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Robert Bodrog


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In 2015, Everything's Coming Up Orson

Orson Welles, location unknown, 1960s

“Oh God, how they'll love me when I'm dead,” lamented Orson Welles to Peter Bogdanovich mere weeks before he died in October 1985. At the time, to many in the film world, Welles had long since become irrelevant as a director. He had become a parody of himself, making periodic appearances on the talk show circuit, and being the face of Paul Masson wines in its print and TV ads. To millions of Americans of the era, he was merely the fat guy on the wine commercials. Sadly, many knew him for nothing else.
 
But 2015 looks like it's going to be a watershed year for setting the record straight, giving credit where credit is due, and some adulation that seems long overdue will finally manifest itself. A century after his birth and thirty years after his death, Welles will be re-appraised and re-appreciated like never before.
 
That reappraisal will involve a lot of myth shattering and fact correcting. For example, Welles actually continued working on films right up to the end, and recorded an interview for The Merv Griffith Show just hours before he passed away. Unfortunately, despite his tenacious efforts, many of his film projects remained unfinished in various stages of completion, including the now legendary The Other Side of the Wind, which hopefully will finally be completed and released some time in 2015. But more about that later.
 
To give a cursory overview of Welles' career in theatre, radio and film is to do a great disservice and overlooks the variety, depth and complexity of his artistic output: the successes, failures, and full range of projects completed and uncompleted that fall somewhere in between. Whatever one chooses to include, it's what's omitted that diminishes and distorts the full, rich mosaic of his prodigious output. And what an output it was, in both quality and quantity.
 
Reigning in the new year, on January 1 the Film Forum on South Houston Street in New York will kick off a comprehensive 5-week retrospective, beginning with a one-week run of Citizen Kane (1941) in a restored 4K version, followed by four full weeks of Welles programming from January 9 through February 3, which includes screenings of popular favorites such as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Lady From Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958), but also less often screened and under-rated films such as F For Fake (1974), a new restoration of Chimes at Midnight (1965) and Welles' first color film as a director, The Immortal Story (1968).
 
And for hard-core Welles aficionados, on February 2 there will be a rare screening of Too Much Johnson. Shot in the summer of 1938 and considered Welles' first “professional” film, it was not actually intended for theatrical distribution, but rather to be shown as part of the Mercury Theater's innovative adaption of William Gilette's 1894 marital farce of the same name, starring Welles, his first wife Virginia Nicolson, and Joseph Cotten. 
 
Welles' original concept was to present the play as a rapid-paced multimedia event, with each of the play's three acts introduced and prefaced with a silent movie, which would also serve to fill in parts of the plot's backstory. Ultimately however, Welles scrapped the idea of using the film as part of the production, and it was long considered to be lost until a 35mm nitrate print of a rough cut assembled by Welles was discovered in a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy. The film was subsequently restored in 2013 by George Eastman House, Cinemazero, and Cineteca del Friuli, in conjunction with the National Film Preservation Foundation. It can also be seen and downloaded free of charge on their website at the following link:
 
 
And at the Film Forum on January 15 and 17 Joseph McBride, film scholar, biographer and author of three books about Welles, will present Wellesiana, a program of rarities, including the director's first short film The Hearts of Age, made when he was only 19, along with a selection of other assorted film cameos, TV and stage appearances, rushes, and more.
 
Then, on the weekends of February 7-8 and 14-15, The Paley Center on West 52nd Street will present its own packed program of Welles TV rarities, including his pilot Fountain of Youth, a compilation of excerpts from various interviews, and a classic episode of I Love Lucy from 1956, in which Welles plays himself and teaches Lucy about Shakespeare.
 
But New York won't be the only hotbed of Wellesian fervor in 2015. From April 29 to May 3, Indiana University in Bloomington, whose Lilly Library houses the largest collection of Welles related items in the world, numbering approximately 20,000, will host Orson Welles: A Centennial Celebration and Symposium.
 
