We usually write about movies we’ve seen, of course, but if you care deeply about film, you know that some of our most intense cinematic relationships are with movies we’ve never seen. Every cinephile knows what I’m talking about: when you were an impressionable undergraduate, you saw Dario Argento’s Suspiria and fell under the spell of its glowing red and pink curtains, its architectural compositions, and its painterly application of blood. You scanned his filmography and your finger hesitated above The Bird with Crystal Plumage; the title struck a chord. And now, for more than a decade, you’ve carried the movie within you: sometimes you’ve flipped through books in foreign languages and gazed at the film stills; if anyone ever mentioned the movie in your presence you nodded sagely with a groan of approval; and a few times, when you were drunk, you even acted out the opening scene for friends, pressing your outstretched palms against a glass wall that separated you from the dying woman who was crawling beneath that gnarled, modernist sculpture of a giant eagle’s claw. But you’ve never actually seen the film. And though it doesn’t make sense on the surface, deep down you know why: because by seeing Argento’s movie you’ll be erasing your own, no longer the artist of your own imagination but the consumer of another’s.
Over the last twenty years, psychologists with a scientific bent have been studying the relationship between hope, optimism, and happiness. We can distinguish optimism and hope by saying that optimism is a cognitive condition, whereas hope is an affective condition. That is, optimism is a rational belief about the positive probability of future events based on current evidence (“Given that The Bird with Crystal Plumage is showing at the revival house downtown on Wednesday at 7:30 and that I have no other plans that night, I think the odds are pretty good that I will see it.”). Hope, on the other hand, is an emotional disposition that derives from one’s character, but which exists in the present moment (“I can feel in my soul that someday I will experience the ultimate pleasures of The Bird With Crystal Plumage.”). The significance of the distinction for us is that scientists who’ve studied the issue have concluded that hope has a higher degree of correlation with happiness (and with physical health) than does optimism. This is just another way of saying that affective states contribute more to our mental and physical well being than do cognitive states.
The experience of watching a movie – or imagining a movie – is an affective, rather than a cognitive, phenomenon. We love movies as much for what they make us feel about ourselves as we do for what they say about the world. Our fervor for movies we haven’t seen is more akin to hope than to optimism. Like hope, it sustains us; it’s not about the probability of a future event, it’s about our disposition, our character, ourselves.
If the psychologists are right about the need to nurture hope, we’re confronted with a dilemma: because, in order for us to nurture that aspect of hope that is tied to our cinephilia, it seems that we must keep some films in the realm of the imagination. That is, to be happy and healthy, we should never actually see some of these movies that we’ve been dreaming about for so many years.
The first films I remember yearning for were ones I read about in Amos Vogel’s Film as a Subversive Art back when I was a freshman. This was before Netflix and Internet file sharing and before my college library had an accessible collection of the cinematic canon on VHS. I was in love with movies but still hadn’t seen much. I used to wander over to the college bookstore and stand in the aisles and flip through the pages of the Vogel book. I’d led a fairly sheltered suburban life, but I’d recently discovered The Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth, Antonioni and Godard. I was beginning to think of myself–as only a nineteen-year-old with M.C. Escher posters on his wall can–as some sort of radical.
I was transfixed by the images from movies by Miklos Jancso and Dusan Makavajev, Yoko Ono’s Fly and Getino and Solanas’s The Hour of the Furnaces. I wanted to become the kind of person who watched these kinds of movies. But there were also those sections on the Terrible Poetry of Nazi Cinema and the Viennese Actionist Otto Muehl, who made films about coprophilia and sexual violation. It intrigued me to think that I wasn’t just artistic, but maybe even a bit dangerous too.
Over the years, there were other movies I used to dream about: Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle, Philippe Garrel’s La cicatrice intérieure, Youssef Chahine’s The Sparrow. Chief among them was Jacques Rivette’s Out 1. One by one I conquered them all. Some movies were better than I expected, some worse, but let’s be clear: I’m not talking about the experience of watching a movie and being disappointed. I’m talking about the notion that when you see a movie that you loved but hadn’t yet seen, you’ve erased an aspect of your identity that once nourished you. Each of those four movies either fulfilled or frustrated my expectations, but by seeing them I diminished myself as a human being. There was a void now where once those movies used to breathe.
