Sunday 18 November 2018

On demand: "The Other Side of the Wind"

Every now and again, Orson Welles pokes his big old head back over cinema's parapet, just to remind us he is still in some way among us, and still very much influential - if not for what he specifically did, then for who he was, and what he both did and didn't stand for. In 2018, Welles has loomed larger than he has for some while, inspiring Mark Cousins' heartfelt love letter The Eyes of Orson Welles (which wondered how the movies' Big O would have responded to the Age of Trump), and a hardy team of cinephiles to finish editing the hundred hours of footage Welles racked up for The Other Side of the Wind, shot through the first half of the 1970s and thereafter left to languish on a shelf in a basement before Netflix stepped in to resolve the various rights issues that held work up first time around. (To slip into Cousins-ese for a moment: could Orson, that great observer of the shifting media landscape, have ever foreseen the rise of Netflix, and the trouble the platform has stirred among festival programmers and cinema bookers? And what would he think about a magnum opus like this winding up here, as just one option among countless princess-switch and dogs-who-save-Christmas movies, rather than on the biggest screens in the land?)

Part of the fascination the finished project generates can be attributed to the fact Wind is at least semi-autobiographical, a fractured self-portrait: something like Citizen Kane, that gamechanging breakthrough, revisited by an ageing creative who'd been through the industry sausage factory, been badly burned by his experiences, and yet emerged - undoubtedly bruised, but robust as ever. (It operates in a different key, but the film is as defiantly Welles as "I'm Still Standing" was defiantly Elton John.) The setting is a boozy 70th birthday party at which sacred movie monster Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston, Welles's more flexible contemporary) is all set to preview a rough cut of his latest picture. Hannaford's enablers and hangers-on are played by semi-regular Welles players (Norman Foster, Mercedes McCambridge, Paul Stewart); his muse by Oja Kodar, Welles's muse (and his co-writer here); his attaché, writing a book on the elusive filmmaker while directing his own acclaimed pictures, is played by Peter Bogdanovich, the acclaimed filmmaker who wrote one of the key Welles biographies. Welles certainly wasn't playing down the parallels between Hannaford and himself: this was the boy wonder who, with Kane, gave American cinema the modernising gift of self-awareness returning three decades later to nudge, wink and harrumph, and generally remind everybody of a debt incurred and owed.

And Wind was a return. After just over a decade in exile - making The Trial, Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story in Europe for nothing or next to nothing - Welles was heading back to work in the U.S., and L.A. in particular, with the aim of making the kind of film there was suddenly space and money for at the start of the Seventies, one of those jazzily free-roaming, Altmanesque tableaux influenced by the French New Wave (and by Le Mépris and Day for Night above all) where the various long takes and short cuts meant to accumulate and arrive at some state-of-the-nation, or in this case state-of-the-industry, address. Welles, in some respects the cinema's biggest kid, found himself back in the heart of La-La Land with a whole new set of toys to play with: lurid colours, naked performers, the kind of fruity language that would have been verboten on set at the time of Touch of Evil in 1958, let alone Kane in 1941. It should be noted that these emergent creative freedoms don't always work in Wind's favour; there's a fine line between self-awareness and self-involvement, and the two-hour cut arrived at by the cabal of Orson acolytes (including Bogdanovich, producer Frank Marshall, and editor Bob Murawski) suggests Welles often crossed it.

Much of the film we have is composed of gossipy insider movietalk, which will be manna for cinephiles who want to imagine themselves hanging out at the Anthology Film Archives circa 1973, but which can get exhausting to sit through, and will almost certainly set casual viewers (by which I mean non-Wellesites, because who else would be hitting up Netflix for a movie this ancient?) to browsing for the latest Dean Cain-plus-dog movie. With the much later The Player, Altman would be wryly unsparing with regard to his show people, but Welles - perhaps mindful of the moneymen hovering around these shoots, and his own future employment prospects - goes easier on his characters the closer they are to Hannaford. There's some snarky satire at the expense of film critics and students, but the director's entourage - "fireflies", as one of them describes the group - are sorta excused for playing the movie game, and Hannaford himself, after the film's frenzied analysis of all the terror he's wreaked over the years, gets to drive off into the sunset equally admired and feared, a bottle of something in one hand, a pliable young blonde in the other. From the ungenerous-to-brusque treatment meted out to the film's Pauline Kael surrogate Juliette Rich (Susan Strasberg), we might surmise that Welles the all-encompassing man of letters wanted to be his own critic and write his own obits, to have the first and last words alike.

That propensity for overreach - source of his genius, cause of his downfall, side effect of an ego that rarely knew when to stop - is much in evidence elsewhere, and goes to Wind's most glaring weakness. Opening with shots of anonymous steam-room boobs that predict not great cinema but some future Porky's sequel, this is very much a film out of time, a relic of an age - let's call it the Hefner Age, after the epoch's foremost dinosaur - in which the male gaze was paramount, rampant and unchecked. One or two sequences demonstrate how that gaze has generated (and will likely continue to generate) striking cinema: take that reel from the film-within-the-film in which Kodar turns a succession of heads while walking barefoot through an art gallery bathroom, which is an eyecatcher in part because it's about looking, and the pleasures of erotic-forbidden looking. Yet no-one was there to object or intervene when Orson pulled out a fat cigar, sat back, and got himself all steamed up: the sequence ends with Kodar stripping out of her sodden dress, and Hannaford's camera - and Welles's camera, for they are one and the same - getting what tabloid writers once pegged as "a generous eyeful". (Same goes for a scene in which consensual in-car sex gives way to attempted rape in a rainstorm: somebody needed to cut through the lubriciousness, then or now.)

So there's a certain naffness here: that naffness one regularly encounters upon revisiting Seventies light-entertainment ventures that became massive family favourites despite (perhaps because of) their more questionable aspects. Alongside that, however, there's a strange poignancy - a sadness we never got to see Wind in its proper context, and that it didn't restart Welles's directorial career in the way he'd doubtless hoped. (Altman's career, which was looking far less rosy at the end of the Seventies than it was around the middle of the decade, may have been a wonky model to emulate: for Welles, those frozen-food commercials, and Transformers: the Movie, were only years away.) That the film reemerges now can be taken as an act of corporate benevolence - proof that Netflix's power is such it can even reanimate the dead - as well as one of Orson the Magnificent's magic tricks, and like a magic trick, Wind does present as inextricably last century. Had it released in the immediate wake of the Bicentennial, the film might have felt radically fresh and provocative, a revolutionary text offering plenty to go on and work from. Some of that substance has survived the long spell in storage, but what's around it lands in 2018 smelling as musty as any other artefact dredged up from the basement after four decades. The poignancy derives from the fact that mustiness itself offers a heady Proustian rush: with just a few frames, a few seconds of screen time, Wind conjures a whiff of everything we've put behind us, forgotten about and lost, as well as what might at some point have been.

The Other Side of the Wind is now streaming via Netflix.

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