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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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Review: Never Fear Is Driven by Its Maker’s Personal Demons

If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Ida Lupino’s own.

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Never Fear
Photo: Eagle-Lion Films/Photofest

In a 1985 interview with DeeDee Halleck conducted at the Chelsea Hotel, filmmaker Shirley Clarke stated that she made films about African-Americans as a way of working through her own ambivalence about being a woman in a male-dominated culture: “I identified with black people because I couldn’t deal with the woman question and I transposed it. I could understand very easily the black problems, and I somehow equated them to how I felt….I always felt alone, and on the outside of the culture that I was in.” One can detect a similar tendency in the work of Ida Lupino, whose independently produced dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s tackled hot-button issues such as rape, bigamy, and unwanted pregnancy. These films are no mere homilies on contemporary social problems, but complex and deeply personal explorations of what it means to be an independent woman in a world ruled by men.

Lupino’s pioneering work is suffused with a profound sense of alienation and self-doubt. Her films are about people whose conventional middle-class existence is suddenly, sometimes violently, upturned, causing them to feel completely unmoored. No longer sure of where they’re going in life or what they truly want, these people find respite away from their old life, in an unfamiliar place with a new potential lover. And Lupino tells these stories with an empathy that’s striking for its directness and lack of condescension.

Such is the case with the first film Lupino directed completely on her own, Never Fear, an emotionally complex drama about a young dancer, Carol (Sally Forrest), who seems to have it all, as she’s just gotten engaged to her partner, Guy (Keefe Brasselle), and their careers are on the verge of taking off. But then, all of sudden she’s stricken with polio, and everything changes. Carol, depressed and bitter, enters a rehab facility where she eventually makes strides toward walking again, thanks in part to the inspiration of a hunky fellow patient named Len (Hugh O’Brian). As Carol struggles with her own will to get better, she grows increasingly distant from Guy, urging him to keep pursuing his dancing career rather than settling down into a conventional job selling pre-fab “Happy Homes” as he waits around for her to recover.

Free of the noir-ish inflections Lupino brought to her other films—most notably The Hitch-Hiker, and the rape sequence in OutrageNever Fear is directed in a simple, straightforward style that bears comparison to the stripped-down neorealism of Roberto Rossellini. Lupino is captivated by the process of physical rehabilitation, offering detailed observations of Carol’s stretching routine, swim therapy, art classes, and, in one show-stopping sequence, a square dance featuring lines of wheelchair-bound patients twirling each other around in consummately choreographed synchrony. Carol is clumsy and awkward as she struggles to operate her wheelchair, a marked contrast to the film’s opening scenes, in which Carol and Guy move together with lithe sophistication as they perform a romantic swashbuckling tango.

Never Fear’s subject matter was personal for Lupino, who survived polio after an attack in 1934. But the filmmaker isn’t merely interested in the physical ailment itself, but also in the complicated pressure that recovery places on Carol. There’s a tension in the film, which was released at the height of the U.S. polio outbreak, between what Carol wants and what the men in her life want for her. When Carol begins to reject her own treatment, it’s in part because she’s rebelling against the expectations that her doctor, her fellow patients, and especially Guy have placed on her. “Be a woman for me,” Guy asks of her, but the demand is counter-productive, as Carol can only truly recuperate when she decides to do it for herself.

In Carol’s dilemma, one can sense Lupino wrestling with her own artistic ambitions, coming to grips with the reality that as the only woman director working within the Hollywood studio system in the ‘50s, she too would have to accept the guidance of the men around her, and in so doing she would be forced to bear the weight of their expectations for her—their demands, hopes, dreams, and pity. Unfortunately, Never Fear closes with a cop-out, a last-minute reconciliation that cheapens Carol’s hard-fought struggle to learn to live on her own terms by suggesting she’s fundamentally lost without a man. Almost as if the film is embarrassed by its own denouement, the final screen assures us, “This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage.” If the film ultimately seems to question Carol’s courage, there’s at least no doubt about Lupino’s own. Never Fear wasn’t the end for her either, but merely the start of one of the most unique and pathbreaking directorial careers in Hollywood history.

Cast: Sally Forrest, Keefe Brasselle, Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Rita Lupino, Herbert Butterfield, Kevin O’Morrison, Stanley Waxman, Jerry Hausner, John Franco Director: Ida Lupino Screenwriter: Ida Lupino, Collier Young Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 1950

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WATCH: Stylish Queer Short Film Stay Makes Its Online Premiere

Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay debuts for free online.

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Stay
Brandon Zuck

Writer-director Brandon Zuck’s sexy and stylish gay thriller Stay made its premiere on the film festival circuit back in 2013, but the L.A.-based filmmaker is finally debuting it for free online. The short film, which Zuck claims is loosely based on events from his past, follows Ash (Brandon Harris) and his ex-boyfriend, Jacks (Julian Brand), on a road trip to the Florida Keys where the pair get mixed up in a fatal drug deal.

“I think maybe I was holding onto the film because it’s such a part of me,” Zuck says about his decision to release Stay on YouTube, which has been criticized by queer creators and organizations like GLAAD for ever-changing content guidelines that appear to target content made by and for LGBT people.

“YouTube started age-restricting my other LGBT films and—to be totally honest—I got furious. YouTube is this faceless behemoth and there’s nothing someone like me can do to fight any of it directly. Really the only thing I could think of was just putting more queer content out there. And Stay was sitting right there on my desktop where it’s always been. So I just hit upload. And it got age-restricted. C’est la vie. Next.”

Watch Stay below:

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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