Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Oja Kodar, Bob Random, Joseph McBride, Lilli Palmer, Edmond O'Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Paul Stewart, Cameron Mitchell, Peter Jason, Tonio Selwart, Howard Grossman, Geoffrey Land, Norman Foster, Dennis Hopper, Gregory Sierra, Benny Rubin, Cathy Lucas, Dan Tobin, George Jessel, Richard Wilson, Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Cameron Crowe
Written by: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar
Directed by: Orson Welles
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and some language
Running Time: 122
Date: 11/02/2018

The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Rough Magician

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In certain circles, a new film by Orson Welles is an event worthy of major enthusiasm. But there's also a certain amount of trepidation involved: What if it's no good? What if I watch it and it's not immediately apparent that it's a masterpiece? The reviews that have trickled in so far have been mainly kind; the reviewers tackled the dense, brainy, weird The Other Side of the Wind and wrote positive, if not exactly glowing reviews. Others simply panned it, perhaps not finding the characters easy enough to like. Truthfully, it's not a movie that will be simple for casual moviegoers to sit through. Indeed, it won't even be easy for people that have only seen Citizen Kane to sit through (it's very, very far away from Citizen Kane). But I nevertheless think it's a great film, and one that will be interesting to re-visit and re-assess.

It's important to remember that critics who were there for the original releases of Welles' first thirteen feature films between 1941 and 1973 were also baffled and were frequently dismissive. It's only in retrospect that we come to understand and appreciate them, thanks to many writers that took second, third, fourth chances, and found new things to admire. We can assume that this movie, too, is going to be met with confusion but will, in time, be a worthy addition to Welles' filmography.

If The Other Side of the Wind is not anything at all like Kane or anything else Welles made up through The Immortal Story (1968), it has a great deal in common with his 1973 masterpiece F for Fake. With that film, Welles embarked upon a new path, using different film stocks, experimental editing, and an intriguing mix of truth and fiction. This new film is a direct extension of that one, and — given that Welles himself is neither seen nor heard in it (a first among the films he directed) — F for Fake can be a kind of life preserver to cling to as you sink into the new film's strange rhythms.

[Note: a reader informs me that Welles can be heard, off-camera, interviewing the actress character played by Lilli Palmer... I will listen for this when I get a chance to see the film again, and try to confirm.]

Most Welles fans know that he began shooting The Other Side of the Wind around 1970 and stopped shooting around 1976. It was not the first time he made a movie in such a piecemeal way; Othello (1952) was another example, and it turned out just fine. For this one, Welles completed principal photography and edited several sequences together, which have since been shown in various documentaries. He also left notes about how to finish the rest of the film.

But to make it in the first place, Welles gleaned money from many different sources, some of them disreputable. Welles believed that as the artist, he owned all the footage, but the investors believed otherwise. Footage was held hostage, Welles could not raise any more money, and final editing could not be completed. After Welles' death in 1985, it became a nearly impossible task to get all of the sources involved on the same page, for any of them to agree on anything. When I interviewed Peter Bogdanovich in 2002, he explained that "We're closer now than we've ever been." But it took a Kickstarter-style campaign, and then Netflix, to get it finished, 16 years later, and a full 42 years after shooting commenced.

I sat down to watch the movie on November 2, 2018, the first morning it was available, in a slightly breathless state. I'm writing this the same day, to get my thoughts down. A critic friend who was watching at the same time described it as "grouchy," but I'd say it was more "ornery," coming from the point of view of an older man, pessimistic, but lovably so.

It's a little like Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), telling the story of a powerful, popular film director, Jake Hannaford, played by the real-life popular, powerful film director John Huston. Both mavericks, Huston and Welles had known each other for years; Huston did some uncredited writing on Welles's The Stranger (1946) and Welles appeared or did voice work for a few of Huston's movies (including a brief, memorable turn as Father Mapple in Moby Dick). It's Hannaford's 70th birthday (Huston would have been in his early-seventies), and he's having a party to which several "spooks," or journalists and cineastes have been invited. Among these is Pister, played by Joseph McBride, whom I know from San Francisco State University, and who has written many invaluable cinema books as well as co-writing the screenplay for Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979).

