“Loose Quicksilver in a Nest of Cracks”

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

illustration by Tom Ralston

I am thinking of films as houses, as dwellings and not exhibitions. I am thinking of them as a designed and designated environment to spend time in, an intentional ecosystem of montage and flickers. Films are not to be taken. We inhabit them. They consume us.

This consideration is primarily a function of apparatus: whether surrounded by emptiness or bodies, whether Skittling in a theater or legs-out with a laptop cradled on knees, films rebody us. The wall in front of our eyes gets wibbled into light and motion. When one wall becomes a screen, the two to our sides are inevitably changed in the presence of light and the absence of shadow. Light bleeds and we bend. It’s architectural, this relationship, which isn’t to say that we enter this reel of rooms for respite (we do) but that, in our watching, a new structure emerges. Like most rooms and houses, the occupant will change as the house does. We are restructured by the structures we inhabit. We carry those changes with us when we leave. A house, a film, is a threshold space even though it feels stationary.

And so I’m thinking of a scene of two men talking. Or rather, one is talking, and the other stands with his back to us listening, or at least looking. There are train noises, the arch windows of a train depot above them. They are saying goodbye? Or actually, just the talking man is. Maybe he’s stalling, maybe he’s trying to communicate something else in what he’s not actually saying. “But here we are,” he concedes. “Two gentlemen of elegant appearance in a state of bustitude.” His companion says nothing, and the talker relays how he once stood in this same spot saying goodbye to a beautiful girl. “We knew we wouldn’t see each other again for almost a year. I thought I couldn’t live through it. She stood there crying.” He pauses, looks off somewhere just over his companion’s shoulder, somewhere towards us. “Don’t even know where she lives now. If she is living.” 

I’ve watched this scene on lots of screens. That man’s next admission trails me like rubble off a demolition: “If she ever thinks of me she probably imagines I’m still dancing in the ballroom of the Amberson mansion. She probably thinks of the mansion as still beautiful, still the finest house in town.” Hypothetical thoughts from a situational ghost. The absolute horror of being stuck in a loop, never able to stop dancing in a ballroom that isn’t anymore, that barely was. The house is broken; the house is haunted.

If you build a house, it doesn’t stay still. It swings and crackles, living. It takes on a life of its own. Novel shades emerge from once familiar spaces. I am thinking of films as haunted houses. I am thinking of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.

The story of Ambersons is one of impossible, continuous loss. Based on Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel, it relates the story of the Ambersons, a midwestern family rendered opulent through reckless financial speculation in the last decades of the 19th century, now staring down the tuber and choke of the 20th century’s overgrowth of industry. Their titular magnificence refers to the vulturous mansion they occupy, whose hallways and pockets form the bulk of the film’s setting. Their magnificence is also, we understand, something of their own assumption. It’s grandly tragic, a little pathetic. Their magnificence exists to decay.

At the center of their story is George Minafer (Tim Holt, a warped wood boogie board whose deeply anxious performance is easy to misconstrue as misguided), the spoiled-rotten heir to the Amberson collapse. His grandfather is Major Amberson, the initial source of that fortune and a relic in his time. His mother is Isabel Amberson, the major’s daughter, a woman preserved Rapunzel-like in frail half-life by some long-extinct code of gentility. That these roles are played by Richard Bennett and Dolores Costello, respectively, is no accident: both are former stars of silent pictures, bringing a time-out-of-joint style in their very presence, purposefully offset by several of Welles’ collaborators in his hyper-modern Mercury Theater project. Ambersons is, by the bodies that populate it, a present haunted by a just-remembered past and a fast-moving future.

Isabel marries George Minafer, a plot point of a man who exists only to make bad investments and not be Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten, controlled burn, bright light), Isabel’s never-actualized one true love. Eugene is the film’s ambivalent moral center, a man whose restless inventing leads to the advent and ensuing proliferation of the automobile while he himself remains skeptical of the absolute necessity of constant technological progress. Eugene is beloved by Isabel but also by her sister-in-law, Fanny Minafer (Agnes Moorehead, a furnace caked in soot), and his daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter, the jolt of a 21st century in her smile). The house is rounded out by Isabel’s brother, Jack (Ray Collins, dandying betraying depths, another Mercury Theater regular), who once watched a woman he loved disappear at the old train station. 

