Skip to main content

He's a rough magician, isn't he?

The Other Side of the Wind
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Sometimes it may be better notto get what you want and to carry on dreaming about how splendid it would be if you had it. The Other Side of the Wind has been one of those elusive grail items; "Wouldn't it be amazing if we finally got to see Orson Welles' great uncompleted masterpiece?" The critical response to getting it at last has been generally kind, but generally kind in the sense of considering it would be churlish to rip it to shreds after all the effort that has gone in to getting it out there, and out of respect to the fat man. Really, though, it's a bit of a mess.


"This is an attempt to honour and complete his vision" announces an introductory title card, but one can't help feeling that an attempt to grasp something so mercurial is doomed to failure. Wind really needs to be watched as a double bill with They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, in which Morgan Neville details the protracted trials and tribulations of making of the picture, to get a perspective on the wayward child it is. Which is to say, it barely stands on its own; it's a curiosity, interesting for that, but lacking inherent vitality and coherence. 


An anecdote regarding Welles long-suffering cinematographer Gary Graver may provide a clue as to why the picture is less than satisfying; he assembled a workprint and tried to cut it, "but without Orson, it didn't track". It was perfect in Graver's head, but he "just couldn't get it on film". Maybe Welles’ alchemist’s touch would have made all the difference (one can delight in the witty brilliance of F For Fake's editing, but try asking someone else to reproduce it). Or maybe it wouldn't. Maybe the half decade production schedule did for it making sense, as the subject matter unspooled from its director's grasp. At one point in the fly-on-the-wall proceedings (a camera crew is filming the 70th birthday party of John Huston's Wellesian-to-an-extent Hollywood director Jake Hannaford), a character is told "You'd better read the script" to which the reply comes "There isn't one. Jake is just making it up as he goes along". It's something echoed in They'll Love Me by those involved, but being self-conscious about the flaws in your approach doesn't guarantee you post-modern sparkle, it just shows you’re aware of the flaws.


I note the Variety review favoured Wind's framing device over the film within a film, but I found the latter more clearly intentioned and stylistically devised, perhaps because Welles had most of it in the can first. Sure, it's a cheap joke; Hannaford's past-it great is attempting to get down with the kids and make something that plays to the modern, hip crowd (but needs funding). This consists mostly of the very lovely Oja Kodar – Welles' girlfriend, and some allege instrumental in obstructing the film from being assembled for such a long time – promenading around nude as she seduces young buck John Dale (Bob Random). The footage is as predictably plotless as that sounds, but it's in the soundtrack to these passages – the goading, controlling director, and the reactions of viewers to the content – that Wind hits a groove largely absent elsewhere. In tandem, one also can't help but ponder the trophy obsession of directors flaunting their young muses en flagrante, as if to announce to the world "Look at what I have".


Much of the rest finds us flitting from guest to guest amid bitty, witty interjections, random observations or improvised conversations and anecdotes that can't escape the artificial veneer of their genesis. Welles idea sounds worthy enough as a premise ("But I would like to take a whole story and make the picture as though it were a documentary. The actors are gonna be improvising. Nobody's ever done it before, you know"), but exactly the issue his audience asks ("Aren't you afraid the end result won’t have any control?") presents itself. 


Brooks OtterlakeWhat would we really be hiding, lady?
Juliette Riche: How much you hate each other.

Loosely, there are narrative pegs. We know this the final day of Hannaford's life (as recounted in a framing voiceover). There's Hannaford's protégé Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich, basically playing Peter Bogdanovich, and doing it passably) and the underlying unease of the lauded titan now eclipsed by the young scamp who held him in awe. There's the Pauline Kael-esque film critic Juliette Riche (Susan Strasberg), out to take pot-shots at Hannaford whenever she can (igniting his final physical outburst when she accuses Hannaford of latent homosexual tendencies towards his young discovery). There are also various young director luminaries (Henry Jaglom, Dennis Hopper, Paul Mazursky) in attendance.


Welles first came up with the idea in the early '60s, at which point he was already a Hollywood exile. On might argue that, like the recent example of Gilliam and his reconfigured The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the less funding you get, the less you're on the radar of the big studios you resent, the more your vision stretches only to an interior perspective, of your own limited, scratchy place within the filmmaking firmament. Interesting for you, less so for your audience. What do you have to say beyond your own artistic (lack of) compromise? The Wiki page for Wind details the various real persons the characters are purportedly designed to represent (including Hannaford as Hemingway – Hannaford's death being the same date as Hemingway's – and the denial that he represents Welles, but that's like believing Woody Allen when he says his characters aren't based on him), yet this only really has relevance if the picture is digging in on the satire front. There are plenty of pithy epithets and blithe asides, but nothing to pull out of the party sequences in a concerted way. This isn't another The Player.


The result is that Wind is too fractured to really work in a compelling fashion. It's unable to develop a distinctive rhythm or cast a hypnotic spell. Welles' film is caught between stylistic intent and the reek of artifice, the camera light on its feet, but the content laboured and staged. There's a persistent feeling of unmotivated scene changes and segues – what shall we do next? I don't know, let's try this; it's like eavesdropping on a conversation you have no stake in, and so quickly becomes a chore.


One wonders whether Welles would have admitted defeat with the footage, had he got it back and been able to make of it what he would. I suspect his approved The Other Side of the Wind wouldn’t have seen the light of day in the form we see it now, however devotedly its architects may have poured over his notes, given that he was reported to have been obsessing over the editing during the time he did have access (he had forty minutes edited at the point it was locked away) and that he was most interested in delivering whatever turned out to be most interesting for the picture, rather than the picture as devised. Because while The Other Side of the Wind holds interest as a document of what might have been, it isn't an especially interesting film. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

Doctor, eh? You’re not in the best of shape yourself, though, are you?

Doctor Who  Season 26 – Worst to Best
I’m not a big Seventh Doctor fan. For me, Doctor Who pretty much ended with Season 23 (and not because it was awful: see here). Yes, there have been a few nu-Who reprieves (mostly notably Matt Smith’s first season), but the McCoy era flaunted an abundance of sins, from a lead who wasn’t up to snuff, to a script-editor messaging his social conscience wrapped in a breeze block (or bilge bag), to production values that made any given earlier era look absurdly lavish in comparison. And then there was the “masterplan” (which at least lends Season 24 a rather innocuous and relatively inoffensive quality by contrast).

Nevertheless, on the occasions I do return to the era, I’m always minded to give it a fair shake. And while that resolve inevitably crumbles within minutes, under the duress of cold harsh reality, it has, at times, led to a positive reappraisal (The Happiness Patrol, and, to an extent, perhaps unfathomably, Time and the Rani). So we’ll see ho…

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …