The Other Side of the Argument: First Thoughts on Orson Welles’ Demonic Fugue

Written for my collection Cinematic Encounters 2: Portraits and Polemics (2019), although it has also appeared by now in Spanish (in Caiman Cuadernos de Cine, November 2018), in Persian (in Sazandegi, December 19-20, 2018), and in French (in Trafic, March 2019). The Other Side of the Wind is still visible and available on Netflix, but I think we’re still a long way from it being adequately “digested” or coherently dismissed, much less adequately defined. Even those who consider it a failure haven’t, for the most part, come up with very persuasive accounts of what it is and does. Superficial replays of rumors about the film that circulated decades ago, many of them half-baked, continue to predominate. — J.R.


The Other Side of the Argument:

First Thoughts on Orson Welles’s Demonic Fugue


The only time I ever met Orson Welles — in 1972, in response to a letter of mine, to discuss his very first Hollywood project, an updated adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that I was writing about — I also had occasion to ask him about the status of his more recent projects. There was the film called Hoax that he was currently editing, which later became F for Fake (“not a documentary,” he assured me, but “a new kind of film”); two films that he declared were nearly done but he was in no hurry to release, The Deep and Don Quixote; and a still-unfinished film, The Other Side of the Wind, that he wanted to release ahead of the others because it was about movies and “movies are a popular subject now,” though he wasn’t sure how long this interest would last.

Forty-six years later, a posthumously completed version of the latter, put together by several hands — including Peter Bogdanovich, who also costars as a character much like himself, production manager Frank Marshall, and two later arrivals, editor Bob Murawski and producer Filip Jan Rymsza — is opening in the United States, and as luck would have it, it may be even timelier now than it might have been in the seventies. This isn’t because of its ostensible mythic subject, The Death of Hollywood, but because of its other mythic concern, The Death of Macho, which the film proposes as intimately (if covertly) connected with its “popular subject” — indeed, as something akin to a subject that dare not speak its name. All of the film’s action unfolds on July 2, pointedly the date of Ernest Hemingway’s suicide, and if death of one kind or another remains one of the most common preoccupations of Welles’s fourteen released features, the alleged death of Hollywood — combined with the deceptive teaser of a tell-all autobiography about an aging maverick director trying to finance the completion of his final independent feature — is the part of the film’s subject designed to get an audience inside the tent. Yet it’s the other subject and the other Death that will undoubtedly spark the most debate and controversy. The first Death, mainly fun and games spiced with witty gossip and the cult of celebrity (featuring such familiar names as Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Edmond O’Brien, Paul Stewart, and, in bits, everyone from Claude Chabrol, Dennis Hopper, and Curtis Harrington to Henry Jaglom, George Jessel, and Paul Mazursky) — even though it’s edited with the rapid, kamikaze shot collisions Welles developed in such globetrotting ventures as Othello, Mr. Arkadin, The Trial, and F for Fake, pushed here to even more aggressively discontinuous and discombobulated extremes — is clearly the one most cinephiles have been awaiting and expecting, and the one more appealing to mainstream taste. But the second one, pitched in the form of an arty countercultural nightmare about gender reversals (some of which parallel those in Hemingway’s posthumously assembled The Garden of Eden), sexual humiliation, coitus interruptus, impotence, and castration, without any stars or dialogue, is the one that stings and lingers. The resulting toxic brew may constitute Welles’s only feminist film, if only by default, yet the brand of feminism it suggests — predicated in part on the fierce silence of a nameless Native American actress both at the party and in a macho director’s unfinished film, glowering in mute and furious judgment at his behavior and world — has too many sinister aspects to be regarded as either affirmative or politically correct. Like the Victorian notions of dirty sex that course through Welles’s debatable version of The Trial, ravenous nymphets and all, it seethes with demonic unhealthiness.

Why it took almost half a century for The Other Side of the Wind to be completed has already been the focus of one book by Josh Karp1 as well as a documentary feature, Morgan Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, that in some ways confuses as much as it clarifies (by wrongly suggesting, for instance, that the film’s scenes were mostly improvised rather than scripted, and by being edited in a breezy manner that misrepresents the controlled cacophony of Welles’ own style). It’s a complicated, dispiriting tale of bad business deals, chicanery, lawsuits, and, finally, impounded footage in Paris that prevented Welles from editing more than about a third of the two hours of projected running time. When I first met Oja Kodar — who is the film’s lead actress (as the silent Native American) and coauthor — a few months after his death in 1985, which eventually led to both our friendship and her asking me to edit Welles’s interview book with Peter Bogdanovich,2 she told me that the film’s correspondence file was as hefty as War and Peace. Visiting her at the Villa Welles in Primošten, Croatia early last July, I saw substantial proof of this claim when she finally stacked the file on her kitchen table for me to examine. But apart from assertions by Welles in that pile that confirmed all her shy and mainly reluctant admissions of her creative contributions to the film, which I have been gradually trying to coax out of her for more than three decades, this isn’t a tale that I have any appetite for recounting here. What the film says and does is far more interesting.

The Death-of-Hollywood scenario centers on the seventieth birthday party of Jake Hannaford (John Huston), held at the ranch of his old actress chum, Zarah Valeska (Lilli Palmer — a part reportedly offered first to Marlene Dietrich), rendered via super-8 and 16mm footage and still photographs, in both color and black and white, and audiotapes, all allegedly recorded by various attendees in a pseudo-documentary style that remained part of Welles’s standard arsenal (as in his Shakespearean Caesar on stage, The Twelfth Night on 78 rpm, The War of the Worlds on radio, and, in film, the Citizen Kane newsreel, the openings of The Magnificent Ambersons and Mr. Arkadin, and F for Fake). Intercut with this material is Hannaford’s unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind, in color, screened first for a studio honcho (who disdainfully walks out), then at the party, and finally in a nearby drive-in theater after two power outages at the ranch, both of which further evoke impotence and/or interrupted sex. In contrast to the party, full of lively chatter (though almost completely and mysteriously devoid of any couples), this film has no dialogue and basically consists of the flirtations, foreplay, struggles, and sexual encounters between a passive, effeminate, nameless hunk first seen on a motorcycle (Bob Random playing the actor John Dale, mostly and appropriately like a “found” object or one of the many prop dummies brought to the party) and an equally nameless Native American radical and dominatrix (Oja Kodar), both of them naked for much of the time — getting it on first in the front seat of a car during a rainstorm (until the driver throws both of them out), then on the bare springs of a mattress-less bed in the open air on a studio backlot.

At the party we learn that the film is unfinished because Dale quit in the midst of shooting. Eventually, in the film being screened, and specifically during the latter sex scene, we discover why: being sexually taunted and humiliated by Hannaford from behind the camera and threatened with a pair of scissors by his costar (until she cuts her bead necklace instead, and her beads spill and scatter like semen), he stomps off the set, with Hannaford instructing his cameraman to film his departure. At the drive-in, we also hear the charge from a journalist (Susan Strasberg playing a cross between Pauline Kael and Barbara Leaming) that super-macho Hannaford has a homoerotic bent — a charge that eventually goads Hannaford into slapping her. (Characteristically, this slap seems calculated to solicit our righteous applause — and not because she’s wrong but because she’s right.)

Ever since enjoying a mainstream profile in his youth, Welles was reluctant to see himself as an arthouse filmmaker, although this was the status he mainly wound up with. It was only after Pauline Kael described Citizen Kane as a Hollywood newspaper comedy that his aberrant first feature got ushered belatedly into the mainstream, and the reason Welles gave me in 1972 for holding back his low-budget Don Quixote was that he didn’t want it to compete with Man of la Mancha. So it’s unsurprising that he described Wind as a movie about movies, his mainstream subject, rather than as an experimental art film about fading sexual confidence and diminished career options.

The fact that it’s both becomes an essential part of its fascination: a duet or duel between conflicting self-images. The contrasts between the film’s two alternating blocks of material are indeed so striking that they need to be regarded in musical terms, as the separate melodic lines in a fugue: reams of dialogue versus no dialogue at all, old age versus youth, color plus black and white in diverse formats versus just color 35-millimeter, and, perhaps most crucial, lone figures at a noisy party versus a movie couple coupling. Even though the sexual encounters of the latter between a dominatrix and her prey end in coitus interruptus, the two are always continually engaged with one another, even in their perpetual conflict, whereas the party guests and hostess are perceived mainly as disengaged and lost, solitary souls seeking some form of social communion. And the musical coupling of these two strands is visceral as well as conceptual: visual and aural close-ups of Hannaford pouring liquor into a shot glass make voluptuous audiovisual rhymes with the rain splashing against car windows in accompaniment to the movie sex.

Welles’s part of the script relates to Hannaford as played by Huston; Kodar’s part relates to Hannaford’s film in which she implicitly plays Hannaford’s sexual surrogate — a predator who, as Kodar has described her conception of the part, resembles a praying mantis. Although this film-within-the-film has often been described as Welles’s parody of Zabriskie Point – based on his outspoken disdain for Michelangelo Antonioni as an “architect of empty boxes” — Kodar’s own acquaintance with Antonioni’s work remains minimal, and the artiness and Freudian symbolism of Hannaford’s film is chiefly her contribution, even though the anxiety about countercultural androgyny and passivity as a threat to aging macho values clearly belongs to Welles. Kodar directed three sequences — in the car, inside a disco’s ladies room, and on a surrealist beach in the final scene, where a giant phallus actually topples in defeat — and a temporary illness prevented Welles from being present at the shooting of the second of these scenes, perhaps the creepiest in the film. More generally, Kodar’s background as a sculptor — she was the first woman ever admitted to the sculpture department of Zagreb’s Academy of Visual Arts — informs the diverse settings of Hannaford’s film, whether they’re created or found (as in the MGM backlot, where she and her costar managed to sneak in with Welles and a skeletal crew for about a day and a half of continuous shooting). Most of her sculptures are both abstract and erotic, and the same might be said of the disco nightclub where she cuts the eyes off a doll given to her by her sparring partner — the film’s first symbolic castration — in order to wear them defiantly as earrings. (If the disco recalls the funhouse in The Lady from Shanghai – and its ladies room evokes the giggling girls peeking through slats into an artist’s garret in The Trial – this only further suggests that Kodar’s multiple collaborations with Welles, however dialectical, could also sometimes attain a genuine osmosis.)