The Past, Present & Future of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind
“God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead!”; Orson Welles confided that prediction in his close friend Peter Bogdanovich, and as it would turn out, he wasn’t far from the truth. Welles was right to think he would be more celebrated in death than he had been in life. Orson Welles died in 1985 at the age of seventy, a shadow — albeit a physically much larger shadow — of the former 26-year old Charles Foster Kane genius. He died with a checkered filmic history, and a late-life reputation that leaned more towards the buffoonishly garish than to the revered one he would eventually come to be known for after his passing. Citizen Kane (1941) would be the highlight of his career. After Kane, the adoration from the American public would wither with each misstep; The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), A Touch of Evil (1958). Had Welles died with only Kane to his name, his legend would have been preeminent. Instead, we look back on his filmography and earnestly justify his genius, as if to make up for the errs of an audience that at the time, hadn’t been able to grasp his forward-thinking. Welles’ audience wouldn’t be able to and couldn’t see the constraints of Hollywood that were determined to smother his flair. It’s a bold assumption to make then that redemption would have ever been possible for Welles’ tarnished reputation, that’s to say whether another masterpiece could have been his renaissance. However, with the completion of Orson Welles’ final, unfinished film becoming more of a possibility (Indiegogo campaign here), the (hopefully) soon-to-be-completed The Other Side of the Wind, could potentially be the unsung hero of Welles’ filmography and possibly even the key film of his oeuvre. For those unfamiliar with The Other Side of the Wind, let’s look at the film’s history, to what extent it would have fit the trendiness of New Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and also how it might be received by a 21st century audience. Basically, the prospective value of The Other Side of the Wind; what could have been, and might very well be Welles’ thesis film, the bright star of a fading career.
An Orson Welles picture being wrought with production issues isn’t a special case — actually it’s seemingly a constant one. A description like “production purgatory” might line up with a number of different Welles projects. In this case however, I’m referring specifically to The Other Side of the Wind, its six-year shoot, and the now almost forty-year struggle to piece together Welles’ original vision. The film was originally entitled The Savage Beasts, and contrary to the final script, was a rather adventurous matador film. Its principal character however, would remain more or less the same as the script evolved from The Savage Beasts to The Other Side of the Wind. The story focuses on Jake Hannaford, an aging, has-been movie director trying to make a comeback in a film world that has changed so drastically. Hannaford is meant to be a kind of macho character and reads as somewhat of a composite of Ernest Hemingway — tough, charming, drunk — and Rex Ingram, the silent film director who famously abandoned cinema in the advent of talking pictures. In essence, he’s a bit of a thinly veiled play on Orson himself. Welles would of course deny the autobiographical subtext. Aside from Hannaford himself, the most integral component of The Other Side of the Wind is the film-within-a-film, cryptically entitled The Other Side of the Wind. The film-within-a-film is meant to be Hannaford’s comeback, segments of which he screens to potential backers despite being (much like Welles himself) notoriously unprofitable. The viewer knows however that Hannaford’s film will never be realized as Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind begins with the death of Hannaford, much like Othello and Citizen Kane.
Knowing the habit of Welles as a filmmaker to jump from project to project and to spend great lengths of time editing and reworking his films, it’s difficult to say when The Other Side of the Wind could have been completed. In 1976, Welles was awarded an AFI lifetime achievement award, an event at which he made an impassioned plea for funds to finish the film. Ironically, the scene he chose to showcase was the one in which Hannaford makes a pitch for his own film to potential investors — as if The Other Side of the Wind wasn’t meta enough already. One backer come forth with a large sum of money to help finish the film, however, Welles made the executive choice to hold out for a better offer. A better offer would never come along. It’s not a stretch to assume then that had Welles accepted that first offer, The Other Side of the Wind might have been completed in 1976, or perhaps even the next year. It’s interesting to speculate then how The Other Side of the Wind would have been received in the filmic environment in or around 1976. Welles was of course still seen with some regard in that latter part of his life — that’s pretty well evidenced by his being honoured with a lifetime achievement award — but his reputation was certainly not as unspoiled as it is today. By 1970,Orson Welles was known to the American public as a has-been, and a bit of a joke. He was a frequent guest star on The Dean Martin Show as well as The Tonight Show, though these gigs were not to discuss his work as a director, but rather had him performing various magic tricks and advertising products. Where some directors (like Huston) might have been willing to be a director-for-hire on a mediocre picture, Welles was steadfast in his integrity as an artist first, preferring to “whore” himself out to advertising rather than to studios. However, these appearances only further fuelled his buffoonish public persona.
