Monday, November 05, 2018

Finally Seeing THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND

Peter Bogdanovich and John Huston.
Now I can say that I have experienced Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (playing this month on Netflix and in select theatrical engagements), but have I seen it? Is it possible to really “see” it in a single go? 

The storyline is simplicity itself: it's a portrait of a maverick film director (John Huston) on his 70th birthday, trying to find the funding for one last masterpiece that he's basically trying to will into existence without a script. Meanwhile, the old Hollywood studio system is crumbling around him and he must find the humility to beg intercession from a former admirer who has become the hottest young film director in town. It's very clearly about the ironic relationship between Welles himself and Peter Bogdanovich, the difference between them being that Welles refused to play himself. He also initially denied Bogdanovich the opportunity by casting Rich Little in the role of the young successor - ostensibly because he, like Bogdanovich, was known for doing impressions. When that casting failed, Bogdanovich stepped in. One wishes that Welles had been as honest and as brave. His absence from the film (save for a couple of questions his well-known voice addresses from off-screen to Lili Palmer in an interview) prevents the film from achieving supernova as a piece of meta-filmmaking. Huston's not particularly effective in a role that should be larger than life, and his casting underlines Welles' final film as a refusal to admit the obvious, an ironic concession to personal vanity, a backing-down from his last real chance at bat. 

Obviously, without Welles around to offer notes on the final edit it has been given here, this is more of an organization of materials than an actual Welles film, regardless of what the screen credits say. TOSOTW doesn’t have the immediacy of a great Welles film; it’s not really a film of great performances, oddly enough, though it has many great moments; it’s not something you would point to, to introduce someone to Welles as a filmmaker. I’m not even sure I can detect the breath of the living Welles in it. However, his fleeting shadow darts phantom-like between its edits, its bravura, and its paling anger and despair, fed up with the nonsense, the hell of other people that must be endured if one dares to chase the angels.

So much whirling, twirling, crossing the line, such egregious chaos and rule-breaking - the first half hour or so reminds me a lot of the first pages of Vladimir Nabokov’s ADA, where the author’s style is so exaggerated, impenetrable and ogreish that it seems dedicated to evicting all but its most dedicated, passionate, determined readers... but once you get past that, there are numerous pleasures in store, including a rare commodity in new movies, some genuine eroticism. In TOSOTW, the greatest pleasures pop out from the richly hued, widescreen movie-within-the-movie; it's during these passages, the ones most fraught with mystery and danger, that the film eases up, slows down, relaxing and giving the viewer a chance to absorb information at their own pace. What surrounds these astounding chunks of protein in the broth is much like life itself: reckless, free-wheeling, fraught with mistakes, regrets, flashes of humility, arrogance, and poetry.

If Welles had ever seen Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE (1971), it might well have taken the wind out of his sails in terms of completing this project, because they are much the same animal - except here the villagers who survive the filming are not constructing cameras out of bamboo, but rather an effigy of Welles himself, who is seen only reflected in the eyes of a devoted cast and crew. Like most of his other features, this film is the story of a betrayal, or at least a perceived betrayal, and its fabric consists of everyone in the business who hadn't yet turned their back on Orson Welles. Perhaps the most loyal of all these individuals and individualists was the late cinematographer Gary Graver, whose arch visual style, as it plays around the hard edits, is not only aggressively Wellesian but occasionally evokes Russ Meyer - even before two characters bounce around in the buff on a set of bare bed springs. Thanks in large part to Graver, the greatest compliment I can give the film on the basis of a single viewing - and I think it's one that would very much please Welles - is that this film is as valid a monument to Oja Kodar as THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI was to Rita Hayworth. She is formidable and unforgettable in it.


Robert Random and Oja Kodar.

Like all Welles films, this is complex wine and a fast review would be well before its time. This will need to be seen numerous times - in all honesty, probably more by students, cultists and devotees than general audiences. It's possible that its legend was more valuable, more magical, than its fact - as was the case with Brian Wilson's long unfinished SMILE - but now that Welles' chimera has been coalesced into one thing, assembled (valiantly, by editor Bob Murawski) into a manageable document or entertainment, its admirers can proceed with the work of posterity, which is to say, taking it apart once again.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.



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