Me and Orson Welles
by Julien Allen
The Other Side of the Wind
Dir. Orson Welles, U.S., Netflix
For those who care about Orson Welles—I mean, those who really care—those who bristle when dinner party conversations about him inevitably veer to the subject of the drunken outtakes from Paul Masson wine adverts; those who bite their tongues at the familiar “Kane—and all downhill from there” narrative; those who get personally offended by Peter Biskind’s muckraking or Simon Callow’s facile dismissal of Welles’s Shakespearean film acting . . . for these partially sighted devotees The Other Side of the Wind was has long been much more than a film. It’s been an irritant, an oft-broken promise, a curse—a chimera. For over 40 years, any prospect of the film’s finalization felt like a bittersweet dream from which one is abruptly woken just before its tantalizing conclusion. Above all, The Other Side of the Wind was a symbol—in its continued, relentless nonexistence—of almost every vicissitude that Welles had endured from what he called “the movie business” since 1942. Now it is finally a film. One whose artistic quality—like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in 2014—is justly and gloriously indissociable from the uncommon circumstances of its creation. And by existing, it has revealed itself as an even more powerful and multi-headed symbol: of the fundamentally collaborative nature of the medium; of Welles’s complex and tormented philosophy of life and work; and of his biggest and most consistent yearning as an artist—to change the way films could be made.
But like too many of Welles’s now 13 completed features, it is impossible for us ever to experience The Other Side of the Wind in the way that its author envisaged. For one thing, it was meant to have been completed and shown around 1976, but, owing to a series of impenetrable contractual wranglings about which books have been written (including Josh Karp's Orson Welles' Last Movie) and a feature documentary has been made (Morgan Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead), it was not. For another, it was supposed to have been edited by Orson Welles, but aside from a central sequence representing approximately a quarter of the film, it was not. The vital distinction in this chapter of the immortal story of Welles’s inchoate projects, is that unlike The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, or Mr. Arkadin, the film was not taken away from Welles and mangled, but instead has been lovingly and brilliantly discovered, restored, and completed after his death. Against all sensible objective odds, the fever dream has been allowed to reach its conclusion.
For this, we have to thank a small group of partially sighted devotees, chief amongst them Peter Bogdanovich, who plays a supporting role in the film and who, in a moment of true-life melodrama, promised Welles he would finish it if anything happened to him; über–producer Frank Marshall, who was an original hired (and repeatedly fired) hand since shooting began in 1970 and has since become Hollywood royalty; and not least Sam Raimi’s touchstone editor Bob Murawski, who, for his patience and skill—faced with the pythonic task of making narrative sense of the thousands of feet of raw stock—is deserving of some sort of canonization. (Certainly, the Oscar statuette for Best Film Editing would not nearly go far enough).
Having witnessed the magnitude of the undertaking and the technical and financial resources required to complete TOSOTW, even partially sighted devotees would have to question the likelihood of Welles ever having been able to finish this project himself had he survived. The reality that dogged Welles—who could easily have consecrated his life to theater, fine art, radio, television, or even politics, but happily for us could not look beyond the Cinema as the most rewarding platform for his artistic expression—was that he was a Rabelaisian in a Newtonian world. Even some of the rare completed films upon which he retained ultimate control (i.e. those not butchered by the studios), magnificent treasures such as Othello (1951) and The Trial (1962), are afflicted by technical flaws, particularly in continuity, sound editing, and ADR, owing to perennial lack of resources and the inevitable messiness of a piecemeal guerrilla shoot. With TOSOTW, Welles has been blessed with the most dedicated, skillful, and expensive postproduction team he has ever had. It includes special effects by Industrial Light & Magic, an original score by three-time Oscar-winner Michel Legrand, ADR by a group of expert soundalikes to make up for the manifold deficiencies in the original quarter-inch reels (including Danny Huston dubbing his father’s voice), and the world’s leading negative cutter Mo Henry (Jaws, Apocalypse Now, Before Sunrise) faced with a task unlike any she’s been handed in a 300-film career. The project is akin to a bottom-up restoration, but is also a work of cinematic archaeology (locating and unearthing missing film cannisters and carefully preserving and parsing their contents) as well as the overseeing of that most crucial storytelling component: the final cut.
