Monday, November 5, 2018


One thing is abundantly clear as The Other Side of the Wind begins to unspool: here is a movie we will be thinking about as long as people want to think seriously about the movies. It's something of a miracle we can see it at all. The legendary writer-director-impresario-icon Orson Welles shot his film in the 1970s and partially edited it before his death in 1985. Ever since, it sat incomplete, the raw material locked away in a vault due to complicated legal disputes. Only now, at long last, has it been rescued and finished. (Morgan Neville's companion making-of documentary They'll Love Me When I'm Dead excellently recounts this backstory.) The result is a movie completed by editors and producers, many who worked as youngsters on the film's original shoot and postproduction, doing an approximation of the final cut Welles was working towards, an educated guess. And yet the film itself is Welles himself doing approximations and impersonations, building a wild kaleidoscope of footage, reflections within reflections within reflections. (That's an appropriate idea for a man whose career brought us memorable mirror sequences in Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai.) It feels at once of its point of origin and of today. It proves Welles was always ahead of his time. After just one viewing, my head was spinning with its images and ideas, letting its novelty and ingenuity knock about my mind, slotting it into an idea of Welles' career while marveling, almost dazed, that there's a new Welles in the world. 

Like so many of his films, it has sensation of melancholy and memory throughout, starting by telling is the main character has died. He, an elderly Hollywood studio director (played by John Huston, reflecting and embodying his, his generation's, and Welles' impulses in a craggy, wily performance) grasping for relevance at the dawn of the New Hollywood, died in a car crash after his birthday party. The film is a ragged, unflinching recreation of his final day, a found-footage collage of LA excess, the old man surrounded by rings of cameras in addition to old friends, bitter colleagues, sycophants and hangers-on, young protégés and confused collaborators. (The astonishing cast includes such expert faces as Peter Bogdanovich and Susan Strasberg, and Mercedes McCambridge and Paul Stewart among many, many more.) While they trade barbs and celebrate their creativity and needle each other with vicious power plays and prickly overlapping dialogue cut quick in a jangly jumble of mixed Academy Ratio film stocks -- deep inky black and crisp crinkly white or sharp grainy pale 70's color -- the director hopes to screen a work-in-progress of his latest film. Excepts from this work are generously apportioned throughout. Its long widescreen takes of artful nonsense -- a sensual and striking goof on mid-century Euro-art-house of the Antonioni sort, Welles clearly loving the experiment of playing at directing in another style, while proving he could've just flat out done that sort of feature if he'd cared to try -- focuses on a man (Bob Random) and woman (Oja Kodar, Welles' co-writer and lover) who chase each other in various states of undress through stark mise en scene: a car in the rain, an empty house, a vacant backlot. This unfinished film-within-the-film is in need of money to be completed, hence the director screening it at his party. There's a poignancy in watching a belatedly assembled film about an unfinished film, neither director living to see where it'd end up.

Cut with adventurous Wellesian tomfoolery and grandeur, the recreation seems a logical culmination of the artistic impulses that took him to The Immortal Story and F for Fake in the final decade of his directorial career. Like those films, but taken to a new extreme, the prismatic editing is playful and aggressive. The movie runs hot and cold. The view of arts and artists is both reverent and self-critical. The approach to sex is both prudish and frank. The story is both incomprehensible cacophony and clearly razor-sharp perceptive. It's as lacerating as it is invigorating, voices and styles layered and collapsed. Their truths and fictions blur and people build each other up and tear each other down in the same instant. It's beautiful and ugly, angry and elegiac. The final image, a movie screen slowly washed out as industry, as represented by a rumbling train, rolls on. Welles creates with Wind a picture that finds its central figure in a state of decline, like Kane, lonely in a crowd, lost amid the trappings of fame while machismo and desire and riches and artistry starts to dim. And yet it's also a film of an artist in full control. It's scattered without being scatterbrained. The filmmakers who ushered it to a finished form have done their best to maintain this aggressive and circular film's wild structure. If it was released back in 1970-something, it would've been a fine expression of an oft-mistreated and mis-understood auteur making a masterful movie fitted to the times. Now the distance of decades greets it as a revelation: a creative and compelling posthumous declaration that Welles never stopped. Scene after scene is filled with shots that are startlingly fresh and dazzling in construction, building a wholly inventive film, new despite their age. From beyond the grave, he still has much to show us.

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