Truth, fiction and devine accidents of O. Welles – the greatest pretender

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Release Date: 15.01.2019.

„Everything else I have ever done has been controlled, every frame is controlled. But I would like to take a whole story and make the picture as though it were a documentary. The actors are gonna be improvising.“, might sound like something that came from the mouth of Adina Pintilie, the director of „Touch Me Not“, experimental docu-fiction/ self-reflection film about body autonomy, that won Golden Berlin Bear at the beginning of 2018. But this opening quote is way older than that. It belongs to some other times in cultural and political sense. Strangely, thought was constructed way before the era of fake news, during times filmmakers main goal was to tell a story, and the camera was mostly just a simple tool. Way before we got a handle of how to do mimesis with a length of shots, different frame sizes and frame rates, at times when „authors“ were still alive.

Opening words were spoken by, greatest pretender among those authors, Orson Welles, during one of his interviews in the early 70’s where he is talking about plans for his newest project. „The greatest things in the movies are divine accidents“, explains Welles setting the basis for his swan song „The Other Side of the Wind“, that he never got a chance to finish.. or maybe he actually did. Maybe what we have a chance to see now, more than three decades after the death of the author, was just a part of the divine accident he was talking about. What is it exactly, you may ask?

Let me try to explain it, first by dividing everything connected to the story of this film in four categories after which I will try to explain shortly in Welles’ words what divine accident is.  When it comes to the final project of Welles we have:

  • The final film of Orson Welles named „Other Side of the Wind“ which follows a fictional author named Jake Hannaford who emerges from semi-exile with plans to complete work on an innovative motion picture. Inside of this film, there are two narrative lines told simultaneously and those are:

o            The final film of Jake Hannaford. (Welles co-directed this segment with his lover Oja Kodar)

o            Pseudo-documentary film about the final film of Jake Hannaford.

  • The documentary film named „They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead“ about the final film of Orson Welles. The documentary follows Welles emerging from semi-exile with plans to complete work on an innovative motion picture.

You may ask, why even bother with meta-levels of this work when it is obvious that it is just a smart autobiographical piece. Welles lost his influence after „Touch of Evil“, the same as his protagonist Jake Hannaford lost his influence under unknown circumstances. They both are at the end of their carriers, can’t finish their final films even though everyone thinks they are geniuses, actors are walking out from their films… Feels so obvious and easy but here is the thing, Welles on multiple occasions insisted that „Other Side of the Wind“ is not an autobiographical piece. Yes, it is really hard to take his words for granted, so we actually need to dig deeper. That is where we get to „divine accidents“ as Welles describes them.

In the opening minutes of „They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, “ we see the author telling us next: „Everywhere there are these beautiful accidents. There’s a smell in the air, there’s a look that changes the whole resonance of what you expected.“. Then we get a rough cut to other footage where he continues developing his thought: „ Sometimes I’ve had those accidents. I made a picture in which somebody reached through a window in Touch of Evil and found the egg… and we made a whole scene about it. But I want to go further…“. Welles’s big idea was to create a piece of fiction by purely natural mistakes, by filming true human life, mimesis at it’s finest; no script, just pure improvisation.

There is just one small problem, divine accidents don’t come up easily on their own. Yes some of the best film lines as „Here comes Johnny“ or „You talking to me?“ and scenes of Marlon Brando petting cat in Godfather or Leonardo di Caprio bleeding in Django Unchained were nothing but a pure accident. It is one to let things happen and film them but to make the whole film on them, sounds visionary, crazy and technically impossible. In the end, Welles, in my opinion, managed to do it.

The ABC of a Great Pretender

 Before I get deeper in explaining creation process of „The Other Side of the Wind“ I feel an urge to introduce another work of Orson Welles into this essay, „F for Fake“ who was released in 1973. In this pseudo-documentary (made in the middle of creating TOSOTW) Welles tells us stories of great pretenders, professional crooks, forgers by using stock footage from his older films done with Oja Kodar, at the opening and ending, and a couple of documentaries by François Reichenbach rearranged in the middle. Somewhere around the 8th minute of it, Welles tells us he will be telling truth for next hour, we trust him and start following his stories about Clifford Irving and Elmyr de Hory.

Irving published 20 novels, but he might be best known for a forged “autobiography” of famous industrialist Howard Hughes. Billionaire allegedly told novelist the story one turned into a book. Welles at one point of „F for Fake“ admits he is as well great pretender, from his first acting business, over his radio play staging of „War of the Worlds“ that actually caused disturbance up to his masterpiece „Citizen Cane“, which was again mimesis and forgery of a famous industrialist life. Yes, Charles Foster Kane was based on a composite of Howard Hughes. This is something worth highlighting, Welles is proud to call himself forger. So anyway, Mr Clifford Irving is writing a novel named „Fake“ about no other than another big subject of Welles’ film Horny.