This 4-day event will feature film screenings, academic sessions, an exhibit of selected of Welles materials, and panel discussions with various scholars. Confirmed guests include Jonathan Rosenbaum, Joseph McBride, Chuck Workman (whose new documentary Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles opened in New York and Los Angeles in December), and Patrick McGilligan, whose biography Young Orson, is scheduled for release on May 12.
 
Other forthcoming books due out in 2015 include Orson Welles Volume 3, by Simon Callow, concluding his biographical trilogy on Welles twenty years after the first volume, The Road to Xanadu, appeared, which was followed by the second installment, Hello Americans, published in 2006.
 
Other celebrations are planned for May by the Citizen Welles Society in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Welles' birthplace, which is mounting its own film and multimedia festival, which will include a live stage production of War of the Worlds.
 
And in Woodstock, Illinois, where Welles spent his formative years at the Todd School where he acted, directed and designed sets for numerous plays, including many Shakespeare productions, Woodstock Celebrates, scheduled for May 6-9, will feature film screenings, panel discussions and a 1915 period event featuring musical performances and dance.
 
Orson Welles in F for Fake, 1974
 
But perhaps the most anticipated new tome about Welles is Josh Karp's Orson Welles Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, due out on April 21, which brings us to what will surely be the most awaited Welles event of 2015, one which has been over four decades in the making.
 
Although not actually the final film Welles directed, for many The Other Side of the Wind stands as the magnum opus of his later career, a work whose legend looms so large, due to its protracted shooting schedule (principal photography spanned from 1970-76) and a plethora of issues which kept the film from being completed during Welles' lifetime. In fact, the film's history, from inception to production, and what will hopefully be its ultimate release, could easily be the subject of a multi-hour documentary-- or even a miniseries.
 
At the outset, no one, not even Welles himself, could have envisioned the protracted twists and turns, the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, and the conflagration of legal obstacles and conflicting egos that would conspire to bog down the project's completion for decades.
 
The genesis of the film dates back to the 1960s, and was initially conceived as a commentary on male machismo, at least partly inspired by Ernest Hemingway and his entourage who frequented the bullfighting circuit in Spain, whom Welles had observed first-hand in the 1950s. Then, according to Peter Bogdanovich, in 1969 in Mexico during an interview with Welles, who was on location acting in Catch-22, “One night down there, he started talking about this idea for a movie he'd had. I'd mentioned that a lot of the directors I knew who were older were having serious trouble getting work in Hollywood. People like John Ford and Howard Hawks; these men were considered over the hill. Orson got very upset about that. He thought it was appaling...Then [he] told me the story of this movie, about an old director.”
 
By 1969, the old studio system had broken down, and the so-called “New Hollywood” era was emerging. Films like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider and Bogdanovich's Targets were breaking new ground in their depiction of sex, violence, drug use and just about every other aspect of moral depravity. In this new cinematic landscape, enabled by the end of the Hayes production code and the huge demographic of baby boomers who were coming of age, directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles were dinosaurs. If they weren't yet extinct, it didn't matter. The kind of stories they told and the way they told them were irrelevant, anachronistic tales of a bygone era, which held no meaning (or box office lure) for the younger generation in the Age of Aquarius.
 
Jake Hannaford, the protagonist of The Other Side of the Wind is just such a man. He's a film director of the old, antiquated Hollywood. Nevertheless, he is attempting a comeback by trying to make a movie that will cater to a younger audience. 
 
In an interview published in Bright Lights Film Journal in 2007, Bogdanovich described the film's plot and story structure as follows:
 
“As with Citizen Kane, the film begins at the end: the first thing you see are shots of this burned-out Porsche and a voice-over — which was supposed to be Orson's — saying: "This is Jake Hannaford's car. He died on the morning of his 70th birthday. What you are about to see is a reconstruction of that evening, made with the footage shot that night." You see, a bunch of film students, TV journalists and documentary crews all turn up for Jake's party, all of them filming what's going on. And Orson shot all of it, all this raw, rough mockumentary footage, as well as Hannaford's film, the movie-within-the-movie, which is very beautifully composed. And so the movie is extremely complicated visually, woven together from all these pieces, 16mm, 8mm, and 35mm, colour and black and white, moving images and still photography. It's really fast and loose, really cutty, very unusual, very modern, very 'today'.”
 