The irony of Hollywood pulling out all the stops in the service of Orson Welles is heart-breaking when one considers how brutalized Welles was by his inextirpable reputation as a profligate egomaniac, a vicious slander put out by studio propaganda in the 1940s, the stench of which never wore off. As Charlton Heston put it in 1981, “As for the idea that [Welles] was extravagant, with all due respect to Michael Cimino, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Coppola, they spend more money in overages on one picture than Welles has spent in his entire career.” Welles’s own professional trajectory, contrary to accepted wisdom, was not that of the ruthless and artless businessman Charles Foster Kane, but that of an exiled Lear (a role he played at 38 for Peter Brook), wandering the blasted heaths of Europe searching for a home, occasionally venturing back to the bosom of his first kingdom (Hollywood) only to be gracelessly shown the exit door once more. Bogdanovich, whom Welles had wronged but whose own devotion never wavered, is his Cordelia. TOSOTW is Welles’s own “cataracts and hurricanoes” speech—his first (and last) open indictment of the business he had given his life to.
For if our appreciation of TOSOTW’s final result can’t help but be colored by the story of its conception, this counts double because the film is a commentary on the face and heart of the industry itself: a skewering made possible by the generosity of the skewered. It’s the story of an experimental film (shot in stunning 35mm Technicolor and also called The Other Side of the Wind, but hereinafter, Wind), which cannot be finished for want of funds, and whose leading man has disappeared, chased away by a director whose obsession with him had become destructive. TOSOTW’s tragic hero is the aging filmmaker Jake Hannaford (John Huston) brought low by hubris and gluttony, but also a victim of his chosen industry’s inherent duplicity and cant; his scourge is a young pretender, Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich), whose commercial success has outstripped that of his mentor. The principal setting is Hannaford’s birthday party in a large modernist chalet in the Hollywood hills, reminiscent of (and in real life, adjacent to) the house that Antonioni detonated at the end of Zabriskie Point. Various excerpts of the unfinished Wind are shown there to the assembled throng of producers, actors, crew, journalists, and sundry hangers-on.
Welles’s lifelong preoccupation with the concept and form of documentary storytelling and the commingling of fact and fiction (which first manifested in his coruscating radio drama War of the Worlds and persisted through Kane, Arkadin, The Immortal Story, and F for Fake) finds an apogee of sorts with TOSOTW, which Welles, well ahead of his time, designed as the cinematic equivalent of the epistolary novel: a “found footage” film, pulling together the various strands of action filmed by certain guests at Hannaford’s party. As well as the fracturing stylistic effect produced by the juxtaposition of the numerous types of film stock being used (16mm, 8mm, monochrome, reversal film, etc.) it also serves to create a broken, confused picture of Huston’s broken, confusing protagonist Jake Hannaford. At once this footage feels suspicious, because of the unknown hand on each camera, yet at the same time it appears more candid and trustworthy, given that it catches Hannaford in his unguarded moments as frequently as it shows him grandstanding for his fans. Beyond this—and most challengingly and at times upsettingly—the film most obviously feels like a documentary because of the strong perception that, if you’ll pardon the expression, “it’s all true.” The hangers-on at the party are played as themselves by real hangers-on, albeit of a distinguished stripe: Henry Jaglom, Dennis Hopper, Paul Mazursky, Stéphane Audran, and Claude Chabrol drop by as they could once have been relied upon to do when Welles was in New York, Los Angeles, or Paris; Welles’s frequent collaborator the actor-director Norman Foster (who died in 1976, shortly after shooting ended) is a memorable, victimized presence as the loyal bag-man, on whom the toxic nature of his relationship with Hannaford is beginning to dawn; Bogdanovich himself was flat-out told to simply play opposite Huston as if he were himself interacting with Welles in real life.