Elmyr De Hory, is Hungarian born, art forger. He is the man who sold over a thousand forgeries to respected art galleries around the world. By telling his story, Welles proposes the theory that De Horny is actually the guy behind the manuscript of Howard Hughes autobiography. But the one hour of truth that Welles promised us is soon over, so author convinces us to believe this magnificent fake story about Oja Kodar being Picasso model, but not for real Pablo but for once again the forger. He tells us her origins are Hungarian (she is actually Croatian) and proposes she might be the granddaughter of De Hory, or even she might be herself a great forger. There is a second thing important to highlight, Welles knows how to present fiction as reality.

By the end of „F for Fake, “ Welles tells us stories of Clifford Irving, Elmyr de Horny, Howard Hughes, Orson Welles, Oja Kodar and the one about making of this essay film. Overall we get 6 of stories. Which brings us to third, and final important highlight about O.W. he juggles multiple stories simultaneously joining them in one amazingly complex coherent overarching narrative.

The reality of a Great Pretender

 Best way to explain and analyse TOSOTW is through documentary piece „They’ll Love me When I’m Dead“. It should surely give us a bit of clarity what exact parts of Wells’s life had reflected into a film, and in which way? What divine accidents occurred and got filmed.

Peter Bogdanovich, film historian, journalist and film director is the first link between film fantasy and reality. According to Bogdanovich, Welles asked him to do a „nice little biography“, and next thing we know is historian actually filming an interview with the author. In that interview, Welles presents us with the idea for a film „about older film director and the young film director, and the betrayal of their friendship“. This was one year before Bogdanovich went to direct his first film that suddenly became a huge success. The first scene of TOSOTW in which Bogdanovich plays Joseph McBride a journalist actually was filmed on a day Bogdanovich started working on „The Last Picture Show“. Later this scene was completely cut from a film, for reasons that will come up at second two paragraphs down.

John Huston, actor and director are best known for his film „The Treasure of the Sierra Madre“, was a close personal friend of Welles, so big author offered him a leading role in TOSOTW. But for a very long time, as „They’ll Love me When I’m Dead“ documentary shows us, Welles played this role off-screen. In a sever occasions he even got mad about offering this role to his friend, because he thought it was so great that nobody else but he deserves to play it. It is obvious that the author was close to his swan song but also was aware that there are time and place where he needs to put his sentiment aside. Casting Huston showed a perfect choice because he was almost as big name as Welles and to all the people who knew them both it was really hard to make the distinction between their lives. Where one was ending the other one was beginning so a role of Jake Hannaford suited naturally to John Huston. This makes Huston second link between fiction and reality.

Comedian Rich Little is a final big link in this story. He was supposed to play the character of young film director Brox AdIle who betrays Jake Hannaford. There was only one problem, he walked out of set without finishing his role. So Welles went back to Peter Bogdanovich asking him to take this role. Almost four years have passed since Bogdanovich shot his journalist role, which Welles decided to remove so another bit of reality merges into fiction, Bogdanovich in 1970 played a role of a journalist, while he was a journalist and in 1974 he played the role of a young celebrated film director, which he at the time actually became.

Welles didn’t let anything to waste, so even a story about Rich Little leaving the set, seven weeks into filming was actually put inside a documentary part of TOSOTW. His loss of actor got transferred to Jake Hannaford making it a loss of his lead actor.

In one early scene of TOSOTW, we get a taste of this meta contextually level right from the mouth of Bogdanovich’s character Brox Adile. He says: „My book on Hannaford’s been cancelled. Indefinitely. Yeah, the first five chapters took the two of us three and a half years. Finally, I just had to start directing myself so I could eat.“

If you haven’t noticed, that is actually what happened between Bogdanovich and Welles. The journalist who became a star director on one side and on the other this old director who got far away from his once star like persona, struggling to finish his latest work because in one point he lost one of the films leads. It went so deep in meta, Welles told Bogdanovich that he wants him to finish TOSOTW if he dies. Once again, that is exactly what Bogdanovich’s character Adile does in TOSOTW, he finishes film of J. Hannaford.

To recap, so there is no confusion: John Huston, best friend of Orson Welles plays John Hannaford, fictional character with significant resemblance to O.W. Peter Bogdanovich plays Brox Adile, the character with significant resemblance to himself. Everything that happens in reality around Welles gets sucked inside his swan song.

But is it really autobiographical? Best way to understand it is finally to analyse „The Other Side of the Wind“ keeping in mind three highlights taken from „F for Fake“ and stories of three significant actors Bogdanovich, Huston and Little from „They’ll love me when I’m dead“.

The Other Side of the Great Pretender

Let’s start with a simple part of TOSOTW, a film within a film. It really isn’t something that we would ever expect from Orson Welles. It takes a little bit of everything from the cinema of the time. It has a rebellious looking protagonist from films like „Easy Rider“ or „Vanishing Point“, but visually it stands on a thin line between atmospheric cinema of the time („Persona“, „L’Eclisse“) and Giallo („Blood and Black Lace“, „The Sweet Body of Debora“, „Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion“). Welles did this part with Oja and we can surely see and feel her open erotic influence and his childlike play with colours and camera positions.

A documentary piece within TOSOTW has a bit of structural resemblance with „F for Fake“, so this is the place where we should actually look for how autobiographical this work is. Here Welles juggles multiple stories simultaneously joining them in one amazingly complex coherent overarching narrative. Ten minutes in, we have seen pictures of Hannaford, heard his voice on set, seen him from back, leaving the set, seen people talk about him, and seen people watching his latest work, but still, we don’t face him. Welles sets everything up for our big confrontation with Hannaford and then, at the eleventh minute, we follow car full of journalist and nobody else but Hannaford himself driving around.

We don’t face him, not until one of the journalists asks the great fictional author: „Is the camera eye a reflection of reality or is reality a reflection of the camera eye?”. As we know it is a  word play on Godard’s famous line from „La Chinoise“: “L’art ne pas le reflet du réel, mais le reel de ce reflet.”. Instead of an answer, we get a simple flamboyant, „I want a drink“ from Hannaford. Soon as one of the reporters asks Hannaford to slow down, so he wouldn’t fall out of the car, J.H. steps on a gas pedal. We could never expect something like this from real Welles. The ego of fictional director Hannaford becomes so big, that his friend Adile just plays a tape of pre-recorded J.H. answers.

O.W. was always playful, full of jokes, but his author protagonist, that everyone insists to be autobiographical is actually totally opposite of him. Or maybe it just presents what Welles always felt but couldn’t say or do. Some resemblance is inevitable, but John Huston isn’t really portraying his friend Orson.

When we finally get to the party for J.H. 70th birthday, in the documentary part of the film, we can understand how Welles knows how to present fiction as reality. Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, Paul Mazursk, Dennis Hopper and Henry Jaglom are just some of the directors of the time that was actually on one of the sets of the party and had a chance to give their own opinion about the film industry. But Orson doesn’t stop there, he populates his film with characters taken from real life, and he chose them to be big names in the industry like John Milius (writer/director), Pauline Kael (film critic) and Robert Evans (producer)

J.H. party starts, guests are watching authors final unfinished film and soon electricity goes off, so we get a chance to learn a few more things about this character (for instance he is a great forger, electricity cut-out is organised, at least first time). In bits, he resembles Welles, the way he smokes, the troubles he is having with his film, even the early life (the death of his father mentioned in film by one of the journalists) but not the ego, not how he shaped his relationships in a career.

For example, Hannaford is hitting on AdILe’s girlfriend, but Welles never did something like that to anyone close to Bogdanovich. Troubles Hannaford has with the protagonist in his film and the way he deals with it is not the way Welles reacted when Rich Little left. Little didn’t fight with Welles, he left to finish other work, and as he explains in „They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead“. He even expected to get back on Orson’s set, he expected to get a chance to finish his final day of TOSOTW filming.

That is where we need to add a final highlight in, Welles is proud to call himself forger. Yes, he lost Rich Little left the set, he implemented this accident to his script. When his director friends were on a set of a film they didn’t have a script what to talk about, they improvised. According to footage from „They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead“ Dennis Hopper got stoned and started rumbling with himself, so Welles just recorded this divine accident. He had taken everything from his life, his past, his tragedies, his movements and yes he used every single divine accident that happened to him during the process of filming his masterpiece. The only thing he kept for himself was his ego and relationships he had with friends and co-workers.

He did everything to convince us this is autobiographical piece while watching, so when we hear him say it is not we don’t believe it. In the end, he actually managed to convince us. Reality faded away in fiction, a thin line of character Hannafords ego it the only thing that divides him from his creator, the greatest pretender Orson Welles.