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Drama Movies Reviews

Review: The Other Side of the Wind

Distributor: Netflix

Director: Orson Welles

Writers: Orson Welles & Oja Kodar

Composer: Michel Legrand

Genre: Drama

Starring: John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Cameron Mitchell, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Bob Random, Lilli Palmer, Edmond O’Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Paul Stewart, Gregory Sierra, Tonio Selwart, Dan Tobin, John Carroll, Stafford Repp, Joseph McBride

Rating: R

When Orson Welles began his directing career his first motion picture became the highest praised film in the history. For the rest of his life, he lived under the massive shadow of that victory as he struggled to find support for his late period works like The Trial and Chimes at Midnight. Thanks in part to Netflix we now have the opportunity to watch what was considered one of Welles’ lost masterpieces.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A girl holds a knife to a boy.

Language/Crude Humor: Significant language including f***, s***, and multiple blasphemies.

Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink and smoke heavily.

Sexual Content: Significant female nudity throughout, one graphic sex scene, discussions of sex.

Spiritual Content: Some snide references to religion.

Other Negative Content: Implied pedophilia in one scene.

Review

If Citizen Kane represents the fruitful start of Orson Welle’s prolific film career then The Other Side of the Wind represents the diminishing end. Welles started life as a famous, attractive, beloved celebrity with the world at his fingertips and ended it exiled, indebted, and iconoclastic. After nearly two decades making films in Europe and scratching by on meager financial support, the one-time creator of the greatest film in Hollywood history returned to his former stomping grounds in 1970. He entered Hollywood in what many consider a golden age of the industry. From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s the studio system had broken down so utterly that they’d been forced to take massive creative risks to stay afloat.

As a result, a brand new generation of young, radical filmmakers took the reins and created a slate of motion pictures ranging in tone, complexity, and artistry from 2001, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and The Deer Hunter to high-concept blockbusters like Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman. This was the perfect moment for Welles to galavant through the industry’s doors and start making demands. Instead, he did the opposite. He turned his attention to a smaller, low-budget, and highly-ambitious excoriation of that same industry that had once held him up so high. He was, as ever, a self-described maverick and one not inclined to bend a knee to the money changers.

The Other Side of the Wind became his obsession. Without the proper backing and financing Hollywood traditionally afforded the movie became the most famous tumultuous production in history. Over the course of 1970 to 1976, the film did principle photography across California and Arizona at multiple locations, utilizing student filmmakers and often playing fast and loose with permits. Welles had to continually stop and start the production at the behest of his ability to self-finance by taking acting jobs on the side.

The film was co-conceived with cinematographer Gary Graver who himself had sought out the elderly Welles while he was staying at a local hotel and was immediately embraced by the master. Welles considered it good luck on the grounds that his last cinematographer Greg Toland had sought him out and embraced Graver. However, Graver didn’t have Toland’s backlog. He primarily made his money by shooting softcore films to make ends meet but when Welles gave him the opportunity for a big break he jumped in feet first.

As the production neared completion Welles sought desperate help from all sorts of financiers and found an unlikely partner in the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. Matters took a turn for the worse when the Iranian Revolution threw the royal family into chaos and resulted in the film’s negatives being locked indefinitely in a French vault for what ended up being nearly forty years. Welles died in 1985 before he could cobble together the nearly 100 hours of footage and Gary Graver subsequently attempted to piece the film together but he too passed away before he could finish. It was clear to those surviving inheritors of the Welles estate as well as surviving crew that the film would need a much larger push to bring Welles’ final creation to the screen. Three years ago, they found a possible answer.

In May of 2015, the surviving crew and members of the Welles estate launched an Indiegogo campaign asking for $2 million to finance the film’s restoration. I myself contributed $50 to the campaign in an effort to show my support to what I deemed a valuable artistic endeavor. Despite massive contributions from multiple members of the Hollywood establishment the campaign ultimately failed and only managed to secure less than $500,000. While the wheels of progress had slowed the campaign didn’t stop behind closed doors.

Within two years the team had managed to secure an additional $5 million in funding from Netflix to begin the monumental restoration task. At long last, the film’s post-production went underway in March 2017. Helmed by The Hurt Locker editor Bob Murawski and overseen by former Welles associates like Peter Bogdanovich, the year-long process of sorting and scanning film and editing and composing The Other Side of the Wind went into action. The goal was to have the film prepped by spring of 2018 to make the qualification for the Cannes Film Festival but it ultimately didn’t compete due to a last-minute rule change excluding films distributed by streaming services.

