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.