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Sunday, 18 November 2018

Russian Resurrection and Cine Latino Film Festivals - Peter Hourigan unearths SUMMER (Kirill Serebrennikov, Russia) and A TRANSLATOR (Rodrigo & Sebastián Barriuso, Cuba)

Those words at the start of a movie often give me some trepidation.  Often it’s an explanation as to why the movie to follow lacks credibility, or as an excuse to throw any and everything into the action. So, when it does apply to a film and it does not claim that at the start, an end reveal can actually have an impact.
Two films I saw a couple of days apart made me think about how we relate to a movie ‘based on a true story.’  Both were screened in the current batch of film festivals, one the Russian Resurrection Festival, the other the Palace Cinemas Cine Latino Film Festival.  And both were roughly contemporaneous in their period. 
I saw the Russian film, Summer (poster, left) first. This is directed by Kirill Serebrennikov.  The director has a Jewish father, a Ukrainian mother and since last year has been under house arrest, allowed no internet access and with other restrictions. Even so, he has kept working, and is currently trying to direct a new Mozart production for the Zurich Opera, by using USBs. 
He also directed the excellent film, The Student (2016) about a high school student who feels the world has surrendered to evil, and starts challenging his teachers and all around him. 
Summer, which was screened in Cannes this year, is set in the late 1980s in the Leningrad pop/rock/ would-be punk music scene, Mostly filmed in black and white scope, the main character is Victor Tsoi who becomes the protégé of an older musician Mike Naumenko. A triangle develops with Mike’s wife Natalia. This is not an unusual story – the fascination is the depiction of the music underground scene at this time in the Soviet Union when serious cracks were becoming visible in the culture, particularly with young people who were only too aware of a world outside.
Their prized possessions are LPs of Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols. There is one scene that so embodies the oldies attempts to repress young culture.  We see an officially approved rock concert – of course the lyrics have been officially checked beforehand.  The band is on stage, the audience – largely young girls in their nice twin sets – sits demurely in their seats. Big-bosomed babushkas prowl the aisles ready to eject anyone who dares to stand up or scream or in any way break decent behavior. 
Until one of the musicians basically says, “Fuck this” and lets fly with a heavy thumping riff and mayhem breaks out. At last the girls in the audience are clearly enjoying themselves. Our visuals become scribbled over, graffiti fashion, madly adding another level of animated excitement, for the heavy rock number. (The film’s poster hints at the style which punctuates other exhilarating moments in the film.)  Until a new title cuts us back to size, “This never happened.”  We’re back in the reality of repressed rock.
This picture of Russian society at this moment is fascinating, and though it’s not my music scene I was intrigued by this story set against this important historical time. Then at the end, a coda has stills of both Victor and Mike, with their birth dates and dates for their deaths that are only a few year ahead of our film. We have in fact been watching a bio-pic of two people who did exist.
Now, a few articles have certainly cast doubt on how accurate it is, with one music critic calling it a lie from beginning to end.  But this was not important to me, and perhaps as a result we have a more satisfying dramatic film, certainly a film with a lot of interesting things to say about this period near the end of the Communist regime.  Would I have been as receptive if I’d thought I was seeing a rock music bio-pic?
The Cuban film, A Translator  (poster left) takes place at much the same time.  We meet our main protagonist taking his small son to see Gorbachev when he visited Cuba in 1989.  Malin is a professor of Russian literature, until one day he and his colleagues arrive at the university to find notices on their offices saying that Russian classes have been cancelled until further notice.  Malin is told to report to a large hospital, where he finds he has been assigned to be a translator for a large number of Russian children.
These are in fact children who have been affected by the explosion at the Chernobyl reactor in 1986. Malin is resentful of this assignment. Moreover, the hours he now has to work impose strains in his domestic life where his wife has her own life curating a potentially important art show while also in the early stages of a potentially difficult pregnancy.  Gradually, however, Malin sinks into his new role and discovers a sense of involvement and commitment with these children, encouraging them to write about their experiences.  Or draw if they can’t write.
 But outside the hospital the world is changing.  The political and economic world is not the subject of this film, but it is there and its representation is one of the interesting things in A Translator.  After Gorbachev’s visit, we hear reports of a change to arrangements where Cuba got Russian oil in exchange for its sugar. Now, who will buy Cuba’s sugar?  Early on, we’d seen Malin and his small boy in a supermarket, well stocked with essentials and all those little extras like kids’ lollies or cakes.  Next time he goes, shelves have about two or three cans of perhaps five or six different items.  Petrol rationing soon stops completely – there is no petrol to ration. 
This was not a great film, but one I enjoyed.  The story of cold-hearted professor won over by the fates of sick children is not new, and perhaps not treated in any madly original way.  And I couldn’t keep wondering why, if he was there to be a translator for children, wouldn’t he be more needed during the day than the night? Or was he given the night shift so there could be dramatic situations such as a conflict with his wife over picking up their son?
And then we get some screens at the end with extra information.  After 1990, Cuba treated over 26,000 victims of Chernobyl, including about 1,000 annually between 1990 and 1995.  I never knew that. Then we’re given some details about our protagonist in the period after movie’s end.  Oh, yes. The marriage did break up.  He went to Italy.  She stayed in art curation.
Then the real surprise. Their two boys - Rodrigo and Sebastián Barriuso – grew up and directed this film about their father! Of course, I’d read this in the Festival blurb but forgotten it. And coming like this it was rather a bombshell. It probably doesn’t make the film a better piece of drama, but I certainly found myself in a different relationship with its story.