Adding fuel to the fire, the wrapping on The Other Side of the Wind came directly in the middle of a Hollywood renaissance; what would become known as New Hollywood. New Hollywood started in and around the late 1960s and continued into the early 1980s. The movement was characterized by a young generation of filmmakers and a vision staunchly in opposition to the studio system that had dominated Hollywood since the 1920s. With the baby boomer population coming of age, there wasn’t much demand for musicals or epics or dramas in the same way that had been so predominant in the early post-World War II days. Films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), Taxi Driver (1976) and Chinatown (1974) while all being made under the direction of a studio, were in no way in line with the system that had been previously so engrained in Hollywood. This fleet of young, educated, counter-culture directors were using guerrilla filmmaking tactics and messing with linear narrative and celebrating perversity. Similarly, The Other Side of the Wind would have been and will be highly experimental as well as sexual (the latter of which can be attributed in large part to Oja Kodar’s influence). With that in mind, The Other Side of the Wind might have fit into this new regime in Hollywood comfortably. However, what’s interesting about the film and its potential relationship with a 1970s audience, is that Welles himself seems to have, if not despised, then at least strongly opposed the incoming generation of filmmakers. In 1970, Welles penned an article for Look Magazine entitled “But Where Are We Going?”, which is an opinion piece of New Hollywood and which is incredibly insightful about Welles’ reaction to changes in Hollywood. It’s really a cautionary piece against the worship of directors and against a reverence for prevalent film theories like the Auteur Theory. But in fact, on first read, Welles comes off like a bitter old man lamenting his lost filmmaking esteem and projecting hate onto the young new talent of Hollywood, kids who were given money and opportunities to create lascivious films, while he, an established director, was overlooked. Welles had, just like these young, new directors, at one point in his career, been given the opportunity to be creative and free with film; an opportunity which would amount to his greatest achievement, Citizen Kane. There’s no denying the great care and ingenuity that went into constructing his later works — The Trial, A Touch of Evil , etc., and it’s easy to look back on Welles’ films with great admiration and a keen critical eye, but that wasn’t the case at the time of their releases. And even later in life, Welles was still trying to outrun bad press when three books about Welles were released in the late sixties and early seventies; one being Pauline Kael’s scathing indictment on Kane. Even when the world tried to take Kane away from him, Welles was still certainly respected and revered but again, it would seem it was only really for Citizen Kane. No work after Kane could possibly measure up to the mammoth of greatness that Welles had conceived. And what had allowed Kane to be so great was that Welles had edited freely and wrote freely and operated freely. But what followed in his career was a series of frankensteined pieces of cinema which may have boasted the name of Orson, but they perhaps couldn’t claim the full authenticity of a true Welles work. The freedom and control exercised by the directors of the New Hollywood generation however, meant that they could make that claim. The Other Side of the Wind, a film essentially about this shift in Hollywood, reads like a cinematic version of “But Where Are We Going?”, a jeremiad against the assault of American Nouvelle-Vague. Ironically, The Other Side of the Wind would employ many of the tactics utilized by the very directors he criticized. Welles may have created The Other Side of the Wind in a mocking kind of “fuck you” to the Roman Polanski’s and Martin Scorsese’s and Marcello Mastrionni’s of the world, but I can’t help but feel as if the film would have been received with open arms by the same people Welles condemns. Perhaps The Other Side of the Wind could have been the key oeuvre in Welles’ tired career. However, it could very well have failed, just like the majority of his other films had. It might have been The Other side of the Wind’s destiny to be released to a 21st century audience instead.