In any case, Hannaford is nearly finished with his latest film, but he has two problems. His leading man, John Dale (Robert Random), has walked off the film and has disappeared. Also, his funding has fallen through and he only has four more days to complete principal photography. But tonight is a night for drinking! Also at the party is Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich); like the real-life Bogdanovich, Otterlake began as a journalist, interviewing great old directors, and then became a very successful director in his own right. Whereas Hannaford is broke, Otterlake seems on the verge of a huge deal.

Outside of these two principals, it's difficult to keep track of just who everyone is at the party. Some folks seem to work for Hannaford in some capacity, including Billy Boyle (Norman Foster, also a director; he made the 1943 Welles film Journey Into Fear), film editor Maggie Noonan (Mercedes McCambridge), and possibly Pat Mullins (Edmond O'Brien), Zimmer (Cameron Mitchell), Matt Costello (Paul Stewart), and Grover (Peter Jason). There's also Zarah Valeska (Lilli Palmer), an actress that Hannaford once worked with, and his current starlet, played by Oja Kodar, Welles' girlfriend, who co-wrote the screenplay. Neither she, nor Random, speak a single word in this movie.

Susan Strasberg plays the most persistent of the journalists, Julie Rich, who could be modeled after Pauline Kael. Then, real people like Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, Cameron Crowe, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, and Frank Marshall can be glimpsed in the crowd. (I glimpsed a couple of them, but not all of them.) At the party, many people have cameras and sound equipment, and the entire movie is told from this point of view, as if someone collected all the footage from all the cameras and assembled it after the fact. (Bogdanovich re-visits his character and provides a new spoken introduction to explain.) So the film stock jumps around from black-and-white to color, from grainy to sharp, etc. The editing is sometimes frenetic, as if inventing a new kind of cinematic rhythm. It's so off-kilter if sometimes feels dreamlike.

This is also a night to screen footage from Hannaford's newest film, called The Other Side of the Wind. The full-color footage of the film-within-a-film is gorgeous, and it's presented a little wider than the documentary-type footage. It mainly features Kodar's unnamed starlet and Dale chasing each other around, not speaking, and frequently being naked. It reminded me of Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970), and an entry on the IMDB trivia page claims that it was intended as a spoof of such. The first bit of footage is shown to producer Max David (Geoffrey Land) — possibly modeled after Robert Evans — who then storms out. Then a chunk of footage is shown at the party, in-between power outages. The final bit is shown at a drive-in, where the last intrepid viewers drive away as the sun rises.

This film-within-a-film is truly some of the most breathtaking stuff Welles ever shot, even if it's supposed to be self-consciously arty. It's a parody of film art made by someone who helped invent it. The footage is also mesmerizingly quiet, without a stitch of dialogue, while the rest of the film, the party sequence, is heavily chatty. Characters are constantly dissecting each other and making cutting observations. Many of these are quite astute and worth pondering, while others slither by so quickly you can't even be sure you heard them. Welles doesn't really use overlapping dialogue here, but the dialogue doesn't occur in a sterile bubble, either; characters talk between rooms, through doors, and over the party noise.

Unlike most of Welles's other films, including F for Fake, The Other Side of the Wind doesn't seem to be about anything, or about any one thing. It could be a parody of Hollywood, but it also could be about making art in general. It could be a deep exploration of one particular artist, or it could be about his relationships with others (and betrayals by others). Or it could be that Welles was a genius, loved to talk, and created this movie as a kind of catch-all, kitchen-sink way to talk about all kinds of things that were on his mind at the time. And quite a lot of things can pass through a man's mind over the course of six years.

I feel as if, though there's a lot of complaining in this movie, there's also a great deal of appreciation for the good things in life and perhaps even a hope for the future. After wrapping this film in 1976, Welles lived only for another 7 years. He passed the time mostly by doing voice work, and making occasional appearances in things like The Muppet Movie (and receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Butterfly), and trying and failing to get more film projects going. He also did those infamous wine commercials and probably spent a great deal of time dining and drinking and talking with friends about the state of things. Perhaps The Other Side of the Wind is as close a snapshot as we can hope for of the inner workings of his soul at the end of his life. Or perhaps it's just a weird, experimental, brainy, gorgeous, entrancing movie by a great filmmaker that you might enjoy watching.

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