Ambersons is, in many ways, a film about a son killing his mother. After his father dies, George acts out a kind of half-realized Oedipal dance, doing everything in his power to keep his mother and Eugene apart. He succeeds. Isabel dies, nearly literally of a broken heart. With her goes the deed to the mansion, the last remaining luxury in the family after Wilbur’s bad investments render them cash poor. Major Amberson dies, spared consciousness of his own growing inanity by literal memory loss. Brother Jack leaves on a train just out of frame, never to return. Fanny’s frustration bubbles over into actual madness. Lucy denies George. George takes a high-paying and potentially suicidal job at a dynamite factory to support himself and his unstable aunt. In a 1982 interview, Welles is clear: “The point of Ambersons, everything that is any good in it, is that part of it which was really just a preparation for the decay of the Ambersons.” There is an articulation of despair and love in equal measure, a collaborative occupation. It’s sad, not because it’s over, but because it’s happening again. 

Except it’s not. All of a sudden, a film that works and works to articulate the nightmarish quality of loops and hauntings erupts into joviality, is slapped with an ending as canned and saccharine as Bruce’s Yams1: one day, on his way to the dynamite factory (?), George is hit by an automobile, causing a strangely-compelled Eugene to visit him in the hospital, where a strangely-compelled Lucy has already forgiven him. The film closes on Eugene and Fanny, herself in a strangely-recovered state, walking down a hospital hallway in neutered happiness, with Eugene confessing, “It seemed to me like someone else was in that room. And that through me, she brought her boy under shelter again. And that I’d been true at last to my true love.” Resolution. Strings swell. End credits. 

To be haunted is, I think, to have to reckon in real time with the presence of something that should not be present. This ending, of course, isn’t the one the bulk of the film anticipates, isn’t the one its director imagined or even made. If films are haunted houses, sites of (im)possibility where the montaging of phantoms can teach us why we live, they are also subject to possession.

And so it is perhaps too-tempting to read Welles’ Ambersons as a haunted house. That kind of narrativizing runs like easy mercury out of spider-webbed thermometer glass: staring down the simultaneous critical success and commercial struggles2 of Citizen Kane in 1941, Welles is 27 years old and beginning work on his second film at RKO. With Kane coming in over budget, with his only having produced one film in his two years under contract, Welles is forced to renegotiate the terms of that agreement with studio head George Schaefer. Chief among the renegotiations is Welles yielding his right to final cut. A slight drip of moisture can fungalize a whole structure; it’s here that Ambersons—and Welles himself—glean their forever ghosts.

Dissolution is swift when structural decay sets in. When principal photography on Ambersons wraps on January 22, 1942, Welles is recruited (coerced?) by the US government to travel to South America to shoot good-will documentaries to improve inter-American relations in the blush of the Second World War. After having spent most of January directing Ambersons by night and acting in the RKO-produced Journey into Fear by day (to satisfy that contract), the contingency plan is for Welles to send notes and edits back to the US—to Ambersons’ editor, Robert Wise—all the while shooting thousands of feet of documentary footage of the Carnival in Rio. Wise obliges, works diligently in concert with Welles’ letters as well as the detailed memos and notes the director left behind. Wise is scheduled to bring the work and footage with him to Brazil, where the two will finish a final cut of the film to submit to RKO. His passport is denied. Wise completes a 132-minute composite cut of the film and sends it overseas to Welles, who instructs him via letter3 to cut 22 minutes from the film’s center. This 110-minute film is shown in sneak previews on March 17, 1942 as part of a double feature with the Dorothy Lamour/ William Holden musical comedy The Fleet’s In.

A spit of context for those unfamiliar with The Fleet’s In: pairing it with Ambersons in a trial setting is a little like asking a 2007 audience that has gathered to watch Evan Almighty to immediately follow it with There Will Be Blood. Kane, as Welles was wont to point out over the years, had no preview, and relied on no test audience to justify its existence.

And so the largely high school-aged audience reactions from Ambersons’ preview are disastrous. Schaefer panics, smelling more bottom line losses. RKO exercises its right to final cut, wrests control away from Welles, who is still in Brazil. Reshoots are planned, a new and happier ending is written and shot, and by May of 1942, an 87-minute cut of Ambersons is previewed to comparatively sunnier audience reactions. Neither the 132-minute cut nor the Welles edit of 110 minutes is ever publicly shown. Such a version of Ambersons (the ‘real one’) remains, in 2022, a lost and desirous dream, an unspooled phantom we can conjure in our imaginations and that we can never actually see. 

