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Orson Welles’s ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ and Morgan Neville’s ‘They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead’

By Craig Mathieson
The auteur’s messy mockumentary and the documentary that seeks to explain it are imperfect but better together

Orson Welles never saw a film project he couldn’t start shooting. Finishing them was another matter. The career of the legendary American actor, writer, director, and producer, who made his feature debut in 1941 with Citizen Kane, a movie cripplingly cited as the best ever made, was littered with long and intermittent productions. More than a few tailed off into incompletion, which was perhaps a safer option for Welles than the other galling outcome: losing creative control to a Hollywood studio that edited the complexity and connective tissue out of his work to pursue commercial success. That happened on both 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons and 1958’s Touch of Evil.

Given Welles’s distaste for the studio system, which was only exacerbated by the fact that he periodically had to attempt to work within their dictates, it’s fitting that the posthumous completion and release of his new feature, the ’70s experimental drama The Other Side of the Wind, was funded and finessed out of four decades in cinematic purgatory by the streaming service Netflix. An on-demand viewing platform that poses an existential threat to the modern-day successors of the fiefdoms that rejected him would have appealed to Welles, an artist who kept the slights and the scars of his career close at hand.

But Netflix haven’t just been generous, they’ve also been thorough. When they released The Other Side of the Wind on November 2 they also uploaded They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, an accompanying documentary by the Academy Award–winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) about the making and breaking of Welles’s picture. Neither is a great film – Wind is messy, sometimes ill-formed, and straining at the seams, while Dead is content to be a playful, illustrative post-mortem – but together they’re a nourishing portrait of an artist who mired himself so deeply in creative chaos that it appears doubtful he expected to find a way out.

The mechanics of how The Other Side of the Wind was recently completed after an initial six years of scattershot production that ended in 1976 are labyrinthine; there’s a primer on the film’s Wikipedia page that runs a mere 6,400 words. Suffice to say that editor Bob Murawski, aided and abetted by consultants, producers and still-living participants, inherited 100 hours of footage, the beginnings of a workprint, and the many memos about its completion that Welles composed before he died from a heart attack in 1985 at the age of 70.

If it plays as an extended assemblage of fragments that’s intentional. Welles, who’d returned to Los Angeles after more than a decade of living and working in Europe, conceived The Other Side of the Wind as a mockumentary, a posthumous digest of the final 24 hours in the life of a famous Hollywood filmmaker named Jack Hannaford (eventually played by John Huston) that would incorporate the ageing legend’s unfinished feature, a solemn, European arthouse-influenced thriller also titled The Other Side of the Wind.

Neither style was a natural fit for Welles, and you could argue that he knew that and was hoping to hedge his bets. Welles wasn’t risking the value of his artistic vision, newly revered in Hollywood by a post-counterculture generation of successful young filmmakers, he was instead mocking others with imitative reproduction. The shiny ennui of Jack Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind, free of dialogue but rich in symbolism and nudity, was an extended dig at the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and the movie that resulted from his Los Angeles sojourn, 1970’s Zabriskie Point.

Tragedy is a common refrain in Welles’s career, but usually because his ambitions and demands had outstripped the resources and patience afforded him by others. The tragedy here is that Welles is pulling his punches in the wake of making some of his finest movies. Welles achieved a remarkable level of formal expressiveness and invention with 1962’s adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, but now he settled for handheld pursuit; 1965’s Chimes at Midnight is a rich and deeply felt adaptation of William Shakespeare’s language, but now he encouraged his ensemble cast to improvise. Poised for a triumph, he settled for pastiche.

The tone is initially absurdist, as a vast caravan of production staff, biographers, documentarians, and hangers-on descend on Hannaford’s ranch for an in-progress screening and 70th birthday party, with the night growing more sullen and reflective as those involved realise that the director’s project is shutting down because the leading man, John Dale (Bob Random), has absconded and there’s no money to stave off creditors. Huston’s leonine frame and juicy smile fill out Hannaford’s inscrutable distance – asked a detailed question about his work by a young interlocutor, he replies, “I want a drink” – as the Hollywood potentates circle each other.

