Orson Welles’s Last Movie

Book coverORSON WELLES’S LAST MOVIE: The Making of “The Other Side of the Wind”
by Josh Karp
(St. Martin’s Press; 2015)

Do we really need another book about Orson Welles?

That particular shelf is already bulging with titles, the heavier tomes causing it to sag in the middle, like a geriatric accountant.

There’s Simon Callow’s three-volume biography, and offerings from Welles’ personal circle (Bogdanovich, McBride, Jaglom, Gary Graver), various and varied academic studies and overviews, scholarly types and cineastes weighing in on all things Orson. And it’s funny how starkly the lines are drawn: it seems you either consider Welles to be a genius, a larger than life talent frustrated and bedevilled at every turn by idiotic producers and gutless sycophants of the Hollywood studio system…or a spoiled, over-rated egoist who parlayed one admittedly ground-breaking movie into a career spanning almost fifty years.

So give credit, I think, to author Josh Karp for coming down squarely in the middle of that seemingly endless debate. Karp leaves no doubt that Welles’s body of work, while not lengthy, boasted other gems besides “Citizen Kane”. Personally, I consider “Chimes at Midnight” every bit as good as “Kane”…and much warmer and more humane. The new king’s rejection of his old friend Falstaff is a magnificently constructed scene and acted to perfection. The growing despair and pain in Welles/Falstaff’s eyes as he realizes the extent of Hal’s betrayal is almost unendurable.

Karp also recognizes what a brilliant editor Welles was—he had his own, personal Moviola and was happiest when assembling his grand visions out of the smallest bits and pieces of celluloid. Witness the battle scene footage from “Chimes” or the way Welles expertly cuts to disguise paltry budgets and crude production values, matching episodes shot months and thousands of miles from each other (“Othello”).

But I think it’s safe to say Karp has his misgivings regarding Welles’ last film, uncompleted upon his death in 1985. “The Other Side of the Wind” was going to be his magnum opus, his return to form. At the same time, it was Welles using all the tools at his disposal to lash back at a Hollywood that had rejected an entire generation of older directors (Welles, Ford, Renoir), essentially putting them out to pasture. “The Other Side of the Wind” starred John Huston and featured a number of familiar faces from Welles’s entourage (to save money on casting), shot by a cinematographer (Graver) who worked fast and cheap, having cut his teeth on quickies and exploitation films…

The production was prolonged, very prolonged. The years dragged by and the crew changed, actors quit, died, or were replaced and the script…ah, yes, well, Orson was constantly revising and updating it, reacting to production necessities but also regularly introducing new elements and threads. Producers and studios asked to see the screenplay, Welles steadfastly refused. He would pitch it to a few of them, screen one or two scenes, but should they deign to question him or reveal any confusion, he was abrupt, dismissive.

A contrary auteur? An independent artist who refused to cede the slightest control to greedheads in suits? Or a man well past his prime, physically and mentally, his powers much diminished, no longer possessing the decisiveness and strength of mind to approach the monumental task of assembling all that footage (11 1/2 hours digitized so far) into a coherent narrative?

Welles knew “The Other Side of the Wind” was destined to be his last film. He was aware the culture of Hollywood had changed and the new people in charge were money men, ex-agents and lawyers with little interest in creating or disseminating Art. Despite a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1975, no one was anxious to back a project by a noted maverick, someone who clearly held most of the contemporary film world in contempt and was unlikely to kowtow to trends or commercial considerations. TOSOTW loomed larger and larger in his eyes, as a swan song but, also, vindication for all the slings and arrows cast his way by inferior minds and second-rate talents. He ran existing footage over and over again, cutting and recutting sequences. He coaxed and browbeat his young, inexperienced crew into another day of shooting, hurling orders and abuse at them, fuming and fulminating as he inhaled those enormous cigars he favored.

By the time he realized he was in over his head, it was too late. He’d invested too much money, time and energy into TOSOTW to abandon it, but lacked the courage and honesty to face the folly of his creative vacillations. He had to maintain the illusion that this much-touted movie was a work of art in progress, while taking great pains to ensure it was kept under wraps, film reels piling up like cordwood.

The legal woes, a print of the film seized by the new Islamic regime in Teheran (one of the movie’s backers was allied with the former Shah), money mishandled, possibly misappropriated…welcome distractions, as far as Welles was concerned, excuses he could proffer when asked about the status of his troubled tour de force.

A few months ago, I noticed a crowd sourcing project seeking donations to complete “The Other Side of the Wind”. For a measly one million dollars, a team of Welles scholars and aficionados will confront those miles of footage and somehow shape the mess into something resembling what Welles envisioned. The group didn’t reach their funding target and in a way I’m glad. I share Mr. Karp’s doubts that any version of “The Other Side of the Wind” will do Welles justice and might, like many posthumous efforts, inflict lasting damage to his legacy. There is a certain voyeuristic appeal to seeing some of the film, perhaps a few selected scenes, but I harbor no illusions that “The Other Side of the Wind” is a “lost” masterpiece waiting to be discovered by the adoring masses.

Leave it in the vaults. Dead and buried. A monument to what could have been, or a failure of nerve…or the brilliant, errant leavings of a stubborn, willful personality. But more than anything else, an old man’s last shot at relevancy, the fire still burning, though the hall has grown empty and silent, the guests long since departed.