This story is probably familiar to you. It’s hard to mention Welles without the myth of frustrated genius bubbling up like the rotten underside of a sweet-looking clementine. It’s impossible to mention Ambersons without its status as a mutilated masterpiece following as a spectral Banquo at the banquet, its gory locks simultaneously martyrizing and damning its creator. An oral history of Ambersons—and there is perhaps no better one that David Kamp’s 2002 piece, “Magnificent Obsession”—remains a useful tool for context. Context theorizes the architectures of stories, makes a blueprint of why they’re told the way they’re told. 

I think, when we tell this story this way, we reckon with some of its horror: one radical outsider hijacked Hollywood for a brief moment, and produced a feature debut of staggering ambition that transformed what film meant, only to be immediately thwarted by the perennially unreformable system and spend the rest of his professional career a victim of the money men, forever chasing the resources he all-too-briefly had access to. The true story of how Ambersons comes to be is also a story of how it does not come to be, how it exists as a ruin(ed) object. Ambersons is the story of how lucky decadence turns to inevitable rot—when we tell its biography in these terms, we make it seem like that was the point all the while.

I don’t think telling the story of Ambersons as a haunted one is a gross distortion of its history. I do think that to watch Ambersons in 2022 in the only way we can—the studio edit, the one wrenched away from Welles’ direction—is to reckon with an artifact deeply haunted by a barely remembered version of itself. Welles and his crew and cast built a cavernous mansion of a film, one that sought to reckon equally with the addled Oedipal impulses of a certain class of American male as well as the slow suicide an American nation was committing by choking its roads and skies with automobile fumes. Ambersons as conceived by Welles is a truly epic story. It’s Sophocles and Shakespeare, stories told only in extravagant gestures of outsize theatricality and quiet desperation. It hums with a bone-deep desire to live in the past. It tragedizes its own future, articulating that the loss at its center isn’t of true love or the Ambersons themselves or a house like their mansion or even the slow-time of their pre-industrial way of life; the true tragedy of modernity is the advent of the notion that every American should own an automobile that runs on gasoline, and that American cities ought to be constructed with these machines in mind.

Welles and his crew and cast built a cavernous mansion (this is nearly a literal point, as regards the opulent Amberson mansion set) of aspiration, and somehow, the story we are compelled to tell of Ambersons is one of rooms cut off and cauterized, just out of reach but never out of the imagination. We wander through its halls and doors, and just as we ogle and awe at the swoop of a camera at a party or the careful placement of a boiler,4 we encounter their absence. The story of Ambersons is one of impossible and always-occuring loss.

I don’t think telling the story of Ambersons as a haunted one is a gross distortion of its history. But I do think that when we tell a story that relates cinema as a product of finished cuts, we miss the very opportunity provided to us by the cinema of Welles, which is to say, one that conceives of films not as finite things that sit in cans or hang on walls but as still-living shades of something eternal. The direct utterance of that something shifts, from love (Citizen Kane) to truth (F for Fake), through fear (The Trial) and betrayal (Chimes at Midnight), but in Welles’ hands, it is always refigured—here we might say filmed, which to say, resurfaced—as a remembrance. Ambersons, the grand story of memories collapsing in like wood-rotted rooms, that first enunciates its own splendor and then bubbles over tumor-like into full-body collapse, is a kind of Wellesian ur-text. Its many mutilations allow it to wander permanently in a stunted/shunted “Impossible Dream”-state: it craves our occupancy. It appetites us.

And so, rather than participating in vulgar narrative that reduces Welles to a cocktail of ego and spectacle, a mania of always obsessing over making something of himself, his cinema itself revels in an anti-narrativizing turbulence of all the terrors and ebulliences of being a body in the world. Life is incapable of being narrativized because to write it so forces its ending. This is, of course, the opposite of life. To make things is to participate in the great unfinishing of being in the world. It’s not that it’s impossible to make what you want to make, only that by trying to make something, you have already achieved everything. You can trace amateur all the way back to Latin and all you’ll find as an entry fee is love. There’s a lot of love in Orson Welles, even in all the films he didn’t get to make.

The problem, of course, is how to articulate this defense of unfinishing without fetishizing frustration itself as a grand motivating principle for art and life. If suffering were noble, we’d all be saved a lot of life spent bashing our head on the rock trying to make the damn thing.

