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Friday, October 19, 2018

Which Way the Wind Blows

THERE’S A CHAOS OF NOISE AND ACTIVITY as a group of movie people – directors, actors, hangers-on – wraps up a day on the set and prepares to travel to the desert home of actress Zarah Valeska (Lilli Palmer), to celebrate the 70th birthday of maverick director Jake Hannaford (John Huston). The procession is overrun with media people wielding cameras, recorders, notebooks, hurling questions at Hannaford and getting little in reply. Meanwhile, Hannaford’s  producer, Billy Boyle (Norman Foster), is in a screening room with Robert Evans-ish studio executive Max David (Geoffrey Land), previewing footage from Hannaford’s unfinished art film, “The Other Side of the Wind.” The footage is a beautiful and serene as the rest of this movie is not, as if to remind us that however topsy-turvy things may seem, it’s been done this way on purpose.

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
This is the world of “The Other Side of the Wind,” a just-released movie from the 1970s that takes its title from the film within the film, and which emerged from a lengthy legal limbo to become the final motion picture written and directed by Orson Welles. There are other unfinished projects out there, but this is the last one he helmed and the one about which he was the most determined to finish.

Reviews have bookended it with “Citizen Kane,” Welles’s startling debut film. Both films are fictionalized biographies of famous men with actual antecedents, and both surpassed contemporaneous film techniques with innovative approaches to photography and editing, not to mention the art of storytelling itself. And it’s tempting to compare them, as if there’s any way to conclusively rate these movies. “Kane” is a much-studied classic enshrined in any worthy best-of list; “Wind” isn’t even in general release yet, and, like “Kane,” like any movie worthy of the art form, it needs to be experienced more than once before credible judgment can be passed.

My own seen-it-once assessment, gleaned from a recent viewing at the NY Film Festival, is that it’s a dazzling piece of work that reminds us that Welles remained in the forefront of creative filmmakers throughout his topsy-turvy career. I’m prepared accept this version as the vision he had in mind because it satisfies what was suggested by Josh Karp’s book Orson Welles’s Last Movie (written three years ago, when the movie still seemed destined never to be finished), which gives a picture of Welles at the editing table confounding the professional editors he hired as assistants by his inspiration-of-the-moment approach.

The finishing work – turning the 40 minutes Welles had edited into two-hour feature – was overseen by Oscar-winning editor Bob Murawski, under supervision of Peter Bogdanovich and other participants, and relying on the director’s extensive notes. The final running time was based on Welles’s general preference for two hours as a movie’s maximum length.

There was a rough script, or four scripts, or no script to follow, according to the recollections of project alumni. Welles delivered pages as the shoot progressed, and was often found of a morning typing them as the actors arrived. Once all the cans were collected and digitally transferred, about a hundred hours of footage proved available. A jazz-inflected score was commissioned from Michel Legrand, who scored Welles’s final finished film, the fascinating “F for Fake.”

If know none of this history – and you may be better off if you don’t – “The Other Side of the Wind” should stand alone as an astonishing piece of work that seems almost timeless. It wasn’t meant to be a period piece, so hair and clothing ground it in the ’70s. But the story has a contemporary feel, and the audacious cutting rhythms are in a realm of their own. It could be argued that the frantic pace, rendered in a variety of hand-held shots in many formats and palettes, presaged the more recent use of such techniques for fiction and documentary alike, but here it’s used purposefully, creating an effect of disjointedness that’s part of the narrative arc. (These days, such techniques rarely assert any usefulness beyond keeping the attention-attenuated awake.)

The story takes place on July 2, 1970, nine years to the day after Ernest Hemingway shot himself. Welles’s original title, “The Sacred Beasts,” was a nod to the interest he and the novelist shared in bullfighting, and the plot was inspired by a (possibly) apocryphal tangle between the two when Welles was hired to narrate a project Hemingway had scripted. In any event, the movie morphed into a portrait of director Hannaford on the last day of his life, a story told through the interactions among Hannaford and his entourage. The story accumulates piecemeal. Characters and situations are thrown at us quickly, so it’s only through the revisits that occur that a continuity accumulates. It’s a brilliant effect, forcing us to trust ourselves to remember and assemble those impressions. We must actively participate, and trust our intuition to deliver the sense of the piece.

Interspersed through it all is Hannford’s unfinished enigma, “The Other Side of the Wind,” with footage as delightfully, poetically meaningless as the title. Beautifully composed shots of biker Bob Random (playing an actor named John Dale) pursuing a mostly naked Oja Kodar play out across an ambiguous landscape: sometimes desert, sometimes a film set, at other times in a bar, its bathroom, and, most arrestingly, in a speeding Mustang for an arthouse sex scene unlike anything else Welles ever created, yet better than whatever most others have done.

Bogdanovish on the set with Susan Strasberg,
Gregory Sierra, Welles, and others.
The film-within-a-film has been interpreted as a satire of the Antonioni style – Welles was an outspoken opponent of the Italian director’s approach – but it also needs to be interpreted as part of the larger story: a bid by the desperate Hannaford to revive his flagging career. Hollywood in the 1970s enjoyed a brief arthouse period as the “Easy Rider” fans unexpectedly enriched the box office, so the footage makes sense in a desperate kind of way. And it serves not only as a pacing device, offering time to breathe between salvos of the documentary portions, but also as a comment on the act of viewing a film. We see these segments in three settings: the screening room mentioned above, the living room of Valeska’s house during the raucous party, and then, after the power at the house goes out, at a windswept drive-in theater, suggesting ghostly memories of bygone audiences. We can’t know how Hannaford would have finished his film because Random’s character walked off the set during a difficult scene and Hannaford can’t hide his worsening distress as his birthday party plays out.

But what is the true nature of his distress? He learns that his “discovery” of Dale was not the accident it seemed, yet it doesn’t seem to lessen his deep affection for the actor, deep enough to inspire journalist Juliette Riche (a magnificently arch Susan Strasberg) to pursue him with far-too-revealing questions, possibly contributing to his self-destructive end. And there’s Brooks Otterlake, the character Bogdanovich plays, a Hannford protégé who has just enjoyed significent Hollywood success with his own first few pictures. He’s there as a former acolyte turned competitor, one who has learned to work within the system that Hannaford despises. It’s an excellent performance – but the performances are all excellent.

The framing story also has been interpreted as satire, but satire needs to push its subject beyond plausibility, picturing for us the absurd possibilities that could ensue. What may have seemed satiric forty-some years ago isn’t at all fantastic today. Which means that Welles deftly forecast where entertainment journalism – and journalism in general – was headed.

But I need to see this movie again. I didn’t catch all of the cameos – it’s clogged with directors, among them Paul Mazursky, Claude Chabrol, Henry Jaglom, Dennis Hopper, Curtis Harrington – even a young Cameron Crowe. I want to watch again the work of Hollywood veterans like Edmond O’Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, and Paul Stewart (who also appeared in “Citizen Kane”). I need to study Gary Graver’s cinematography, for which task he donated years of his life, and listen again to Legrand’s masterful score. Above all, I need to sink into the whole glorious chaos. You can’t appreciate the emotional power of a Pollock or Kandinsky through a single viewing; so it is with “The Other Side of the Wind.”

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