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Review: The Other Side of the Wind

The Other Side of the Wind isn’t a novelty item, but a work of anguished art that’s worthy of its creator.

3.5

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The Other Side of the Wind
Photo: Netflix

Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind is an auto-critical chimera that’s obsessed by its own inability to reach fruition. Like other late-period Welles projects, the film revels in its creator’s formal virtuosity while proffering a variety of mythologies under the guise of macho truth-telling. But there’s also a startling strain of vulnerability running under this film like a live current; Welles isn’t only coasting on his impressive contacts and astounding craftsmanship. Begun in the 1970s, when Hollywood was feeling briefly threatened by a new wave of sensual, politically enraged, narratively loosey-goosey cinema, The Other Side of the Wind is partially Welles’s attempt to top the eroticized abstraction of films like Easy Rider and Blow-Up. Here, the filmmaker attempts to take cinema into a subjective docudramatic realm, freeing the medium of the constraints of three-act plotting. And Welles, one of cinema’s most distinctive yet adaptable masters, is up to the task.

The Other Side of the Wind is one of those wink-wink inside-Hollywood affairs in which a rotten white patriarchal kingdom of wealth is deconstructed yet inadvertently celebrated. Jake Hannaford (John Huston) is a legendary he-man director who suggests Huston if he’d flamed out and taken charge of Welles’s bohemian coterie of acolytes. Hannaford is the kind of artiste who smokes cigars and binge drinks all night without (entirely) losing control of himself, while uttering such Wellesian/Hustonian bon mots as “Hemingway? That left hook of his was overrated.” Hannaford is also an Old Hollywood classicist who feels imperiled by the rise of talent like Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), a filmmaker who’s clearly meant to resemble Bogdanovich himself, after the flush of success he enjoyed with The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon.

Hannaford has set himself up with the same impossible task that Welles has: to finish a truly modern work of cinema that’s also titled The Other Side of the Wind. Set mostly over the course of a single night, Welles’s film follows Hannaford and his collaborators, friends, hangers-on, and critics—many played by legends who’re tasked with playing caricatures of themselves or other legends—as they celebrate the giant’s 70th birthday, where he will reveal footage of his new film. Hannaford is out of money and potentially without his leading man, John Dale (Robert Random), who appears to be burnt out on Hannaford’s abuse. Hannaford’s yes-men attempt to wrangle new financing from a Robert Evans stand-in, but no one can tell anyone else what the picture is supposed to be about, apart from fashionable references to sex and radicalism. One potential producer asks if Hannaford is making it all up as he goes along. That question, which also applies to Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, provokes another vintage Welles line: “He’s done it before.”

Hannaford encourages everyone to film his party, embracing transparency under the implicit belief that it will only enhance his fading reputation as an iconoclast. This gimmick allows Welles to fashion a kaleidoscopic tapestry in which multiple realities collide—of Welles’s life, of Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, of Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind, and of many other realities, including a mutant merging of the three. Watching the film, one may be inclined to believe the rumor that Welles never intended to finish it, as it suggests the supplemental result of the rarefied circus lifestyle that had become his true project. An artist living on the fringes of Hollywood, Welles became most obsessed with the art of his legend-hood. Like F for Fake, The Other Side of the Wind seemingly anticipates the rise of social media and reality TV shows by decades, embracing art as a kind of inhabitable drug. Culled together by contemporary editors and artists from hundreds of hours of footage, this is only a single version of a film that could’ve been anything.

Welles alternates between the cameras filming Hannaford’s party, fashioning a hypnotic cinematic cubism. Switching casually between color and black and white, and covering a wide spectrum of film stocks, Welles suggests that each sliver of film serves as an emotional X-ray of another, often editing by subject rather than by the dictates of narrative. If someone mentions Hannaford’s boozing or womanizing, for instance, Welles might cut to another person offering a differing or correlating nugget of information. As an editor, Welles seems to be everywhere in this sprawling, debauched party at once, and The Other Side of the Wind benefits from his mastery of montage, which was the art he developed to survive when he lost the studio financing that he required to fashion his prior aesthetic of deep, neurotic, character-centric composition. But the compositions here are often breathtaking as well, proffering frames within frames that allude to even more realities within realities.

However, Welles’s greatest triumph here is his realization of Hannaford’s incomplete film, of which we see long portions. On one level, Hannaford’s film is an old man’s parody of youthful ennui, following John Dale and an unnamed actress (Oja Kodar, Welles’s lover, as well as this film’s co-writer) as they stalk one another over a MacGuffin so loosely defined that it’s uncertain whether the object in question is a doll or a bomb. Overtly obvious phallic imagery pervades the film-within-a-film, as do empty landscapes that bring to mind the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Welles satirizes the idea that such an aesthetic would be considered politically important, rather than identified as tony masturbation. Yet Welles also satirizes Hannaford’s (and his own) pompousness in assuming that he can take command of an aesthetic so unfamiliar to him, while doing precisely that: creating imagery that’s beautiful for its own sake, yet so intensely beautiful that it explodes parody to become an un-ironic countercultural film. Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind becomes a feverish expression of Hannaford’s emotional ugliness and suppressed vulnerability, as well as of Welles’s longing for relevance, while confirming that the latter should, indeed, have remained relevant.

Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind is most explicitly a celebration of Kodar’s body and stride. Many of the sequences in this film-within-a-film, which follows Dale as he pursues the actress, are both ridiculous and astonishingly erotic. (Great sex scenes must be willing to risk the ridiculous, in accordance with our deepest desires.) At one point in the film, Kodar goes to the bathroom of a club, where couples are screwing in stalls, and strips down to a sheer, wet undergarment, which she removes and places over the face of a young blonde who’s sucking on and spitting out ice cubes. The dream logic of this scene suggests that the women are transmitting fluids, which is complemented by the similar symbolism of Dale and Kodar’s eventual tryst on a bare bed spring. Threatening to cut him, she slices her necklace instead, the beads of which tumble through the bed spring, passing by the couple’s bare buttocks in a simulation of ejaculation.

This is kitsch as indirect expression of the soul, both that of Hannaford and Welles, and it reaches its zenith when Dale and Kodar have sex in a car, with Welles underscoring the rhythmic movements of Kodar’s various talismans and of the rain and the swishing of windshield wipers. As their tryst progresses, Dale and Kodar become encased in a tunnel of blackness that’s tinged with giallo-lurid colors and decisively separate from the car setting. Welles shows sex to be what it is: a tumbling into yet another reality within a reality. The existential horniness of this scene is exacerbated by Welles’s testing of his own boundaries. Rarely drawn to overtly sexual subjects, he dares himself to create one of cinema’s great and resonant erotic set pieces.

The overt carnality of these scenes also underscores a pointed element of the film’s governing narrative. Hannaford’s party is rich in booze and cigars, and even women, but devoid of sex. Like Huston and Welles, Hannaford has a storied history of impressive conquests but seems to be most comfortable playing God to his mob of male admirers. (The predominant female character of the party narrative, a Pauline Kael stand-in played by Susan Strasberg, is regarded by Hannaford and Welles with undisguised contempt, and Hannaford is also seen pointedly dismissing Kodar.) Hannaford’s ultimately a “man’s man,” who, through his art, indirectly plumbs his loneliness and propensity for cruelty. Like most Welles films, The Other Side of the Wind concerns an artist who specializes in barely transcending self-destruction. It isn’t a novelty item, but a work of anguished art that’s worthy of its creator.

Cast: John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Susan Strasberg, Robert Random, Joseph McBride, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Edmond O'Brien, Lilli Palmer, Geoffrey Land, Peter Jason Director: Orson Welles Screenwriter: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 122 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Berlinale 2019: A Dog Called Money, Lemebel, & Searching Eva

Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices, nine of the Panorma sidebar’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

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A Dog Called Money
Photo: Berlinale

The ostensible goal of the Berlinale’s Panorama sidebar is to offer a 360-degree snapshot of the current state of world cinema, but this year its curators seem inordinately concerned with the pursuit of artistry. Alongside fiction films depicting emerging voices—Honor Swinton Byrne as a fledgling filmmaker in Joanna Hogg’s sublime The Souvenir, and Mei Kayama as a cartoonist with cerebral palsy in Hikari’s sweet-natured 37 Seconds—nine of the section’s 45 features are documentaries about creative talents.

Among these, A Dog Called Money is perhaps the most fascinating, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Directed by photographer Seamus Murphy, it charts the making of PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project, which was directly inspired by trips the pair took to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and deprived neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. The famously publicity-shy Harvey then took the unlikely step of turning the recording process into an art installation, setting up a pop-up studio in London’s opulent Somerset House, and inviting members of the public to observe her at work through a one-way mirror.

Though the project appears to have been a noble attempt on Harvey’s part to broaden her political and cultural horizons, A Dog Called Money demystifies her creative process in a manner that proves extremely unflattering. Murphy presents the overseas excursions solely as material-gathering missions: We see Harvey exposed to human suffering in various guises, and hear her recite song lyrics that matter-of-factly recount her observations, but are offered no insight into her overarching aims for The Hope Six Demolition Project, and no sense of how these experiences may have affected her worldview.

There’s something strangely distasteful about the way Murphy juxtaposes haunting footage of Middle Eastern warzones and American ghettos with scenes of Harvey, safely cocooned in her sleek studio, joking around with her overwhelmingly white band as they endeavor to distill the world’s misery into a whimsical art project. And frustratingly, the film fails to address the controversy surrounding album opener “Community of Hope,” which describes Washington D.C.’s predominantly black Ward 7 as a “drug town” full of “zombies,” and which led to a local official ridiculously saying that Harvey is “to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news.”

Joanna Reposi Garibaldi’s Lemebel, which just won the Teddy Award for best queer-themed documentary, does a far better job of representing the aspirations and achievements of a politically motivated artist. The film explores the career of late Chilean writer and activist Pedro Lemebel, who spearheaded a public LGBT rights movement amid the hostile environment of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Weaving together evocative archive footage, intimate talking-head interviews, and grainy home movies, Garibaldi charts the formation of Lemebel’s provocative queer collective dubbed the Mares of the Apocalypse, his flair for attention-grabbing performance art, and his masterly manipulation of Chile’s mainstream media.

An erudite raconteur, Lemebel is fascinating when discussing the intersection of LGBT and working-class communities, and appears remarkably ahead of his time when explaining his rejection of the word “gay” and his reclamation of derogatory terms like “maricón.” Occasionally it seems that Garibaldi, who befriended Lemebel years before attempting to make the film, is a little too close to her subject to offer an objective portrait. She fails, for example, to interrogate Lemebel’s conspiratorial views about the origins of AIDS. But given the fearless, trailblazing nature of his work, a somewhat hagiographic approach can be forgiven.

Many would surely balk at the description of Eva Collè, an obscure twentysomething blogger and Instagrammer, as an “artist.” But her scattershot, disarmingly frank musings on Tumblr have inspired a formally ambitious documentary feature, Pia Hellenthal’s Searching Eva. The film delivers an impressionistic account of this nomadic young woman’s compellingly chaotic existence, encompassing her move from conservative small-town Italy to hedonistic Berlin, her professional experiences as a sex worker and fashion model, her embrace of sexual fluidity, and her struggles with drug use and mental illness.

To underscore the fact that Collè elects to live out her daily dramas before an enthralled online audience, the film is narrated by anonymous comments lifted directly from her blogs. But while said comments tend to be either blindly sycophantic or scathingly judgmental, Hellenthal delivers a refreshingly even-handed assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of online culture. Eva seems to derive much of her self-worth from the knowledge that she inspires others to be their authentic selves. And there’s a sense that the barrage of criticism she faces only strengthens her resolve to carve her own path through life.

Hellenthal’s perspective becomes much harder to fathom when she’s exploring Collè’s life philosophy, which seems to boil down to a flat rejection of any label you might try and attach to her. At one point, Eva states her intention never to work a conventional job, on the grounds that the working class must refuse to be defined primarily as a workforce in order to make its mark. But it’s unclear whether Hellenthal regards this as a bold political statement or the pseudointellectual ramblings of a self-involved millennial attempting to justify her decadent existence. Those who suspect the latter will likely have a hard time fully embracing Searching Eva, but its assured approach to nonlinear storytelling makes the journey worthwhile.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Berlinale 2019: I Was at Home, But, So Long, My Son, and Ghost Town Anthology

These films depict in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting the dead’s presence in our lives.

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I Was Home, But
Photo: Berlinale

The dead haunt Berlin. The Martin-Gropius-Bau, the museum building in which the Berlinale’s European Film Market is hosted, is still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin—as are many other buildings in the center of the city. A 10-minute walk north of Potsdamer Platz, the center of the film festival, is the powerful Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction down Stresemannstraße and you’ll see the bombed-out façade of Anhalter Bahnhof, once one of Europe’s most resplendent train stations. And all over Berlin, you trip over Stolpersteine (or “stumble-stones”), small, square, brass plaques laid into the sidewalk bearing the names of former residents of that street, dispossessed and killed by the Nazis.

Like any city, Berlin is many things, and it’s certainly most known today for much more than its tragic past. But the history of the 20th century is in particular written across its face, and while it can be easy to turn your gaze away from the dead, they remain a part of life in Germany’s capital. Several of the best films up for the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale contemplate the persistence of the dead in the lives of the living, depicting in distinctive ways the process of coping with and even accepting this presence in our lives.

Set in Berlin, Angela Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But opens with an anomalous prologue that foreshadows the film’s equal-parts mix of despair and world weariness, of tragedy and banality. A dog excitedly chases a rabbit; the camera catches the rabbit initially running, and then seeming to give up, panting on a rock. In the next shot, the dog is greedily pulling apart the rabbit carcass in its den, a dilapidated building it appears to share with a donkey. It’s a potentially fruitful odd-couple scenario: You can almost read subdued exasperation in the donkey’s face as it ignores its roommate’s greedy consumption of a fellow herbivore.

What does this prologue have to do with the remainder of the film, which concerns a woman, Astrid (Maren Eggert), and her children’s flailing attempts to process the grief of losing their husband and father? This quietly masterful film never even comes close to connecting these threads for its audience, requiring us to make connections on our own. We’ll see a foot being bandaged, but not the event that caused the injury, and characters dancing to entertain someone in a hospital bed, but not the person in the bed. Elsewhere, a needlessly obstinate Astrid demands money back for a perfectly reparable bicycle she bought on the cheap, and middle-school kids perform Hamlet in the most neutral of ways.

These still, vignette-like scenes elliptically narrate Phillip’s (Jakob Lassalle) week-long disappearance and return. Infused with the profound pain of grief and with the consciousness that such pain is both inescapable and futile, a universal tragedy that has played out innumerable times, each scene in I Was at Home, But could stand on its own. Assembled together, they comprise a story told between the lines. When Astrid theatrically collapses in front of a headstone, lying silent and immobile like a stage corpse, we don’t need the camera to show us the name on the grave to let us know which tragedy she’s currently performing.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son is a pointed critique of China’s one-child policy, which was relaxed in 2013. Cutting between at least four different periods in the life of a couple, Liyun and Yaojun (Mei Yong and Wang Jingchun), whose family is shattered over and over again—first with a forced abortion, then with the drowning death of their biological son, and finally when their adopted son absconds from their home—the film is a stark condemnation of an inhuman measure undertaken for the sake of the ultimately abandoned dream of a workers’ utopia. Surprising for a film produced in a country with heavy censorship, the story is explicit in its political and ethical concerns, demonstrating how China’s strict rules in the 1980s imposed unjust sacrifices on the country’s people only so, as one shot set in today’s Beijing suggests, shopping malls could be erected behind statues of Mao Zedong.

Mixing around the story’s timeline, Wang opens with the death of Liyun and Yaojun’s son, and flashes forward to their adopted son, also named Xingxing, fleeing home, so that Liyun’s coerced abortion feels like a third loss, even though it actually comes first. This captures something of the temporality of regret: The abortion, which Liyun was pressured into having by Haiyan (Haiyan Li), a close friend and local communist party functionary, is the decisive tragedy of their lives. Having been denied the choice of having a second child, Yaojun and Liyun’s repressed grief and self-imposed exile away from the pain of their old relations has excluded them from sharing in the winnings wrought by China’s rise.