Talkie Talk #38 - Adam Bowen tracks the new movies and the old including THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE and THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT


Cine Latino Film Festival continues. Visit the Festival website


Strange Colours (2017) - Young Milena (Kate Cheel) visits her ailing pa (Daniel P. Jones) in Lightning Ridge, and gets to know the local community of opal miners and other escapees from “normal” society. (Previously mentioned on Film Alert 101 if you click here and here and again here

The Children Act (2017) - Judge Emma Thompson wrestles with a crumbling marriage and a court case involving a teenager who’s refusing a blood transfusion on medical grounds. Based on a novel by Ian McEwan.

Robin Hood – Taron Egerton wears the green tights; Jamie Foxx is Little John; Eve Hewson is Marian, and Ben Mendelsohn is the Sheriff.

I Used to be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story – based on actual events, I think.

The Nutcracker and the 4 Realms  ­- a young girl (Mackenzie Foy) has an adventure in a world of mice and gingerbread soldiers. Not based on actual events.


Monday 10.15pm and Tuesday 1.45 pm on Fox ClassicsThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – in Mexico, three gold prospectors (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston) form an uneasy alliance. Directed by John Huston.

Wednesday 12.15 pm 9GemThe Man in the White Suit (1951) - a brilliant, satirical Ealing comedy, about a single-minded scientist (Alec Guiness), who creates a fabric that never gets dirty or wears out. For once, both management and unions want to suppress it. Some of the finest British character actors are at the top of their form, (Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker) as is co-writer/director Alexander Mackendrick.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

On Blu-ray - Universal's DRACULA - The Complete Legacy Collection

Last night’s viewing, from the handsome Universal Blu-ray box set of Dracula movies. The reason for going down this byway shall have to remain mysterious for the moment but the set contains what the cover calls the “Complete Legacy Collection – All Six films from 1931-48”. It was bought at Jb Hi-Fi for the princely sum of $32, me having taken advantage of JB offering 20% off every Blu-ray and DVD in the store last weekend.

I wanted first to have another look at the Tod Browning 1931 version, a seventy minute creaker which was a huge success in its day and introduced Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Browning, so one of the extras said, wanted Lon Chaney but the great impersonator and master of make-up was dying.

But when that version was over and a look at the extras was next up on the menu comes “The 1931 Spanish Version”. Now I knew this existed, Michael Jasper had mentioned it many years ago but I’d never seen it. (It’s also mentioned on the cover so they weren’t keeping it a secret.)

The Spanish version is a full 33 minutes longer and shot on the same sets. But it takes its time and every scene is just that bit more elaborate and the characters are placed in the scene with rather more skill, right from the first scene involving the bumpy carriage ride. 

Browning made his version by day and new producer Paul Kohner and director  George Melford assembled a Spanish cast and worked through the night. Melford also used a different cameraman, George Robinson, while Browning used the Weimar expat Karl Freund. It has to be said that Robinson’s lighting in the Seward household is a little brighter but otherwise, it’s better, more starkly light with points of light and dark more prominent.

The consensus on the net seems to say that the Spanish version is better, more nuanced, better acted by the ensemble. It’s also a tad racier. Lupita Tovar is a dark beauty and the costumer ensures we have glimpses of her via plunging necklines and diaphanous dresses that aren’t available to us when watching Anne Harding in Browning’s take.

