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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

On Netflix: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (2018)


THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
(France/Iran/US - 2018)

Directed by Orson Welles. Written by Orson Welles and Oja Kodar. Cast: John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Lilli Palmer, Bob Random, Norman Foster, Edmond O'Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Dennis Hopper, Curtis Harrington, Claude Chabrol, George Jessel, Gregory Sierra, Tonio Selwart, Dan Tobin, John Carroll, Stafford Repp, Geoffrey Land, Joseph McBride, Cathy Lucas, Pat McMahon, Peter Jason, Angelo Rossitto, Stephane Audran, Rich Little, Gary Graver, Frank Marshall, Cassie Yates, William Katt, Cameron Crowe, Les Moonves. (R, 122 mins)

Orson Welles died in 1985, but 33 years later, his "last" film has finally been completed and released as a Netflix Original. One of the most famous of "lost" movies, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND has spent decades mired in various legal, personal, and political quagmires among numerous involved parties. As was usually the case in Welles' European exile years in the 1950s and 1960s (the exception being his last Hollywood studio work as a director, 1958's TOUCH OF EVIL), funding came from his lucrative actor-for-hire jobs and when that ran out, he would constantly find himself hustling for cash from various wealthy investors from all over the world, who were always more than happy to partner with a revered filmmaker of Welles' stature until they realized they probably weren't getting their money back. Notorious for doing things his own way and clashing with Hollywood execs as far back as 1942's THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, Welles would rarely enjoy a hassle-free project other than 1962's THE TRIAL, and while he did have to cut corners when future SUPERMAN producer Alexander Salkind ran out of money by the end of production, he remained grateful that Salkind trusted him and left him alone to make the film he wanted to make.






Huston, Welles, and Bogdanovich apparently
coining the question "How 'bout a Fresca?"
As a result of his unconventional and often unreliable methods of finance, Welles probably had as many unfinished films as he did finished ones, none more talked about than THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Filming began in 1970 and wasn't completed until 1976, as Welles would shoot what he could in bits and pieces when the money was there, scraping by with acting and TV commercial gigs (and shooting another movie, 1973's F FOR FAKE) in the interim. He managed to get a French production company to back the project and when that money ran out, he secured additional financing from the Shah of Iran's brother-in-law (the production dragged on for so long and so sporadically that star John Huston didn't even join the cast until 1974). Written by Welles and his girlfriend Oja Kodar, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND would remain unfinished in Welles' lifetime, the film caught up in his tax issues with the IRS; the alleged embezzlement of funds by a Spanish business associate Welles met while starring as Long John Silver in the 1972 Harry Alan Towers production of TREASURE ISLAND; the Ayatollah Khomeini-ordered seizure of the assets and property of the Shah and his entire extended family following the 1979 Iranian Revolution; and a seemingly never-ending conflict between Kodar and Welles' daughter Beatrice following his death, a battle that also involved Welles' protege and friend Peter Bogdanovich. The young director was then riding high on THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and PAPER MOON, and put $500,000 of his own money into Welles' vision in addition to letting his mentor crash at his Beverly Hills mansion from 1974 to 1976.