Welles was always adamant that The Other Side of the Wind wasn’t autobiographical, which is frankly mind-boggling. Hannaford’s situation and standing plainly draw on his own, and there is one thinly veiled portrait after another. In 1974, for the central shoot, Welles hired the comic impressionist Rich Little to play Brookes Otterlake, Hannaford’s biographer and protégé who now has his own successful Hollywood directing career (a priceless sidenote: Welles introduced Little to Huston as one of America’s leading impressionists – Huston assumed he was a painter). This was plainly based on Welles’s biographer and protégé, Peter Bogdanovich, who now had his own successful Hollywood directing career, beginning with 1971’s The Last Picture Show. When Welles dispensed with Little, Bogdanovich stepped in to portray Otterlake.

Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is very good at connecting these barely fictional threads – film critic Pauline Kael, who’d disputed Welles’s authorship of Citizen Kane, gets pummelled via the character of Juliette Riche (Susan Strasberg). The contemporary interviews are often bemused or bewildered by what Welles countenanced, but the dish is exceptional. Director of photography Gary Graver, who was dedicated to Welles, was hospitalised twice with exhaustion over the six years, and to make ends meet shot softcore porn flicks. Once Welles was so keen to retrieve Graver that he edited a shower scene in a nudie flick himself to complete his cinematographer’s competing commitment.

The documentary also puts Welles back where he truly belongs, at the centre of The Other Side of the Wind. The feature had been in sporadic production for three years before Huston, a friend of Welles but a better player of Hollywood’s games, came on board. You see Welles playing Hannaford off camera as scenes are shot with filmmakers such as Claude Chabrol and a typically stoned Dennis Hopper, who would be guests at the party, and hear him berating crew members as they move in and out of rooms. Some of the problems in Welles’s film, such as the erratic pacing and the dedication to showing extended sequences from Hannaford’s failed experiment, find a measure of restorative continuity in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead’s explanations and enhancements.

And even when he was taking the piss out of Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, Welles couldn’t help but be inventive if given even a few hours and a camera. There’s a long sex scene in Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind (something Welles would never have in his own work) involving Bob Dale and the unnamed leading lady (played by Oja Kodar, the project’s co-writer and Welles’s companion at the time) as passengers in the front seat of a car. Rain covers the vehicle and lights flash by as the vivid nocturnal mood gradually comes to represent the woman’s control of the situation, and the rhythm of the editing escalates to match the pleasure she takes.

That’s a sequence that reveals Welles breaking new ground artistically, but too often he’s sidetracked by petty digs. Hannaford has a young Californian blonde, Mavis (Cathy Lucas), around for his pleasure, and the performance is so stiff as to be jarring. Neville supplies the answer: Lucas was a waitress Welles hired to scornfully reflect Cybill Shepherd, the young blonde model Bogdanovich had cast in The Last Picture Show, simultaneously making her a movie star and his girlfriend. Despite this, a broke Welles would go on to live with Bogdanovich and Shepherd for three years. He turned their mansion’s screening room into an edit suite where he would cut together scenes on The Other Side of the Wind before typically bizarre Welles-related circumstances – somehow including the 1979 revolution in Iran – tied it up in legal limbo.

But even a compromised Orson Welles film is a welcome release. It’s far from exemplary, but nonetheless fascinating in parts and instructive of how Welles saw his career and the movie industry. Everyone involved has a theory about whether he really wanted to finish The Other Side of the Wind, but that decision – like so many others in the torturous career of Orson Welles – was finally taken out of his hands. Given the bitterness that percolates through the movie, maybe Welles foresaw that eventuality. “He’s a rough magician, isn’t he?” Brookes Otterlake says of Jack Hannaford, and that’s as good a eulogy as any for Orson Welles’s final act of misdirection.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

@CMscreens

John Huston in The Other Side of the Wind

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