All told quite a find and the restoration, with the exception of the lost reel three that had to be replaced by some dodgy third generation material, is even better than the Browning version. Crisper for starters which may again have something to do with Robinson’s work.

As for the rest of the pack well it slowly degenerates. The remaining five films run all the way through to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankensteinwhich I’m sure will have me in stitches if I ever get round to it.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Digitisations, Restorations and Revivals (39) - Christian Petzold screens his own and other directors' films

Associate Editor (Restorations and Revivals) and member of the CINEMA REBORN Organising Committee, Simon Taaffe has come across the following films being screened at institutions around the world.  So…folks  time to resume a Film Alert tradition…

Christian Petzold
The Film Society of the Lincoln Centre is devoting some time to a retrospective of just about the most interesting German film-maker of the day, Christian Petzold. here's the website link

It’s been dubbed the largest U.S. Retrospective of the acclaimed German Director  and features his shorts, features, and rarely seen television work alongside a selection of films that have influenced him. Ten of the films are screening on 35mm or 16mm prints. All six of the films chosen by Petzold to accompany his retrospective are also on 35mm – They include He Ran All the Way (John Berry, USA, 1951), Partie de Campagne  (Jean Renoir, France, 1936) Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running, François Truffaut’s penultimate film The Woman Next Door, Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st and Xavier Beauvois’s The Young Lieutenant .

Etwas Besseres als den Tod,
Petzold's feature length episode in the remarkable mini-series
Dreileben, (Germany, 2011),  screening at the Lincoln Centre

Talkie Talk # 37 - Adam Bowen alerts to the Cinelatino Film Festival including ROMA and THE HEIRESSES plus PETERLOO and PATHS OF GLORY, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and more on TV


Cinelatino Film Festival Click on the link at left for all the details.

Highlights include:

Roma – family saga set in 1970s Mexico City, directed by Alfonso Cuarón.

The Heiresses/Las Herederas (The Sydney Film Festival Program notes can be found if you click here– two formerly wealthy Paraguyan women face financial hardships, fraud and an altered life.

El Benny – biopic of Cuban bandleader, Benny Moré.


Peterloo – (right) 1819, Manchester, British troops turn a peaceful rally into a massacre. Stars Maxine Peake; directed by Mike Leigh.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindewald– more Rowling wizardry, starring Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston.

Widows– four women inherit debt from their husbands, and turn to crime to pay it. Great cast headed by Viola Davis and Michelle Rodriguez. Directed by Steve McQueen.

Spitfire – Doco about the WW2 planes  and their pilots.

The Old Man and the Gun – Robert Redford is a septuagenarian San Quentin escapee on a crime spree.

Wheely – fast and furious, animated taxi versus truck adventure.


Monday 12.30pm Fox Classics:Paths of Glory(1957) Corruption and incompetence in the French military high command, in 1917. Stars Kirk Douglas and Adolphe Menjou; directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Tuesday 10am Fox Classics: Strangers on a Train (1951) – based on an excellent Patricia Highsmith novel. Tennis star (Farley Granger) meets a swish psychopath (Robert Walker - brilliantly creepy), who proposes they solve their respective problems by swapping murders. High-class Hitchcock; cinematography by Robert Burks.

Tuesday 10.30pm Fox Classics:The Maltese Falcon (1941) – excellent noir, directed by John Huston. Detective Humphrey Bogart tussles with a fascinating collection of villains (Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre), who are backstabbing each other over a priceless sculpture. Wordy, but rich in sub-text and character complexity.

Sunday 4.30pm 9Gem:The Coalminer’s Daughter excellent biopic of Loretta Lynn. Sissy Spacek is excellent in the title role, while director Michael Apted and cinematographer, Ralph D. Bode, get the most out of the Kentucky backwoods.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

The Current Cinema - A thoroughly positive note in support of THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB

I may be wildly wrong here but the dismissive notices for The Girl in the Spider’s Web, seem to be more than a little unaware of just what it is the film-makers were trying to do. Forget about the boring Stieg Larsson. Those books sold millions of copies I know, but unless the second and third   volumes got a whole lot better they were just mechanical renditions of police procedural stuff, written by an earnest and rather pompous author who took himself too seriously. Ok, they struck a chord, whatever. No accounting for taste. I couldn’t even bring myself to start volume two and didn’t even know that in the manner of Bond and Holmes someone else had been commissioned to take up the cudgels and keep the rivers of gold flowing. So I don’t know if the new movie is even remotely related to the new book not written by Larsson. I’ll never find out either. At least not by reading it myself. Glad I got that out of the way.

