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 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.


Cullen Gallagher said...

As a huge Welles fan, this has been one of those "dream" films I've wanted to see more than most anything else. I really hope they finally release it.

Thanks for all the background info and links, and for helping spread the word.

I personally believe Welles kept getting better and better - The Trail, F For Fake, Chimes at Midnight, and even The Immortal Story are among his very finest, in my opinion. Then again, you could really put any Welles film in front of me and I'd probably say the same thing.

Jake Hinkson said...

I totally agree that Welles kept getting better. Chimes at Midnight is a complete masterpiece. I want to write about it soon.

I've learned from trying to show F For Fake to friends that it's an acquired taste, but I think it's delightful. The scene outside the Chartres Cathedral is the most beautiful thing he ever wrote or filmed.

The Immortal Story and The Trial have always been somewhat linked in my mind. They're both allegories and both have very cold surfaces, but there's so much going on underneath.

Welles is someone who rewards obsession. He just gets more interesting the more you watch him and think about him.

WellesFan said...

Aside from the fact that TOSOTW is a Welles film, I think the fact that everyone involved in production says it's so close to completion is one of the reasons the film remains so tantalizing nearly 40 years after filming started and 25 after its creator's death. The film clips (from One Man Band and the AFI Tribute) and recently released script excerpts do even more to whet our appetites.

I'm not worried about hurting Welles's reputation by having the film released, but you do have to wonder about its reception. After so long a build up, there is bound to be some disappointment. Though, knowing Welles, he'll probably still be able to blow us away.

Jake Hinkson said...

As near as I can tell, Welles never shot an uninteresting foot of film in his life, but I agree that the reception of TOSOTW could be rough. There are nonWellesians out there who would probably greet the movie with less enthusiasm than us, but then again, Welles dealt with apathy toward his work for most of his career.

I'm interested to know what you think of the footage from the film in One Man Band. It's interesting to me because it shows that after F for Fake Welles was going even further with the sexuality in his films. Welles' view of sex has always been interesting to me. I think of most of his work as being rather chaste (even The Lady From Shanghai is curiously unerotic). You start to see that turn late in his career (maybe starting with Touch of Evil). I'll be interested to see where he goes with that in TOSOTW.

WellesFan said... appears the comment I typed last night wasn't saved. Don't really remember what I typed, but I'll try to recreate it.

Not sure if “chaste” is the right word, but I always thought Welles was a bit distant. There is almost no connection between CFK and the first Mrs. Kane. Rita Hayworth, while stunning (can she be anything else?), seems unattainable and more of a dream in Shanghai. It could be the editing style or Oja Kodar’s performance, but the scene in TOSOTW is more of a physical coupling than an emotional one.

I thought the car scene and the Hannaford birthday scene - also in One Man Band - were both interesting. They used lots of close-ups (rare for Welles) and very short shot length. The only other film I can think of where he used such short shots was in certain sequences of Othello. The clips weren’t very Wellesian in composition, but did carry his tone. They were certainly riveting.

Jake Hinkson said...

Would "prudish" be a better word than chaste? Either way, I think you hit it on the head with "distant" anyway. Welles never seemed very interested in sex as a subject until he got a little older. I think it started with Touch of Evil. From there on you can see him becoming a little more interested in sex as a possible area of concern. Prior to that, he seemed far more interested in politics and the disintegration of old men.

The sex scene in TOSOTW certainly looks to me to be about the emotional distance involved.

You make a good point about the close ups in the clips from TOSOTW. I hadn't thought about that. Of course, a lot of that footage from One Man Band had close ups, and I seem to recall reading somewhere that he was thinking of doing more and more of that kind of thing (like his Moby Dick experiment).

Which makes me wonder (and I'll throw this out there to anyone who might be reading): what is the most tantalizing uncompleted or unfilmed Welles project you've heard of? If you could go back in time and bankroll an unfullfilled Welles project, what would it be?