That Time Orson Welles Edited a Porn Film

3 AMOther than Hitchcock, Orson Welles is probably the most overrated film director in history. But unlike Hitchcock, Welles remains under appreciated — and under watched. I love Welles’ work. But I hate the Welles legend. To me, he’s perhaps the greatest idiosyncratic filmmaker ever. He had a personal vision and made roughly a dozen films under generally difficult conditions. And all of those films deserved to be made, even if most of them have problems — almost entirely because of Welles’ lack of creative or monetary control.

Getting past the Welles legend, the story of how he made his films is fascinating — from effectively hoodwinking the studio on The Magnificent Ambersons to the three years of on-again-off-again shooting of Othello to the taking over of a documentary project of another filmmaker that led to F for Fake. During the last couple of decades of his life, Welles existed in the down-low of the film world. In general, truly independent filmmakers will do just about anything to get their work done. Welles was such a filmmaker and he worked with a lot of similarly inclined people.

Still, I was a bit surprised to read this article at Vulture over the weekend, Watch the Porn Scene Edited by Orson Welles. For those who have seen the amazing truck sex scene from the as yet unreleased (They keep promising!) The Other Side of the Wind, this may not come as too much of a surprise. And this isn’t just any porn film. It is 3 AM — a fairly high brow affair. It was released in 1975 — when the porn industry still had illusions of making something like art, before it all degenerated into filmed (video taped) gynecological exams.

The director of the film was “Robert McCallum.” And that was the pseudonym of Gary Graver — the cinematographer for a couple hundred films, including Welles’ last three: F For Fake (all the American footage), Filming Othello, and The Other Side of the Wind. I don’t think that Graver was paid for any of the work that he did for Welles. Obviously, he was paid for his work in the porn industry. That’s an interesting counter example for those free-marketeers who claim that value is determined by payment alone. If that’s the case, then what our society stands for is porn films and not one or possibly two of the greatest films of the 20th century.

According to the article, Welles became involved in editing 3 AM because he was annoyed that Graver has holding up production on The Other Side of the Wind with his paying work on porn films. (Graver directed almost 150 porn films in his career.) So Welles came in and did some editing to move things along. This should not be shocking for a couple of reasons. One is that Welles was no prude. The other is that filmmaking is filmmaking. What makes an art film work on a technical level is no different than what makes a porn film work. In fact, I’ve argued before that there isn’t that much of a difference between art, horror, and fetish films.

The Vulture article asked filmmaker and writer Bilge Ebiri about the seven minute long scene. Although he hedges, his conclusion is the same as mine: there is nothing especially “Wellesian” about it. For one thing, Welles was using material that Graver had shot. Of course, it is possible that the old man’s style had rubbed of on the younger man’s porn work. But Ebiri noted something that I can’t speak to because I haven’t seen the whole seven minute scene, “I guess the thing that most distinguishes this scene might be most ‘Wellesian’ thing about it: It’s a nice scene. Even almost kind of (gasp) moving.”

So here is a bit less than two minutes of the shower scene from 3 AM. It contains comments by Bilge Ebiri. Regardless of everything else, it is still an explicit depiction of two women having sex in a shower. But I really do think there is something wrong with anyone who would find this footage scarring.

2 thoughts on “That Time Orson Welles Edited a Porn Film

  1. “Rubbed off on the younger man’s porn work” Priming, no doubt, but a perfect turn of phrase nonetheless. I imagine the meetings or phone calls where Wells is berating Graver about not finishing his editing work and the excuse of “I just have so many pornos to do. And they’re paying me.” would be hilarious. Or could be written that way if they weren’t actually. Was the term ‘porno’ in use in 1975? And what would a Stanley Kubrick porno look like? I’m thinking of The Shining and 2001, not Clockwork Orange. And I haven’t seen Eyes Wide Shut.

    • Ha!

      My understanding is that the more provocative stuff was taken out of Eyes Wide Shut by the producers. But based upon the film we have, I don’t see it as that interesting. The truth is that sex isn’t all that interesting a subject for film, in the same way that a fist fight isn’t. If they work in the service of the macro-content, fine. Fundamentally, sex looks rather silly from the outside. The best sex scenes in films are usually the ones that aren’t realistic.

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