What the new movie seems to me to be related to is something more interesting, rebooting not the Dragon Tattoo books and movies but the world of Fritz Lang and his late silents Spies, Spiders  and the first Doctor Mabuse, and his early sound second Dr Mabuse That explains much. Maybe I was primed by noticing the movie was made at Babelsberg, the new name for the former Ufa production company and its studio, host to Erich Pommer, Fritz Lang, the legendary Josef von Sternberg for The Blue Angel, F W Murnau, Emil Jannings and more 
Spiders, (Fritz Lang)
Aaah Babelsberg, such nostalgia. Maybe connecting the word “Spider” in the title to Babelsberg got the juices flowing even more quickly. That was consolidated by a ripping title sequence, all liquid blacks and spotlights that would have done Saul Bass proud.

Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy)
Then there’s the first appearance of Lisbeth Salander. She’s done up in a white facepaint mask and tight black leather (left). My god, it’s got to be referencing Musidora in Les Vampires. Gotta be. She tortures a nasty brute of a husband after an elaborate capture with menace, followed by some quick vigilante justice that could be straight out of Lang or Feuillade. Humming along here, and the sequence is funny! Though nobody except me laughed at the Randwick Ritz at the 6.10 pm on Friday night. What is this.

Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks)
Lisbeth Salander wears black leather, smokes cigarettes and has an evil sister, Camilla, who decides she wants to rule the world wears red and high heels (left) even when walking through snow. Maybe we need Peter Wollen's princess dichotomy to work this out better. I'll have to think about that.

Lisbeth’s help is invoked to stop a group known as the Spiders (?, come on, don’t tell me they just got lucky or coincidental, notwithstanding the book title, because they get all the spider imagery just right) from taking over the world by being the only people who have all nations nuclear codes. I think that’s the gist of it. A long way from all that tedious stuff about discovering a child abuser that it is the mainstay of most detective and thriller fiction today and my memory says was what that first godawful novel was about. 

In dealing with all the threats from the Spiders, corrupt police, uncomprehending authorities, SWAT squads and, whoa, maybe an echo of Franju here, the guy who removes his entire face, Lisbeth is required to deal with more than a few enemies. She makes good use of her motor bike but as well is very good with a taser, including one jokey moment when she tasers a metal railing a villain is casually holding onto. That was funny too but I was the only one who laughed, again.

Maybe you could say that Fede Alvarez who wrote and directed this is a little hamfisted, over-breathless, in the relentless action, too much in-one-bound-Lisbeth-was-free, then she’s off and running and the police don’t know where she is again. Maybe he's not the cinephile I'm believing he is and just got lucky echoing greatness wherever occurring. If so then maybe it needed whomever is today’s greatest inheritor of Feuillade and Lang and of course Georges Franju, who intermediated back in the 60s and 70s to be an even better movie. David Fincher didn’t do much for the first US version. Maybe the next one would be perfect for Ben Young to take a shot at. In Hounds of Love he showed he could do dread as well as action and could time his frissons with great skill. Just a thought.

Is this where the franchise is heading, basically leaving Stieg Larsson and his alter ego Mikael Blomkvist behind to pick up the bits and look after the kid. Forget  about all that dreary and self-pitying discussion about the oppression of free speech and the power of the press.  Lisbeth Salander was all that warranted saving frankly and her new incarnator, Claire Foy with her slightly bruised looking face, not beautiful here anyway, is perfect.

More please.

Friday, 9 November 2018

A Happy Birthday to Film Alert 101 and a thank you to all the contributors in 2017/2018

On November 8, this blog had been up on the net for four years. In that time it has posted 1690 times and there were 536,225 page views. Average page view numbers were rocketing along during the year at various times. Some items had huge readerships from Russia, Lithuania, France and the UK. Something was sometimes happening  which remained mysterious. 

In more recent times the numbers have settled down to around 10,000 page views a month, mostly from Australia.

So... let me remember and thank everyone who made a contribution to the blog's over 500 posts in 2017/18. 