Veteran director John Huston plays Hannaford, Bogdanovich plays Brooks Otterlake, an up-and-coming young director, and biographer Joseph McBride plays Mr. Pister, a film buff and scholar type who pesters Hannaford with a barrage of questions about his work and its meaning. McBride worked on the film from 1970-76, as principal photography progressed sporadically over six years. In fact, Huston didn't come on board until three years after shooting began. Ultimately however, it wasn't the snail's pace, piecemeal shooting schedule that caused problems, but rather a series of unfortunate legal and financial issues.
 
Knowing that finding studio financing was out of the question, Welles initially raised $1 million for The Other Side of the Wind himself. He subsequently received an additional $1 million from a Paris-based Iranian company, Les films de l'Astrophore, whose owner, Medhi Boushehri, was the Shah of Iran's brother-in-law. Unfortunately, a Spanish investor embezzled around a quarter of a million from the production and disappeared. Astrophore later agreed to cover this gap in financing, provided they were given a higher percentage of the film. Ultimately, l'Astrophore owned around 80% of the film, and denied Welles the right to final cut. Then in 1979, the Iranian revolution took place, and the negative of Welles' film were just one of many of Astrophore's seized assets. Eventually the negative, consisting of over 1000 reels, ended up in storage at a location near Paris, where they remained until recently.
 
However, before things went from bad to worse, Welles personally edited a rough cut of several scenes, running about 40 minutes, some of which was shown in 1975 when he received the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award. But whatever buzz or interest it produced, it didn't help Welles raise more money. The project languished and in 1985 Welles died. Before that, one day he asked Peter Bogdanovich to complete the film if anything happened to him. And, as was later discovered, he left behind instructions on how it should be done.
 
Jump cut to the autumn of 2014. In an interview with wellesnet.com, producer Frank Marshall, who worked as the line producer on the film, confirmed that he and Filip Jan Rymsza of Royal Road Entertainment had secured the partial ownership rights that were held by Les Films de l'Astrophore. They also announced that agreements had been reached with Oja Kodar, who was Welles' partner and collaborator from the mid 1960s. Kodar inherted Welles' ownership in the film, and also appears in it, most notably in an extended sex scene with actor Bob Random, which was very uncharacteristic of Welles. The scene, which takes place in a moving car during a rain storm, has achieved a kind of cult status of its own, although it would be considered tame by today's standards.
 
An agreement was also reached with Welles' youngest daughter Beatrice, who heads the Estate of Orson Welles, and has given the project her blessing. 
 
So now the work can finally begin. According to Marshall at the time of the interview in October, the 1083 reels of negative were being indexed and cataloged, before being sent to Los Angeles where post-production will take place. Encouragingly, according to Rymsza, the negative is in pristine condition.
 
There also exists a 95-minute assembly prepared by Gary Graver with editor Frank Mazolla, which Graver and Joseph McBride shopped around to try to drum up interest in completing the project years ago. Graver passed away in 2006 and remained devoted to the project to the end of his life.
 
According to a recent interview, Joseph McBride said that Peter Bogdanovich will supervise the editing, and great care will be taken to ensure that the film will be edited in Welles' style. But as to how long the finished film will be, is anyone's guess. 
 
Several festivals, including Cannes, have expressed an interest in showing the film, but where and when it will ultimately debut depends on how work progresses. The good news is, in 2015, along with all the other Welles centennial retrospectives and conferences, fans will finally have a new Orson Welles film to enjoy. And that's definitely something to celebrate.
 
gersbach.net