The immortal story
Orson Welles died in October, 1985; his latest film The Other Side of the Wind was released in November, 2018.
The film itself--shot mostly during the period of 1970 to 1976--feels like the opposing bookend to Welles' celebrated debut feature: powerful man in a state of decline, his life and career dissected by a variety of witnesses. Unlike Kane which was a puzzlebox of testimonies fitting together to reveal an opaque enigma (what does 'Rosebud' really tell us about the man?), shot and edited in a more conventional manner (radical for classic Hollywood, relatively straightforward for us), this film's very style reflects those fragmented views, shifting from monochrome to color to 35 mm to 16 mm to Super 8. The film breaks down to either three sections or two halves (perhaps six depending on how you're looking): a crew at the end of its shoot leaves for a viewing party, the party itself, the party's aftermath in a drive-in; also alternates between crew and screenings of the film itself, titled The Other Side of the Wind (the film arguably breaks down to hundreds of sections, each shot a different style point of view emotional tone--but for simplicity's sake let's stop at six).
The film's first twenty or so minutes should be offputting--are we even in the same movie?--if it wasn't for an entire cable channel and three of Oliver Stone's feature films (JFK, Natural Born Killers, Nixon) regurgitating that same style to the public for decades. Helps to keep in mind that the film's all about Jake Hannaford (John Huston): in a piecemeal process--a nugget of info here there--we learn that he's a veteran bigshot, that several documentaries and books are being written about him, that he's in search of investors to put up completion money for his latest work-in-progress. You recognize aspects of Welles in the portrait--the reputation, the ultraloyal crew members (who feel either vindicated or victimized, depending on how Hannaford is treating them at the moment), the rabid nonfans (who moments before may have been loyalists). You can't not see a bit of Huston in the role (the big-game hunting, the Irish heritage), especially how the actor-director plays him, with generous servings of charisma and charm; you can't not see a bit of Ernest Hemingway, Welles' initial inspiration (the guns, the insistent machismo, the filmmaker's ultimate fate). A descendant of John Barrymore's Oscar Jaffe in Howard Hawk's Twentieth Century grown to monstrous proportions, Hannaford in turn is echoed in Peter O'Toole's Eli Cross striding across the screen of Richard Rush's The Stunt Man (made in 1978, adopted from the 1970 novel--but the filmmaker's outsized personality is arguably the creation of O'Toole and Rush channeling Huston and Welles, not author Paul Brodeur).
The film touches on among many things an aging filmmaker's role in an industry where he's regarded as obsolete, on the excesses of the '60s European art movement, on the way filmmakers (translate: Welles) exploit the people around him. The latter topic feels especially relevant in the Me Too era--filmmakers building up and breaking down actors' careers, the industry a meat market from which the powerful can select the choicest cuts. At one point a college professor (the young lead actor's mentor) is singled out for mockery--arguably the cruelest most disturbing scene in the film, raising a few unanswered questions: is Welles condemning homophobia (Especially the hypocritical kind, as some of the tormentors are closeted)? Or does the scene due to its ambiguous nature cross the line into actual homophobia? Welles (according to editor Bob Murawski) cut and directed the sequence but refrains from any clear answer.
The film is a Welles film if only because it dwells on the classic Welles theme of betrayal--not just Hannaford towards his minions but towards Hannaford himself, as inflicted by his brightest acolyte Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich). If Other is populated by caricatures of real-life personalities Otterlake may be the most intricate of all--when film production started his status as critic-turned-hit-filmmaker looked like a generous prophecy; when the shoot neared its end that same status ("From the director of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon!") must have felt like an albatross hung from their necks--especially the sense that Bogdanovich could have helped Welles (but didn't). The viewer may find it difficult to separate the history between Otterlake and Hannaford from the history between Bogdanovich and Welles, Welles himself having deliberately blurred the line.
As for the film within the film--Welles intended it as a parody mainly of Michelangelo Antonioni's American productions (with traces of Federico Fellini's later decadent spectacles and Ingmar Bergman's more stylized psychodramas). Majority of the complaints against the film are directed at this parody--too long, too self-indulgent--and the complaints hold water with one crucial problem: the footage is breathtaking. There's a sequence where The Actor (Bob Random) pursues The Actress (Oja Kodar, Welles' collaborator and companion) across abandoned film sets; their vanishing in and out of colorful flats ornamented with noirish striped shadows feels more smoothly orchestrated and edited than a similar sequence in Lady From Shanghai; later there's a scene involving beaded necklaces, a rusty-springed iron-frame bed, and a daggerlike pair of scissors that helps goad the audience into alternating waves of threat and arousal--ultimately driving the lead actor to walk off the set, naked.
There's a car hurtling through rainstorm night--the car in reality motionless, a hose to supply rain, a man with two lamps on a wheelchair racing past for oncoming traffic. The Actress caresses The Actor while The Driver (Robert Aiken) simmers with jealousy; Actress mounts Actor heavy beads swinging against heavy breasts red and green stoplights flashing in simulated orgasm while they hump to the beat of windshield wipers. Perhaps the single most erotic sequence in Welles' career (though The Immortal Story and F is for Fake have their moments, and Welles did once edit the shower scene in a porn film (3 AM, directed pseudonymously by Other cinematographer Gary Graver (he had to eat after all))), it stands out as an exploration of sexuality, and if we see Kodar's predatory Actress as a surrogate for Hannaford seducing his male lead--also an exploration of Hannaford's sexuality, possibly of Welles'.
Welles disliked psychoanalysis of his films and likely attempted to defuse attempts by talking of 'directing with a mask on.' But wearing a mask sometimes has the unintended consequence of revealing too much: the masked man feels liberated from exposure, is often unguarded in his actions--in this case possibly his art. Also possible Welles recognized that a little psychoanalysis can go a long way towards exciting interest in a work, and planted little red herrings here and there--y'know, for the gullible.
A mess? Sure. A masterpiece? Probably not (I vote for Welles' take on Falstaff). But considering that this particular product assembled and finished by others represents only two percent of all the footage Welles shot, that there are questions about what Welles actually edited and helmed (Kodar reportedly did a few scenes), with conflicting statements from different parties on record--perhaps it isn't the last statement on the subject, nor should it be. Perhaps it's possible maybe five or ten years down the road to make another version of Other, done by yet another young punk editor or filmmaker (A forty-minute art film sans dialogue? A three-hour party picture?), and that the whole debate will start all over again, never to be definitively settled, sealing (or rather unsealing) Welles' reputation for years to come--a perpetual motion machine if you like polishing Welles' legend, establishing his immortality.* Is this the best film Welles ever 'directed?' Perhaps not. But it may be the best slyest trick he's ever pulled.
*(Haven't even mentioned his other unfinished works, including The Deep and the lost legendary Don Quixote)
First published in Businessworld 1.11.19