In alphabetical order there were contributions in some form or other from the following people: Martha Ansara, Colin Bennett, Max Berghouse, Lynden Barber, Rod Bishop, Noel Bjorndahl, Adam Bowen, Philip Brophy, Michael Campi, Fiona Cameron, Michelle Carey, Dominic Case, Lucian Chaffey, Ben Cho, John Conomos, Eddie Cockrell, Amiel Courtin-Wilson, Adrian Danks, Mishy Dunleavy, Peter Galvin, Sue Goldman, David Hanan, David Hare, Paul Harris, David Heslin, Bruce Hodsdon, Peter Hourigan, Tina Kaufman, Simon Killen, David King, Alena Lodkina, Adrian Martin, Graeme Mason, Geoff Mayer, Joseph McBride, Neil McGlone, Adrienne McKibbins, Les McLaren, Tim McQueen, Mahalya MiddlemistFrank Moorhouse, Bill Mousoulis, Scott Murray, Sue Murray, Margot Nash, Peter Nellhaus,Nicholas Nedelkopoulos, Phillip Noyce. Barrie Pattison, Mark Pierce, Andrew Pike, Marion Pilowsky, Tony Rayns, Denise Robinson, David Roe, Mike Rubbo, Mark Savage, John Snadden, Mary Stephen, David Stratton, Simon Taaffe, Emily Taheny, Peter Tammer, Quentin Turnour, Fiona Villella, David Wadleton, Mike Walsh and Jake Wilson

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

The Current Cinema - The fourth post on LEAN ON PETE (Andrew Haigh) Opening November 29

Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete has already drawn much praise via posts on the Film Alert blog. You can find the views expressed by Rod Bishop, whose review you can find  if you click here and David Hare whose review is found  if you click here.

Having now had a chance to see a film which has taken its time to have commercial screenings after its première at the Sydney Film Festival, I can only endorse their support.

What somewhat amazed me is that a Brit, admittedly a very talented film-maker, could join the likes of Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik in making films about lonely young people from the American underclass making their way through a journey involving much adversity. Haigh, like his confreres, chooses to make this in a region which is not normally somewhere that mainstream movies get made. Even the reminders that the locations are where Randolph Scott used to hang out are impacted by traffic and by unsympathetic and suspicious others, homeless people living on the edge, returned veterans and an overweight adolescent girl virtually chained to her grandfather by poverty.

The stills below indicate a film whose look is quite remarkable and which clearly benefits hugely from the work of DOP Magnus Nordenhof Joenck not a widely known name in the field. 

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Talkie Talk #36 - Adam Bowen mentions the new movies including THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (Peter Jackson) and SUSPIRIA (Luca Guadagnino), THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION on TV and notes the passing of Eleanor Witcombe, Liz Fraser and John Lamond


They Shall Not Grow Old (above)– Peter Jackson’s meticulously researched and dazzlingly presented doco of WW1. 

Journey’s End (2017)– latest screen version of R.C. Sherrif’s play set in the WW1 trenches of 1917. Starring Paul Bettany and Sam Clafin.

Suspiria – remake of the Dario Argento horror flick set in a German ballet school.

Girl in the Spider’s Web– Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is back, and embroiled in cyberhacking, corruption, depravity and sadism.

Boy Erasedgay teenage boy endures a parent-supported, church-supported programme to un-gay him. (Good luck with that)

Sarkar– Our hero takes on corrupt politicians who are threatening the livelihoods of Tamil-Nadu fishermen.

Thugs of Hindostan– Massively expensive warfare adventure for 2 hours and 44 minutes.

Patrick– not another remake of the Aussie horror pic, but a British comedy about a young woman who inherits a pesky pet.

Penguin Highway– Animated adventure/mystery involving penguins and dental hygiene.


7Flix 8.30 pm Sunday The Shawshank Redemption(1994) One of Stephen King’s great non-horror yarns, well told, but not briefly, so recording is advised (to speed through the commercials.) Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, a score by Thomas Newman, and particularly good use of a Mozart duet.

VALE:Screen Luminaries Who Recently Left Us

Eleanor Witcombe, (above) South Australian-born (1923) screenwriter, playwright and novelist; famous for scripts of My Brilliant Career (1979) and The Getting of Wisdom (1977)

Liz Fraser (later in life, left) and in a Carry On movie
Liz Fraser, (b. 1930), fabulous cockney character actress, unforgettable in I’m Alright Jack (1959) and many other British comedies. Her career spanned six decades.She once said: “I’ve been robbed and attacked. I’ve been in accidents. My first husband was a thief, my second husband died young. Life teaches you about life, acting doesn’t.” 

