The Other Side of the Edit

Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND appears alongside two new documentaries — a wealth of Wellesiana!

THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD is excellent but infuriating. I guess director Morgan Neville decided not to include captions identifying any of his interviewees because we wanted to cut like fury, impersonating Welles’ eccentric choppiness. But it’s a slapworthy offence. Luckily I know who a lot of those people are, but it makes it more annoying when I don’t. The end credits list them all, but Netflix shrinks your window to a tiny box as soon as they start, so damn everybody to hell anyway.

The actual effect of the doc’s slick intercutting is more like the usual opening sequence of a TV doc, where you typically get a lot of provocative and titillating statements designed to lure you into watching — an editor friend described this approach as “chum in the water. Funnily enough, Welles anticipated this with the newsreel in KANE: “…a communist!” “…a fascist!” declare interviewees.

But Neville has impressive resources: he seems empowered to quote from every Welles-directed movie, as well as a host he acted in, plus JAWS and STAR WARS. And he musters them well: to depict the disasters befalling Welles on TOSOTW he shows the film-maker dropping dead in the water at the end of TOUCH OF EVIL *and* in START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME. He can’t resist quoting the drunken champagne ad out-takes, which earns him another slap, but he manages to talk to sworn enemies like Jaglom and Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar and Beatrice Welles, and pretty much every participant in Welles’ movie. Though he shoots them from very eccentric angles. We might be able to draw firmer conclusions about the honesty of Welles co-producer, accused by some of robbing from the budget, were he not reduced to more or less a single eyeball.

And then there’s the wholly unnecessary Alan Cummings*, whose role as a fictional documentarist adds little. He’s often required to criticise Welles, even if statements like “Welles seemed to be going out of his way to alienate everybody” are flatly contradicted by what interviewees have just told us, in footage positioned by Neville himself. What’s he playing at? I do get a bit annoyed at anti-Welles stuff, which this movie has a bit of: the idea that he deliberately avoided finishing his films is floated, yet again, but mercifully trounced by those in the know.

Still, it’s hugely entertaining, and illuminating, and if it’s imperfectly sympathetic to Welles, it’s very considerate to the much-abused¬†Bogdanovich.

Morgan Neville shares a birthday with me: we both turned 18 the day Welles died. (Welles was 70, the same age his fictional alter ego dies at in TOSOTW.)

The other doc, Ryan Suffern’s A FINAL CUT FOR ORSON WELLES: FORTY YEARS IN THE MAKING is more unassuming. It tells some of the story of the film’s eventual completion. All very nice, and hearing Danny Huston talk about dubbing his dad is moving too. The exciting part for me was a discussion about Welles’ quirky approach to editing which clears up a bit of a mystery. Apparently Welles would produce long, rambling assemblies in which he would sometimes include multiple takes of a line or moment. They would be fine-cut, so you would know how long he wanted the moment to run; but you wouldn’t know which was the preferred take. Presumably Welles himself hadn’t decided yet, and wanted to delay the final choice until he had a sense of the surrounding sequence. It makes a kind of sense, though it’s the opposite way round to how most films are cut: we usually select our preferred takes, THEN cut them together.

This quirk may go some way to explaining why Welles took, seemingly, a long time to edit his films. He was delaying some key decisions long past the point most filmmakers would have made a commitment. This lengthy process seems to have resulted in Welles being ejected from MR. ARKADIN’s edit, and had he been naturally faster he might have avoided problems on AMBERSONS, TOUCH OF EVIL and maybe others. But I’m happy to allow himself his unusual approach.

But you see how this clarifies the surprising condition of TOO MUCH JOHNSON? Though, characteristically, it produces new puzzles. When I saw TMJ at Pordenone, I briefly discussed it with the then festival director David Robinson, who was convinced that what had been rediscovered was not the cutting copy but the outtakes. This made partial sense, and had me more or less convinced. Though it was weird that the film was more or less in sequence and showed so many signs of being not only spliced together but intercut and worked on, there was so much repetition, so many takes of nearly everything that it was hard to see it as an actual edit. But now we learn that this was typical of Welles. TMJ is a cutting copy, but a uniquely Wellesian one, containing multitudes.

Of course, that reintroduces the puzzle of how the film came to be found intact in Pordenone (so conveniently!) when we’d been told it was burned to a crisp in Spain. I suppose that might have something to do with Welles being a big fat liar. Bless him.