It’s not so much art imitating life as a depiction of art and life inextricably and woundingly intertwined. Such an exercise in candor could easily lead an invested audience to uncharitable flights of reason, such as wondering if the story arc concerning the disappearance of Wind’s star John Dale (Bob Random) resonates because one cannot really conceive of Welles or anyone else on set having that much respect for Bob Random’s stagecraft (whichever episode of Gunsmoke was first shown to them), he just looked like the pretty, dumb hunk Wind needed. Ditto, for the twenty-something waitress hired to materialize halfway through TOSOTW as Hannaford’s “companion”: she’s clearly a nonprofessional actor and the film uses her as a bathetic symbol of Hannaford’s predictable self-indulgence, but who among us thinks that when the cameras stopped rolling, everyone on set suddenly clicked back into affording her the respect and dignity owed to a fellow member of the company? As unfair as such speculations may be, it is testament to the rawness of the action that it invites them.
Huston’s casting is both a masterstroke and an alibi. Welles himself should have played the part and—given the stinging paucity of leading roles offered to him during his career—would normally have done so. A lot more ink has been spilled on the somewhat self-evident question of whether the story is autobiographical than on the more intriguing subject of why Welles chose not to play the role of Hannaford, whether it was autobiographical or not. Perhaps Welles was right that his friend Huston (who first cast Welles as Father Mapple in his Moby Dick 15 years earlier) was “better” for the part. He certainly presents all the fundamental characteristics of Hemingway-ish machismo and he possesses a more convincing line in uncut cruelty than Welles, whose Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil is monstrous but more organically pitiable. To feel sympathy for Hannaford (as we may) we must look past a lot more. Huston spits out the word “faggot” to Dan Tobin’s character with a peculiar glee, which still manages to feel disgustingly provocative, even in a 1970s waning frat-boy context. Welles was fond of inseminating the story that Hemingway had once referred to Welles, when they had collaborated on The Spanish Earth (1937), as “some damned faggot who runs an art theater telling me how to write narration,” which Welles claimed led to a stand-up fist fight and a lifelong friendship. The irony is of course that Hannaford, like many gay-bashers, is laboring under some sexual confusion of his own, vis-à-vis his maidenly leading man. Just as Welles was (until Wind) prudish about sex on screen (he famously put off his love scene with Jeanne Moreau in Chimes at Midnight for days, so terrified was he of performing in it) there is also a level of self-disgust within Hannaford, the physical personification of which Welles must have secretly feared. As a Shakespearean, Welles preferred to love the characters he played (Kane, Quinlan, and even Kindler, the Nazi from The Stranger), however deplorable he made them. But with Hannaford, the tide has turned. Even if some of Welles’s black and white footage of him is elegiac, in contrast to the real Orson Welles, he is fundamentally unlovable. Welles seems at times too keen to treat TOSOTW as an over-eager confessional, perhaps imagining that self-flagellation was his best ticket to absolution and acceptance.
For those who wish to see them, Welles includes within this hotbed moments of reassuring human authenticity. Susan Strasberg, cast as a Pauline Kael figure—who in Hannaford’s eyes refuses to be a doormat so automatically becomes a headache—opts to treat her party invitation as an opportunity to ask questions (“I just want to know what he stands for”) rather than lie down in the mud with the others. Is she really like Welles’s nemesis Kael, attempting to assassinate Hannaford? Or does she represent a truthful, sane counterweight to Hannaford’s supremacy and madness, who like anyone in TOSOTW who doesn’t keep up with the orchestra, is swiftly silenced and moved on? Other Wellesian hallmarks abound: an aesthetic stable-mate of F for Fake, TOSOTW’s rapid-fire editing is only an enlargement of Welles’s approach to dialogue in all his films: it jars, it overlaps, the tone of successive sentences changes inexplicably, it is never entirely coherent or comfortable. The opening sequence of the crew exiting the studio lot is shot like the opening café scene of The Lady from Shanghai and the Grandi family dialogue sequences in the streets near the start of Touch of Evil: with the faces jump-cutting back and forth, uttering snatches of dialogue, he intersperses long dolly shots featuring characters walking through the frame talking. It’s a dazzling approach to exposition that influenced Kubrick, who used it in Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. The surreal mannequins filling the transport buses as extra party guests (“they’re invited”) directly recall the Goya-esque papier maché figures at the party in Arkadin. Welles turns on his own idea in the end, by having Huston symbolically take out his hunting rifle and blow all the dummies away.
One central creative figure who—until the film’s final shot—is notably absent from most of the found footage scenes of TOSOTW is the film’s co-progenitor, Oja Kodar. Welles’s lover is the co-director, star, and poster-girl of Wind, but like Welles himself she seems to hover in a venerable state above the outer film, protected from its harshest glare. TOSOTW represents a significant rehabilitation for Kodar, who for a long time was unkindly viewed as a sort of Yoko Ono character in Welles’s life (and in the same sexist and racist way), even allowing for the merry dance on which she led the Netflix negotiating team before she would release her hold on the film rights. The eroticization of Wind has been credited to Kodar (there apparently exists a good deal of unused footage directed by her which was felt by the postproduction team to be distractingly “hot”). Amongst the many peculiar creative dualities in TOSOTW (Welles and Murawski co-edited the picture; John and Danny Huston both “played” Hannaford; Bogdanovich and Rich Little both played Otterlake), the collaboration between Welles and Kodar on Wind is ultimately the most profound, if only because of the impact on the overall audience experience of Wind’s aesthetic beauty. The film’s extraordinary cinematographer, Gary Graver, maker of over 180 pornographic films and perhaps the greatest devotee of all, mortgaged his career to Welles, and died in 2006 having vainly tried to persuade various moguls (Spielberg, Lucas, Eastwood, Stone) to back the completion of TOSOTW. His own glory is also posthumous. Murawski was Graver’s friend and has confessed he “did it for Gary as much as for Orson.”
Because Wind is ostensibly imitation, there’s an understandable tendency to reduce it to a mere framing device in the shape of a wink-wink satirical pastiche of Antonioni—notably of Red Desert (1964). But it also represents something deeper: the kind of film others have been allowed to make but which Welles would never have got past treatment stage. It isn’t enough that Wind is funny, it makes a difference that in parts—the car sequence, the sandstorm—it’s also brilliant. Welles is ex post facto pitching his own talent by the back door, and Kodar injects the missing ingredient—the same one that Ginger Rogers injected into her collaboration with Fred Astaire: sex. From the swamp of the Hannaford party, Wind emerges like Nimueh, the Lady of the Lake. There is a purificatory quality to Wind, even if brows will be arched and lips curled at some of its more expressionistic moments. This is underlined whenever the action cuts back from Wind to the audience watching it: to the reluctant studio boss, Max (Geoffrey Land) with whom Norman Foster pleads but whose distaste we can all too easily predict; to Hannaford’s solemn, regretful hangdog face at his birthday screening; and finally, to Bogdanovich and his colleagues in the last sequence at the drive-in cinema. In those moments the tone of TOSOTW modulates from self-loathing, scorn, and cynicism to reverence, sadness, and recognition that man’s manifold imperfections need not mitigate the power of his art. What TOSOTW reveals is that the imperfections themselves can be art. Welles’s courage in laying out these uncomfortable truths—to cover the beauty in ugliness—consecrates the effort of his successors.
The Other Side of the Wind exists not because bad things happened to Welles but because they eventually happen to everyone in this business. After all, Buster Keaton shilled for Allen Funt on Candid Camera in the late sixties; Tex Avery was a contract artist at Hanna-Barbera at the time of his death in 1980; and it hurt Welles deeply that his hero, the cantankerous John Ford, couldn’t get a film made anywhere at the end of his career. Perhaps Welles’s generosity of spirit doesn’t fit the easily digestible narrative. He remains a watchword for precocity, egocentrism, womanizing, hubris, and failure to live up to his promise. But those who knew him knew what TOSOTW tells us: that his view of himself—like his view of humanity in general—was more nuanced than people thought, and his sense of his own art was more modest. He was a storyteller, who wanted little more than to find better stories and better ways to tell them, and his own tragedy was that he died wondering why more people didn’t want to hear them. Its beauty, innovation, and virtuosity aside, TOSOTW is not a neat epitaph because it contains more cynicism than Welles himself exhibited and more defensiveness than he should have ever needed to. Nor was it really Welles’s final word, as he worked on numerous uncompleted projects thereafter until his death. But the phenomenon of The Other Side of the Wind, the statement of unquenchable affection it represents and the technical miracle of its completion: these are all indisputable reasons why Welles was right to believe in the Cinema.