Thursday, November 01, 2018

Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind

If his final film had been released in his lifetime, Orson Welles might also be known as the father of found footage, but should’ve-could’ve-would’ve was pretty much the story of his later career. Over forty years after Welles’ on-and-off-again, on-the-fly 1970-1976 shooting wrapped, his acidic Hollywood satire has finally been cut together and unveiled with the fanfare the old master was due in his lifetime. However, Welles fans should temper their expectations when The Other Side of the Wind (trailer here) finally arrives tomorrow, both in theaters and on Netflix.

Jake Hannaford is a crusty old filmmaker, who is considered a “living legend” due to his early work, but has just returned to Hollywood after a long, semi-self-imposed exile—or at least he was. This will be his final night on earth, but at least he will go out with a bang. All of Hollywood has flocked to his homecoming party, so they can gawk at his latest film: a self-indulgent attempt at sexually frank European art cinema—and a rather spot-on send-up of Antonioni. Out of eccentricity or indifference, Hannaford has allowed every journalist or amateur videographer with a handheld camera to document his snarky, drunken soiree.

Despite Welles’ protests otherwise, Hannaford certainly sounds like his alter-ego. The fact that he is played by the spectacularly craggy John Huston adds further layers of psycho-biographical significance. In fact, it is one of the more meta films of its era, with Peter Bogdanovich playing an analog of himself, Brooks Otterlake, Hannaford’s former protégé, whose current Hollywood success has eclipsed his former master. Hannaford has become unhealthily obsessed with the cast of his film-within-the-film, most notably his would-have-been discovery, John Dale, who bolted from the production before Hannaford could complete it for murky reasons. Pauline Kael-esque critic Juliette Rich, who hypothesizes Hannaford seduced Dale’s girlfriend as a surrogate for Dale himself. Dale’s leading lady, condescendingly referred to as “Red” (portrayed by Welles’ lover, Oja Kodar, naturally enough) is still present and accounted for, but she clearly is not happy to be there.

Editor Bob Murawski did a flat-out brilliant job shaping together all the footage, while doing his best to respect Welles’ original intentions. The result is a visually kinetic kaleidoscope of hedonism and bedlam. The often rapid-fire cuts are not classically Wellesian, per se, but we can still see his masterful eye composing each shot. It also features a wonderful score composed by the legendary-in-his-own-right Michel Legrand (seriously, his name also ought to be on the key art, because LeGrand scoring Welles again is an event). In all honesty, it is one of Legrand’s jazziest scores and one of his best, which is saying a lot (considering the themes he composed for F for Fake, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Thomas Crown Affair, to name just a few).

So why the warning to keep your enthusiasm in check? Unlike every other Welles film, Wind feels like a dated relic of its era, even though we are just seeing it now. Some of party dialogue has the sly acidic bite of the nattering gossipers in Citizen Kane or Magnificent Ambersons, but Otterlake’s pontifications sound like the shallow group-think of the time. Particularly cringe-worthy are his jibes at then Governor Reagan, who would go on to be the last president who unified the nation, in a positive way. There is also a phallic sight gag late in the picture that should have been considered beneath Welles’ dignity. More fundamentally, it is simply impossible to get around the fact that Welles & Kodar’s narrative is really just a sketch-like premise stretched to its absolute limits.

Wind is further notable as Welles’ most sexually explicit film, but the nude scenes in Hannaford’s film are actually work in their on-screen context. Frankly, there is an energy to these scenes that the rest of the proper film could have used. The dramatic, saturated colors also really pop off the screen, providing a vivid contrast with the black-and-white or dingy 16mm color of the party footage.

Those scenes also give us an idea of what might have been for Kodar, who was always (fairly or unfairly) dismissed as Welles’ lover, and Robert Random, who is best known for guest-starring on episodic TV (seven appearances on Gunsmoke, each in a different role). They are terrific together, generating some legit heat on screen. The mood is further heightened by Gary Graver’s striking color cinematography.

There is definitely stuff to see here, including Lilli Palmer, who is a delight playing the Marlene Dietrich-like Zarah Valeska. However, with a running time just over two hours, Wind is way too long and self-serious for what should have simply been a larky middle finger extended in Hollywood’s face. Still, the Legrand sounds great (there is also some Jaki Byard in there, along with some other jazz greats). It is too bad Welles’ unfinished The Deep will most likely always remain so, because it is more likely to be the lost masterpiece we crave from him. Recommended as a curiosity rather than a revelation, The Other Side of the Wind opens tomorrow (11/2) in New York, at the IFC Center and also starts streaming on Netflix.