“To me a Moviola – that’s that machine we have in the movie business – is a wonderful thing –maybe the most wonderful. If you use it right, you can make time go backwards and forwards, faster or slower; you can stop time and stay on one second; you can cut out the parts you don’t like, and the parts you do like you have over and over. In some ways, it’s even better than life.”
– Garson Kanin, MOVIOLA
Early in Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS there is a moment where Joseph Cotten and Dolores Costello, whose characters knew each other in their younger days, realize they can have another chance at love and happiness together as they dance the evening away at a Christmas ball. At first, we see them whirling amongst the large crowd gathered at the Amberson mansion, then Welles gives us a long, lyrical dancing to hours later, and it’s just the two of them, still dancing and savoring both their reunion and the hope rekindled.
For the remainder of his life, Orson Welles swore that the original and uncut AMBERSONS was a better film than CITIZEN KANE and, while we certainly have no way of knowing for certain, the tease of a warm romantic moment like this is enough to whet the appetite for imagining what the full cumulative emotional punch of the movie must have been.
It is part of Hollywood lore how butchered THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS became in Welles’ absence as he was away working on another project, and the film, as it remains, is a ghost of what was intended; since the excised footage was destroyed we’ll never get to see what the film was originally meant to be, and that early taste of Yuletide romance in the picture is one of the few moments of Welles’ authorship to remain intact.
It is doubly poignant that a movie about life’s transience became, because of what had been done to it, so unendurable for Orson Welles; in their interview book THIS IS ORSON WELLES, Peter Bogdanovich recalls a moment where Welles happened upon a repeat television viewing of AMBERSONS and became emotional. Bogdanovich felt it was the recuts that caused Welles such distress and he replied that what upset him simply was, “It’s the past….it’s over….”
Although he later claimed he borrowed the phrase from a remark Jimmy Stewart made, Bogdanovich himself later appropriately named a collection of his own writings on film PIECES OF TIME, perhaps inspired also in part by this incident with Mr. Welles. Movies are indeed mini time capsules cementing the time spent not only by those who make them (so powerfully demonstrated by Linklater’s BOYHOOD and Apted’s UP documentaries), but also by all of us who enjoy them; every time we return to a film we love, we not only revisit our younger selves, but also create new memories with each viewing. Any given film instantly recalls memories, good or bad, of our past loves and lives; even downright awful movies can take on a luster if viewed with the right people because it is still time well spent. It can be the closest we’ll come to experiencing time travel, and, again, not just for us in the audience.
As sad as it is that Welles was never able to return to his past and tweak it to his liking, it is equally easy to understand his distress. In this era of endless “director’s cuts” on home video, many of which are done simply to please the egos of the directors and the greed of the financiers, it is sad that a film like AMBERSONS legitimately in need of reconstruction cannot be put back together, like a handful of movies that were taken away from the directors in question and finished by others; films like PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, and SUPERMAN II were blessed to have such reconstructive surgery, but Welles never got that option.
The flip side to his predicament can be seen in one of cinema’s other preeminent magicians, George Lucas, who, starting in 1997, on the 20th anniversary of his greatest triumph, STAR WARS, took the occasion to not only revisit but do his best to revise his past by retooling his landmark trilogy to what he said had always been his original vision. It was a bold move, and a controversial one amongst fans and critics alike, but Lucas may have lost whatever creative sympathies he may have had when he continued changing the movies with each successive home video release, in 2004 when the films were initially released on DVD, and yet again in 2011 for the Blu-Rays, all while suppressing the original versions of the films that so many loved and grew up with.
This bizarre act of cinematic (self?) deception is not just revisionism at its worse, but also a uniquely and supremely arrogant case of an artist putting his artistic ego ahead of his audience’s enjoyment; Lucas’ bold move tacitly implies that anyone who preferred the original versions were simply mistaken, so mistaken that he’s made it a mission to keep those previous iterations as invisible as possible, which is simply ludicrous. Once a film (or a novel, or any piece of art) has left the hands of the artist, it also becomes the shared property of those who love it, which is why moviegoing is so sacred – whether we are the filmmaker or simply a card-carrying member of the audience, we arrive at any film hoping to mark the time in which we are living with a communal sense of wonder. And, if we’re lucky, sometimes it works better than we ever thought it could, which is the most seductive thing about art: it’s the only place where the past, present and future converge, whether we’re simply relishing it, or simply trying to figure out what’s gone wrong.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper