Friday, November 09, 2018

The Other Side of the Wind


It’s hard to believe that The Other Side of the Wind is finally here, 48 years after Orson Welles began shooting the film and 33 years after his death. The film has been hauled over the finish line by Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Marshall, Oja Kodar and others, with the financial muscle of Netflix being the key required to unlock the various legal entanglements and propriety claims the project has been embroiled in. For decades it seemed like the completion of this project was an impossible dream, and there was even a certain poetry in it continuing to languish out of sight; a final representation of the many setbacks and frustrations that blighted Welles’ career. The Other Side of the Wind is, after all, a film about the impossibility of finishing a film, with the arty feature being shot by Jake Hannaford (John Huston, on grand cigar-and-dialogue-chewing form) falling apart when the leading man walks off the set. Even before that incident, the film appears to be on shaky ground, with money rapidly running out and Hannaford’s loose style bewildering even his closest confidants. “Is Jake just making it up as he goes along?” a producer asks, as he watches the rushes. “He’s done it before,” comes the weary response.

How much of The Other Side of the Wind was Welles making up as he went along? The film was shot in bits and pieces across the span of six years, and much of it has a fizzing, improvisatory quality. The film has two components, with the bulk of it taking place at Hannaford’s 70th birthday party where the director imperiously holds court amid a swarming and chattering crowd of acolytes and critics.  These scenes are shot with handheld cameras, many from the vantage point of the news cameramen and media students in attendance, with the image flipping back-and-forth between colour and black-and-white stock. Given the ad-hoc method of production and the confluence of multiple perspectives and film stocks, it’s remarkable how fluid and coherent it feels. Taking his cue from footage Welles had already cut together before the money ran out, editor Bob Murawski creates a swirling, cacophonous atmosphere that can be maddening at times, but which possesses an entrancing rhythm and energy.

Occasionally, the filmmakers give us a break from this claustrophobic environment, when Hannaford screens the rushes of the film he has been working on, also titled The Other Side of the Wind; an Antonioni-esque oddity, consisting of a young man (Bob Random) and a woman (Oja Kodar) as they wander wordlessly through a series of desolate landscapes, shedding their clothes along the way. The image stretches from 1.33 to 1.85 in these scenes and explodes into vivid colour. It’s a trippy, deliberately obtuse endeavour – it plays like a parody of existential ‘60s art films – but it has been made with a sense of craft and imagination that allows it to transcend pastiche. Cinematographer Gary Graver delivers dynamic compositions film with bold primary colours and lighting, and a couple of the set-pieces in this film-within-the-film take the breath away. Kodar strides through a unisex toilet in a nightclub, where carnal activities are taking place in every stall, and she pulls off her wet clothes before pushing an ice cube into the mouth of a young woman who observes her, agog. This sequence is followed by a sex scene inside a car, with the camera getting uncomfortably close to the actors within the cramped vehicle, as rain lashes the windows and red lights flash. These are intensely erotic piece of filmmakings, with astounding framing and cutting.

The film inside The Other Side of the Wind is like little that Welles had ever made before, and that’s by design. Welles intended The Other Side of the Wind as a departure, and in fact he allowed Oja Kodar (who co-wrote the screenplay with him) to direct herself in the ‘movie’ sections of the film. Even so, the way his camera watches Kodar reveals how fixated he was on her, in awe of her beauty and the way her body moved. Welles’ relationship with his partner/collaborator/muse is one of the key relationships that The Other Side of the Wind throws into a fascinating light. Others include Pauline Kael (represented here by the terrific Susan Strasberg), who peppers Hannaford with criticism throughout the party scenes, Marlene Dietrich (Lilli Palmer), and Bogdanovich himself, who plays a cocky young filmmaker on the rise and perhaps surpassing his old mentor. "For years I didn't want this document shown because frankly, I didn't like the way I came off in the piece. But I'm old enough now not to care anymore about how my role in Jake’s life is interpreted,” Bogdanovich states in character in the film’s opening narration. “My name is Brooks Otterlake, probably Hannaford's most successful acolyte.” The Other Side of the Wind is a caustic examination of the myriad ways in which filmmaking can define, warp and destroy people, with Hannaford's loyal gofer Billy (played with a note of vital pathos by Norman Foster) emerging as one of the film’s most tragic and empathetic figures. “Movies and friendship,” Hannaford intones, “those are mysteries.”