John D. Lamond (b 1947, above in the 70s) Aussie producer and director, most famously of soft-porn comedies like Pacific Banana (1980) but also of genre adventures like Sky Pirates (1986)

The Current Cinema - Quentin Turnour sinks into Orson Welles' THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND

I know this is presumptuous of me. Perhaps above some sort of station. There will be many opinions about The Other Side of the Wind  in the coming months and years. Some will come from the many internationally authoritative critics who had a personal role in Welles life, or the making or now the (re)releasing of the film. And the Wellesnet website is already going into meltdown with a new Welles object to play and work with. 

As John Huston says in the closing voice over, The Other Side of the Wind will be “…stared at too hard… sucked out…”. But a late Saturday night viewing of The Other Side of the Wind on my I-Pad has stirred some modest thoughts I couldn’t shake out by Sunday afternoon.

Gary Graver, Orson Welles and Oja Kodar filming
The Other Side of the Wind
Basically, we now have a context for that 30 or so minutes of previously seen incandescent colour footage from the film, especially the startling car rape scene with Oja Kodar that featured in the documentary One Man Band, which Welles’ cinematographer Gary Graver showed when he visited Australia in 2005 (perhaps another story, sometime soon, for Film Alert readers). We now understand that its bravura visual style is as much a mockery of bravura, New Wave, New Hollywood visual style. It’s from The Other Side of the Wind, certainly, but not the Welles movie we’ve been waiting for, even when we thought it was the one we’ve long been expecting. 

Oja Kodar in the car rape scene, The Other Side of the Wind
Rather it is part of the movie within the movie John Huston’s Jake Hannaford is making as a comeback project; more a meta-sight-track and diversion from the film’s narrative core: the story of the one long night over which Hannaford is hosting a 70thbirthday, cum media junket in order to raise funds for his comeback, old turned New Hollywood project. 

We also now know that the completed The Other Side of the Wind should be taken as a new release rather than a restoration. Peter Bogdanovich’s opening voiceover, pre-credits, is a new thing, clearly coming from the 21st century, by a voice older than Orson Welles or Jake Hannaford ever lived to have, and from the maker of documentaries on Buston Keaton rather than of The Last Picture Show, even though it is in his character as Brooks Otterlake (“…probably Hannaford’s most successful acolyte”). This is not just because Bogdanovich references the moment that film captures as a time “…long before cell phone images”. It also seems to be a Netflix marketing strategy, allowing much of their promotional talk around the film to suggest Netflix are releasing a ‘new film’ by Orson Welles alongside their current, other top shelf releases, like their new films from the Coens and Alfonso Cuarón

The difficulty here is that consideration of The Other Side of the Wind as a ‘new film’ is going to undermine its consideration as an Orson Welles film. Especially from a director so intimate and total in applying his craft. 

But if we take as axiomatic that what we see is a Welles film, we now have to accept that The Other Side of the Wind turns out to be uniquely cluttered, hectic and distracted, even by Welles’ standards. That’s not to mean disappointing. It just has so much, too much, to do but for me it does reconfirm a standing suspicion that Welles really needed a literary or classical structure, pre-formed, from which to shape material, reflecting his role as a Great Adaptor rather than originator. He also needed himself on screen as an anchor for his acting and production ensemble; to give himself a sort of creative guide track to his themes and plotting, and to keep himself happy playing with a range of performance vessels to leap in and out of.

Again, even by Welles standards some of the party scenes are uniquely fractured and collaged. Welles used hand held camera work occasionally in previous works, but here, for the first time, it’s the dominant mode of setting up shots. Certainly, the intended, official aesthetic is to displace the film out of Welles usual personal eye and into the mock vision of the multiple 8mm, 16mm and TV cameras there to record Hannaford’s birthday. That harks back to the opening newsreel in Kane. But that also makes things go even faster and crazier. It’s even possible that David Stratton-style complaints will come in from audiences new to Welles,  from those  treating this as a new film (if that’s what Netflix wants) who may have feelings of post-Dogma 95 hand-held camera vertigo. 

Other Side is the greatest of Welles’ many masterclasses in just what sleight of hand classic, shot/reverse-shot dialogue shooting technique can be. Most of the reverses are illusions. Much of the dialogue is glued together from aphorisms delivered by a variety of cameo party guests, “Hannaford acolytes” that include directors Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom and Dennis Hopper. This is old school Welles but never previously has one of this films been so breathtaking in a sense that no-one was ever really talking to each other, nor in the same room at the time. Lilli Palmer especially feels like she was delivering lines from home, speaking to no one in particular in total regal removal from the project. This feeling is only enhanced by the delivering of lines that really feel like Welles initially wrote them for Marlene Dietrich. Susan Strasberg--as the biting, Pauline Kael-like film critic who has a theory to prove--seems too often be the only one who’s actually working in ensemble. Yet she also spends a lot of her on screen time bumping into the set and trying to remember her lines; perhaps a Welles Method Acting put-down inspired by her father and the family name. 