Of course, there are other movies I still want to see. But the passion is different now. There’s a part of me that still imagines myself as a radical, but mostly now instead of social justice I fantasize about owning a Viking range, instead of hyperbolic montage sequences I dream about my retirement nest egg. That I’ve switched the object of my affective aspirations from art to kitchenware is possibly a sign that pessimism has gained the upper hand. But it has not yet won. I am still nurturing a sense of hope. But now I have only one unseen movie that gives me strength, a movie that was famously destroyed by the Hollywood studio system. I only need that one because it is so beautiful and because it does not exist.
After he finished principal photography on The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles stopped off in Miami on his way to Brazil where he was to begin working on the carnival footage for It’s All True. The new project was planned as a joint production of RKO and The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, run by Nelson Rockefeller, and Welles had agreed to do it as his patriotic contribution to the war effort. He and RKO chief George Schaefer adopted a plan that would send his editor Robert Wise (yes, he of The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Sound of Music) to meet him with a working print, first in Miami and then in Rio de Janeiro, where they’d edit the film together for an Easter release.
Wise met Welles in Miami on February 5, 1942, at the cartoon studio that the Fleischer Brothers had built a few years earlier to escape their union troubles in New York. They spent the day together watching a rough cut (without music or sound effects and missing some scenes) and recording Welles’s beguiling voice-over narration (“George AmbersonMinafer walked homeward slowly through what seemed to be the strange streets of a strange city. For the town was growing… and changing. It was heaving up in the middle incredibly. It was spreading incredibly. And as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself and darkened its sky.”). In March, RKO shipped Welles (now in Rio) a new 110-minute version of the film that incorporated all the changes he’d made with Wise a month earlier. It seems that this cut was the same version that was previewed in Pomona to famously negative reviews (though Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out that while the majority of that audience’s preview cards were negative, some people in the theater that night wrote that the movie was “an exceedingly good picture,” “the best the cinema has yet offered,” “a masterpiece,” and “the best picture I have ever seen.”). The unruly teenage audience unnerved George Schaefer. Meanwhile, Robert Wise was unexpectedly unable to overcome State Department restrictions on wartime travel to meet Welles in Brazil. A pall had settled over the earth. If one stopped at the corner of Sunset and Vine and listened carefully, one could hear them: a flock of invisible vultures the size of battleships hovering over Los Angeles, circling in an infinitesimal descent. The mutilation of the movie that Welles later claimed was better than Citizen Kane had officially begun.
The print that RKO sent Welles in Rio may be the closest thing to a definitive version of the movie that ever existed (Wise also assembled a 132-minute version for a later preview in Pasadena, which many scholars seems to think would have been the better film). The Rio print had all of Welles’s corrections to the version he’d seen in Miami, including all the sound effects, his narration, and Bernard Herrmann’s score. For those scholars and cinephiles who still believe that the original film may turn up one day, it is this Rio print that offers the last, best hope.
Though the Brazilian print offers the most logical possibility of recovering the film, I think that to fully satisfy my innate spiritual need to cultivate hope, I need to concoct a much less rational story. That’s why I’ve fixated on that incomplete print that Welles screened in Miami. Robert Wise wrote in a letter that he had “returned immediately to Hollywood with the film” after he and Welles were done. But isn’t it possible that he was mistaken? My rational mind says that it would have been illogical for Wise to leave a valuable print behind in Miami. But my emotions keep playing tricks on me. Most people don’t have any logical reason to believe in God, but that doesn’t stop them. The heart clings to what little chance remains. Miami remains my last, best hope.
