Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Other Side of the Wind

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND            B                    
France  Iran  USA  (122 mi)  2018  d:  Orson Welles            Unfinished by the director

The great danger for any artist is to find himself comfortable.  It’s his duty to find the point of maximum discomfort, to search it out.
―Orson Welles, from Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, by Josh Karp, 2015

The final film by Orson Welles, something of a satirized critique of Hollywood that plays fast and loose as an autobiographical portrait as well, with sharply pointed language that is menacing and venomous, like a poison pill or “fuck you” to the industry, meant to cause a major stir, left unfinished at the time of his death in 1985, and was actually completed by others from the assembled 100 hours of footage left unedited (completed by producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza and editor Bob Murawski), reminiscent of Mozart’s Requiem or Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, among the many unfinished works completed by students or devotees of the original artists.  Actually the film this most resembles is Henri-Georges Clouzot’s INFERNO (L’Enfer), a dizzying 2009 reconstruction by directors Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea from 13 hours of unfinished footage shot by Clouzot in 1964, as it reveals the same manic hysteria using kinetic energy with lights pulsating on and off continually altering the experimental 60’s look of the screen.  Similarly, Welles (only 55 at the time) made a conscious effort to relate to the youth movement of the early 70’s, much like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) that was filmed about the same time, thinking this would be a way to resurrect his career and break back into Hollywood notoriety, which was undergoing its own strange transformation away from major studios, obsessed with the radical ideas of the French New Wave at the time.  Welles actually began shooting in August 1970, completing the principal photography more than five years later in January 1976, undergoing a myriad of financial difficulties that were never resolved, with projects that were always on the brink of collapse until Netflix got involved forty years later to distribute the picture, which ironically will likely be seen by more viewers on television than any of his films were ever viewed in theaters, where viewers can clearly see the remarkable footage Welles completed, editing only about a third of the film himself, the wildly pretentious film-within-the-film comprising an Adam and Eve scenario starring a mostly naked Oja Kodar (real name Olga Palinkaš, a Croatian actress that became the director’s lover in the latter stages of his life, though he remained married to his third wife, Paola Mori), who winds up in a 60’s psychedelic nightclub drenched from pouring rain, followed by Bob Random as John Dale, a motorcyclist who takes an interest in the girl, both eventually thrust into the front seat of a car dripping wet where she seduces him in short order (like a praying mantis) set to the rhythm of the wiper blades before being thrown out of the car, wandering around an abandoned back lot of a studio, playing a game of hide and seek, which according to the making of the film documentary, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead (2018), was actually intended to mock the style of a European art film.  Both paw at each other and eventually become naked and exposed, yet neither one utters a single word, inhabiting what resembles an apocalyptic end of the world setting, almost as if they are the last two people on earth, naked and distrustful, yet strangely, while curious about her, she’s always the aggressor (with suggestions that he might be gay), with Eve eventually laughing at him, inducing a castration complex with her menacing use of scissors, driving him away in fear and confusion.  Of course the big joke is how would the world procreate under this scenario?      

Separate and apart from this more poetic sequence is a longer fake documentary that is a parody on the making of a film, always surrounded by a multitude of cameras from which this footage is presumably drawn, like found footage, using a cinéma vérité style at a posh desert estate (that happens to be right next door to the resort that blew up in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point) that is largely a frenetic party sequence in honor of an esteemed legendary director, John Huston as Jake Hannaford, arrogant and pompous, where he may as well be the voice of God, a precursor to his role as Noah Cross, a major, behind-the-scenes powerbroker in CHINATOWN (1974), drinking heavily celebrating his 70th birthday, showing what turns out to be the last day of his life, only to end in a James Dean style car crash that opens the film while driving a Porsche convertible that may have been a suicide, totally intoxicated, with his last film unfinished, the money gone, and having driven away his lead male star.  It’s a bombardment of images filled with plenty of chatter about the film and its lack of funding, according to Welles, “maybe it’s just people talking about a movie,” with party attendees divided by rank and social standing, depending on their importance to the director, including colleagues and friends in the business, crew members, students, groupies, sycophants, and hangers-on, with Peter Bogdanovich playing a rich Hollywood director named Brooks Otterlake, “the human tape recorder,” who fawns after the director, apparently knowing everything there is to know about him, having attempted to interview him for five years, collecting anecdotes and snippets of recorded information, but Hannaford is an evasive and elusive subject, not really wanting his story told, so what is revealed may be a complete and utter fabrication.  Who knows?  Lilli Palmer, the love interest in Body and Soul (1947), is worth mentioning as Zarah Valeska, the owner of the house where they have the party, an aging film star who maintains her foreign accent and demure looks, perhaps a tribute to Marlene Dietrich, having made an earlier picture together with Hannaford, exuding sophistication and charm, showing an intellect that is altogether lacking in this picture, as all the men are for the most part infantile caricatures, represented by a giant phallic symbol near the end of the picture that simply goes limp.  Susan Strasberg plays Julie Rich, a harsh movie critic modeled after Pauline Kael, who has no love for this director (as evidenced by her blistering nearly book-length essay on Welles from 1971, Raising Kane—I | The New Yorker, actually accusing him of not writing the film, along with other flamboyant suggestions that would later prove erroneous on multiple counts, ultimately exposed as more opinion than fact in The Making of Citizen Kane, a book by Robert L. Carringer released in October 1996, but nonetheless damaged the reputation of Welles at the time), making a speech near the end that all but declares him an old-fashioned misogynist whose primary interest is sleeping with the girls on the set, including the lead actress as well as wives of various friends, allowing him free access to indulge in his sexual pleasures, where it plays out very much like a Harvey Weinstein character, whose lust for power is the real motivating drive for getting into the business. 

Certainly the most controversial and perhaps the real surprise is the relationship Hannaford has with his lead actor John Dale, as he humiliates him during the filming and literally drives him off the set, leaving the picture unfinished.  Damned by his own behavior, much of this is based upon the director’s insinuations that John Dale is little more than a “faggot,” (harsh, to be sure, and a homophobic slur, but the precise word used in the film and a sign of the times), which suggests he was driven to ridicule him on the set.  This is a side of Welles that we’ve never seen before in his films.  Welles, like Huston, were followers of the Hemingway school of machismo, drinking whisky and smoking cigars, with a love for bullfights and shooting guns, where retreating to the bordello seems like a natural place for them to be, where they can tell stories about all their exploits with women, empowered by a lustful masculinity that mirrors their artistic accomplishments, preening like peacocks in the vanity of their success, where they love to be in the center of the spotlight, willing to take the plunge, with ambitions like the kings of old, ruling over their territory with autocratic scrutiny.  These men hate to be criticized, or be described as feeble or weak, yet their drive to reject and demean homosexuality is like a curse, with suggestions that it’s suppressed homosexual oglings from the director himself, who is described at one point as “a big pink lobster,” leaving a sizable open wound still bleeding.  The blatant sexism and homophobia are not only evident, but part of what drives the business, obscuring truth through exaggerated Hollywood storytelling and myth, where one constantly questions what’s behind the mask, as there are always damaging rumors and insinuations hurled with an intent to ruin reputations.  How much of this is Welles is hard to tell, but this does offer a searing critique of the director himself, filled with the self-loathing bitterness of a domineering artist, mindful of all the accumulated disappointments, suddenly unleashed as a wounded, alcohol-driven, and unapologetic soul driving the film into the ground, seeking approval of the young while destroying them in the same process.  Add to this the leering effect of men in a dark screening room watching a naked woman onscreen, and it all gets fairly primitive very fast.  Ironically, the cinematographer for the film, Gary Graver, who immersed himself into this experience with Welles over a 6-year period, eventually went on to become an award-winning adult film director of porn films, making as many as 135 features, as he needed a more reliable source of income.  So there is that, a kind of sexist, back-alley consciousness about sexuality that runs throughout this picture, a new wrinkle, as the more prudish Welles was loathe to film sex scenes throughout his career.   

