May 6th, 2015 will mark the 100th birthday of the late Orson Welles. To commemorate the birth of the great filmmaker, we’ll be looking back at many of his greatest cinematic accomplishments — movies like Citizen Kane, The Lady From Shanghai, The Trial, and Chimes At Midnight. First though, let’s pull a real Orson Welles move and start at the end, with his last great movie project, the ill-fated The Other Side of the Wind.
The movie was going to be Welles’s grand statement on filmmaking. It tells the story of an aging movie director, Jake Hannaford (played by a wily John Huston) who is trying to stage a comeback in a Hollywood that has basically left him behind. The film was autobiographical, of course — though Welles, being Welles, dismissed any overly autobiographical readings of the film. He labored mightily on the project for years — fighting money troubles and the indifference of the establishment. In the end, the film was left unedited. To this day, it remains virtually unseen, even by most movie fanatics.
A new book looks at this fascinating period in the life of the great director. In Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind author Josh Karp has assembled the most detailed account yet of the creation of the doomed project.
Writing a book on Welles must be a beautifully daunting task. Beautiful in the sense that Welles makes for excellent company. The Welles that Karp puts on the page is magnificent — he is by turns funny, touching, and brilliant. He’s a flawed man to be sure, but his flaws are as much a part of his legend as anything else about him. It is easy to see why this great filmmaker inspired the devotion of so many people.
But the task of writing a book on Welles must also be deeply daunting because of the unruly nature of the man and his working conditions. As any Welles fanatic knows (and I count myself among their number) there is a complicated story behind the making of just about every Welles movie. In fact, there are usually dozens of complicated and interlocking stories behind the making of any Welles movie. This isn’t the case with most filmmakers. Hitchcock was as great a director as ever lived, but the story behind the making of most of his movies is that he showed up to work and made a movie. With Welles, there are always intrigues and betrayals, twists and turns. Karp tells us that Welles would really have had it no other way. He thrived on chaos (and, indeed, many of his films take chaos as a theme) because it spurred creativity. Karp quotes the director on this very subject: “The great danger for any artist is to find himself comfortable. It’s his duty to find the point of maximum discomfort, to search it out.”
On The Other Side of the Wind, Welles pushed the discomfort as far as it could go. By 1970, when he began the film, his own position in Hollywood could be described as a strange mixture of reverence and dismissal. Everyone thought he was a genius (though some felt he was an overrated genius), and most of them just wanted him to go away. It didn’t matter that he was still a restless creative talent who was still making interesting films (like 1968’s The Immortal Story or 1965’s Chimes at Midnight). In Hollywood, he was a quirky has-been. With The Other Side of the Wind, Welles aimed for a comeback — a chance to prove that he was as important a filmmaker as ever. The film would be a meta-commentary on his career, on the current state of filmmaking, on the way old men destroy themselves. He shot on a shoestring, with friends and associates — most of whom would eventually drift away from the project. With the film, Welles was exploring his own obsessions with film, with the collapse of old men, with the inevitability of failure. People would accuse of him of being unable to finish the film because it had come to resemble his life too closely. He had pushed things too far — stylistically and thematically.
Karp’s book is an absorbing look at a cinematic giant entering his twilight. Welles was a man about whom there was no shortage of opinions, and Karp does a good job of gathering firsthand testimony from many of the people who worked with him on The Other Side of the Wind. The most intriguing, and in many ways tragic, figure in the book is Welles’s cinematographer Gary Graver. Although he was a dedicated cinephile who longed to make great films, Graver’s career never took off and he wound up working in the dregs, cranking out cheapie softcore pornos like Veronica 2030 until the end of his life. Yet in the early ‘70s, Graver was the man most responsible for keeping Orson Welles in the business of making movies. He stood by Welles for years, often without pay, often to the expense of his own family and career, enraptured by the experience and dedicated to the cause that was Orson Welles.
Karp brings the story up to date as much as he can — detailing the decades-long attempts by Welles collaborators like Graver and Peter Bogdanovich to see the film released. He also puts the blame for the film’s long exile in the wilderness squarely at the feet of Welles’s girlfriend and artistic partner Oja Kodar, who, in his telling, has thwarted several efforts to get the film finished because she wanted a larger cut of the pie. (It should be noted that Kodar is not included among the book’s interview subjects.)
The latest news on The Other Side of the Wind, however, is that it is finally finally supposed to be edited and released this year in honor of Welles’s 100th birthday.
We’ll see. Every dedicated Welles geek has heard this kind of thing before.
As much as I am dying to see the movie, I must admit that I don’t look forward to the response it will get. An Orson Welles movie that has gone unfinished for the better part of forty years? It’ll be called a masterpiece by some and a piece of trash by the rest. In truth, it will never fully be Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind because he never finished editing the thing—and he would have been the first to say that the editing process was where his movies were really born.
Let’s let Karp have the last word on the film as it is:
[T]he film is a fragment, composed of brilliance and madness; finely honed and wildly disorganized; meticulously edited but ultimately unfinished. The movie is a shot at perfection in a world where the director can no longer control his muse and is left to stumble about in a maze composed of his own art and creativity. It’s a world that shows Welles at his best and worst, bringing together his polar opposites—but unable or unwilling to recognize that his art and life have become one and the same.
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Jake Hinkson is the author of several books, including the novel The Big Ugly, the newly-released short story collection The Deepening Shade, and the essay collection The Blind Alley: Exploring Film Noir's Forgotten Corners.
Read all of Jake Hinkson's posts for Criminal Element.