This is how I imagine it: Welles and Wise were alone in the screening room as the original ending unfolded, a scene that was later replaced and destroyed. Years after the main action of the film, after George has his automobile accident, Joseph Cotton comes to visit Agnes Moorehead who lives, bitter and alone, cooped up in a rooming house, surrounded by nattering strangers. In what was certainly one of the most downbeat endings ever filmed for a Hollywood studio, Cotton and Moorehead spent six long minutes sitting together, exchanging banal pleasantries, the chasm of their emotional distance exacerbated by the sound of a record skipping in the background.
It was while watching this scene that Welles suddenly felt like a shard of glass was stabbing at him from within his brain. In a flash, he saw it: he knew they would eviscerate his film. Not just George Schaefer at RKO, but Wise himself, who was sitting next to him, and later, even his closest friends Joseph Cotton and Jack Moss back in Los Angeles. So it wasn’t just a premonition about the death of Ambersons, but his first, clear-eyed vision about the fragility of human relationships and about his ultimate solitude not just in Hollywood or America, but in the world. What could he possibly do? He knew he wouldn’t be able to save his film anytime soon. RKO owned it. But maybe the future held some promise – the far future when RKO had crumbled and he and Robert Wise and even the animators and janitors passing outside in the halls were all dead, when some future generation, wiser and nobler than his own, might appreciate all that he had done. Yes, there was hope.
He stood up, steadying himself against a chair, his other arm outstretched, as Joseph Cotton on the screen above him walked down the building’s front steps in one long backward tracking shot to reveal that Aunt Fanny’s boarding house was, in fact, the original Amberson mansion, the last shot of the movie, for which Welles knew he still needed to add the ambient sound of passing automobiles that would signify the ultimate victory of isolation over human solidarity. Welles, the great ham actor, lurched across the screening room, knocking over some tables and chairs as he’d learned to do playing Charles Foster Kane in that scene after Susan Alexander had left him. That scene had ended with Kane clutching the snow globe that he associated both with his childhood and with the night he’d met Susan. But Welles had nothing to cling to in Miami. He waved Wise over, gasping for some water. And as Wise fled to fetch a glass, running down the hall and calling out wildly to any cartoonist he happened to bump into, Welles fashioned his plan. He leaped into the projection booth, grabbed the 35mm canisters, and climbed down a spiral staircase that descended into the basement. And there, beneath the rooms where men were touching up sketches of Popeye as he dragged Olive Oyl from Bluto’s clutches, Orson Welles bent over and dug. With his hands he dug. On his knees he dug. There, in a shallow hole, he buried The Magnificent Ambersons. Later, he clambered upstairs, stole down the hall, and snuck outside, where he stumbled theatrically across the lawn until someone noticed him and he threw himself into a backwards cartwheel onto the grass, his most astounding death scene yet. They called an ambulance and Wise accompanied him to the hospital, where he made a miraculous recovery. Even Max and Dave Fleischer were reunited in their joyous tears for Orson. The next morning, at the airport on his way to Rio, Welles convinced Robert Wise that he’d arranged it with the Fleischers to ship the print back to RKO in Los Angeles.
Welles always intended to return and dig the film up, of course. The Fleischer Studios broke up soon after he and Wise were there and the building was sold off. After Howard Hughes dissolved RKO, Welles almost made the journey, but the disputes over the ownership rights to various arms of the company frightened him off. Then, years later, the legal battles over The Other Side of the Wind convinced him that the movie was better off where he’d left it.
I’ve found the old Fleischer Studio’s address. Yes, the building is still there. In 2007, Miami-Dade County turned it into a police station. You can find it on Google Maps. Sometimes late at night when I’m feeling the chill of the world, I stare at the image of the Miami Police Grapeland Heights Substation and feel calm. My rational mind knows that the story I’ve concocted is false, but my heart tells me that The Magnificent Ambersons is still buried there. Its presence there gives me hope. Welles never went back, but even on his deathbed he knew that someday, maybe hundreds of years hence, The Magnificent Ambersons would find its way back to us. I believe it, too.