21st CENTURY RECEPTION
Contrary to his status as an unreliable filmmaker for the better part of his career, you could argue that the extreme leaps made in filmmaking over the past forty years have conditioned the present audience to the more experimental facets of film. Citizen Kane is widely regarded as one of, if not the best film ever made, and along with Kane, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, Othello, amongst others are considered significant pieces of film history. Ultimately, Welles’ reputation has done a 180 since his death. It’s important to note however that I’m speaking of a predominantly North American audience as Welles was still very much admired by a European viewers. In tandem, the critical reception of much of Welles’ work was not wholly bad, but his public reputation with a mass audience was decidedly more negative than positive, no matter the critical acclaim. It’s a wonder then how audiences will receive The Other Side of the Wind in the present day, or whether it will even be regarded as a true Welles film, considering he can’t have the final say in its completion. But then it’s difficult to say whether Welles would have ever been satisfied with a completed version of the film. Welles wasn’t always concerned with the finality of a film; he just enjoyed making them.
Trying to piece together The Other Side of the Wind according to Welles’ vision and releasing it forty-five years after production began is an incredible realization, and maybe even a little insane. Other reconstructions of Welles works such as Don Quixote (1992), were met with abysmal reviews and a general disregard as part of Welles’ oeuvre. But unlike Don Quixote, which was reconstructed by Jesus Franco and contained little influence from true Welles sources, The Other Side of the Wind will be under the respected guidance of those closest to the project. Now Welles might have liked having the final say with his films, but he understood that filmmaking was a collaborative process, and collaboration was in itself, essential to the work. The Other Side of the Wind won’t have the final say from Welles, but it will follow the author’s unique conception in the spirit of collaboration. With the added expertise of Peter Bogdanovich, who could no doubt understand Welles’ vision better than anyone, this project has been given its best shot at a fighting chance. At the risk of sounding overly optimistic, no matter its critical outcome, The Other Side of the Wind is still a remarkable monument, crafted by one of the most revered directors of the 20th century, and it deserves to be seen. It’s been proven time and time again that critics love to hate Welles, but it’s the movie giant behind the camera who has continued to thrive in spite of the slew of spirited fault-finding missions in his movie-making career. The legend will live on no matter what. And with the current onslaught of Marvel movies and endless sequels and prequels saturating the movie market today, the mere idea of The Other Side of the Wind is astonishing. To have a new piece of old cinema could be cathartic to a stifled film world.
THE FINAL WORD
Jake Hannaford died before his movie The Other Side of the Wind could be realized in its entirety, and Orson Welles, likewise, would die before he ever saw his final film, The Other Side of the Wind. He would never witness that irony, though I’m sure he must have predicted it. It’s a dangerous game, taking over Welles’ film in his absence, making assumptions as to his wishes and tinkering with a reputation of a legend. The Other Side of the Wind might have been received well in 1976; it might have been received poorly. The only certainty is that Welles’ reputation is stronger and his legacy much more engrained in the 21st century — more so than at any point while he was alive. There’s actually a letter I particularly love which was sent by Akira Kurosawa to Ingmar Bergman in 1988. In the letter, Kurosawa expressed birthday wishes for Bergman (his seventieth) and told the story of the Japanese painter Tessai Tomioka who painted many beautiful pictures while he was still young, and when he reached the age of eighty, suddenly started painting pictures which were much superior to the previous ones, “as if he were in magnificent bloom”. Kurosawa says “I believe you would agree that a human becomes capable of producing pure works, without any restrictions, in the days of his second babyhood. I am now seventy-seven years old and am convinced that my real work is just beginning. Let us hold out together for the sake of movies.” The Other Side of the Wind is Welles’ work just beginning — his second babyhood if you will. Kurosawa believed that an artist wasn’t capable of creating really good works until he reaches eighty years old. Well, Orson Welles died when he was just seventy years old. It’s only fair to his legacy that his renaissance be fulfilled in his untimely absence.
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