Sunday, 4 November 2018

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

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