(Originally posted October 21, 2018)
Yesterday I celebrated a culmination of sorts: I saw Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, courtesy of the Philadelphia Film Festival. I’m one of those people who’s been anticipating this film for years, and I’ve read pretty much everything written about it. Lately that means I’ve been monitoring wellesnet.com for reviews and updates and conversations that sometimes border on the vituperative.
Thank God for that. And kudos to Peter Bogdanovich, Filip Jan Rymsza, Oja Kodar, Bob Murawski et al for completing the film without getting in its way: I’m awestruck at their brilliant restraint. The movie is a confounding barrage of questions and fury and accusations, a scramble of profundity tossed to posterity interspersed with witty, deadly party conversation. It’s all about the business of creation and the fate of the creator, the artist compelled to transmute terror into beauty and so extinguish it. Artists, the movie tells us, are machines destined to use up more than they can ever produce. Shot between 1970 and 1976, Wind is also an extraordinarily prescient essay on intrusive media, with cameras illuminating every unwary expression, and phallic microphones brutally thrust into any private corner. It’s truly a vicious satire on pretension, and an open attack on that insatiable consumer of everything palliative and trite.
I’m not going to repeat the history of calamity that dogged Welles production; see Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead for that incredible story of despair and near-miraculous recovery. And I’m not sure I can offer a rational review at this point: I empathize with the commentators who came out of the theater ‘gobsmacked.’ This one demands multiple viewings, and even at that, I suspect it’ll remain elusive but beckoning. Not that it matters: it obviously doesn’t care what you think.
Anyway, some initial thoughts:
Despite warnings out of Venice and Telluride, I had no problem with the shifts from black-and-white to color. The cobbled-together nature of the mockumentary was, I thought, clearly explained, and that explanation was appropriate. The sound was fine. The film-within-a-film segments provided a welcome relief from the intensity of the party scenes and were neither too long nor at all tedious.
It’s all about the tragic descent of Jake Hannaford, once-legendary director adored but ignored in modern Hollywood, returned to L.A. to make his comeback film, and I’d love to know how much of the autobiographical nature of the film Welles privately conceded, how much denied. I thought it noteworthy that Hannaford shot John Dale, his leading man, absolutely gorgeous. “Directing with a mask,” Welles said of his directing Hannaford’s film, but he shot Kodar, his own lover, absolutely gorgeous, too. Maybe the mask slipped. As to Hannaford’s movie, Welles’ parody of new cinema (Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriski Point is universally cited as a target) is a deliberately terrible movie, visuals without meaning bridging on camp. Jake Hannaford (John Huston in Chinatown mode) doesn’t do symbolism, and it shows. Worse, he’s insisted on using Dale, his supposed discovery, instead of a name star: no wonder he can’t get funding. Everything he does conspires to his own destruction.
Again against expectations, I found the plot well-paced, coherent, and involving, building or rather descending naturally toward the inevitable climax: Dale is revealed as a trained if merely adequate actor rather than the beautiful lost boy Hannaford thought he’d rescued; the money runs out, and even Hannaford’s protégé Brooks Otterlake (wonderfully acted by Bogdanovich) won’t finance him; his dear friend Zarah Valeska (Lilli Palmer) kindly denies his virtual plea for emotional support; and the press, led by Susan Strasberg’s Juliette Riche (based on Pauline Kael), are ruthlessly bent on deconstructing Hannaford’s fragile psyche (nothing in this visceral film is more of a gut-punch than his expressed disgust of homosexuals). The power goes off but the alcohol continues to flow. Which isn’t to say this film is anything short of insane, only that there’s an expertly told story unfolding within the overall chaos. Welles does do symbolism, and the finale at the drive-in is magnificent.
But – and despite the fact that Oja Kodar was a second creative force behind this film, particularly the soft-porn aspects of Hannaford’s movie – there’s just so much of her. Is it Welles overpowering Hannaford again? Dale’s probable homosexuality and Hannaford’s presumed repression would seem to make her secondary. Does her mysterious, observant presence represent the creative force itself? That works better, as Welles himself said Dale represented him, and Kodar draws in and coldly uses the bewitched and bewildered young man. This is very much a film about men with men, about machismo, originally inspired by and intended as a takedown of the Hemingway type Welles loathed; maybe that’s why the feminine is triumphant while the men crumble. But as creators themselves, both Welles and his avatar evince that same ruthlessness, making use of whatever or whomever comes to hand and, as the closing narration insists, destroying as they go until finally they destroy themselves.
Now that’s a tidy ending to an essay, don’t you think? Rather cheap, rather marketable, suitable for a blog. I have a pretty good idea how The Other Side of the Wind will be reviewed by Netflix viewers, but I do love a film with a high critics’ score and low audience approval: that ratio indicates something worth seeing. The first comment I heard leaving the theater (it was loud) was: “There’s two hours out of my life I won’t get back.” What I think is: you go, Orson. Confound ‘em. Leave it what it is with all the omissions and emotions, don’t explain it into some neat narrative box. Chaos is always the beginning, and there were never any answers to this tragedy anyway, so leave all the beautiful, terrible nonsense alone.
Photo credits: Orson Welles by Chris Weige CC BY-SA 2.0 / Nicolas Sanguinetti, Oooh, Orson Welles, CC BY-SA 2.0