Matthew Kresal discovers some unfinished business...
Orson Welles has the reputation of being one of the greatest filmmakers of the Twentieth Century. Citizen Kane is held up as a masterpiece, others such as Mr. Arkadin are looked at as films that might have been under different circumstances, and that's not to mention a number of uncompleted projects that have since becomes available. Yet there is one Welles film that has never seen the light of day, at least not where the public has ever been able to see it. That film would be The Other Side Of The Wind, the subject of Josh Karp's new book, Orson Welles's Last Movie.
Karp's book is a treasure trove of knowledge as it pieces together the more than forty-five year history of the film. The book, in proper Welles style, opens up not at the beginning of the lengthy shoot for Other Side Of The Wind but with Welles 1985 death, which serves as a Kane like prologue for the entire novel. From there, the book starts by tracing the film's roots back to the earliest days of Welles' career and an encounter with Ernest Hemingway, Karp then gives a brief summing up of the ups and downs of that career, up to the point in the late 1960s when the The Other Side of the Wind began to take shape.
The majority of the book takes the reader on a journey through the last fifteen years of Welles life and the incredible cast of real life characters involved in the making of the film. There's Welles himself, of course, who comes across as a larger than life figure who seems to go back and forth between creative genius, capable of inspiring great loyalty, while also being an incredibly flawed human being capable of petty jealously and anger. There's Welles mistress the actress Oja Kador, Welles protege the actor/director Peter Bogdanovich, actor John Huston (who didn't start shooting scenes until four years into filming), the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran who helped to finance the film and crew members such as Gary Graver, a B-movie maker who becomes the cinematographer on The Other Side Of The Wind and spends decades dedicated to the film and Welles.
This section of the book is also full of incredible moments and details. There's Welles using a table and a bread truck to get a forced perspective shot, how critics attacking the reputation of Citizen
Kane put a brief stop to filming, how one of the film's actresses was a waitress in a diner who was cast after serving Welles dinner, and how his continuing push for artistic freedom helped to guarantee that editing wouldn't be completed by the time of his death. It makes for an intriguing read as it portrays the ups and downs of film-making and how outside forces, including the Iranian Revolution and the fall of Bogdanovich's career during the mid-late 1970s, effected the film.
The last section of the book covers the thirty years that have passed since Welles death. It's a story just as compelling as the making of the film itself and involves Kador, Welles daughter Beatrice and the Showtime channel, amongst others, in an ongoing thirty year effort to finally get the film completed and released. In it, Karp reveals a mess of rights issues, conflicting agendas and how attempts to protect Welles legacy have helped to keep the film unreleased. We discover how filmmakers ranging from Huston to Clint Eastwood have tried their hand at piecing together the eleven hours worth of filmed material into a final product. The book doesn't cover the recently launched campaign on Indiegogo but I imagine that a second edition might very well do so, and maybe write the last chapter on The Other Side Of The Wind.
Karp's greatest achievement though might be that he's able to present a coherent story, pieced together from decades of speculation and controversy, alongside newly conducted interviews and research. While I'm sure that many Welles' aficionados are well aware of some of the stories related here, I must confess that (as someone whose come to the saga surrounding The Other Side of the Wind only in the last couple of years) I'm grateful that he's pieced it all together into a narrative within a single volume The effort is arguably akin to the attempts to put the film together, with art imitating life and vice versa.
Even better, Karp keeps the book compelling throughout. It easily could have been a dull analysis of “what went wrong” or just simply been a string of anecdotes about the film pieced together. Instead, Karp's narrative follows the tangled web of filmmakers and financiers throughout the last fifteen years of Welles life struggling to get the film made, followed by three decades of further efforts. Karp's flowing prose style and compelling narrative means that the book is never dry, never dull and goes along at a great pace.
If you're a film buff or a Welles aficionado, I heartily recommend Orson Welles's Last Movie. It's a fascinating read and a tale of creative persistence in the face of financial issues, egos and conflicting agendas. More than that it presents a compelling, immensely readable biography of a film few have ever seen and a portrait of a filmmaker misunderstood in life and loved in death. As Karp shows, it's a tale only Orson Welles could have created.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.