The English literary critic and author Cyril Connolly once famously wrote: “Whom the Gods wish to destroy they first call promising.” Orson Welles knew firsthand that the cruelest fate one could suffer was being called a genius at a young age. He felt the stinging backhand of Hollywood as harshly as anyone.
Welles was just 25 when he made Citizen Kane, the greatest directorial debut of all time. And for that sin he seemed to be sentenced to a lifetime of struggle, scrounging, and self-imposed exile. It was as if Tinseltown was so threatened by his precocious, prodigious talent that it didn’t know what to do with him. So it just banished him. Obviously, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Welles could be difficult and demanding and self-sabotaging — his own worst enemy. But film lovers will always be a little poorer for all the great movies he never got a chance to make.
Welles’ follow-up to Kane was, of course, The Magnificent Ambersons, which was hacked to ribbons in the editing room when he was out of the country on a government-sponsored goodwill trip to South America during World War II. It was the beginning of a soul-sapping pattern that would continue for the rest of his career, in which half-finished projects piled up for want of both benefactors and backing. That Welles still managed to create a handful of indisputable masterpieces, such as 1958’s Touch of Evil, 1965’s Chimes at Midnight, and 1973’s F For Fake, is a testament to the fact that even the greatest obstacles couldn’t completely extinguish a genius as incandescent as his.
In the decade before Welles’ 1985 death from a heart attack, he had (publicly, at least) become a parody of his former self. As his Falstaffian girth grew wider, his job opportunities got slimmer, reduced to pitching jug wine and frozen peas on TV to bankroll his passion projects — the last of which was a kaleidoscopic epic that would put the heartless studio system in his satiric crosshairs while sending up the more pretentious precincts of a younger generation of European-influenced movie-brat filmmakers. He called it The Other Side of the Wind.
Shot in fits and starts between 1970 and 1976, The Other Side of the Wind charted the final days of a legendary film director named Jake Hannaford (played with toxic old-rascal rot by John Huston), who is attempting to make one last comeback with a film called, in true funhouse-mirror fashion, The Other Side of the Wind. Welles’ movie (which is finally being released on Netflix on Nov. 2) is a dizzying mix of styles and film stocks, all capturing a through-the-night party where Jake’s movie-within-a-movie will be shown for a crowd of his hatchet-faced friends, venomous critics, and assorted groupies and hangers-on. The movie-within-a-movie, which we see snippets of, is a gorgeously colorful and confoundingly enigmatic fever dream about a young stud (Robert Random) and an ethereal (and frequently naked) temptress played by Welles’ companion (and Wind co-writer) Oja Kodar. You don’t have to squint very hard to see that Welles is making sport of his own reputation and biography. To some degree, he is Hannaford. It’s a bitter diarist’s parlor trick captured on celluloid.
The Other Side of the Wind (both the movie and the movie-within-a-movie) is a hypnotic, magical mess of a film. It’s a lot of story and not enough of one. Still, there are shots that are so haunting and beautifully composed that you want to get out of your seat and take up residence in them, Purple Rose of Cairo-style. And there are some big, profound ideas buried within all the eye candy and frenetic, rat-a-tat editing. But you have to rummage through unruly thickets of abstraction to find them. You can feel Welles trying to speak the vernacular of Antonioni and the New Hollywood — which, when you think about it, is pretty remarkable for a man in his 60s, never mind one who’d already perfected the medium in his 20s. The film’s youthful energy and daredevil experimentation are staggering, even if it never quite comes off. It’s an easier film to admire than to love.
The Other Side of the Wind wasn’t completed by the time Welles passed away; it was just a teetering mountain of unassembled film cannisters. Finishing it would require a team of the director’s longtime friends and collaborators, who spent years trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without the box cover as a blueprint. That is, when they weren’t trying to unravel a knot of rights issues that surrounded the film. We’ll never know if the movie they came up with is one that Welles would have approved of, but it certainly feels like he might be smiling from above.
Serving as the back half of a Welles double feature, and also streaming Nov. 2 on Netflix, is Morgan Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a documentary about the making (and unmaking) of The Other Side of the Wind. Based on Josh Karp’s great 2015 deep-dive of a book, Orson Welles’s Last Movie, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is, I’d argue, the better film of the two. More narratively straightforward (but also masterfully edited in F for Fake style), the documentary takes its title from a Welles quote about the fickle hypocrisy of the movie business and about his other favorite subject: himself. And that quote couldn’t have been more spot-on for a man who was most appreciated only when it was too late.
Neville, the Oscar-winning director of 20 Feet from Stardom and the recent Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t you be My Neighbor?, has made a wildly entertaining love letter to Welles. But more than that, it’s a heartfelt tribute to a legend whose filmmaking philosophy boiled down to being a presider over what he called a series of “divine accidents”. Even in his final years, when he was working onThe Other Side of the Wind, Welles was still embracing danger like a Wallenda, fishing for those divine accidents.
If there’s an overarching sentiment to Neville’s documentary, it’s Welles’ feelings of hurt and betrayal. Four decades after Citizen Kane, his earliest and greatest cinematic success was still a millstone around his neck. A curse. An impossible standard to be held to. Out of favor and fashion, Welles never stopped creating, barreling ahead toward a destination only he could see. Neville’s film includes never-before-seen archival footage of Welles shooting The Other Side of the Wind in true DIY style. Narrated by Alan Cumming, it’s at turns playful and sad. But even in its melancholy, it’s also inspiring. Welles refused to give up, confident that another great act lay around the next bend in the road. Interviews with producer Frank Marshall, Welles’ daughter Beatrice, and his friend and disciple Peter Bogdanovich tell the fascinating story behind the story about his final project — the chaos and craziness, the exhaustion and exhilaration, the battles won and lost, and the mad traveling circus of it all.
In They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, one of Neville’s interviewees suggests that maybe Welles never really meant to finish The Other Side of the Wind. That perhaps he felt if he finished it, he’d die. I don’t know if I buy that argument. But it certainly is intriguing. Did he find more nobility and joy in the process of filmmaking than the finished product? Could it have been a merry prankster’s final practical joke — a cheeky Rosebud mystery to be solved only after he was six feet under? That riddle, and many others, fuel these two films, which makes them both must-sees for any diehard movie obsessive.
The Other Side of the Wind: B
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead: A
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