Rich Little even puts in an appearance, in his case from an earlier version of The Other Side of the Wind. The then in-demand cabaret and talk show mimic, originally cast in the central role of the Hannaford student turned superstar director Otterlake, eventually walked out of the movie simply because his schedule couldn’t no longer allow him to keep working. But although his original role was taken over by Peter Bogdanovich, he’s now briefly back in the release film, seen alongside critic Joseph McBride’s “Pister from the Institute” film academic character and now credited as a “Party Guest”. Bogdanovich himself seems to honour Little’s spirit (and perhaps Welles original intention for the character) by spending a remarkable chunk of his role doing Rich Little-try-to-be impersonations of Hollywood actors and directors, sometimes to us through the fourth wall. 

This idea of actors playing other actors is one of the still deeply Wellesian aspects to The Other Side of the Wind—as is its always astonishing, but now colour impasto of montage editing. If it wasn’t feasible on this project to do his usual on-screen co-habitation of his characters (often by doing their dialogue in post- dubbing), Welles seems to be encouraging the cast of Other Side to do so on his behalf.

But what’s also clearly Wellesian in Other Side is what’s really deeply, Shakespearean in the film. This is beyond Welles’ repeated and pointed references to Hannaford’s descent from a long line of Irish Shakespearean stage hams. I don’t think this is only in honour of Huston’s own acting lineage (with a nod also to that of John Ford’s), or Welles’ own formative years on the Irish stage. It’s in service of the fundamental part of Welles dramatic cosmology that, early on in his career, fused with Shakespeare’s worldview of the Tragic-Comic yin and yang; the Wellesian poles so often played out in fast scene changes and mood swings between tones of 20thcentury Pop Comic and ones of 19thcentury Classical brooding and meditations on hubris and death. 

Indeed,  the pings and pongs from Hollywood Court satire to intimate, bourbon-fuelled melancholy come close to everything that is great, but better structured, in Welles previously ‘final’ release feature, Chimes of Midnight. Like Chimes, and just as live Elizabethan stage drama used to be, Other Side…is as fast-paced in its morals and emotions as it is in its dramatic plotting. And even though Chimes covers years of plot time, compared to the one night of movie time in Other Side, there is the same feeling in the ‘new’ film of a huge, epic-but-intimate range over many collective lifetimes of experience, insights and world-weariness. Welles uses the jump cuts like a stage curtain. 

Hollywood satire suddenly steps back and changes costume into moments of powerful meditation on the passing of Old Hollywood and the vanishing purpose and role of its community and celebrity ecology. Self-absorbed, certainly, but also deeply affecting as a general emblem of the human sadness at growing old and the passing of an epoch and the set of shared understandings in Western culture. Welles especially talks this though in the moments of cynical, but poignant dialogue conducted in mostly black and white scenes (in a film otherwise as colour-coded as Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible) between Huston’s Hannaford and some of his cohort of producers and fixers. I, like many, probably came to the film looking for the New Hollywood cameos. But its these old Hollywoodians who do the film’s hard, and deeply effecting performance work; especially the likes of Hollywood and Cinecitta studio veterans (and olde Wellesians) like Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien, Cameron Mitchell, Norman Foster (playing the same role of Explainer and Apologist that he did back in the Mercury Theatre days)—and especially Tinio Selwart and Paul Stewart as Hannaford’s fixer, the latter as oddly sinister and insincere in his loyalty as he was in Kane.

Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, Kodar on the set of The Other Side of the Wind
Welles is uniquely absent from this film on screen; in a quite fundamental way, unlike anything else he made—even The Magnificent Ambersons, where his voice-over still gives that film much of its authority, its investment in nostalgia, and its meter.  He still inserts his spirit and the Wellesian (if not the Welles) here and there in the film; in bits of acting business, temperament and autobiography. Bogdanovich’s Hollywood Tonight Show    impersonations were probably initially scripted for Rich Little. But he does them rather well; and they have the feel of Welles’ own love of throwing voices, inhabiting other characters, mimicry and (by the 1970s) Hollywood Tonight Show meta-referencing. 

