Directed by Morgan Neville
Morgan Neville has had quite the year, and the subjects of his two 2018 documentaries, this and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? couldn’t be more different. One was Mr. Rogers, the man you wish was your grandpa, and the other is Orson Welles. This documentary chronicles the struggle for Welles to finish his film The Other Side of the Wind, which would be released in conjunction with this documentary by Netflix, only a handful of weeks ago.
The film began production around 1970 and shot off and on for half a decade. It was heavily improvised, and shots within the same scene were filmed years apart. The story concerns the last day in the life of an old, legendary film director (played by John Huston), who resembled in many ways Welles himself. Other characters were thinly veiled characterizations of people in Welles’ life and the filmmaking world at large. Directors show up playing versions of themselves, including Peter Bogdanovich as Welles’ protege. There are movie critics asking the director character questions which Welles fielded himself and even stand ins for real life girlfriends, cameramen and the actors of famous films from which Welles was borrowing.
We see clips of the film as well as from other Welles’ works. We learn about all the other films he wasn’t able to finish, and in between we hear from modern day accounts of people who knew Orson Welles alongside footage of Welles himself, surprisingly candid about his hopes, dreams and inspirations during interviews in the late 70s.
Orson Welles is a fascinating figure for so many reasons. He’s a legend, considered a genius, and while he has that unfortunately familiar fall from grace that we associate with so many Hollywood legends, he never quite seemed to have the same negative things said about him as were said about people like Alfred Hitchcock (mistreatment of his leading ladies on set) or contemporaries like, well there are a lot of them.
The lasting image of Neville’s documentary is of Welles laughing his ass off. It’s a sight I sure wasn’t used to, and we’re told that the director’s friend and collaborator, John Huston, asked to see the footage of him laughing after Welles had died. He had never known Welles to let himself be filmed in such an affectionate light.
He just seems like a large teddy bear, and there’s something quite endearing about that. It would probably help me overlook some of his lesser qualities or his demanding nature on set (which we do hear a good amount of), but it seems to all boil down to something like insecurity, a need for affection and a genuine interest in what he’s doing.
Welles’ later works were so far from being bankable that you couldn’t say he was doing it for the money. He was driven by something else, maybe even a madness which turned into a desperation. His early works, like Citizen Kane share very little on the surface with his more radical films of his later years, including this and F for Fake.
There is one similarity between Citizen Kane and The Other Side of the Wind, which is the downfall of someone considered a legend. In the first case it’s Welles playing a characterization of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and in the latter it’s Welles directing a performance based surely on himself. There is a common loss of control, ego run rampant and blurring of fiction and real life.
Playing a version of Welles, the John Huston character in The Other Side of the Wind never finishes his film. It’s an incomplete, rambling mess which some insist is genius but which others struggle to comprehend. The film being made within the film is a knockoff of European arthouse cinema, most notably Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point which heavily featured a house in the (out of the way) desert, where Welles would go to film some of his own film. He’s walking in the footsteps of those before him, even himself.
Loss seems a central component to They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. We focus on Welles’ own loss of agency in the filmmaking world (at one point he loses ownership of his own film and goes to court over the issue), as well as the fallout of the friendship between Welles and at the time young director Peter Bogdanovich.
The only person, it seems, who stuck by Welles throughout his entire career was cameraman Gary Graver, at least once the two met in 1970. Graver’s role in Welles life seems to resemble the relationship between Leon Vitali and Stanley Kubrick as chronicled in the documentary Filmworker. Graver wanted so badly to work with Welles that he did so for free and shot B movies and pornographic films to make money. The story goes that Welles was often in such a hurry to have Graver finish up his work on other jobs that he helped edit specific sequences of pornographic films. That might be my favorite tidbit from the movie as a whole.
Up Next: After the Storm (2016), Hollow Man (2000), Thunder Road (2018)