Orson Welles fans from around the world who find themselves dozing off during the long, final hour of Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind might discover themselves, upon waking, suddenly in the middle of Morgan Neville’s latest documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. An extended meditation on the long-lostness of one of Welles’ most notoriously unfinished projects, the doc arrived on Netflix at the same time as the finally completed Hollywood satire. This is the logic of an algorithm — where else to find so captive a base of people interested in subject: long-lost-Orson-Welles movie? — but it’s also kind of weird, like attending an hour and a half funeral service of someone you just met.
Neville’s approach in this “companion piece of sorts” is to unpack the final decade and a half of Welles’ life, a time both sad (for Welles, who was broke) and glorious (for independent cinema, which flourished briefly). Neville documents this time, with the aplomb of someone with a sizable budget, introducing the era with clips from Easy Rider and ending it with clips from Jaws and Star Wars. We’ve heard this old tale before (kids! ruin everything!), but less of Welles’ place inside it, for which Neville puts forth an argument: “I have a different style as a director because I know of things I can’t ask for,” Welles says in a brief clip, which positions the Citizen Kane director as the granddaddy of guerrilla indie cinema. The argument doesn’t make very much sense if you think about it — if anything, Welles’ late directorial style is closer to that of Terrence Malick — but it’s a pleasingly curious way to think of the weird colossus that is The Other Side of the Wind.
Welles’ satirical response to the dramatic irony of his later life, where his accomplishments were rapturously celebrated and studied by a film industry that had little interest in supporting the man himself, The Other Side of the Wind is a vicious collection of modes and styles — mockumentary, art house, cringe-core. At its center is an accomplished director named Jake Hannaford (John Huston), who tries to get money to fund the completion of an expensive drama which stars Bob Random and Oja Kodar (Welles’ lover at the time, something that Neville makes a meal out of). After palling around with younger, more successful directors, most notably a Peter Bogdanovich-type New Hollywood director who is played by Peter Bogdanovich (foreshadowing Bogdanovich’s later-life success as a bit actor in The Sopranos), Hannaford is unable to get the money he needs and then dies. Neville plays nice with what is, rather baldly, a precociously brazen work of emotional manipulation and chooses to see it, instead, as a bookend to Citizen Kane. It does appear last, after all.
Is it disappointing to discover that Welles’ great, mysterious accomplishment comes down to, basically, a mish-mash of two or three Woody Allen movies from the ‘80s (Stardust Memories, in particular; both movies even share a similar subplot involving the director preying on younger women as a kind of flex)? It is the tragedy of so many so-called geniuses that they cannot help but make the same thing over and over again. (To note: both Clint Eastwood and Oliver Stone were later accused by Kodar of ripping off the idea from a rough cut of The Other Side of the Wind after refusing to fund the film’s release shortly after Welles’ death. Get a grip!) Less hubristic than its source material, Neville’s softer version of this project is perhaps more satisfying.
Neither a journalist nor activist nor artist, Neville is among the most pleasing documentarians working today. He embraces the ambition and the style, instead, of a museum curator, using his savvy for access to create documentary panoramas of various, random cultural objects, generally from the ‘70s, an effect that gives his work the feeling of walking through the attic of a kind uncle. His movies both revel in nostalgia and reveal the comforting safety that nostalgia can provide. Most will recognize his name from an earlier movie this year, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, among this year’s most popular documentaries. A detour through the work of the unrepentant culture warrior Fred Rodgers, its enormous success reveals how hungry we still are for the faded memory of someone sincerely pretending to care about us.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead pleases in a similar fashion and discovers inside the angry life of Orson Welles a similar-enough plot arc as that overly sweatered tattle-tale. There is a great ambition to do something different with a medium; many people say he can’t do it, he does it. (Most of the stories of Welles refusing to finish the film out of some kind of artistic writer’s block are self-justifying myth, Neville largely concludes. Welles just needed money and sometimes, as when he lived with Bogdanovich for a short while, a place to sleep.) There is a long, extended minor-chord tearjerker of testimonies packed at the end. More interesting are the little things: a business investor from South America who runs off with some of the money financing the film, the whole deal with the brother of the deposed Iranian Shah, whose ownership of the movie is superseded by an uncooperative Ayatollah. How Welles broke Bogdanovich’s heart, a 10-minute tale of stiff masculinity that is a real laugh. Less interesting is everything else: a narrator occasionally showing up, doing some kind of homage to that mirror scene in The Lady from Shanghai, Neville’s video essay-style use of Wells’ work as the doc’s quirky B-roll. Yeah, that wine commercial shows up too.
Quirky too, is Neville’s omission of anything to do with the many efforts to finally release The Other Side of the Wind, largely ending the tale of its troubled production history with Welles’ death in 1985. The effect of this is interesting, as we imagine the film having sat in a vault, waiting for someone to pay for it. That’s probably not too far from the truth, and the moral is one that Welles knew firsthand: all art is at the mercy of the obscenely wealthy who can decide, at any time, to turn on or off the faucets, the agony of creating a work of art in a world that doesn’t, for all its talk, care very much for art. Netflix gives just as easily as Netflix will take away.