Q&A with The Magic World of Orson Welles author James Naremore

naremore coverJames Naremore is Chancellors’ Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He answered some questions about the new Centennial Anniversary Edition of his touchstone work The Magic World of Orson Welles.

Q: The new edition of The Magic World of Orson Welles coincides with both the centenary of the filmmaker’s birth and the release of the unfinished film The Other Side of the Wind. How “finished” was The Other Side of the Wind?

James Naremore: It’s difficult to say at this point (July, 2015). 1,083 feet of the film, most of which isn’t fully edited, have been liberated from a Paris warehouse by a production company called Royal Road films. The original plan was to examine the print and do the complete editing in Paris, but that has apparently become impracticable. The heavily insured reels are being shipped to the US, where work will resume.

Royal Road is now engaged in a crowd-funding appeal in an attempt to raise two million dollars for post-production. At last report, they’ve received about a quarter of a million through Indygo, an organization rather like Kick Starter, and they have European donors waiting in the wings to provide matching funds. Assuming they get over the financial hurdles, they will face the problem of how to edit the film so that it will be reasonably true to Welles’s intentions. This will involve complicated narrative and aesthetic decisions. Peter Bogdanovich, who acted in the film and was present from its inception, will help supervise the editing. As I understand it, the footage is there, and in that sense the film is potentially “finished.” The trick is to assemble it.

Q: What does The Other Side of the Wind tell us about Welles as a filmmaker?

Naremore: We can’t know for sure until we see it in completed form, but certain things are clear. It’s very much a darkly satiric, Wellesian commentary on 1970s Hollywood (the period when Welles shot it), and an opportunity for him to settle some old scores.

It was co-written and I suspect partly directed by Oja Kodar, his late-life partner. It centers on an aging director named Jake Hannaford who has been given a chance for a comeback because an entire younger generation of filmmakers and cinephiles have embraced him and made him a legend. Obviously Hannaford has a strong resemblance to Welles himself, but he also resembles both Ernest Hemingway and John Huston, who plays the role. Like many of Welles’s films, this one begins with the death of the protagonist, but in stylistic terms it’s very different from what we expect of him. Much of what we see is a large birthday party for Hannaford photographed by cine-verite documentarians and paparazzi. But there’s also a film-within-the film entitled The Other Side of the Wind, which is the movie Hannaford in making, and which resembles a somewhat Antonioni-like art picture. In other words, the film as a whole consists of a pastiche of two utterly different styles, neither of which is quite like Welles. He was a director who never did the same kind of thing twice, and he became something of a postmodernist. He defied expectations, and for that reason some critics have had trouble recognizing the importance of his late work.

Q: Welles had such artistic success at such a young age that a great deal of his creative output beyond his mid-twenties has been characterized as disappointing. Was Welles really a figure of untapped potential after Citizen Kane?

Naremore: If Welles had never made Citizen Kane he would still be considered one of the greatest filmmakers the US has produced. Just for starters, there’s The Magnificent Ambersons, which was mangled by RKO and given a new, sentimental ending; despite this stupid meddling by the studio it remains an extraordinary movie, especially when seen on the big screen.

And what about Touch of Evil, which is arguably the greatest film noir? Or Chimes at Midnight, which Welles himself thought was his best film? Even his so-called “minor” work, such as The Lady from Shanghai, Othello, and The Trial, is breathtaking in its cinematic virtuosity. It’s preposterous to say he declined after Kane, because in many ways he got better.

The myth of his decline is due to the fact that he never played by Hollywood’s rules and had to finance his European work as a pioneering, often frustrated independent, a man who occasionally used his own money to make films. None of his films, including Kane, had great popular success. But they will last and be appreciated very long after most of the popular Hollywood films have been forgotten.

Q: Welles was outspoken and involved in the contemporary politics of his time. Is there something that has been lost across the years about the political implications of Welles’ body of work?

Naremore: The thing I am proudest of in my book, aside from its close stylistic and thematic analysis of the films, is its emphasis on Welles’s politics, about which relatively little has been written. He was in many ways a product of the US Popular Front in the 1930s, and his most dazzling success came during the Roosevelt years. He was a great champion of rights for Blacks and Latinos when such things weren’t terribly popular. His politics got him in trouble in Hollywood, beginning with the Hearst vendetta against Citizen Kane, and he became a target of Hoover’s FBI, which tracked his activities and labeled him a danger to the country. His departure from America in the late 1940s was at least in part a response to the Cold War Red Scare. His activism seemed to dissipate after the 1950s, but he remained a liberal and an artist of ideas. His late films, such as F for Fake and The Other Side of the Wind are in their own way as politically interesting as his early ones.

Q: Welles worked on many projects that never quite made it off the ground or were abandoned. Which of his unfinished films or unproduced screenplays would you most like to have seen completed?

Naremore: Welles was a prolific artist who, at his death, left behind scores of unproduced screenplays and several films that were only partly completed or not exhibited (in the latter category are It’s All True, Don Quixote, The Deep, The Merchant of Venice, and of course The Other Side of the Wind).

It must be emphasized, contrary to some historians, that these incomplete or unproduced projects were not the result of defects in his talent, personality, or psychology. He was a challenge to Hollywood’s usual way of doing things, and in being true to himself he inadvertently created the impression that he couldn’t make a profit. As a result he had difficulty finding backers. He nevertheless left us with several great films and a fascinating array of fragments.

Among his screenplays, his first Hollywood project, Heart of Darkness, which was abandoned by RKO because of budget problems, would have been exceptionally exciting to see on the screen. It’s All True, his ambitious documentary about Latin America, was abandoned by RKO even though most of it had been shot, in part because it showed too many black people; this was one of the greatest losses in the history of cinema, comparable to the loss of the director’s cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Don Quixote, which Welles worked on for at least two decades, might have been one of his masterpieces, but never found the financing it needed. All this sounds tragic, but Welles also gave us a significant number of completed pictures that are cultural treasures.

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