Thursday, April 7, 2011

The-Bigger-The-Belt-Buckle Department

One of Barbara's and my favorite novels is Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, published in 1918. It's a midwestern story to the bone, the story of an Indiana city, the story of a family of magnificent privilege, the story of the nineteenth century's yielding to the twentieth, the automobile, and the beginnings of urban sprawl. The identity figure for all this change is Georgie Minafer -- the least sympathetic identity figure in western literature -- the grandson of the Amberson who made the family fortune, and one volcanically self absorbed fool and petty tyrant.

George's rudeness and presumption have  been so outrageous from the cradle -- and have reflected his elders' own secret attitudes -- that the family fondly indulges them. In the end, Georgie finds grace, love, and forgiveness, but not before ending his widowed mother Isabel's chances for reunion with the great love of her life, Eugene Morgan, an automobile manufacturer.

In a dinner table conversation George embarrasses himself and his family by loudly telling Eugene that "Automobiles are a useless nuisance" that should never have been invented. His grandfather corrects him, but George persists and speaks facetiously.

Then Eugene began to laugh cheerfully.

"I'm not sure he's wrong about automobiles," he said. "With all their speed forward, they may be a step backwards in civilization. -- that is in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men's souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than I think most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring."

Written in 1918! The irony is that the automobile maker can articulate this, while Georgie is just bristling at vaguely perceived threats to unearned privilege -- and trying to injure his mother's suitor.

There have been three films of The Magnificent Ambersons: a 1925 silent adaptation of a book that has a lot of speeches, the 1942 Orson Welles classic which was as faithful to the original as a movie can be to a novel, but was severely edited by the RKO brass, the deleted scenes destroyed, and a 2002 A&E version directed by Alfonso Arau, using Welles' script. The Arau Ambersons looks and sounds the more  midwestern to my Illinois-bred eyes and ears, despite Arau's Mexican birth, and despite his shooting it in Ireland. Its one false note plays over and over in a series of sensuous caresses and lingering kisses between Georgie and Isabel. Tarkington couldn't have failed to know about Freud, but probably had very little patience with the idea of Oedipus complexes. George Minafer would have objected to losing centrality in any of his family's lives, and been squeamish at Isabel's sexuality.

Safe driving tip of the day: Minnesota DMV wants you to keep three seconds between yourself and the car ahead of you. You can do this by counting the seconds between the time when the other car's rear bumper passes a landmark, and when your front bumper reaches it.

But how do you help somebody you pass keep his distance from you? To help a slower driver maintain his or her interval, if the other car is going sixty, count thirty-six seconds from when your rear bumper is even with the other car's front bumper before you pull back into the right lane. To pass somebody going seventy, count forty-two seconds. This assumes you're going 5 MPH faster than the other driver.

Scary when you compare that to what we really do.

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