The Other Side of the Wind is rife with mysteries, references and revelations. It’s a dense and sometimes overwhelming experience, with the adventurous editing style Welles utilised in F for Fake being pushed even further here by Murawski and his collaborators. That question of collaboration is an interesting one to ponder – how much can we consider this picture, finished three decades after his death, ‘an Orson Welles film?’ I’m reminded of a passage from Simon Callow’s recent Welles biography One Man Band, where he writes: “Welles packed more living into his life, pursued more professions, thrust out in more directions and formed more intense relationships, than any twenty men put together.” That’s what The Other Side of the Wind feels like, a film that is intensely alive from moment-to-moment; pushing, exploring and thrusting in multiple directions at once. The Other Side of the Wind might not have been finished under the supervision of its creator, but it has undeniably been made in his spirit. “You old guys are trying to get with it. Is that what this movie's about?" one critic asks when looking at Hannaford’s footage, but this is a film that was always destined to exist out of time. The Other Side of the Wind would surely have been greeted as an audacious, singular achievement in 1976, but in 2018 it feels even more exhilaratingly like a great and radical work of art to grapple with. I can't wait to see it again.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

At the end of his review of Free Fire (April 2017, Sight & Sound), Tony Rayns suggested that Ben Wheatley and his partner Amy Jump “could yet turn out to be England's belated answer to Rainer Werner Fassbinder.” Whether they will end up earning such a lofty comparison remains to be seen, but there's no denying that the pair share Fassbinder's knack for working in a way that's fast, cheap and prolific. Wheatley shot his micro-budget debut Down Terrace (2009) in eight days, and even after making his breakthrough as a filmmaker he has still shown a willingness to turn away from high-profile pictures for experimental fare like his hallucinogenic black-and-white odyssey A Field in England (2013), which was shot in less than two weeks. Now, after the ambitious spectacle of the J.G. Ballard adaptation High Rise (2015) and the starry shoot-'em-up Free Fire, Wheatley has cut loose once more with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. Shot earlier this year in just 11 days, it's a notable picture for a couple of reasons: this is the first film Wheatley has made since his debut that doesn't have a co-writing or co-editing credit for Jump, and it's the first Ben Wheatley film that doesn't contain any violence.

That's not to say people don't get hurt in Happy New Year, Colin Burstead - Doon Mackichan stumbles within the first 15 minutes and spends half of the film with a bag of frozen peas strapped to her ankle - but the pain is primarily emotional rather than physical. Colin (Neil Maskell) has decided to hire a grand country mansion for his family's New Year's Eve party, but when we see him nervously vaping and listening to meditation music under the opening credits, we can sense that he's already regretting this decision. The family has barely settled at Cumberland House before Colin has to deal with his mother's ankle injury and his almost bankrupt father (Bill Paterson) tapping him for an emergency loan, and every additional guest only seems to add to Colin's anxiety. The wild card is David (Sam Riley), Colin's tearaway brother, who has been persona non grata since some unspecified transgression five years earlier. He has been invited by their sister Gini (Hayley Squires) as a surprise for their mother, but he's a most unwelcome surprise for the many partygoers who still harbour ill feelings towards him.

Read the rest of my review in the December 2018 issue of Sight & Sound

Friday, November 02, 2018

Peterloo

For a director who will forever be primarily associated with his intimate studies of ordinary British families, it's an odd coincidence that the past two Mike Leigh films have opened on foreign soil. Leigh's scope has expanded the further he has pushed back into the past. His 2014 biopic Mr. Turner began with a bucolic scene in the Netherlands, as the artist sketched a windmill in contented isolation, but his new film Peterloo begins with a much less tranquil scene. Leigh plunges us straight into the carnage as the battle of Waterloo reaches its bloody final days. We take the viewpoint of a startled bugler (David Moorst), staggering through the explosions and the bodies, with Dick Pope's camera circling him to capture the chaos. Joseph simply wants to make it home, but when he does return to Manchester he finds little comfort. Stricken by PTSD and with no work available to him, Joseph rejoins a family that is already struggling to make ends meet.

