Thursday, April 9, 2009
Orson Welles and The Other Side Of The Wind
Are we ever going to see the last film of Orson Welles? In 1970, the Great One set out to direct a film called The Other Side Of The Wind. Principal shooting (if such a thing can be configured on a Welles picture) and much of the editing were completed in January of 1976. As with all of Welles' films, there's a long, fascinating story to tell about the making of the film. No great director was more interesting off the set than Welles, and most of his productions required Herculean feats to reach fruition. Part of Welles' problem was his sheer ambition (a good problem to have). He had the money, talent and resources to make small, intimate films in the Cassavetes mold. He simply lacked the desire. He dreamed big, and he made epics like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial, and Chimes At Midnight. Even his noirs were larger in scope than the usual crime story. This wasn't a flaw. He simply wasn't a painter of miniatures; he needed a broad canvas.
The Other Side Of The Wind is the sprawling story of a past his prime movie director played by the late, great John Huston and his contentious relationship with a younger director played by Peter Bogdanovich. If this outline seems a little too meta--Welles the great director had, after all, a close but complicated relationship with Peter Bogdanovich, who was a huge star director at the time--well, it is pretty meta. Based on the script, which I've read, and various footage I've seen over the years, the film is meta as hell.
So why has this movie been held up for thirty-two years? To answer that would require us to dive into the deep end of the pool of Welles' business dealings, a harrowing task for anyone. In comparison to Welles' finances, AIG's accounting practices have an Amish-like simplicity. Just a taste: for a long time the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran asserted a financial claim to the film. When you consider that The Other Side Of The Wind also involves a decades-long standoff between Welles' daughter and his mistress, you can see what a Gordian's knot we're dealing with. A Gordian's knot inside a labyrinth in the Lost City of Z.
Will we ever see the whole thing, completed and released in the manner befitting one of the cinema's truly great talents? I suspect we will. We certainly seem to be getting closer, and Bogdanovich, who has overseen some of the work on the film, says it's getting closer and closer.
At the end of the day, I don't know how thrilled I am about it, though. Don't get me wrong, I'd watch anything directed by Welles, but I have a strong suspicion based on all I've read and seen that with this film Welles was attempting to push the rapid style editing he'd used on F For Fake to an almost dizzying affect. Add to that, his use of long dream sequences--part of the fight over the film was a disagreement between the editors about how long Welles wanted these sequences to be--and you have a film that might very well smack of late sixties art house.
My concern isn't really so much for the film itself. Welles made more great movies than most people and even his failures are fascinating. The Other Side Of The Wind might be great or it might be horrible. Neither outcome would change the fact that he was a great director. My concern, though, is for his reputation. No director I can think of has had such an avalanche of bullshit written about him. For this nearly forty year old movie to be released to a collective shrug from the critics wouldn't do Welles any favors.
Oh well. As the Great One himself once wrote, "What does it matter what you say about people?"
Here's a strong argument from Lawrence French at Wellesnet.com that I am in fact wrong to worry that the film won't be that great. There aren't many people alive who know more about Welles than French so hopefully he's right.
Here's a link to The Museum of Orson Welles. This amazing site has the audio of a series of interviews Peter Bogdanovich's did with Welles in preparation for their book This Is Orson Welles: 1969-1975 Peter Bogdanovich
Speaking of Bogdanovich, here's an interview he did with Movie Maker about the film.