Actor, producer, writer and director, Orson Welles.
Actor, producer, writer and director, Orson Welles.
Image: Getty Images / Central Press

We have to set Orson Welles apart. He was always apart anyway, a beggar genius essential to any party but also excluded from what we might call full party membership. Citizen Kane — by a long mile the best first film ever made, possibly the best film — forced him to spend the rest of his life as a pariah.

Every time he went near Hollywood, or other founts of patronage, people heard the clang of his bell. He put their artistic consciences on the spot. “Part of us wants to finance Orson’s next wonderwork,” they probably thought. “But what if it is Orson’s next, or first, disaster? Can we trust this man, or the talent God endowed him with?”

It really was like that. A friend of mine knew Welles in Madrid, during the director’s Spanish period (mainly the 1960s). The black-smocked giant, frequenting bars and parties, was at once an entertainer, a raconteur and a mendicant. Money nearly always came up. And why not? What’s a Michelangelo without a Medici? Hence the colourful and calamitous history of The Other Side of the Wind, his 1970s-made work of love whose labours seemed, for decades, truly, Shakespeareanly lost, but soon finally to be seen by the world on Netflix.

Its release, and even completion, was held up by ownership issues. The backers wanted a just ransom for their costly hostage, as well as a resolving of more complex proprietorship issues. Liberation finally arrived. The film, edited and restored after experts’ best guesses at Orson’s intentions, premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Many hurrahs, one or two boos, a handful of ho-hums.

Seen now, The Other Side of the Wind is a desperate, glorious, terrible, ramshackle, occasionally inspired piece of pure cinema. It tells of the last day of an old film-maker, Jake Hannaford (a lordly maverick played by John Huston), before his death in a car crash. It was inspired, Welles said, not by himself but by Hemingway. There is a secondary motif — not very Ernest, but certainly earnest in its wry probing — of bisexuality. “This old lion of yours is not what you think,” says someone of Hannaford.

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The “old lion” seems to fancy the gilded youth who stars in his movie-in-progress, titled, like Welles’s framing film, The Other Side of the Wind. Since Bob Random, the young actor playing the young actor, is eye-bogglingly gorgeous — think John Savage with Marc Bolan’s curls — this seems no cue for surprise or deep character inquest. But Welles said his film was “an attack on machoism”. Maybe this theme is integral rather than tangential. Hard to tell in the film as finished. Read on.

Man and manhood. They were obsessions with Welles. Charles Foster Kane grows from boy to man. Prince Hal grows from boy to man. It was always ambiguous whether “man”, for Welles, was a gender usage, as in “manly”, or just an anthropological one, as in “mankind”. What were Marlene Dietrich character’s last words on the tragic-buffoon detective Welles played in Touch of Evil? “He was some kind of man ... What does it matter what you say about people?” Parse and deconstruct.

The making of this man was his vision, his imagination and the fire of his originality. He grew from boy to man almost overnight, courtesy of one film.

Citizen Kane is almost inconceivable as a beginner work — or perhaps it’s inconceivable as anything else. Ignorance and intuition, touched with bravura, know no fear. Bring on the child prodigy.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, 1941.
Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, 1941.
Image: Getty Images

But the unmaking of Welles was a boyish trait too: his impatience. He wanted to storm every castle, with no exact notion of why or of what he would do with the castle once stormed. He had little time for patient virtues like structure, development, cogency of theme. No wonder his three best films, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight, were structured by others. Respectively: (co)screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, noir novelist Whit Masterson, and William Shakespeare.

But It’s All True? The Lady from Shanghai? Even F For Fake? They are glittering improvisations, scintillating and untidy, from which we pick out the moments that sparkle like broken glass. The hall-of-mirrors shootout at the end of Shanghai is a great sequence but it’s also inorganic and standalone. Its reverberance bears less on the story in which it features, more, with ironic potency, on Welles’s own nature and genius. He thought in fragments; he crafted in fragments; unless some master craftsman-collaborator was standing by the mirrors, protecting them, making sure an artistic whole somehow survived.

The Other Side of the Wind is supremely a bunch of broken glass, as vast as a landscape. “Jake is just making it up as he goes along,” someone says of the hero-artist’s new movie. “He’s done it before,” comes the reply.

Shards of Kane lie about this landscape, as a dead man’s life is explored in extended flashback. Kane apart, The Other Side of the Wind has almost no structure beyond a kaleidoscopic layering of mortality motifs and love/death meditations. The already-famous sex scene in a car, in the film within a film, is a walpurgisnacht of desire and despair, like an old man’s delirious clutching at carnal memory. There is a car crash too, elsewhere; there are images of inferno and collapse (the crumbling Hollywood backlots, perhaps a payback-apocalyptic vision by a Hollywood outcast).

Like a bizarre blend of celebration and grief-binge — a wake for creativity as we knew it — this is also a director’s film full of other directors. Not just Huston and Peter Bogdanovich, but in cameos, and some holding inquest on cinema’s notional heydays, Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom.

Welles had little time for patient virtues like structure, development, cogency of theme

The film is such an unholy mess that it has a kind of grandeur. “The greatest things in movies are divine accidents,” Welles is seen telling a group of reporters in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Morgan Neville’s insightful documentary about Wind’s making. Divine accident was to be the master’s creative strategy and mission in The Other Side of the Wind. Hence, surely, the improvised dialogue. Hence the seemingly extemporised, often one-source lighting set-ups. Hence the manic cutting, ensuring no moment stands still long enough to become banal or boring.

Poor Orson. He was galloping into the future, dragging the wreckage of Hollywood and/or his own career after him. He couldn’t stop. Like the Flying Dutchman, to permutate analogies, he had to keep sailing, waiting for the unconditional love of a beautiful muse or bountiful mogul. Welles lovers will hate me for saying this. But after Citizen Kane he should have been persuaded, forcefully, to work with great screenwriters, even great producers. “Structure, structure!” someone should have said. “Theme, theme!” “Content, content!”

It’s not his fault. Welles’s gift was his ego and his genius as an innovating stylist. It’s cinema’s fault. The lords of the seventh art should have given him help; they should have shaped courses for his imagination. They should, above all and before all, have honoured The Magnificent Ambersons, violated by hired editors in Welles’s absence, in its authorial cut. That was the one occasion when the master’s own shaping was impeccable.

Alone, he was too often alone. He was all pistons and dynamo and blaze and energy, with no vehicle for him to drive and little skill at shaping a vehicle for himself. He was a lion in the movie industry desert, scavenging for the scanty forage offered or volunteered; and finally seeking whom he may devour — his enemies, his friends, himself — when even that scantiness was scanted. That is surely the story, and the poignancy, of The Other Side of the Wind.

Released on Netflix on November 2.

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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