Last Orson

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About Cliff Burns

I'm a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/ alternative/surreal/science fiction. My influences include Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, David Cronenberg, Rene Magritte, any artist who defies convention and busts open genres, attacking the status quo.
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7 Responses to Orson Welles’s Last Movie

  1. Grisby says:

    No, I want to see it. He finished shooting it, finished editing about 40 minutes of it, and apparently authorized one rough cut, as well as leaving behind a stack of detailed scripts, production notes, and editing notes. Maybe he lost his nerve, but we can find it.

  2. Cliff Burns says:

    Joseph McBride indicates there are NINETEEN HOURS of raw footage to trawl through, much of which hadn’t been seen by either Welles or Gary Graver when they died. Is it fair to incorporate footage Welles never screened, never had a chance to factor into the mosaic he was building? If there are finished sections, portions he personally approved, let them stand on their own, rather than cutting together a pastiche of a Welles film from those reels and reels of unopened film cans.

    This situation reminds me of what happened after David Foster Wallace’s suicide. Before he died, he set aside a section of the project he was working on, indicating it was the best he could manage. His depression, the drugs he was taking to combat it (that weren’t working), rendered him incapable of facing the remainder of the manuscript, a loose jumble numbering in the hundreds of pages.

    In the months after his untimely demise, his editors worked diligently, cobbling together a book out of the short section Wallace had finished…and all the rest of those loose pages besides. The resulting “posthumous” novel, THE PALE KING, is a book a living, healthy Wallace would never have countenanced. Sloppy, repetitious, unfocussed.

    Tragic mistake. Literary legacies are fragile things. As Harper Lee, Ernest Hemingway and others I could name will testify…

  3. Jeff says:

    It is not true that Welles “knew that the Other Side of the Wind was destined to be his last film.” Welles didn’t “know” that, nor was that in fact true. Wind was finished filming in 1976 — at that time, Welles was all of 61 years old. He had every expectation of making more films after that. And he did. “Filming Othello” — made after Wind — was his last completed film. He also began making “Filming the Trial” and “The Magic Show.” And he came close to making “The Big Brass Ring,” “The Cradle Will Rock,” and “KIng Lear.” He was also trying to get funding for “The Dreamers” and shot some test scenes for that project as well. Heck, even if Wind came out now, it might not be his “last film” because restorers might still someday release “The Deep” or a more complete version of “Don Quixote.”

    • Cliff Burns says:

      Following his American Film Institute “Lifetime Achievement” award in 1975, and after the applause and “huzzahs” died down, Orson Welles received no overtures of any note from the Hollywood film establishment. No offers for funding, no tete-a-fetes with studio heads. His reputation as a maverick, a man who wouldn’t compromise his vision mitigated against his receiving establishment support. The vast majority of his time and energy, as he himself said, was devoted to shaking the trees, finding financial backing wherever he could (even if it meant dealing with an onerous regime like the Shah’s). I have no doubt there were a number of “works in progress”; it was important for Orson to feel that he was still a viable, fully employed film-maker, rather than slouching in some forgotten back room, watching his old movies on the late, late show, as happened to so many of his brilliant peers.

      But uncompleted projects and “coming close” don’t add to your oeuvre or your artistic legacy. From the time he returned to the States from Europe in 1970, until his death in 1985, was a rough period for Orson. The humiliating advertising jobs, the show-up-and-act-for-pay gigs he took on and, above all else, the lack of money and trained crews, the focus a professional production provides…it must all have been very wearing. I give him credit for staying in harness as long as he did, keeping up the illusion, even as the footage for TOSOTW began to stretch into MILES…

  4. Jeff says:

    There’s no evidence I’ve ever seen that the footage shot for “The Other Side of the Wind” is an unusually large amount of footage for a feature film. It is surely “miles” because 35 mm film runs 45 feet per minute — so any 2 hour movie has more than a “mile” of film. But if there are 11 hours of negative or 20 hours of negative, that would not be a particularly high shooting ratio for a 2 hour movie. (5.5 to 1 or 10 to 1).

    Regarding your comment that “There is a certain voyeuristic appeal to seeing some of the film ….”, I would point out that a bunch of scenes have been available already. I’ve got about 30 minutes of the film (edited by Welles) on my iphone right now! And I’ve seen about 20-30 additional minutes at various screenings.

    I, of course, think you’re wrong that it should never be completed. I think the effort should be made to put together a full movie. It won’t be exactly what Welles would have done had he been able to finish it himself — but then, many of his films were finished or altered by others. Should we throw “Ambersons” in a box because we hate the studio ending? Should we shun “Touch of Evil” or “Lady from Shanghai” or “Mr. Arkadin” because Welles did not control the editing? I think not. Nor would I hide “Wind” forever from the world just because Welles’ perfect version of the film can never be.

    • Cliff Burns says:

      Why not just release the completed footage, that section Welles himself had edited? Forty minutes of “authorized” Welles, rather than two hours of cutting and pasting. Restore that forty minutes, remaster it, release it on BluRay/DVD with a bunch of extras, including some of the best of the extant footage. For scholars and O.W. fans, film buffs all over the world. Archive the bulk of that 19 hours of raw footage for academia, release the good stuff and preserve Welles’ reputation.

      Welles was, as I indicated, a master editor. Will any of the people cobbling together their version of TOSOTW have his touch and artistry? Ah…no.

      I’ll have to go searching for some of that available footage for TOSOTW. But only as a curio. Like the footage I have of his aborted “Don Quixote” project. Interesting…but I sure as heck wouldn’t want to try to formulate a coherent narrative out of it.

      • Jeff says:

        The edited scenes are far more coherent than what’s floating around of “Don Quixote.” And there’s a full script (which has been published) so you don’t have to piece together a coherent narrative from the clips. It’s all there in the script.

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