The problem, of course, appears in a moment from that same 1982 interview, when documentary filmmaker Leslie Megahey asks, “Do you ever get over something like that?”—with “that” standing in for all the broken dreams and betrayals that foundation Ambersons. Here, Welles pauses (he doesn’t pause often; his brain always has things to give to his mouth). He says, “Not really. You don’t.”

It’s not a problem with a solution; there is no resolution to the purposeful prioritization of corporate interests over an artist’s effort to tell a story. Luckily, film is not a tendency that needs resolving. “Rosebud” doesn’t mean a man’s life. “Merrie olde England” wasn’t in the same way a genteel and gentle mid-century America wasn’t. Easy narratives infect understanding, spore a black molding of context. We turn and return to Welles’ story not to mourn his martyrdom or mock his ambitions5but to celebrate a cinema of process itself—deliriously, deliciously haunted by all the myriad frustrations of deciding and succeeding and erring. Ambersons comes to emblematize a cinema that is itself unfinished; to be a movie, then, is to be moving. To be impossible is to leave space for possibilities.

In setting out to explore this terrain, we run two principal risks. First, we come dangerously close to valorizing spectrality itself: the ghost appeals to our imagination. This seems to me to be one of the most common modes for appreciating Ambersons: to engage with the currently constituted cut as we know it is to participate in always imagining what could have been. This unfortunately disservices what it is in service of the fantasy in our heads. Here, we might differentiate ‘fantasy’ from ‘possibility’ as a process of being possessed rather than processed. 

What I mean is: to think of Ambersons as an imperfect version of a phantom of itself seems dangerously close to resigning ourselves to be stuck forever dancing in the Amberson mansion, in love with a fantasy. We can consult frame enlargements and testimonials, read Welles’ original shooting script and imagine that ending where, instead of a cheery hospital resolution, Eugene and Fanny’s final moments are spent in the dilapidated boardinghouse Fanny has come to occupy. We can imagine Eugene relaying the forced reconciliation of George and Lucy, confessing that he, too, has become trapped in a loop, swearing a fealty of forever love to the ghost of Isabel. We can imagine a Fanny not recovered by nervous studio hands, whose sexual frustrations and status as a second-class citizen in a patriarchal nightmare has led to a kind of catatonia (no one has eyes like Agnes Moorehead), and we can imagine the way the camera would pull back and cut into almost Kane-like deep focus, a formerly-merrie Indianapolis now choked in automobile and industrial plant smoke, a climatic fever and climactic end that we’re living out in 2022. 

That is the ending of Ambersons as it never was. Or rather, as it was and isn’t. Maybe someday it will be found, in a canister hidden in a Brazil film lab’s subterranean archives. But right now it’s just a burning memory. You could get lost in it. 

The ending we have, the picture we have, isn’t what its maker set out to make. To fixate on it runs the risk of missing what is. Obviously the sheer slapdashness of the studio ending to Ambersons is galling, but isn’t that kind of what endings feel like in life? Arbitrary endnotes of inane resolution, seldom giving deference or space to the ambivalent valances of nuance? Isn’t the mock-happiness of Schaefer’s insisted-on sunny ending just as dooming as Welles’ original apocalyptic one? George is still a stunted weirdo brat, impoverished by his stubbornness and nostalgia, only now he’s Lucy’s problem—Lucy, who for the longest time seemed like the only one who might rise above the nostalgia death of the Amberson family.

Eugene and Fanny play-act a happy ending, but in the hands of Cotten and Moorehead (the two best actors to emerge from Classical Hollywood filmmaking as well as committed collaborators of Welles’), that ending still feels unhomely. Gene reports feeling as if he’s loved by Isabel, but why do we believe that’s a good thing? He’s stuck reliving the life he never got to live. And Fanny cries quiet tears while staring towards an offscreen space. I have no doubt that the studio hack’s direction that day was, “You’re simply overwhelmed that your lost sister-in-law is sending her blessing from afar,” but Moorehead puts such melancholy in this look and walk: Fanny is still dancing in the Ambersons’ mansion. She is lost. And Cotten utters, “That I’d been true at last…to my true love” with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flitter in the brow: how could we understand Eugene’s story as anything other than haunted? He doesn’t even have loss anymore, just absence.