There was always talk of finishing the film, with Kodar attempting and failing to broker a deal with Showtime in the late '90s, but it was Bogdanovich who seriously got the ball rolling on the completion of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND back in 2004 (other parties included cinematographer Gary Graver, who died in 2006, and producer Frank Marshall, who worked on part of the original shoot as a production assistant). Once all legal squabbles were resolved, Netflix agreed to fund the final restoration, with Oscar-winning editor Bob Murawski (THE HURT LOCKER) brought in to oversee the completion based on Welles' archived notes, multiple versions of WIND's scripts (including one that totaled 360 pages), and by studying his editing techniques on all of his previous films. Welles shot nearly 100 hours of footage, and it's an incredible achievement in itself that Murawski was able to put this together at all. The end result, running just over two hours, is seemingly free-form mash-up of various film stocks, image qualities, and aspect ratios, often switching from color to black & white in the same scene, almost like an art-house version of the kind of Z-grade drive-in patchwork you'd expect from Al Adamson or Jess Franco (an assistant to Welles on 1966's CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT). John Huston's actor son Danny was summoned to revoice some of his late father's dialogue in a few instances where the audio was too deteriorated to salvage or just missing altogether. Many scenes have the telltale signs of piecemeal shooting, with an absent Huston doubled from behind and conversations between two or more actors edited together even though the actors never share the frame and were shot years apart. Or even on a different continent in Lilli Palmer's case, with the actress in scenes with Huston and other cast members in California and Arizona shot anywhere from 1971 to 1976 even though she's always shown alone and all of her footage was shot in Spain in 1973.


Set up in an ahead-of-its-time mockumentary style by present-day voiceover from 1970s wunderkind Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich), THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND deals with the last day in the life of famed Hollywood movie director Jake Hannaford (Huston). A surrogate for Welles himself, Hannaford has invited his closest friends, colleagues, journalists, film students, and other assorted hangers-on and sycophants to his 70th birthday party being thrown by his long-ago lover and retired actress Zarah Valeska (Palmer), with everyone given 8mm and 16mm cameras to document the event. Hannaford's got other pressing issues: his latest film--titled THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND and a desperate attempt to attract the counterculture market--is in trouble. His star is John Dale (Bob Random), a Hannaford discovery who has no acting experience and is nowhere to be found after walking off the set midway through production; young studio boss Max David (Geoffrey Land) has seen the dailies and isn't happy, especially after loyal Hannaford flunky Billy Boyle (Norman Foster) confesses the director has tossed the script and is just making it up as he goes along; and Hannaford himself is growing increasingly jealous over the success of Otterlake, his protege who just scored a critically-acclaimed blockbuster hit with his third film and is now the toast of Hollywood. Hannaford needs Otterlake's help, but the young director won't use his newfound clout to help bail him out with David, who's been invited to the party and is a no-show.

Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Mercedes
McCambridge, and Welles on the set. 

The party is a Who's Who of Hannaford's world, with tight-knit, ENTOURAGE-like acolytes like Boyle, retired actor friends Pat Mullins (an ill-looking Edmond O'Brien, who would retire from acting himself in 1974 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's), Lou Martin (John Carroll), and Al Denny (Stafford Repp); former business partner "The Baron" (Tonio Selwart); loyal secretary Maggie Noonan (Mercedes McCambridge); his manager Matt Costello (Paul Stewart); and longtime makeup man Zimmie Zimmer (Cameron Mitchell), who attends the party even though he's fired en route. There's also macho screenwriter Jack Simon (Gregory Sierra), who's no fan of Hannaford's, and film critic Juliet Rich (Susan Strasberg), who's notoriously critical of the work of both Hannaford and Otterlake. As everyone mingles, drinks to excess, and wonders about everything from Dale's absence to Hannaford possibly being a closeted homosexual, the director screens an unfinished workprint of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, an experimental, avant-garde, Euro-tinged, psychedelic art film starring Dale and a nameless actress (Kodar). The film-within-a-film (shot mostly in 1970) has some striking imagery, whether it's a sex scene in the passenger seat of a garishly lit car that looks like a Dario Argento cab ride (this sequence was shot in 1974), or Dale and "The Actress" spending most of the screened film wandering around nude on the MGM backlot with no dialogue. The power goes out, forcing the party to use generators that also fail, at which point the screening moves to a nearby drive-in. When The Baron informs the projectionist that he's showing the reels out of order as "The Actress"  happens upon a giant, erect cock in the desert, the response is "Does it matter?"


