So if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably come across something about Orson Welles, to the effect that Welles was by far the greatest filmmaker this country ever produced so just shut up. A new essay in Vanity Fair about Welles’s unfinished masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind (the VF writer seems not to have heard of Welles’s other other unfinished masterpiece, Don Quixote) explains perfectly the audacity with which I make such a claim.
The film is loosely autobiographical, or at least a mosaic of Wellesian adventures and preoccupations:
It was May 1937 and Welles entered a Manhattan recording studio to narrate a Spanish Civil War documentary whose script had been written by Ernest Hemingway—who happened to be in the sound booth when Orson arrived.
Only 22, Orson was not yet the Orson Welles, but he was on his way as a talented voice actor earning $1,000 a week during the Depression and a Broadway wunderkind who’d had the audacity to stage an all-black Macbeth.
Looking at Hemingway’s script, Welles suggested a few changes, as he recalled to a reporter decades later. Wouldn’t it be better, for instance, to eliminate the line “Here are the faces of men who are close to death,” and simply let those faces speak for themselves?
Hemingway was outraged that anyone would dare tamper with his words and went after Orson, implying that the actor was “some kind of faggot.” Welles responded by hitting Hemingway the best way he knew how. If Papa wanted a faggot, Orson would give him one.
“Mr. Hemingway, how strong you are!” Welles said, camping it up with a swishy lisp. “How big you are!”
Grabbing a chair, Hemingway attacked Orson, who picked up a chair of his own, sparking a cinematic brawl between two of the great creative geniuses of the 20th century, who duked it out while images of war flickered on a screen behind them.
Eventually, however, the pair realized the insanity of their fight and soon slumped to the floor laughing, cracked open a bottle of whiskey, and drank their way into friendship.
Twenty years after this encounter, Welles would work on a screenplay about a hyper-manly, middle-aged, American novelist living in Spain who has lost his creative powers and become obsessed with a young bullfighter in whom he sees the promise of youth and perhaps something more. Meanwhile, a Greek chorus of sycophantic biographers, worshipful grad students, and literary critics trailed the writer, reminding him of his own greatness. …
Sometime after Hemingway killed himself, on July 2, 1961, Welles changed the locus of the film to Hollywood and turned the novelist into a sadistic man’s-man filmmaker who may also be a closeted homosexual. He decided that all of the action would take place on a single day—July 2—which became his main character’s birthday and the last day of his life. …
“We’re going to shoot it without a script,” he said, his face lighting up with excitement. “I know the whole story…. But what I’m going to do is get the actors in every situation, tell them what has happened up to this moment … and I believe they will find what is true and inevitable.”
“Have you done that kind of thing before with other films?” one man asked.
“Nobody’s ever done it,” Welles replied.
Welles also planned to make two films and fuse them into one. First, there was Hannaford’s movie, which he conceived as an old man’s failed attempt to make an arty, sexy, symbolic picture aimed at the younger audiences of New Hollywood. Beautiful, but without a plot or any sense of purpose, the film was Orson’s way of taking a shot at Blow-Up director Michelangelo Antonioni, whom he once referred to as “an architect of empty boxes.” The footage from this film within the film would be shown to producers and party guests during the other movie Orson was making.
That other film was the story of Hannaford’s 70th-birthday party, which is being thrown by a famous golden-era actress (modeled on Orson’s friend Marlene Dietrich) as a way of introducing the denizens of New Hollywood to an old master and in hopes that one of them will fund his comeback movie.
In stark contrast to Hannaford’s film, Welles was determined to shoot this portion of the picture (the movie’s actual story line) in a multi-layered, documentary style comprising footage from still, 16-mm., Super 8, and other cameras—all of which he would knit together to form a fractured picture of Hannaford on the last day of his life.
Gotta love it: a 22-year-old “kid” telling ERNEST HEMINGWAY to cut his line and let the images do the work for him.
OK, now get this:
Orson would stalk the set, looking through a circle made with his fingers and explaining precisely which lens and focal length he wanted. Without ever peering through a camera, he always seemed to know which image would be captured, and those who did as they were told wound up doing the best camerawork of their lives.
Conceptually, it seemed, Orson used each frame of film as an easel on which he was creating individual works of art that he would then string together in a way that multiplied their impact.
“The concepts Orson had for shots were utterly astounding,” said crew member Eric Sherman. “And each shot had something to do with the larger creation.”
He’s shooting two films simultaneously, in different formats, never looking in a camera but through a circle he makes with his fingers, all the shots—not the scenes, the shots—will both be informed by and inform everything that comes before and after. There are no storyboards, no script, no sequence of little index cards mapping out the narrative in discrete segments.
He’s doing it all IN HIS HEAD.
And this was the guy who was reduced to sitting on Merv Griffin’s ratty couch exchanging inane banter for a sleepy TV audience, and reading vapid marketing-speak for those stupid commercials, and guest-starring in a freaking Muppet movie because no one would bankroll one of his films outright.
Did I ever tell you that my maternal grandfather was Welles’s tobacconist? And that Welles actually came to my grandfather’s home one day to play dominoes with a mutual friend who worked at Radio Music City Hall, and that my mother never forgot his booming voice echoing through all levels of the house?
IN. HIS. HEAD.