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The Other Side of What?

We have all been betrayed at some point in our lives. And we all betray others, sometimes unknowingly.

Thursday, October 19, 2023
9 mins

The Other Side of What?

Orson Welles, by his own admission, was a deeply distrustful person who had been betrayed by many people in his life, both personally and professionally. He was also fascinated by the theme of betrayal in his work, and explored it in many films, including Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil and his great unfinished work The Other Side of the Wind.

In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Welles said, "Betrayal is the big thing with me. It's almost a prime sin." He felt betrayed by many, including his mentor, John Houseman, lover Rita Hayworth, and the Hollywood studio system itself, which he believed had stifled his creativity and prevented him from making the films he wanted to make.

Welles's films often explore the theme of betrayal in a nuanced and complex way. In Citizen Kane, for example, the protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, is a powerful and wealthy man who is betrayed by many of the people he loves and trusts. The film suggests that betrayal is not only a personal tragedy, but also a social and political problem. In Touch of Evil, Welles explores betrayal in the context of a police corruption scandal.

The Other Side of the Wind can also be interpreted as a film about betrayal. The film's protagonist, Jake Hannaford (John Huston), is a washed-up alcoholic Hollywood director trying to make a comeback film while surrounded by people who are only interested in exploiting him for their own gain. He is betrayed by everyone he thought he could trust: his colleagues, family, even his friends. Betrayal leads to his downfall and he dies alone and unfulfilled.

Welles didn’t see the film completed in his lifetime and it was left to his friend Peter Bogdanovich to make vital editorial decisions with the voluminous footage accumulated over the years. So, although we can never know how true the 2018 release is to Welles’s vision, it does seem reasonable to speculate that he had planned a film about the dark side of Hollywood and the betrayal that can take place in the pursuit of fame and success. In addition to the personal betrayal that Hannaford experiences, the film also alludes to the theme of betrayal on a larger scale. 

Shot between 1970 and 1976, (with editing continuing into the 1980s) the bulk of Welles’s work on the film coincided with a period of scandal and tumult in American political affairs. The Watergate scandal began on June 17, 1972, when five burglars were arrested at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. The burglars were connected to President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign and had been caught wiretapping phones and stealing documents. Nixon and his aides conspired to cover up the scandal, but eventually the truth came out. In 1974, Nixon resigned from office rather than face impeachment and removal from office.

In the same year that Scott-Heron and Jackson’s take on events was being released as part of the seminal Winter in America album, Muriel Spark’s novella, The Abbess of Crewe, was published. Set in an English Benedictine convent, it follows the story of Alexandra, a newly elected abbess who is determined to modernise the establishment.

Alexandra is a complex and contradictory character. Intelligent, ambitious, and charismatic, she is also ruthless and manipulative, determined to make the convent a model of efficiency and modernity. She is prepared to bend or break rules to achieve her goals. Her election as abbess is met with resistance from some nuns who are concerned about her unconventional ideas, but Alexandra is able to win them over with charm and her vision for the future of the convent. Her plans include installing electronic surveillance, introducing new teaching methods, and allowing the nuns to wear more modern clothing. She also intends to open the convent to the public, in order to generate revenue and promote the convent's mission.

Alexandra's plans draw mixed reactions. Some nuns are supportive, while others are concerned that they will lead to the erosion of the convent's traditions and values. The novella’s climax is the revelation that Alexandra has been having an affair with a young Jesuit priest. This sparks a scandal which leads to Alexandra's resignation as abbess.

Although primarily a timely satirical novel exploring themes of power, corruption, and religious faith, it is also a meditation on the nature of change and the importance of tradition. Significantly, Spark had subtitled the novella ‘A Modern Morality Tale’. According to George Stade's October 20, 1974 review in The New York Times, "theological props point to immorality in politics. The setting, to mention names, is the Abbey of Crewe, the immoralities are those of Watergate…Muriel Spark is the first writer to demonstrate that Watergate and its attendant immoralities are materials not of tragedy, but of farce".

The Watergate scandal was a major turning point in American history, causing a decline in public trust in the government, crisis in the presidency and a lasting impact on politics and culture. It is often used as a synonym for political corruption and reminds us not only of the importance of holding our elected officials accountable but also the dangers of unchecked power. But despite the exhaustive investigations and soul-searching it produced, were lessons learned? Has the behaviour of subsequent US administrations been any less treacherous to the professed ideals and values of a revolutionary nation built on ‘freedom’?

But we digress. The point of this rumination is not to condemn any specific government or individual politician. Rather, the core issues surrounding trust and its abuse by those in power affect us all, as individuals, and it is perhaps in considering the personal that we can trace the outlines of why betrayal is so difficult to process, learn from and accept.

We have all been betrayed at some point in our lives. And we all betray others, sometimes unknowingly. Reconciliation processes, as seen in South Africa and Ireland, can bring the possibility of forgiveness and understanding just as they can for individuals seeking to repair broken friendships and relationships. But the process cannot begin with reconciliation, to be followed by disclosure. Honesty, truth, and the establishment of whatever facts can be discerned, must always come first.

Orson Welles passed long before his final film could be formed and finessed in accordance with his own vision. The sustained efforts of his friends and family resulted in, at best, an approximation of what he had in mind. But we can at least survey the Bogdanovich treatment with sympathy as well as critical evaluation. The ignominious end to Nixon’s career may be viewed by some as a form of justice, but how does the Watergate criminal conspiracy and cover-up compare to what followed at the hands of the Bushes, Clintons and Obama? Just as one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, a traitor to some may be held up as a true patriot by others. Ultimately, ‘betrayal’ is an abstract noun and ‘traitor’ may sometimes be a matter of opinion. 

What has happened in Scotland in recent years may yet turn out to resemble farce more than tragedy but what we do know for sure is that we don’t know all the facts. The truth remains out of reach, at least in part because many of the most important pieces of the jigsaw are under legal lock and key. That is not sustainable. 

There can be no reconciliation without full disclosure. What happens thereafter is not merely a legal matter - the process of healing, of restoring trust in the public bodies which have so spectacularly failed us, can only begin when the denial is brought to an end. It will be painful and may take years to process. But it must happen and the sooner the better. The people of Scotland, be they for independence or not, are entitled to hear the truth, no matter how sickening it may well turn out to be

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