In 2002, the famed documentarian Errol Morris interviewed Donald Trump for a prerecorded segment for the Academy Awards. (The segment was about favourite movies; Trump, then merely a celebrity with abhorrent political views, questionable business practices, and a love of any type of press attention, was likely easy to get to participate.) During the interview, Trump talked about Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, but what would later strike the public as if not exactly prophetic, then certainly peculiar, was how he talked about it—namely, expressing his sympathies for its Faustian antihero, Charles Foster Kane, a character who, in pursuit of money, fame, and power, builds a corrupt media company, turns on his friends, drives his miserable second wife to a suicide attempt, ends up losing his soul, and dies alone in the pleasure palace he built for himself. (It’s perhaps worth noting that Welles’s character does lose his political race, though his papers do scream “FRAUD AT POLLS” as a result.) Welles himself called Kane a man who “abuses the power of the popular press and challenges the authority of the law, contrary to all the liberal traditions of civilizations,” a man who “has very little respect for what I consider to be civilization, and tries to become the king of his universe” who embodies, the director said, “the things I most detest.” Sound like anyone? (In a gold medal finalist–level missing of the point, Morris reflected later, Trump’s advice for Kane was: “Get yourself a different woman.”)
Cut to 2018, and Welles came up again, this time in Morris’s documentary American Dharma, about former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who was publicly discarded by the administration, forced out of his post at Breitbart, and now seemingly roams the world sowing white nationalist-flavoured discord. Bannon unspools the iconic films that shaped his worldview to Morris—he is, he says, a fan of The Fog of War, and says it provoked his own entree into filmmaking, though that’s not exactly a compliment—and claims that in Welles’s Chimes at Midnight, the famous rejection scene from Henry IV, Part 2 (“I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers”) is not, as The New Yorker wrote, and as nearly everyone else who has seen it agrees, about Welles-as-Falstaff’s “humiliation by worldly authorities,” but is in fact a vision of the beatific acceptance that comes when a man becomes aware of the end of his usefulness. It’s an interesting thing to watch; Bannon is attempting to rewrite betrayal as the natural course of things, and a happy ending, to boot. It’s almost an obfuscation worthy of a Welles character.
Which brings us to now, and is all to say that 33 years after his death, Orson Welles—bon vivant, blowhard, and something like the platonic ideal of a tortured film talent, both behind the camera and in front of it—has got something new to add to the conversation. Today marks the release of Welles’s final, unfinished opus, The Other Side of the Wind, and of Morgan Neville’s companion documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, both on Netflix.
Neville’s documentary is cheerier than one might expect, given its subject matter, and the fraught nature of its delayed delivery. (The Other Side of the Wind’s footage has been locked up for decades in an epic legal battle, during which it was claimed by parties “including [Welles’s] surviving loved ones, Showtime, and the Iranian government,” The New York Times noted.) During the protracted creation of the movie, which was filmed between 1970 and 1976, and left largely unedited at the time of his death, the director was in something like exile: betrayed by Hollywood (which, despite his various successes, perpetually took and recut his films against his specifications); stymied by the system, which wouldn’t pay for his projects as he asked; and overwhelmed by the sensation that the culture was moving somewhere he didn’t quite want to go—namely pell-mell toward the postmodern art films that had taken over European cinema (thanks to the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni), or Hollywood’s roguish, handsome, and “out there” Easy Rider, Raging Bull–era new guard.
Neville interviews Welles’s friends and fellow filmmakers (Peter Bogdanovich, who ultimately helped piece together Wind; Henry Jaglom; Welles’s devoted DP Gary Graver; Welles’s former partner Oja Kodar, among many others), many of whom got swept up in the open-ended project that was The Other Side of the Wind, and who seemingly went along for the ride—out of love for Welles, or his legend, or something in between—unless they bailed out, as in the case of the impressionist Rich Little (who had a key role that was later recast). Welles’s film is prescient, something like a mockumentary—“you either hate it or you loathe it,” he tells one interviewer—and looser than his previous work. It centers around the 70th birthday party for a once-celebrated film director (played by John Huston, who growls and purrs and bloviates with aplomb), who is finishing his own film, a vague parody of L’Eclisse or L’Avventura that’s also called The Other Side of the Wind, and is followed by various documentarians and members of the press. Huston’s character dies before it’s finished.
It’s hard not to watch the behind-the-scenes footage, in what Neville recently described as “a documentary about a documentary about a feature about a filmmaker,” and wonder whether some of Welles’s fits and starts and delays—the project was self-funded and Welles would occasionally have to cut bait and go act in someone else’s movie to gin up funds for his own—and various temperament-driven dramas were less about Welles’s love of what he called filmmaking’s “divine accidents” and in fact some form of subliminal self-sabotage; whether he simply didn’t want the party to end. It’s after the party’s over, after all, in which he’d have to confront the various indignities of aging in a culture obsessed with youth and the “new.” It’s ultimately a bit of an odd documentary (and honestly, how could it not be?) but worthwhile for its illumination of Welles and his legend, both of which have come to bear a bit in 2018.
Gore Vidal once wrote that Welles was “literally, a magician, fascinated by legerdemain, tricks of eye, forgeries, labyrinths, mirrors reflecting mirrors . . . a master of finding new ways of seeing things that others saw not at all.” He was also, and perhaps more pertinently for our purposes, a creator made hyperaware of the public’s ability to get swept away in a narrative, as in the case of the rise of fascism, which Welles claimed took some of its cues from Hollywood. (“In Germany, the decor, the spectacular use of great masses of people—the central myth itself was borrowed from grand opera. In Italy, the public show, the lavish props, the picturesque processions were taken from the movies. Even the famous salute, the stiff arm up-raised, comes not from history, but from Hollywood . . . Surely one of the most amusing footnotes in all the chronicles of recorded time is that Hitler and Mussolini stole their showmanship from Richard Wagner and Cecil B. DeMille!”) Or his War of the Worlds, when he used his radio broadcast to accidentally convince large swaths of the public that earth was under attack by alien forces. (Of the radio broadcast, Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker, “Supporters outnumbered critics ten to one; quite a few listeners admitted to being fooled but added that they had enjoyed the fright. One began by addressing Welles as ‘You horrible, terrible person’ and ended by saying, ‘I must say it was marvelous.’”) It was an act of media persuasion scholars still look at today for clues about our current predicament, where anonymous bots and suspected foreign-funded Internet trolls seemingly control much of the conversation, and no one seems quite sure who is telling the truth, or whether “the truth” will even survive as a concept for much longer.
So really, who better to sink your teeth into in late 2018, this year of fake news and real fascism, than Welles, even if it’s just to think about what he would have done were he around today, and with so much raw meat at his disposal? Or as Welles put it himself in 1973’s F for Fake (his excellent movie about hoaxes that also turned out to be one): “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is art. Picasso himself said it. ‘Art,’ he said, ‘is a lie, a lie that makes us realize the truth.’” So why not dive in? You might learn something.
This superb article which was first published on-line at vogue.com written by the talented Alessandra Coddinha, deserves a wider hearing. With full accreditation and a salute to Coddinha.