Ouch, was I just called out for choosing The Magnificent Ambersons over Citizen Kane? Were my critical faculties just impugned in front of all? Are things going to have to come to fisticuffs? Ok, it's probably not all that serious, and I can pretty much guarantee that I'd be bound to lose any fight over such things (or anything else for that matter), so I'll try my best to remain civil after being so shabbily treated. I will mount something of a defense on my own behalf. (Note that I won't do so by tearing down Citizen Kane, which would be silly. It's a fabulous film--formally and thematically brilliant, and pretty darn fun to boot--and I have no desire to boost The Magnificent Ambersons by knocking it off its pedestal.)
First, I'll admit that I'm not thoroughly objective and that I have a bit of an agenda. But so what? What fun would this be if we weren't being subjective and didn't have a bit of an agenda? Now, I'm not some rank subjectivist about aesthetic judgments. There's a place for objectivity in criticism, but there's also a place fog good old-fashioned taste.
Second, here's what I think about the ending of The Magnificent Ambersons. There's no question: it's a hack job. But I'm not all that moved by this, as I don't think the movie as it's come down from those money-grubbing RKO butchers is somehow sacrosanct. I don't see why we shouldn't just pass over this inanity after having heard our narration about poor Georgie Minafer and his comeuppance. Really, would it be some grievous sin if all extant copies of the film were confiscated and those worthless frames forever excised? Would this be a violation of anyone's vision? As far as I can see, the only vision behind this scene was RKO's vision of oodles of cash, and I doubt that Turner or whoever owns the rights now would lose one red cent from committing that ending to the trash heaps of history. So for the sake of all that is good and holy, I wish they'd do it. (Plus, if you absolutely must watch the ending, it seems perfectly fine to take it as further demonstration of Welles' genius. As far as I'm concerned, the juxtaposition of the great and the mediocre simply looks the great look that much greater.)
Third, the real worry is the editing. Once the film's been cut up and thrown back together like this, who knows what we're missing. I guess this has some force, but again, I'm unconvinced that this is some insuperable difficulty. I mean, we've got the same problem with von Stroheim's films, right? But I don't think it's a huge problem there. You have to look at what you've got in front of you and go from there. I like what I see. I don't know what else to tell you.
Fourth, I get the sense that people think that by treasuring something like Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons, you're really pining for what the film could have been--as if one carries some ideal image of what the first cut might have been like, and this is what one values rather than the work as we have it. There might be some element of truth in this, but I get the feeling that the other side of the debate tends to do something similar: they take it that the work as we have it is somehow debased because the first cut must have been so much greater. I don't doubt that the first cut of both films was much greater than what we have, but that doesn't strike me as being a compelling reason to think that what we have is subpar.
So there. That's a defense of sorts.