Still wholeheartedly recommend both pictures and the film they document. Put ’em on a loop!

*Nothing against Cummings per se. I was in a car with him once.

12 Responses to “The Other Side of the Edit”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I saw the 40 Years in the Making documentary which is available free for anyone, netflix subscription not needed. ( But I have been otherwise avoiding reading up about TOSOW and seeing other stuff, because I feel the dust needs to settle in, since a lot of people, a lot of film critics and cinephiles in particular (like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Joseph McBride among others) are a little too close to the story for there to be some kind of overall clarity about what happened. I mean it’s a good thing since it probably led to the film getting completed eventually don’t get me wrong but that does mean a lot of stuff said for and against this film needs to be qualified.

    Welles taking time on the edit being a factor for Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil being taken away from him is not a story I heard before. Is that what happened?

    In the case of Magnficent Ambersons it was because of that Brazilian documentary and separation between him and Robert Wise, compounded by that strange choice he made before the first preview to make “the big cut” that removed the big sequence where George forbids Eugene from meeting Fanny, which no-one has ever provided a satisfactory explanation for, and which Welles in his lifetime never confessed to doing. All of which was restored by Wise against Welles’ wishes for the second and more successful preview.

    But on the other hand the editing for Citizen Kane, MacBeth, The Trial, Chimes, F For Fake didn’t seem to take time. Nor did Othello, there it was more the low-budget and protracted shoot than anything else.

  2. With Arkadin, at least, the story is disputed, but I believe the producer’s excuse for kicking Welles out was that he was taking too long. And then they released an obviously unfinished cut with almost no sound design.

    Touch of Evil is even more complex, but Universal do seem to have lost patience with him after letting him cut it for a while. But they also cooled on the film when they saw the footage, which they’d liked, assembled.

    We know Welles went to Brazil during Ambersons’ post. I’m just wondering if things could have gone differently if the movie had been more finished by then. But that may have been impossible. It does look like the studio films progressed rapidly, aided by the studio apparatus. How he managed to work efficiently on The Trial with the Salkinds, I can’t imagine.

  3. It’s not that Welles didn’t want TOSOTW to end. It’s simply that he got lost in it. This is what happens with a project that has no script, no budget and no production schedule. The Welles Faithful ( and I was one somewhat until seeing this) can go on and on (and on) about how Hollywood “deserted him. But when you’ve got a makeshift project like this one, surrounded by acolytes who regards your ever thought word and deed as Revealed Wisdom, this is where you can end up. Frankly think Welles “lost it” in the last years of his life. TOSOTW is not the work of a rational man.

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    It’s weird in the case of Touch of Evil that Welles wrote that memo which he didn’t do for Mr. Arkadin for instance. I happen to like the 90s Reconstruction a lot (not all Wellesians do) and you get a sense of what he was going for, this almost proto-Altmanesque mix of parallel stories and seemingly unconnected subplots eventually centering around Quinlan at the end. So I don’t think Welles didn’t know how to edit or that he had problems on finishing films I just think it differed on the basis of projects.

    I mean at the same time he shot TOSOW, he made F For Fake. TOSOW was shot between 1970-1976, during which time he repurposed Reichenbach’s film, shot new footage, had a ball of fun in the edit and released his most experimental film since Kane. So it’s a case of inconsistency project-by-project at best.

    I think it’s just the case of the material. Most of Welles’ films are adaptations, and a lot of them are genre movies, and Welles for most of his life was an adaptor and stager of other people’s stories rather than an author of his own work. That applies to his work in stage and radio. The Shakespeare films have a proper structure and he just supplied his own visual, aural, editing and dramatical interpretation on it. The exception is Chimes at Midnight where he was imposing his own structure on a bunch of Shakespeare plays centring around one character.

    I think with TOSOW his most autobiographical project he had a hard time expressing himself. This of course gives strength to Carringer’s famous and controversial essay “Oedipus in Kenosha” in the Magnificent Ambersons Shooting Script he published, where Welles’ absence and strange behavior on that shoot, is seen by Carringer as evidence of him not being entirely comfortable with the themes and story at the center of it, on account of its personal nature.