This opening suggests that Joseph will be one of Peterloo’s key protagonist, but he soon recedes into the background. Mike Leigh’s films are usually built around a strong central figure or a key relationship, but in examining the events that led to the massacre at St Peter's Field, Manchester in 1819, Leigh has taken a panoramic view of history. The film is a sprawling ensemble piece, cutting between multiple points of view and different classes to expose the inequality and oppression of 19th century Britain. It’s by far the biggest subject that this great filmmaker has ever tackled and at times the scale of the project seems to preclude the qualities that usually distinguish his work. Our time with each character is fragmented as Leigh switches his focus between the various factions, and he struggles to locate the film’s emotional centre. It seems Joseph’s family – including his mother (Maxine Peake) and father (Pearce Quigley) – should be where our interest and sympathies lie, but these characters don’t come to life in the way we’ve come to expect from Leigh’s pictures.

Instead, it’s the more colourful characters who make the biggest impression, or in some cases the ones who speak loudest. One of Peterloo’s central themes is the power of oratory, with characters such as Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) or the renowned but vainglorious Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) frequently stating the need for reformation through impassioned speeches, emboldening the disenfranchised masses. Leigh’s decision to construct his film largely through these town meetings and exchanges of rhetoric makes it feel intermittently stimulating and rousing, but oddly static. Offset against these working class declaimers are the upper classes, presented as sneering grotesques, with Vincent Franklin’s bringing an entertainingly theatrical edge to his furious pomposity as the Magistrate Reverend Ethelston, and Tim McInnerny going into Blackadder mode as the oblivious Prince Regent.

There is unmistakable and justifiable anger in the filmmaking here, and that anger is what carries us through Peterloo’s uneven and rough patches, with the film gradually building a cumulative force. All roads lead inexorably to August 16th, 1819, with the build-up to the massacre taking up much of the film’s climactic hour. Leigh follows the massive crowds – families walking hand-in-hand, clad in their Sunday best – as they converge on St Peter's Field, developing a queasy tension and we anticipate their fate. As they gather below, the magistrates sit in their elevated vantage point, drinking wine and preparing to unleash the assembled military forces on the crowd. The ensuing carnage is shocking and brutal, shot in close quarters and cut with a visceral energy by Jon Gregory. The panic and fear is tangible, the atrocity indefensible. It’s by far the most ambitious and complex sequence Leigh has ever staged, and he carries it off with breathtaking assurance.

And then we have the calm after the storm, with the Prince Regent – reclining as he is fed sugared treats – praising the magistrates for restoring “tranquillity,” as a family stands huddled over a grave and a group of journalists surveying the scene of the bloodshed prepare to share what they have seen. The massacre at Peterloo has been spoken of as a defining moment in the history of the working class struggle for enfranchisement, but Leigh doesn’t place the film in its historical moment; there are no blocks of text at the end of the film to explain what happened next or why Peterloo matters. Leigh’s aim is to make this story feel immediate and current rather than demarcate it as a piece of ancient history, leaving it open for us to draw our own contemporary parallels with what we have seen. Peterloo isn’t consistently involving enough to rank among the very best Mike Leigh films, but the film’s aggressive, blunt power – alongside the typically immersive attention to period details and language – is enough to make this story come to vivid life right at the painful end. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Wings of the Dove screening + Q&A at the Prince Charles Cinema

I’ve long been a fan of Iain Softley and Hossein Amini’s adaptation of The Wings of the Dove, which intelligently dissects Henry James’s dense novel and refashions it into a riveting and passionate tale of love and duplicity. Released in 1997 – a boom time for James adaptations – the film earned Oscar nominations for Amini’s screenplay, Sandy Powell’s costumes, Eduardo Serra’s cinematography and a Best Actress nomination for Helena Bonham Carter, whose performance as the manipulative Kate Croy still ranks as her finest work. I’ve been waiting for years for the opportunity to see this film on 35mm, so I was excited to see it appearing in the Prince Charles Cinema’s upcoming programme, and I was even more thrilled when I was asked to moderate the post-screening discussion with Softley and Amini. This is an extremely rare chance to see this superb film projected from a print and to hear its creators talk about the daunting task of adapting Henry James for the screen. The screening takes place on November 1st at 20:35 and tickets are available from the Prince Charles Cinema website now.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

London Film Festival 2018 Podcast - Widows / Ash is Purest White / Joy

I appeared on the Sight & Sound podcast to discuss this year's opening night film Widows, Jia Zhangke's Ash is Purest White and Sudabeh Mortezai's Joy. You can listen to it here: