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Non-Review Review: They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead serves as a convincing argument that The Other Side of the Wind works better as a story than as an actual object that exists.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is a feature-length documentary that is only a few minutes shorter than its subject, providing an exploration of The Other Side of the Wind, from its conception through it development and into its long and storied afterlife. It is a very exciting and engaging tale, one that sweeps across Hollywood history, delving into a variety of nooks and crannies. It is a story that is intertwined with dissolving marriages and international politics, of bad luck and tremendous arrogance. All of this existing in the shadow of Orson Welles.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead offers an account of the production of Orson Welles’ ill-fated experimental piece of metafiction. It is perhaps a testament to The Other Side of the Wind that it occasionally feels like They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead can perhaps be folded into the wild ambitions of an ageing filmmaker working on a project that would not materialise during his life-time. Towards the end of They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, archive footage of Orson Welles finds the auteur musing on his next project.

“Maybe it isn’t even the picture,” he confesses to the press. “Maybe it’s just talking about the picture.” Maybe The Other Side of the Wind is not the real headline. Maybe They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is the real headline.

Even complete, The Other Side of the Wind is imperfect. It will always be an approximation of the movie that Welles wanted to make, pieced together from records with the assistance of people who knew him. However, as They’ll Love Me When I’m Gone points out via archive footage, the completed feature film only ever existed in one place. “The jigsaw pieces were separated by time,” Welles narrates. “There’s no way for the picture to be put together, except in my mind.” That is an impossibility. What has been released is the closest thing, but not the thing itself.

Maybe The Other Side of the Wind can only ever exist in material form as a shadow of what it might otherwise have been. They’ll Love Me When I’m Gone suggests this possibility, hinting at the idea of The Other Side of the Wind as a story to be told rather than a movie to be watched, a complicated narrative that is – in its own weird way – almost as fractured and disjointed as anything that Welles could ever construct. They’ll Love Me When I’m Gone seeks to impose some structure on that chaos, to provide a durable framework to explore the story being told.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead has the good fortune to start with an interesting subject. Orson Welles is a deeply fascinating figure, whether discussed in the abstract or brought to life through archive footage. Due to the abundance of archive material, and with the benefit of a wry sense of humour, director Morgan Neville and editors Aaron Wickenden and Jason Zeldes, are able to do both. Using clips from his films and his public statements, Welles often seems like an active participant in this discussion of his work.

To a certain extent, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead also suffers from the sheer breadth of its narrative focus. The story of The Other Side of the Wind is a complex and convoluted one, full of bizarre twists and turns, populated by eccentric characters and defined by bizarre details. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead finds room for almost everything, covering small details like Dennis Hopper’s time on the set and larger concerns like the manner in which the footage of the unfinished film became embroiled in the Iranian Revolution.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead has to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. As a result, the film rarely has any opportunity to linger as it bounce from one idea (and one revelation) to the next. More than that, Neville adopts an expansive approach to the material. This is a canny choice, given just how much interesting material there is to discuss. They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead approaches its subject from all manner of perspectives; biography, criticism, history, legacy. Not only does the documentary have to cover a lot of ground, but it has to cover a lot of angles.

It is to the credit of They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead that the film covers as much as it does. It offers a sketch of Orson Welles with surprising complexity given the tightness of its focus on one particular phase of his life. It develops a handful of the key supporting players, such as John Huston or Peter Bogdanovich or Gary Graver. It expands out on a lot of the in-jokes and references buried within They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. It also wrestles with themes like sexuality and masculinity within the larger body of Orson Welles’ work. There’s a lot here.

As a result, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead can often feel just a little bit compressed or rushed, as if the audience is only seeing the cliff notes of a particularly exciting story. There are often single lines or short sequences in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead that sound like they might possibly support their own documentaries or fictional films; a late-film revelation of a complicated scam conducted by Welles as part of his efforts to regain control of the raw footage, the breakdown of the relationship between Bogdanovich and Welles following an interview.

To be fair, Neville very cannily makes a point to port over some of the ambiguity and uncertainty that defines The Other Side of the Wind. Repeatedly, the documentary underscores the possibility that these accounts are just half-truths or misremembered nonsense. This starts as early as the title, when Peter Bogdanovich credits the title to an aging Orson Welles. He is corrected by somebody who insists that Welles never uttered those words. “It’s almost true,” Bogdanovich insists. “It’s not true,” his colleague insists.

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead manages to capture a few of these sorts of discussions in the context of Welles and his legacy. Various people involved in production offer their own contradictory accounts of events surrounding the departure of Rich Little from the film or whether the money that producer Andrés Vicente Gómez allegedly disappeared with belonged to himself or to the film. Towards the end of the film, various people who knew Welles argue about his attitude towards finishing projects, reaching very different conclusions.

In this way, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead feels like a fitting companion piece to The Other Side of the Wind, just as aware of the ambiguities and mysteries of real life when compared to the clarity of the silver screen. This is the allure of The Other Side of the Wind, and something that They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead intuitively understands. Danny Huston articulates this in a question that he asks towards the end of the documentary, challenging both himself and the audience, “What did Orson really mean by it?”

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead doesn’t necessarily have any answers, but it understands the appeal of the question.

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