Netflix released The Other Side of the Wind on November 2nd, accompanied by a pair of documentaries about its production. A Final Cut for Orson depicted the post-production process, the difficulties inherited by the post-production teams, and the fascinating solutions the team turned to overcome the massive hurtles of editing so much raw footage. The second documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, comes from documentarian Morgan Neville whose fresh off of his recent success earlier this year with Won’t You Be My Neighbor and his previous successes with The Best of Enemies and 20 Feet From Stardom. He based his documentary on Josh Karp’s excellent novel Orson Welles’ Last Film. Both are vital and excellent companion pieces that paint the depths and difficulties of the work and its troubled production processes in their fullness. The film took 48 years to complete and outlived its creator and now fans of the greatest director in history can finally see it.

The Otherside of the Wind is a scathing indictment of the contemporary new Hollywood of the 1970s. So much of film culture in the wake of the destruction of old Hollywood had been to lionize the idea of the auteur filmmaker. The auteur theory in filmmaking suggested that the way to properly analyze and digest a film was to consider it the full embodiment of the director’s vision. The director ought to be recognized as the sole artist at the driver’s seat of a massive production whose will dictates every frame that the viewer ultimately comes to watch.

This was a philosophy Welles never agreed with. Welles looked back on his successes as collaborative in nature. He knew just how intelligent and capable he was but he never took sole credit for his accomplishments. The Otherside of the Wind was Welles’s attempt to lay his philosophy of filmmaking bare. The story reveals the fullness of what we come to understand as a once great Hemmingway-esque director in the final hours of his life as an elderly suicidal fool, a misogynist, and a man suffering from deep existential anxieties that may or may not have ultimately driven him to alcoholism and suicide.

The movie starts on a brief narration by the man we come to know as that great director’s protege looking back on the one time master in the aftermath of what we come to understand was a fatal car crash. The framing device is that of a mockumentary depicting the last day of this legendary director’s life. Peter Bogdanovich, the man who in real life was Welles’ protege and close friend, narrating adds a fascinating layer to the film. The original plan was for Welles to deliver the speech but he never recorded it in time. Changing a few lines of dialog allowed for opening exposition to ring with a sadness and nostalgia founded in the real-life tragedy. The speech itself is vital to the movie’s context. We’re supposed to understand that everything that happens in the story is colored by the fact that the main character would be dead within a few hours. It’s made intentionally vague as to whether Jake’s death is an accident or suicide but that’s part of the point.

While the recontextualized speech suggests that this is a movie about the relationship between a protege and his master, the lead character, named Jake Hannaford’s, actual connection to Orson Welles is questionable. Welles stated that Jake was never intended to be a stand-in for himself. There’s some evidence to this in that the actual Orson Welles was a far more gentle soul than his megalomaniacal reputation permitted. That being said it’s generally considered that Jake is a pretty naked stand-in for Welles in some aspects of his life. Both were exiled American great filmmakers who fled to Europe and returned to Hollywood in the 1970s. Both had significant money troubles. Both were womanizers and egotists.

Whatever the truth is meant to be from Orson, Hannaford’s role in the story proper is clear. He’s an ugly, depressive, and self-destructive soul on his last legs as his indulgent and disturbingly revealing art-film flounders without proper financing. Hannaford is portrayed by John Huston who began his career as the director of classic films like The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Big Sleep, and The African Queen.

He was a man’s man of a director and regularly partnered with Humphrey Bogart on pictures together at the height of their careers. He was also a famous drunk who once mutually avoided suffering from a malaria outbreak during the production of The African Queen due to him and Bogart’s rampant drinking. Neither of them drank water for the entirety of their trip. The rest of the cast and crew did. Huston’s penchant for alcoholism combined with his character’s damaged masculinity creates a unique and melancholic performance rooted in the tragic downfall of a once great artist.

The film’s documentary style offers us some of the most interesting insights into the presentation. We come to see it in one of two styles as it is presented largely in a combination of different camera formats brought about by the real world limitations Welles’ grappled with as a low-budget filmmaker. Since what we’re seeing is supposedly just archival footage of Jake’s last day on earth it is grainy and claustrophobic. The actors even lampshade the trope by calling attention to the overly large number of people walking around his house with cameras. Despite being dually a wrap party and a birthday celebration for Jake the characters occasionally poke fun at the gratuitous number of camera operators by calling out just how unlikely some of the camera placements are. Some of the best laughs come from the camera cutting to seeing another cameraman sitting in an awkward position adamantly taping the situations.

