The Other Side of Orson Welles

I have recently been trying to watch as many of Orson Welles’s films as I can. This is a slightly healthier exercise than feasting upon other “great” directors because his career was famously limited – hampered constantly by studios unwilling to let him have control over the final cuts of his works. Almost any lover of cinema is familiar with this story: it gets repeated and rewritten constantly, and the fundamental narrative, though faded, remains largely the same.

Citizen Kane (1941) has always been viewed as the exception. Studio RKO gave Welles, a young and daring first-time filmmaker, complete control. This freedom, of course, didn’t last very long. And, as the context surrounding them becomes as canonical as the films themselves, this notion of the singular great movie becomes problematised yet strangely pervasive. The early consensus becomes logically archaic but is still reasserted as his reappraised films (Touch of EvilChimes at Midnight, etc.) become disqualified by appeals to their rough, unfinished quality – the lingering sense that these are not quite what Orson wanted.

I finally managed to catch up with The Other Side of the Wind (2018), an acerbic and experimental film most akin to his F for Fake (1973), which bombards the viewer with the rapid cutting of a myriad of contrasting and competing perspectives concerning one (perhaps) great man. It was reassembled and finished through Netflix’s participation, bringing a great mystery of cinema out of the shadows and into the average person’s living room. Welles has been dead for almost 35 years, so it wasn’t surprising that while watching this reassembled movie, released in 2018, I found myself searching for him.

This may seem reductive and pointless to do, especially considering the wealth of anti-intentionalist theories in relation to criticism, with Roland Barthes’ iconic essay The Death of the Author signalling a move towards viewing language (or images, I suppose?) as the catalyst for meaning and the reader as the ultimate interpreter and therefore the cyclical rewriter of the text. On the other hand, the world of film writing experienced an opposing trend that was perhaps precipitated by the need to be perceived as a “serious” art-form rather than a form of commercial culture generated by a generic industrial system. 

The auteur theory was established by the critics of the influential French magazine Cahiers du cinema, and, in a rather self-explanatory if not incredibly diluted way, can be considered an attempt to foreground the director as the principle creative force behind a piece of film art. The American critic Andrew Sarris extended these ideas to his home country, creating a set of tenets that described how reviewers and theorists could approach and benefit from this conceit.

Sarris finds pleasure in searching for ‘the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value’, something that Pauline Kael argued against by wryly noting that Sarris (in his article) identifies merely a distinct link between poorly used devices in two mediocre Raoul Walsh movies. She goes on to expose the absurd and redundant categories that Sarris constructs to explain away perceived inconsistencies in a director’s career – the most egregious example being ‘actor’s pictures’ for the films that John Huston made in his prime.

She is not really arguing against seeing the director as an artist, but simply recognising that artists themselves can be diverse and unexpected, and that the auteur theory has an absurd tendency to valorise mediocrity in the name of a consistent set of ideals and techniques associated with a director. Indeed, the need to neutralise or diminish inconsistencies in a director’s career is the process that troubles me the most, particularly as I often find myself doing it.

Welles’s F for Fake has been analysed by the YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting as a kind of prototypical “essay film”, exploring through complex editing strategies and intimate voice-over narration the nature of art and authenticity. While The Other Side of the Wind features no such narration, I would argue that it too, is a great essay film – perhaps greater in the way that it merges its intellectualism with its artistry.

Appropriately, for such a seemingly unachievable and unachieved (until 40 or so years later) film, it concerns the exploits of an ageing and alcoholic director desperately seeking funding for a partially filmed project. I would hesitate to describe it as a mockumentary, seeming more detached and misanthropic than humorous or satirical. It’s biggest departure from F for Fake is its even greater plurality, no longer stabilised by Welles’s welcoming, fatherly demeanour. The editing, through its fracturing of our passive gaze as well as its immediacy is aligned somewhat with early Soviet cinema. The experimental nature of the film is given more outlets through its approximation of 60s art cinema and its jarring narrative teleology.

John Huston as the director displays his very lurid and sexual art film (of the same title) to a variety of figures. It is hard not to see this frustrating and enigmatic figure as partly autobiographical, and Peter Bogdonavich’s role as Huston’s admirer and fellow filmmaker seems to mirror his own fascination with Welles. It is a film of acute lovelessness, presenting even in this father and son dynamic a distinct distaste for each other. I kept being reminded of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), though of course Welles was lamenting the loss of an earlier system, or just displaying the sordidness of the business in general.

Above all, The Other Side can be a rather abrasive experience. The scenes of the film-within-a-film make incredible use of the wider aspect ratio, showing Oja Kadar drenched in brilliant lights and surrounded by densely textured environments of sand and concrete. But, they are incredibly long and start to gain a monotonous, though still intriguing, quality. They merely exist, resisting interpretation and constantly surprising the viewer who is led to question how Welles became so radical and modern, at least in a way that seems so far away from the man who made Citizen Kane.

I saw while researching the movie an article that prompted the question of whether it could even be considered a Welles film; perhaps its strange appeal is heightened by the notion of Welles as an auteur interrupted. While drawn to this interpretation, I still found myself compelled to try and locate Welles or to dislocate him from certain scenes, resulting in an untenable draw towards certainty that only left me dissatisfied and less engaged with the beauty of the film.

If there is any solace in the rather absurd act of looking for an author in a film – which is, after all, a series of images completely unaltered by whoever you ascribe its creation to – then it is the unexpected feeling of resolution that can be gained from not knowing. The Other Side of The Wind is about a fractured, uninhabited life that can only be glimpsed at through pieces of film – a postmodern Kane story split apart by a towering sense of expectation and artistry.

It is a drunken, sprawling mess of a movie; yet, against all odds, it seems to anticipate and investigate all the questions that critics themselves ask about its doomed production. What is an artist? What does it mean to have a legacy? Who the fuck even cares?


Popular Posts