Tuesday, December 04, 2018

The wind that caresses: Orson Welles as breeze and tempest

[The latest of my “moments” columns for The Hindu – this one about the documentary that accompanies Orson Welles’s last, just-released film]

Here’s a strange admission to begin a movie column with. Despite being a huge Orson Welles fan, I haven’t yet steeled myself to watch the “new” Welles work, The Other Side of the Wind – a film that began shooting in the early 1970s, was doomed by lack of funds (and possibly by the great director’s own whimsies and crippling sense of persecution), and has now been cobbled into some shape by other men, more than thirty years after Welles’s passing.

It’s probably a combination of fear (“What if the film is terrible?”), another sort of fear (“What if it’s brilliant? How does one process it then, or write about it? And either way, how can one know if this is what HE would have made?”) and some fan-fatigue. Welles’s career was so thwarted and fragmented after the success of Citizen Kane – as his need for artistic control and appreciation came up against commercial dictates, driving him from Hollywood to Europe and beyond – that it can be exhausting to see his real-life predicaments implied in his cinema; something that frequently happens even when he is adapting the work of famous writers like Shakespeare (Othello, Chimes at Midnight) or Kafka (The Trial).

What I did watch was They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a documentary directed by Morgan Neville, which breathlessly tells the story of the making (and unmaking) of The Other Side of the Wind, and has been released on Netflix as a companion piece. But even experiencing this documentary is to fall into a vortex of Wellesian images and motifs – much like the dazed hero in the amusement-park climax of The Lady from Shanghai, tumbling helplessly down an enormous winding slide.

This column is usually about a specific vignette in a film, but I’m making an exception here, since Welles’s body of work is so packed with moments that reflect each other (like the “Magic Mirror Maze” in that celebrated Lady from Shanghai scene). So much of it is about the intangibles and contradictions in a life, and how potentially great people can be undone by a combination of circumstance and personality.

What makes They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead riveting and depressing at the same time is that Welles himself – through footage of him in his films, or in interviews and other public appearances – is a big part of it. “With his cape, he was a personification of the wind itself,” we hear his partner, the actress Oja Kodar, say, in what sounds like an effort to “explain” the odd title of his unfinished film, “But I knew the other side of this wind. Because Orson was the wind that was capable of caressing you, lifting you, making you dance.”

So here is Orson, huffing and puffing, blowing hot and cold, going from being a gentle breeze to a dark tempest, all at once. In one scene, he discusses the “film within a film” in The Other Side of the Wind – an atmospheric, abstract European art-movie made by the protagonist, who is also a director (and played by another great director-actor, John Huston). “This gave me the freedom to make a film that wasn’t by Orson Welles,” Welles says. Amusingly, he is talking with Jeanne Moreau, the French actress who really had appeared in some of those arthouse films he was parodying.

These playful inside references and meta-allusions continue. The documentary itself mimics the style of Citizen Kane or Mister Arkadin in using a multiplicity of perspectives to try and get to the “truth”, always with no success. People offer contrary views of Welles and the shoot. “[Cinematographer] Gary Graver was like the son Orson never had,” one voice says. “No,” says another, “Orson wasn’t very paternal.” On why the comedian and impersonator Rich Little left the shoot after three weeks, “He missed his wife and was tired of working” is immediately followed by “He was having a relationship with Orson’s secretary.”

And as it tells the sad story of Welles running out of funding, the documentary gives us shots of his dramatic death scenes in films like The Third Man and Touch of Evil, as well as the exploding Death Star at the end of Star Wars (a film that was a huge blockbuster around the same time that Welles was struggling to get money for his very personal vision) and a scene where a vault door is closed in Citizen Kane.

It’s all beautiful, and painful, and fetishistic – like a drug that pulls you back into the Welles world with its many slanted images, shadows on walls, and reflections on the nature of truth and artifice, as well as an artist’s ambivalent relationship with both things.

I probably will see The Other Side of the Wind after all.

[Earlier Hindu columns here. And here are some earlier posts about Welles, including his quotes from the Peter Bogdanovich interviews]

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