Actually Wellesian voice-throwing is given new meaning here, through the metaphor of Otterlake’s oral history audiotapes with Hannaford. In Other Side  these are the offspring of a book project that couldn’t find a publisher. This is, of course, a reference to the then long unpublished Bogdanovich-Welles collaboration, This is Orson Welles. It’s distributed freely to the various journalists invited to the party as a publicity tool, a device that allows Huston/Hannaford’s voice and reminiscences to pop up, disembodied, out of any of the many tape recorders seen on screen at any time. The ubiquitousness and polymorphics of this even reach a point where Gary Graver (Welles loyal DoP in this and all his latter projects, but on screen briefly playing one of the journalists) treats the two reels like a telephone and speaks back critically to the voice. He probably wished he could have done that more often to Welles.

Perhaps the most interesting Welles avatar here is Bob Random, playing John Dale, the star of Hannaford’s silent, Antonioni-esque film-within-a-film. At the time, he would have been seen as satirising the post-James Dean, post-1968, “Found” male ingénues of the moment, particularly Zabriskie Point’s revolutionary pin-up Mark Frechette

Much of what the film has by way of a plot (Hannaford spending the night watching his comeback film going down the toilet, as both the money for and the meaning of the project dry up), hinges on the revelation that the hippy whom Hannaford supposedly ‘discovered’ drowning on Acapulco beach was in fact a privileged and ambitious teenager trying to get noticed. Anyone familiar with the story of how Welles talked himself into the Irish stage company of actor-managers Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir at the age of 16 will know this story well.  It’s close to Welles’s own first career move. Ironically, the one male character in Other Side who never speaks is the most Welles-like.

John Huston, The Other Side of the Wind
On the other hand, the one thing that is resolutely not Wellesian in Other Side is John Huston. Much has been said, in expectation of the final release of the film, about Huston playing a Welles alter-ego. But here I’m reminded of Simon Callow’s argument of just how humble Welles could get when he came up against an ego greater than his own. Callow especially cites the case of Welles’ dealings with Laurence Oliver in West End London theatre. Other Side seems to be another case; one that, in Welles’ movies, is only comparable to Welles’ deference to the star-power of Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil

This was, of course a rare opportunity for Huston to play a Leading Man version of himself, rather than the cameo Huston he more often played in the 1970s, in places like Chinatown, The Wind and the Lion or Myra Breckinridge. Recognising this, Welles even gives Hannaford/Huston his own ‘acolyte’; the always underrated, mostly TV actor Gregory Sierra, playing a directing rival to Bogdanovich resented for being better at being Huston than Bogdanovich was at being Welles. 

And over The Other Side of the Wind’s course, Welles (if we accept that this release is true to the film he intended) is increasingly more interested in meditating on Huston than on himself. Every Huston mannerism--and increasingly the central character’s back story,--seem to speak to the legend of John Huston rather that of Orson Welles. Huston’s voice-over surges through the aural montage of the film and has an aural authority over it, in a way we normally expect of Welles’ own voice. Autobiography slips away in favour of psychological biography with each reference to Hannaford’s game hunting, to his war cameraman heroics or heroic bonding with his males leads, or each time Strasberg’s Julie Rich/ Pauline Kael critic character asks questions more sharply directed to the hidden truths of Huston’s masculine, homo-erotic Americanism than Welles mercurial cosmopolitanism. 

This is a fictionalisation of John Huston that’s more interesting and richer than Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart. It even seems to be somehow, anachronistically mocking Eastwood’s 1990 movie in the moment when Huston and the otherwise mute Oja Kodar start shooting up an impromptu shooting gallery of stunt dummies with real hunting rifles. But I think it’s also Welles finding an intersection between the character shades of Huston’s real-life, larger than life spirit and that of Welles’ beloved Falstaff. And like Falstaff, Welles perhaps found it suited to hide behind Huston. Perhaps Huston was even more someone whom Welles wished he could be. Falstaffian, but without the failure and with the hubris under better control.

Throughout and underneath all this Huston slowly unpacks one of the best of his late-career performances, using the space and shadows Welles creates to drink and think hard about the Hollywood legend and filmmaker he’d become by the 1970s. If Netflix are going to treat The Other Side of the Wind as a new release, perhaps Hollywood might treat Huston’s posthumous performance as worthy of consideration in this coming Awards season?

Welles, Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride