What the Magnificent Ambersons can teach us about the Internet

Last night I stumbled upon Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) on TCM and I have to admit I’d never seen it before. In fact, I didn’t see the whole film I just caught a piece of it, but it was enough to blow me away, and even stop watching so that I could watch it through from beginning to end. I’ve heard a lot about this film over the years, and it really doesn’t need anymore promotion, but the scene I happened to catch seemed to speak to our very moment so directly I can’t help but reproduce it below.

In the following scene an early car manufacturer, Eugene Morgan (Jospeh Cotten), talks about how automobiles will not only change the the physical and social landscape, but also subtly alter “mens’ minds.” What’s great about his short monologue is that it acknowledges the fact that the invention of the automobile, while not necessarily a positive force, it’s an undeniable one. I can’t help but feel that the conversation at the dinner table at the turn of the 20th century about the automobile is in many ways ours now. The discussions about how the internet will subtly rewire our minds, transform institutions, and dramatically shift our notions of space and time.

Like Morgan notes, we can see the great shifts in our culture as a result of the automobile internet plain as day, but the larger question as to whether or not these transformations will remain a generative force is what fascinates me. I’d be the first to admit that some overarching idea of the internet as a necessarily positive or negative force is a gross oversimplification of the complex cultural accretions that make it both possible and powerful as a platform for connection. But given how this space is often connected with the rhetoric of liberation and possibility, the real complexity emerges when we start to realize how much of our infrastructure for personal expression is made possible by the emerging Fords and GMs of our time. The idea of a freedom of expression built on the infrastructure that is in no way a public work, but almost from the get go a private toll road. Infrastructure seems to be a lot more than content to me, it seems to be the more basic idea of networked access.

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3 Responses to What the Magnificent Ambersons can teach us about the Internet

  1. Gardner says:

    This is so deeply resonant for me I can hardly write a word.

    “Ambersons” was my entry into film studies. I watched it over and over on a clacking 16mm projector in a supply closet in Wilson Hall, home of the English department’s grad school back in the 80’s at the University of Virginia. I did my first film seminar report on this movie. I burned it into my brain. I’ve taught it many times. I’ve read the book several times. I had Jack Bales come into my classes and talk about Booth Tarkington, and how he used to stub his cigarettes out on a dime glued heads-up to the bottom of his ashtray because he hated FDR and the New Deal.

    This movie was taken out of Welles’ control and butchered in the final reel almost to the point of inanity. But up till then, it’s astonishing and perhaps a deeper achievement than “Citizen Kane,” and that’s saying something.

    The monologue is just as you say. Cotten delivers it to perfection, playing idly with a little spoon until you think he’s either going to bend it with sheer force of will or hurl it at Georgie Amberson Minafer, the young fool who’s blocking his mother’s only real chance at happiness by thwarting her romance with Cotten’s character, Eugene Morgan.

    Watch the whole film when you get a chance. That will be tough, because it’s never been issued on DVD–but UMW has a great Criterion Collection laserdisc edition, with materials that give us a pretty good look at what Welles’s finished version was like (it was actually tested in front of two audiences, and the responses were so mixed that the studio took control and tacked on a happy ending). You’ll find it in the non-print media collection in Simpson Library, housed appropriately despite the lack of the mythical, Brigadoon-like THIRD FLOOR that the Virginia General Assembly nixed in 1986, thereby apparently absolving the director of due diligence, imagination, and leadership for the next quarter-century. Bad old mean old Virginia General Assembly.

    I saw nearly the whole thing on TCM on Saturday, probably as you were watching it. I recorded it in HD. I had the eerie sensation that the entire film, which I hadn’t seen for at least five years, was completely hardwired into a prominent corner of my brain. And deservedly so.

    If only Welles had been permitted to deliver his own cut of this most worthy follow-up to “American” (the original title for the script of “Citizen Kane”). Welles understood the Shakespearean shape and scope of this old, weird America, the one we see and continue to build each day. No accident that the Internet came out of that old, weird America, just as the automobile did.

    Back to the regularly scheduled program.

  2. Reverend says:

    Gardner,

    I love the way you frame Welles in terms of Shakespeare, and while it is apparent from his career he was a scholar of the bard, what strikes me about Welles is the way in which he was able to bring that instantly compelling mix of characters, plot, and extraordinary visuals to the screen in no time at all. What’s more, his work is truly modernist in that sense of larger, universal ideas of the human heart and the complexity and ambiguity that comes with any character or any social/cultural change. I think that’s why Joseph Cotten’s monologue speaks volumes to me at this moment, particularly because I feel we are caught up in a moment of history that we can both see and are blinded to simultaneously. And it remains my greatest fear that the potential for humanity wrapped up in these new fangled machines will be squandered on rebuilding the roads in the image of their forebears.

    As fate would have it, I have a laserdisc player, so I may have to stroll over to Simpson and see this through 🙂

  3. Mikhail says:

    Maybe someday a fishing boat off Santa Monica Bay will pull up old film cans that contain the original cut of Ambersons perfectly preserved. One can dream.

    There is a fantastic book by Michael Anderegg called Orson Welles, Shakespeare and Popular Culture that talks a whole lot about Welles’ moving ably from high to low and back again. Anderegg argues that probably because Welles was an autodidact intellectual with no ties to the academy, he tended to see culture as a broad spectrum. He says that “as much as he may have honored Shakespeare, he was by instinct and interest equally drawn to Conan Doyle (sic) and Dashiell Hammet.” Welles shuttled back and forth from one term of the high/low dichotomy to the other throughout his entire career. His films might, if crudely, be categorized by the presumed cultural value of their sources. So, on the one end we have Welles’ Shakespeare trilogy, Macbeth, Othello, and Chimes at Midnight, his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial, and F for Fake; and on the other his film noirs: Journey into Fear, The Stranger, Lady From Shanghai, and Touch of Evil. Maybe Ambersons is somewhere in between.

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