Thursday, November 29, 2018

Orson Welles' last "classic?"

Watching the unfinished – and now finished (kind of) - late Orson Welles’ film The Other Side of the Wind simply by itself might be, shall we say, confusing. Or, less charitably, two hours of one’s life (you know the rest). The film should come with a notice stating you should also watch a companion documentary. It’s the also newly released Morgan Neville’s (20 Feet from Stardom, 2013) They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, about the making of this last film of the late great filmmaker, dramatist and all-around media disrupter, Orson Welles. Both films are on Netflix. The documentary puts everything in context, or almost does, at least enough so that you can start making up your own mind about what you just saw in the Welles’ film……The Other Side of the Wind was made in the early 1970s, after Welles returned from a second “exile” in Europe and in the aftermath of a long falling out with Hollywood after his 1958 classic – though Hollywood didn’t think so – Touch of Evil. According to Neville’s doc, Welles' return was made possible by the schism that developed in Hollywood by the late 1960s, when the embers of the old studio system were almost snuffed out and the hip - even hippieish – directors and films (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Godfather, The Last Picture Show) of the New Hollywood were taking over. This was auteur cinema, not the dastardly old corporate world run by a few old studio moguls. This New Hollywood, so the story goes, was now receptive to someone as disruptive as Welles, who after all terrorized most of America with his 1938 War of the Worlds and of course who has been considered an all-time genius with his 1941 Citizen Kane, perhaps the greatest movie ever made - layered, nuanced and iconoclastic in breaking new cinematic ground. So, upon his return, Welles secured financing, gathered a group of Hollywood types together, and started shooting the picture. But The Other Side of the Wind was a much different kind of film, even for Welles. It incorporated hand held camera work, had improvised dialogue, and spontaneity, lots of spontaneity.....So what’s it about? Well,
no one interviewed in the Neville documentary seemed to agree or know for sure, but it certainly seemed like it was creating caricatures of certain Hollywood types -producers, actors, studio crews, assorted hangers-on - and a send up of Hollywood in general. Could this at last have been Welles’ revenge?.....The plot, such as it is, is about a filmmaker, "Jake" Hannaford, perhaps based on Welles himself and played by no less a larger than life director than John Huston. He’s making a film, perhaps an “art” film, similar to the “atmospheric” films of European directors like Bergman or Antonioni, where one character follows another (Welles’ lover Oja Kodar) as she traipses around studio backlots and other bleak landscapes. “You either hate it or loathe it,” says one character wryly of the film within the film. Kodar, in the documentary, says the title is actually about Welles, who personifies the wind, but “I knew the other side” of it/him. Welles’ acolyte in real life, director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, 1971), plays a similar role, and even comedian Rich Little makes an appearance. And there are many Hollywood personalities who play their real selves – George Jessel, Paul Mazursky, Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Claude Chabrol. The film is kind of a Hollywood version of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, with the tribe ending up at a ribald party in the Hollywood Hills. The story itself is very much of its time, with the characters trying to out hip one another (the only thing missing are Nehru jackets) and there’s even someone based on the famed New Yorker critic Pauline Kael (Susan Strasberg as Juliette Riche)……So, again, what does it all mean? Your guess is as good as mine, or even the people who played the characters. Said Rich Little in the documentary: “I’m not sure he (Welles) knew where this movie was going, I’m not sure any of us did.” Because of financial and legal problems, The Other Side of the Wind was kept in a vault in France and only released very recently. Says one commentator in the doc, “it’s the greatest movie that was never released.” Says a bemused Welles, quoted at the time, “maybe it’s just talking about making a picture.”

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