  5. Maybe Welles felt HE should have played George Minafer. But Tim Holt was brilliant beyond words. Even in its ruined state “Amberons” is a great work. And it certainly didn’t deserve to be released as a B-feature to “Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost”

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I disagree with Carringer when he says that Welles should have played Minafer. George Minafer has to be a young romantic lead next to Anne Baxter and that’s not a role I can see Welles playing at any age. Tim Holt was perfect for that.

    What I was referring to and what few of Welles’ defenders acknowledge, and almost no one has offered a decent defense for, is Welles’ weird actions before the first Preview at Pomona. Why did he order Robert Wise to remove those scenes especially the one where George forbids Eugene from meeting his mother on her deathbed? The Pomona preview was this disaster and seeing a movie without its major dramatic center must have been hard to appreciate for any audience. The second preview at Pasadena went better but one reason for that is that Robert Wise restored those missing scenes that Welles removed, and he did so without Welles’ say-so. The positive reception that preview had probably confirmed to RKO bosses that Welles wasn’t golden in terms of his judgment and that led them to discard Welles altogether. That’s basic studio politics that any director would have had to dealt with, and which Welles without Houseman and Schaffer had to deal with for the first time.

    Both Magnificent Ambersons and TOSOW are the only Welles movies where he does not act, and indeed tried to have other actors play roles that are auteur surrogates. George Minafer (Holt) and Hannaford (Huston). They are also both incredibly personal films whose material directly touches on parts of his personal life. The only explanation for Welles’ actions in Ambersons and for the erratic nature of TOSOW is that Welles was extremely reluctant and even repressed in actually shedding his large mythical self-image and be too autobiographical. Whereas when Welles was dealing with adaptations and stories he could be indirect and abstract himself, and in the case of Chimes at Midnight, able to be confessional while also remythologizing himself since Falstaff and Hal are larger-than-life figures.

  7. Anyone who’s heard the Mercury radio version of Ambersons knows Welles wouldn’t have been right for the movie, and he was smart enough to know it himself. Holt is great, and Welles is great at the VO.

    One thing that’s very clear to me, amusingly so: when Bogdanovich suggested he play Brooks Otterlake, he was doing exactly what Welles intended. He had the directors genius for making actors think they were coming up with ideas he planted.

  8. Wow… I can’t think when we’ve (respectfully) so completely. But I do need to see it a bunch more times.

    It might be interesting for me to address the negatives some more, but I kind of feel like they’re all positives in disguise… Were ANY of Welles’ films embraced on first release?

  9. Welles has almost always gotten mixed reviews. I believe “Kane” was well-received Others were all over the place. But as the year went on great many became classics. I doubt TOSOTW will gain that status.

  10. It may already be his best-received work since Kane, but I’d agree that the Long Result of Time is what counts. I’m prepared to make a small bet its reputation will hold up OK. Let’s check back in ten years, if mankind is still a going concern.

  11. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    TOSOW has actually got mixed-to-lukewarm notices. The general view from what I’ve get is nobody knows what to make of it since the story about getting it complete and finished is so overwhelming and so compelling that merely seeing it is a special treat. David Bordwell said that he’s not a fan but Richard Brody called it a late masterpiece, and while he’s quite sharp in a lot of respects he’s also well…weird in many ways (as Bill Krohn’s hilarious review of his Godard biography proves).

    I don’t think TOSOW indicates Welles had early-onset Alzheimer’s because during the time he made it, he shot-edited-finished F FOR FAKE. Any claims that Welles had difficulties finishing a film has to explain why did he fail to finish TOSOW and yet finished F For Fake? And the interviews he gave in his final years, as evidenced by the Tarbox and Jaglom books show a lucid man, and the ones collected in the Film-makers Interviews series where he talks about the script for Cradle Will Rock shows him the same way.

    As for Welles’ reception in general. Othello got good reviews at least in Europe (it won the Palme d’Or, though I don’t know if it had the same prestige then), I mean I don’t think it got a wide release in America, and Chimes at Midnight got decent reviews (including from Pauline Kael before she wrote Raising Kane). Macbeth and The Trial was more mixed-to-negative as was Mr. Arkadin obviously. But I don’t think any of Welles’ movies was as badly received as for instance Peeping Tom, where the bad reception killed off Powell’s career and undeservedly. Welles’ career was ruined because of Magnificent Ambersons’ post-production, and later similar disasters like the one over Arkadin and Touch of Evil.

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