Thursday, November 08, 2018

Random Film Review: The Other Side of the Wind

Dir: Orson Welles | USA | 2018 | 122mins.

“We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone.”
– Orson Welles

Awesome Welles! The only thing more absorbing than watching an Orson Welles film is watching a documentary about Orson Welles. Along with the release on Netflix of The Other Side of the Wind, we are treated to two documentaries to accompany the film: You'll Love Me When I'm Dead, a feature-length film about the rise and fall of Orson Welles up to and including The Other Side of the Wind, and A Final Cut for Orson Welles, a fascinating 40-minute extra about the painstaking restoration of Welles' last film.

Welles shot some 100 hours of footage for the film between 1970 and 1976, and edited about 40 minutes worth of it before his death in 1985. By then the film had become wrapped up in legal and financial problems which wouldn't abate until, well, its release earlier this month on Netflix.

The Other Side of the Wind is a film within a film, taking place at the 70th birthday bash of veteran film director Jake Hannaford (played by veteran film director John Huston and presumably based on Welles), interspersed with scenes from the film Hannaford is making: an arty, Antonioni-esque parody. At the start of the film we are told it is Hannaford's last day on earth; he dies in a car crash at the end of the party.

The large ensemble cast of characters includes Peter Bogdanovich (director of The Last Picture Show) as Brooks Otterlake (based on, erm, Bogdanovich), Hannaford's protégé who has become more successful than him (à la A Star is Born). The party is a media event with various film people, journalists and fans filming the fiasco from every possible angle. There are actual directors at the party, including Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, Henry Jaglom and Paul Mazursky. And there are actors playing barely concealed real life characters: I guessed the annoying female film critic (played by Susan Strasberg, daughter of drama coach Lee Strasberg, famous for his method acting teaching) was based on Pauline Kael, who famously wrote Raising Kane, the article which claimed Herman J. Mankiewicz, rather than Welles, was responsible for writing Citizen Kane. In a screening room, Max David (played by Geoffrey Land) is a dead ringer for legendary producer Robert Evans.

Shot in a cinema verite manner with handheld cameras, switching between colour and black & white, 35mm and 16mm, the film is Welles' return to the States after two decades of exile in Europe and a satire on both old and new Hollywood. Though stylistically dissimilar to other Welles’ films, it has typical Wellesian themes including the abuse of power and the betrayal of friendship. The editing of the film is frantic and kaleidoscopic.

The colour scenes of the film Hannaford is currently working on, shown partly in Hannaford's projection room and partly in a drive-in movie theatre, are beautifully filmed. The plot, as such, has a hunky young biker following Oja Kodar (Welles' lover and collaborator) around various locations, including an empty studio backlot, where they are naked. There is a highly erotic sex scene in a car between them (in typical Welles style, half the scene was filmed in L.A., the other half two years later in France). There's something about these sequences – maybe to do with a naked woman walking around, maybe something to do with the editing – but it reminded me of a Russ Meyer film. (One of the more surprising insights of the documentary was learning Orson Welles helped edit a low-budget porno film whilst shooting The Other Side of the Wind.)

I enjoyed the film a lot more than I thought I would; though it's obviously dated (whilst also being ahead of its time with the mockumentary 'found footage' aspect), it's a fascinating time capsule, and looks – and sounds – fantastic. What was almost more surprising than being able to see a 'new' Orson Welles film was the documentary about the Herculean post-production process, a labour of love for everyone involved. It probably wouldn't have been possible to edit the film twenty years ago – the technology wasn't available. I'm guessing more money was spent, and more people involved, in the restoration than the actual shooting. "It's all in the editing", Welles would have said, but that's only half the story. Hundreds of reels of film stock were organised, cleaned and digitalised, using the HDR (High-Dynamic-Range Imaging) process. They found an editor, Bob Murawski (editor of the Spiderman films), to replicate Welles' frenzied editing style of the footage he had cut before his death.

The negative print was generally in excellent condition; the sound, as is often the case in low-budget films and Welles' in particular (for some of his independent European films he didn't record sound at all, dubbing it all later on), was not. Sound editors spent months cleaning up the dialogue. Most bizarrely, actor Danny Huston, John's son, did ADR (Automatic Dialog Replacement) for his father's voice (who died in 1987), so there are scenes with John Huston speaking with his son's voice.

There was no soundtrack for the film so Michel Legrand, composer of many film soundtracks since the 1950s, including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Thomas Crown Affair as well as Welles' own F for Fake, provides the much-needed music for the film (only recorded in March this year), giving some consistency to the fragmented nature of the visuals.

Frank Marshall (producer of Bogdanovich's first four features as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark and countless other blockbusters) worked as producer and production manager on The Other Side of the Wind and described the shoot like being in film school – everyone mucking in on it. Welles would spend years writing, shooting and editing numerous film projects at once. Unfortunately, the list of his unfinished projects – From Heart of Darkness in 1939 to The Dreamers and King Lear in the 1980s – is longer than the list of his finished films. As with John Cassavetes, another American auteur, Welles would act in other director's films to finance his own; hence his so-called fall from grace in his later years, acting in The Muppet Movie and appearing in adverts for frozen peas and sherry.

To have reached the heights of Citizen Kane at such a young age was Welles' curse – he would apparently never recreate such greatness again. But as someone says in the documentary, Citizen Kane is the best film ever made – but it's not even Orson Welles' best film.



Caspar said...

"There's something about these sequences – maybe to do with a naked woman walking around, maybe something to do with the editing – but it reminded me of a Russ Meyer film."

Blimey, are they that big? Lucky Orson. I should get along to see this film. I don't just love dogs, you see. I also love film. And tits.

Barnaby said...

Haha sorry to disappoint... they're not that big. It was the random walking around naked in public, and the fast editing. Russ Meyer films aren't only about big tits – though they're obviously hard to ignore.