Sunday, November 6, 2011


The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet and everybody knew everybody else's family horse and carriage. The only public conveyance was the streetcar. A lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once, and wait for her, while she shut the window, put on her hat and coat, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the "girl" what to have for dinner and came forth from the house. Too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare.

The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles 1942 movie version of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel, is widely regarded as one of the 100 or even the ten best movies of all time, if not quite as good as Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Much of the discussion about it has centered on cuts made by RKO, which also tacked on a happier ending, after Welles’ original version drew a poor response in previews; and such innovations as the credits being spoken by Welles, and his then-startling cinematography. I don’t want to rehash all that here; Wikipedia gives the basics:

What particularly interests me is that the film, like the book but more dramatically, has a peculiar resonance with science fiction. Like the novel, it is on the surface a story about Old Money versus the New Money. But beneath the surface that, it has a science fictional sense of transience. My father once pointed out to me that in most mainstream fiction, the people change but the world remains the same. Here, the people remain the same, but the world changes around them. This is foreshadowed in a scene where Eugene Morgan, a pioneer automobile manufacturer, is a dinner guest at the Amberson mansion, and has a set-to with George Minafer, the grandson of Major Jack Amberson, who built the family fortune:

Not just Old Money versus New Money, but an old culture versus a New Technology. We are reminded of the changes automobiles brought that nobody anticipated at the time, such as their impact on sexual behavior. As an entry at one cultural history site puts it, “Cars are also credited with or blamed for loosening sexual morals.  Young men and women could go off in cars and have more privacy than they were able to have before. Overall, cars helped loosen up American culture in the '20s, making it freer and more focused on fun and entertainment.”

Georgie Minafer has been obnoxious since childhood, the spoiled only child of Wilbur Minafer and Isabel Amberson. “He’ll get his comeuppance,” many of the townspeople whose own children he’d ridden roughshod over predicted – or perhaps only wished. For him, they were only “riffraff.” Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he disdained the idea of ever working for a living – his ambition, he tells Eugene’s daughter Lucy, is to be a yachtsman. When his father dies, his mother Isabel longs to reconnect with Eugene, an old flame from before he left town to seek his fortune; but George cruelly keeps them apart – supposedly to save the family honor, even though he himself has a thing going for Lucy.

Although he isn’t generally considered an archetype, he may indeed be one, and with a contemporary resonance. Marcia and I read a piece a while back, I think it was in The New York Times, about proper of discipline for children. Corporal punishment is now almost universally condemned, but somebody was arguing that even punishments like time-outs should be prohibited – children should not only be loved unconditionally but indulged unconditionally. Marcia’s reaction: “That’ll get you a Georgie Minafer!” If we are raising a new generation of Georgie Minafers today, they will be no more suited to cope with the challenges of life, especially in a changing world, than the Tarkington-Welles character, who is helpless and hopeless – and forgotten – after the loss of the Amberson fortune:

In that scene, we get the sense that the city (never named, but based on Indianapolis) has itself become alien to Minafer, something ominous and incomprehensible. It’s what Alvin Toffler would later call Future Shock. It draws our attention back to the earlier scenes, set in the 1890’s, when life seemed more genteel – at least for the likes of the Ambersons – and the automobile could be seen as a joke rather than as a token of the end of one age and the beginning of another:

The year before The Magnificent Ambersons was released, Robert A. Heinlein was the guest of honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver. Taking his cue from a catchphrase (“There’ll always be an England”) popular at a time when the United States hadn’t yet entered World War II, but many if not most Americans were sympathetic,

We know better. There won’t always be an England—nor a Germany, nor a United States, nor a Baptist church, nor monogamy, nor the Democratic party, nor the modesty tabu, nor the superiority of the white race, nor aeroplanes—they will go—nor automobiles—they’ll be gone, we’ll see them go. Any custom, technique, institution, belief or social structure that we see around us today will change, will pass, and most of them we will see change and pass.

Heinlein was obviously wrong about the specifics, at least in his (and our) own time – we still have cars, planes, the Baptist church, the Democratic party and, of course, the United States. Monogamy? Well, it’s more and more like serial polygamy – and not just with the Kardashians. And, despite the uproar over Janet Jackson’s 2008 Wardrobe Malfunction, the modesty taboo sure isn’t what it used to be. Yet there have also been epochal changes that Heinlein did not foresee, from personal computers to gay marriage. We have seen the rise of China and India on the world stage, global terrorism, and even the threat of global economic collapse. But unlike George Minafer, we know that we live in uncertain times and face an uncertain future. That much has changed since his day.

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