Jumping back and forth between black and white and color, using different looking film stocks, working without a script, certainly one uncomfortable aspect is turning Welles’ final film into what resembles a New Wave Jean-Luc Godard style production, filled with an extensive use of bold jump cuts, where few shots last more than a few seconds, with dialogue continually moving in and out of audio range, much of it overlapping, where it becomes a smorgasbord of sounds, with faces appearing and then disappearing, giving viewers a you-are-there effect, becoming a dizzyingly weird myriad of kaleidoscopic images and ideas all mixed together, remarkably inventive in spots, where the abstract experimentation is daring and ostentatious, but mostly it comes across as a complete mess, where the final hour in particular veers off the rails, lost in its own impending sense of doom.  Unlike the crisp newsroom dialogue in CITIZEN KANE (1941) that you couldn’t take your eyes off of, much of what is discussed here is utterly forgettable, frantically paced but poorly presented, mostly thrown into the face of the audience where it becomes mindlessly tedious, much of it little more than gossip, yet that may have been intentional to reveal a vacuous industry of inflated egos and an endless parade of blowhards, where enough of that Welles imprint is felt throughout to make this essential viewing.  According to editor Bob Murawski from an article in indieWIRE, ‘The Other Side of the Wind’: How to Salvage an Unfinished Orson Welles Movie Without Orson Welles:

[Welles] was really trying to create movement through rapid editing.  He was at a point in his career where he no longer had access to sophisticated equipment like cranes and dollies as he did when he was working on big studio movies.  Nor was he working with experienced, professional film crews who would be able to execute the kind of complicated, sophisticated, virtuosic shots he was famous for.  Think of the opening shot from “Touch of Evil.”  Completely impossible under these circumstances.  So he devised a new technique for creating that hyperkinetic sense of movement.

In addition, the nature of how the party sequence was actually filmed, using a mixture of film formats, made it that much more difficult for Welles to finish the editing:

This would not be that much of a problem today, since everything would simply get transferred and then edited on a digital system like the Avid.  But when this movie was shot, that technology didn’t exist, so all the smaller formats first needed to be optically “blown up” to 35mm before Orson could edit them.  Something that created an entire layer of cost and complexity.  To me, it’s not surprising that he was unable to complete the editing of the movie.  It was too logistically difficult.

While the frenzied pace is meant to emulate the free-spirited inhibitions of jazz, there’s a jazzy musical soundtrack by Michel Legrand that is initially excellent, muted and highly atmospheric over the opening credits, capturing that solitary mood, like something you listen to at 3 o’clock in the morning, with another beautiful swaying theme playing over an Adam and Eve close-up, but it becomes less pronounced over time, taken over by a symphony of voices at the party drowning out one another.  Welles himself had a complicated relationship with Hollywood and the film industry, rejected and betrayed early on, though he was viewed as a genius by the rest of the world, exiled to Europe, unable to procure funds in America, and all but forgotten in the latter stages of his career, but he was still working, writing a script along with Oja Kodar that was often dropped in favor of improvisation, creating something out of nothing, where this was an attempt to create an autobiographical view of Welles’ world of making movies, exploring his own personal obsessions, viewed as a has-been, aiming for a comeback, shot over a period of years on a shoestring budget, becoming yet another project doomed to failure.  Like all Welles films, however, this will be analyzed and scrutinized and re-evaluated by film historians for years to come.        

From Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, a book written by Josh Karp, published in 2015:

The film is a fragment, composed of brilliance and madness; finely honed and wildly disorganized; meticulously edited but ultimately unfinished.  The movie is a shot at perfection in a world where the director can no longer control his muse and is left to stumble about in a maze composed of his own art and creativity.  It’s a world that shows Welles at his best and worst, bringing together his polar opposites—but unable or unwilling to recognize that his art and life have become one and the same.

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