The unhappy accidents, betrayals, and suppressed resentment that make up the story could easily lend themselves to overwrought, melodramatic treatment, but Wang’s dedication to the details of Chinese working-class life grounds the film in a reality unmarked by melodrama’s hazy-eyed stylizations. Fine leading performances by Wang and Yong capture the simmering sadness of a life whose fulfillment was precluded by an overbearing ideology. So Long, My Son runs a bit long, piling a few too many poetic parallelisms into a protracted conclusion, but it’s a precisely constructed, deeply felt, and humane drama.

The wackiest of the competition’s films that contemplate loss is Denis Côté’s Ghost Town Anthology, which sees the Quebecois director returning to his favored rural Canadian terrain with an ensemble cast. Shot on grainy 16mm, and somewhat resembling a ‘70s-era drive-in cheapie, the film remixes the iconography of ghost stories and post-apocalyptic thrillers to narrate its characters’ collective confrontation with death.

A town of 215 residents somewhere in Francophone Canada is rocked by what their imperious mayor calls “our first death in a long time,” the presumed suicide-by-car-crash of the 21-year-old Simon Dubé. That Simon’s death is the first in a long time raises a couple of questions about the dreary and desolate village: Where are the old people and, for that matter, where are the children? Côté shows us some children, but they’re strange, impish creatures who wear clay masks and heavy ponchos, and they appear to live in the surrounding woods. When Simon’s car crashes, they play amid the wreckage; later, they chase the frightful, innocent Adele (Larissa Corriveau) into an abandoned garage, backed this time by a group of adults who stand silently behind them in the snow, simply staring forward.

It turns out that the dead are returning but not exactly back to life; this isn’t George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the ghostly figures who begin sprouting from the snowy landscape don’t do much of anything but stand and blankly stare. The villagers, accustomed to a life close to outsiders—Côté makes his point clear when a hijab-draped official sent by the government to consult with the mayor elicits cool, suspicious stares from the denizens—are forced by the dead’s mere presence to confront what lies beyond their provincial life. “They’re like us, in a way,” one character muses toward the end of Ghost Town Anthology, a belated realization that the radical difference of death is also a commonality.

Berlinale runs from February 7—17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Film Editing

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories?

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Bohemian Rhapsody
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Sigh, can we just edit this whole Oscar season from our memories? AMPAS has officially brought more queens back from the brink than this year’s season of RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars. Now that the academy has reneged on its plans to snip four categories from the live Oscar telecast, after first attempting damage control and assuring members that it will still run those four awards as not-so-instant replays in edited-down form later on in the show, we can once again turn our attention to the other editing that’s so vexed Film Twitter this Oscar season. We yield the floor to Twitter user Pramit Chatterjee:

Very fuck! The academy would’ve been shooting itself in the foot by not airing what’s starting to feel like one of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories—a category that seems like it’s at the center of ground zero for the voters who, as a fresh New York Times survey of anonymous Oscar ballots confirms, are as unashamedly entertained by a blockbuster that critics called utterly worthless as they are feeling vengeful against those who would dare call a film they loved racist. Interestingly enough, the New York Times’s panel of voters seems palpably aware that Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is the nominee this year that’s going to go down in history as the “right thing” they’ll be embarrassed for not “doing.” No arguments from this corner. Lee’s film is narratively propulsive and knotty in ways that ought to translate into a no-brainer win here. (My cohort Ed recently mused that he’d give the film the Oscar just for the energy it displays cutting back and forth during phone conversations.)

We’re glad that the academy walked back its decision to not honor two of the most crucial elements of the medium (editing and cinematography) on the live Oscar telecast, but what we’re left with is the dawning horror that the formless flailing exemplified by the clip above might actually win this damned award. Guy Lodge sarcastically mused on the upside of Pramit’s incredulous tweet, “I’ve never seen so many people on Twitter discussing the art of film editing before,” and honestly, it does feel like Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody getting publicly dog-walked like this stands to teach baby cinephiles-in-training the language of the cut as well as any of the myriad montages the show producers intended on airing in lieu of, you know, actually awarding craftspeople. But only a fraction of the voting body has to feel sympathy for John Ottman (whose career, for the record, goes all the way back with Bryan Singer), or express admiration that he managed to assemble the raw materials from a legendarily chaotic project into an international blockbuster. The rest of the academy has their ostrich heads plunged far enough into the sand to take care of the rest.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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