This is perhaps an even riskier reading of Ambersons as a haunted project: such logic tends to apply itself universally, to inadvertently reason that it’s somehow precisely because Orson Welles was frustrated and impeded by studio interference that the resulting cultural object is so compelling. See, it whisps, the film about haunting haunts itself. This line of thinking makes a poetry of frustration; we should make all efforts not to fetishize instability as an ideal mode for art-making, let alone life-living. To do so runs the risk of retroactively justifying the poor treatment in the first place. I would trade all the van Goghs in the world for a world where van Gogh doesn’t feel like suicide is inevitable. I would trade my haunted house theory of Ambersons for the film Orson Welles always sought to make. I think Ambersons is a miracle of dreams and realities, inoculated against the conservatisms of classical and modern studio filmmaking by a deep insistence upon the process of making art being the only noble thing about it. But I won’t fully turn its troubled history into an inevitable feature of art—and so, humanity—itself.

Put another way: in Kamp’s “Magnificent Obsession,” Peter Bogdanovich (a fervent advocate and longtime friend of Welles’) recounts an occasion in the early ‘70s when he, Cybill Shepherd, Oja Kodar, and Welles are dinnering at Bogdanovich’s Bel Air home. Sitting around after eating, flipping through channels on the television, the group finds Ambersons playing, and Wellesfamously averse to viewing his own filmsquickly flips away. His friends coax him back to viewing (“No, it’s all right, I’ll suffer!”) and the film plays as Orson watches from a distance, leaning against a doorframe nearly out of the room. “Nobody said anything,” Bogdanovich remembers. “He just came in and sat down rather close to the set and watched for a while, not too long. I couldn’t really see him—his back was to me. But I looked over at Oja at one point, who could see him because she was sitting on the other side of the room, and she looked at me and gestured like this,” and here, Bogdanovich runs a finger down his face to indicate tears.

The following day, Bogdanovich remembers Welles saying, “Well, I was upset, but not because of the cutting. That just makes me furious.” Loss of control is one thing. It is only tragic if you think art is more important than people. “Don’t you see?” the remembered Welles urges. “It was because it’s the past. It’s over.”

There is a tragedy in this story. The tragedy is well-documented and oft-told to the point of seeming inevitable. We should be wary of telling stories that insist upon their own inevitability. I think Orson Welles is just one version of a kind of cinema in tension with the specter of certitude, just one voice raising up alternatives to nostalgic amnesia and the nihilism of some futures. Invention is laudable. Progress is plausible. The industrialization of the human body is not an inherently noble process, certainly not a thing immune from the virality of exceptionalism; an automobile is a house, too, except it centers the individual need instead of the communal. 

Most of all, the cinema of Orson Welles is the great space of extravagant contradiction. Many things have many truths, and it’s only in how we tell them that some become part of history, part of memory. The space is unfinished, only becomes a tragic one when we stop treading it over. A haunting is a fantasy in reverse. The opulence of Ambersons is turbulence, an ambivalence that is both haunting and enchanting. It is an impossible artifact. They do not make them like this anymore. I realize the treachery of a sentiment like that. I confess that I, too, sometimes imagine my feet beholden to the waltzing tracks of an Amberson ballroom. I wander there sometimes, looking to be changed. 

  1. If you haven’t had Bruce’s Yams, it’s a little like someone describing a sweet potato but misremembering it as a marshmallow. There is nothing recognizably organic (of or from carbon, the currency of the earth) about Bruce’s Yams. Like Circus Peanuts, it tastes of “orange.”
  2. “Commercial struggles” largely elides the massive and massively successful sabotaging effort undertaken by William Randolph Hearst to kill the film’s production and subsequent distribution.
  3. A perhaps under-discussed contributor to the plunder of The Magnificent Ambersons was the relative instability of intercontinental telephone infrastructures, leaving Welles having to rely on the slow time of mail and cables.
  4. Film-as-haunted house pings The Shining (1980) in our memory, which in turn sends us to The Shining (1977). The boiler as a stand-in for the violence inside a family plays such an outsize role in that ghost story that to watch Aunt Fanny’s devastating descent into madness late in Ambersons—ending with a crumble against a cold boiler—suggests a spectral leitmotif; it’s not that King was thinking about Welles so much as how our communal memory of the images in our heads can be haunted by other remembrances.
  5. And isn’t it a little too common for criticisms—even well-meaning ones—to metaphorize Welles’ actual body as indicative of the easy narrative? Ambition is turned into appetite, restless interest into corpulence. At best, this tendency feels like lazy figurative figuring, at worst a willing participation in America’s deep-running fatphobia.