Almost every character in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND is a stand-in for someone: Billy Boyle was reportedly based on Mickey Rooney, Max David on then-Paramount head Robert Evans, Zarah Valeska on Marlene Dietrich (Welles' original choice for the role, but she turned it down), Juliet Rich on famously combative film critic Pauline Kael, Jack Simon on John Milius, "The Baron" on John Houseman, and most importantly, Brooks Otterlake on Peter Bogdanovich himself, who skyrocketed to fame and fortune while Welles struggled to get any project off the ground (Otterlake's barely-legal date to the party, Mavis Henscher, played by Cathy Lucas, is based on Bogdanovich's then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd). Bogdanovich's casting pretty much eliminates any mystery as to what Welles' feelings on their friendship were by that point, but it's interesting to note that Bogdanovich only ended up being cast after Welles' first choice--Rich Little, of all people--left the production just like John Dale left the film-within-a-film, partly because of other commitments but mostly because he had no idea what Welles was trying to accomplish. Little remains in the film as an unnamed party guest and has one scene with Lucas, and judging from his wardrobe and dialogue, it was clearly shot when Little was still playing Otterlake (and Otterlake's odd quirk of doing random celebrity impressions--not one of Bogdanovich's strengths--is something that was obviously conceived with Little in mind). Welles made no secret of his disdain for pretentious art cinema, with particular scorn reserved for Michelangelo Antonioni, whose ZABRISKIE POINT is being mocked in the film-within-a-film THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, and with Kodar's constant nudity and some scattered instances of explicit sex, it's very likely that this would've gotten an X rating if it was released in the 1970s. There's a dark-humored and misanthropic streak throughout the film, but the cheap shots--at European cinema (Billy on LAST TANGO IN PARIS director Bernardo Bertolucci: "He's-a-spicy-a-meatball!"), at new Hollywood, at film critics (how else do you explain a drunk Hannaford physically assaulting Juliet Rich near the end?), and at misfit, Hannaford-obsessed film students, especially with a pair of clingy dweebs in Marvin Pistor (Joseph McBride) and Marvin P. Fassbinder (Pat McMahon), who are invited to the party, ask inane questions, and follow him around like lost puppy dogs--start to feel like sour grapes after a while.


As the booze-swilling, cigar-sucking Hannaford, Huston is captivating every moment he's onscreen, channeling Welles through his own persona to create a fascinating hybrid characterization of two larger-than-life filmmakers. With the rapid-fire quick-cuts, constantly-changing film stocks, and the fact that some of their scenes may have been shot months or years apart, most of the cast doesn't get a chance to make that much of an impression, though Mitchell, by that point slumming in D-grade schlock, is an unexpectedly poignant standout as the melancholy Zimmie. Other then-contemporary filmmakers appear as themselves arguing about the state of cinema at Hannaford's party, including Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, Paul Mazursky, and Henry Jaglom, who directed Welles' final performance in SOMEONE TO LOVE, released in 1988, three years after his death. There's some scattered moments of Welles-ian mastery in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, and at times, it's a remarkably candid confessional, like it's Welles' own personal version of Luchino Visconti's THE LEOPARD, where Burt Lancaster's aging prince wanders from room to room at a grand ball, saying goodbye to his aristocratic life, recognizing his irrelevance in a world that's moving on and leaving him behind. But after all these years, the knee-jerk reaction will be to label this Welles' lost masterpiece or his "ultimate statement," or something to that effect. Five decades of cineaste mystique surrounding an ambitious and unfinished project will do that, but at the end of the day, this is the kind of self-indulgent home movie that's an historical curio at best, and directly responsible for the career of Henry Jaglom at worst. I'm glad it's out, I'm glad we're able to see it, and it's required viewing for anyone with a serious interest in film history up to the 1970s, but am I ever gonna watch this again? There's a legend surrounding THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, and the backstory--covered at length in Morgan Neville's simultaneously-released Netflix Original documentary THEY'LL LOVE ME WHEN I'M DEAD--is ultimately more fascinating than the film itself.



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