that I see the longer, unmutilated versions of Howard Hawks’s Red River and The Big Sky; that I understand that the consensus that Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate was ridiculous was itself ridiculous; that uncanonical, unrestored American Fritz Lang programmers like Human Desire and The Blue Gardenia would speak to me in tongues if I let them. Orson Welles was Paul’s holiest of holies, and Paul’s reverence was stabbed through everywhere with remorse at the state of the films: how they’d been butchered or thwarted, how they’d been robbed, how some could only be dreamed of, had only been dreamed of by Welles himself.

Eventually, certain of these robbed beauties of which we dreamed, or had watched on snowy VHS, as through a glass darkly—Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, It’s All True, Macbeth, The Immortal Story—were miraculously reconstructed, restored, enshrined. (The Other Side of the Wind is promising to join them, in a few months’ time, as I write.) Only Ambersons, maybe the greatest of them all, was the dark tower that remained dark, never to be completed or fixed, not to have even one portico or minaret recovered.

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