Sunday, October 21, 2018

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND: A Preliminary Report

It hardly seems possible that I'm about to write these words, but here I go. I just saw THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Like most Orson Welles fanatics of a certain age I've been waiting many years to see this movie. I first read about it in the early '90s, when it was more or less considered a long lost film. Gradually the narrative around it changed. Whispers were heard of heroic financiers who were going to swoop in and finally sort out all the tangled strings attached to the movie (i.e. someone with deep enough pockets was going to pay off all the people who had--or claimed to have--a piece of it). Then things would fall through. Finally, after decades--yes, decades--of effort by people like Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich, and (most nobly) the film's late cinematographer Gary Graver something did happen. Netflix reached down into its big pockets and paid everyone off and bankrolled the post-production on the film. Now the film exists and will come to theaters and Netflix in early November.

I saw the film this afternoon at the Chicago International Film Festival. I'm still staggered by it.

Everyone will want to know if it's good or bad. That's how the average person appraises a movie, which is fair. The funny thing, of course, is that Welles rarely made movies that fit into easy categories. So to talk about, or really just to begin to talk about it, I should say a couple of things. One, Orson Welles died before he could finish editing this film. (Since he died almost ten years after wrapping principal photography, that should tell you something about the pace of his editing and the tortured circumstances of his film-making process in the 70s and 80s.) So, beware anyone who talks about this movie without first acknowledging that it is not simply a recovered Orson Welles film. It is a film written and directed by Orson Welles but completed by other people. That's important. Welles did not have, as if were, final cut of this movie. This in no way denigrates the admirable efforts of the people who finished the film, it's simply to acknowledge the reality. The other thing to say is that THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND is a 70s art film. I wonder what the Netflix audiences will think of it. I frankly doubt that most people who start it on Netflix will finish watching it.

The film tells the story of the last day in the life of a film director named Jake Hannaford (John Huston). He's surrounded by sycophants, cinephiles, disciples, yes-men, skeptical reporters, would-be starlets and pissed off producers. 

The action swirls. I use that word advisedly because THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND is the culmination of the whirlpooling mise en scene that Welles honed in films like THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI and THE TRIAL (you see it, in fact, in practically all his films). Characters are always in motion, constantly circling each other as they fire off dialog. This whirlpool movement is married with the rapid-cut editing Welles planned (but, again, never fully achieved) for the film. The result is a propulsive experience.

I want time to process the film, and I'll certainly see it again when it's released in theaters next month. So here's just a few preliminary notes:

1. The film marks the largely unexplored intersection of Orson Welles and 1970s pornography. There's softcore porn vibe to the opening scenes of the film and to the scenes of the film-within-the- film (Hannaford has directed an out of control "arty film" that's mostly notable for being full of sex and nudity). Welles's cinematographer and right-hand man for the last 15 years or so of his career was Gary Graver, a part-time porn director, and we know that in the 70s Welles helped Graver edit at least one hardcore porno (1975's 3A.M.). THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND'S interest in sex is part of Welles's expanding sexual interest--at least onscreen--in the 70s. I think we owe this to his partner in life and art, Oja Kodar. The film was cowritten by Kodar, and she's clearly the muse at the center of it. Welles's camera never worshiped a woman like it worships Oja Kodar.

2. Yet the film is largely a dissection of the male ego in all its misogyny, bigotry, and repressed homosexuality-turned-homophobia. It's almost shocking how acidic Welles's take on the main character is, given that he knew Huston's character would be seen as a stand in for himself. He would have fought back against that interpretation, I imagine, but there's too much of Orson in the character to ignore, from his relationship to a Peter Bogdanovich-type character played by, of course, Peter Bogdanovich, to little phrases (like "Always remember that your heart is God's little garden") that Welles himself was fond of.

3. Neither of the actors in the film within the film, Oja Kodar and Robert Ransom, speak a single word. They remain objects--unattainable, sexualized objects--for the director. It is implied that Hannaford kills himself because he cannot have the Ransom character. I suspect that this would have been edgier stuff in 1970 when Welles began working on the picture. I want to see THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND again in part because I'm interested to know if Welles is saying anything beyond that. In terms of sex, I'm not sure that he is.

4. But what a film "is saying" is always a pretty nebulous thing, and often a wholly unimportant thing. No one knew that better than Orson Welles. It was Welles, after all, who would tell anyone who asked that "Rosebud" was a cheap trick, a way to tie up the end of CITIZEN KANE. Welles knew better than most that what mattered was the film itself, not the filmmaker, and certainly not the filmmaker's "message."

5. Which brings me to the point that, yes, I'm happy to report that THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND  is a good movie. It's stylistically fascinating and often quite funny, with some good performances from Huston and Bogdanovich, and a stand out performance from the underrated director Norman Foster as Hannaford's flunky, Billy. The fact that Foster was often unfairly maligned because of his association with Welles is just one of many, many ways the film overlaps with real life, commenting on it, satirizing it (often perversely), and lamenting it.