The style completely shifts during the segments dedicated to the movie within the movie segments where we get to see snippets of Jake’s exploitation art film presented. These scenes range from some of the most psychedelic and engrossing moments into some of the creepiest. Late in the story for one we are forced to endure an intimate love scene film shoot wherein the set audio had yet to be replaced so all of the romantic caressings of the characters is commented upon by the creepy elderly voice of the director egging the couple on. It’s clear that the film is a largely naked expression of Jake’s sexual insecurities and desires and seeing them play out at times gets rather uncomfortable. For these scenes, the film’s style changes completely from the claustrophobic grain of the mockumentary footage to widescreen technicolor. It’s as though Jake’s protege is cutting between the footage of his master’s lost film and the archival footage of the night in question in real time.

In a documentary entitled The Lost Pictures of Orson Welles, Welles’ former lover Oja Kodar described her one-time artistic partner and lover as “the wind.” To her, he was a force of nature. The Other Side of the Wind is a movie about a director who makes a movie called The Otherside of the Wind where he displays the fullness of his insecurities and dies before he completed the film. Orson Welles in an act of unintentional hubris lived out this prophetic story, dying before his work was finished and leaving behind him a film that offered the fullness of his life laid bare. Welles believed he existed to make great art and frequently suffered the indignity of irrelevance.

With his final film, we see another shade of the man that we lost with his death. We see a flawed, sad man facing down the cruelty of life as he buried himself in his vices and watch the accomplishments he built around him crumble for reasons both in and out of his control. As the cliche saying goes, the greatest story Welles ever told was his own. He had a remarkable way of capturing his life in his art. This film is a once in a lifetime accomplishment of love and affection resurrected by people who fought for decades to make it happen. The Other Side of the Wind is a masterpiece and the best film of 2018.

Categories
Drama Movies Reviews

Retro Review: Citizen Kane

Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures

Director: Orson Welles

Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles

Composer: Bernard Herrmann

Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Everett Sloane, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Agnes Moorehead, Paul Stewart, Ruth Warrick, Erskine Sanford, William Alland

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG

One time superstar, radio host, and Shakespearian actor broke into Hollywood in 1941 with the release of what many people have come to consider the greatest film of all time. Seventy-seven years later and it still holds up as one of the most important films in the history of the film medium.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: One transition paired with a loud bird squeak.

Language/Crude Humor: One character says “darn.”

Drug/Alcohol References: Casual smoking/drinking.

Sexual Content: Severally scantily clad women, a character has an off-screen affair.

Spiritual Content: No major references to religion.

Other Negative Content: None.

Positive Content: Negative depiction of spousal abuse, adultery, corruption, and greed.

Review

Citizen Kane has garnered one of the most consistent and vital reputations in the history of film. It’s rare that something can so easily be declared the greatest example of its medium and yet nearly from the outset of its birth and upon generation after generation of evaluation and discussion the film has become immortalized as the greatest accomplishment of an entire medium. That’s impossibly high praise and some that many directors would likely contest. Many directors have produced works of near importance and similar depth and artistic value.

Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and dozens of other vital filmmakers have created works of near similar stature that deserve more attention than they regularly receive outside of the hallowed halls of film criticism. The genius of some of Welles’ other films is often lost in comparison to Citizen Kane with brilliant films like Touch of Evil, The Trial, and Chimes at Midnight going widely underappreciated. Yet here it stands with the proudest and most deserved title in the history of the form. Citizen Kane may very well be the greatest film in history.

This coming week brings with it the release of one of the most important films of all time. Orson Welles’ final film Other Side of The Wind is being released to Netflix. The film has been entrapped in legal red tape since Orson Welles’ death in 1985 and was only near completion at the time of his death, meaning that the remaining footage and audio needed to be organized and put through post-production before the film could be made even presentable. Now that the film’s been complete, partially through its 2015 Indiegogo Campaign and partially through assistance from Netflix, it remains to be seen how the film’s release will be marked.

For now, I wish to poetically change pace. If Other Side of the Wind represents the end of Orson Welles’ career then Citizen Kane definitely represents its beginning. Let’s go back and see how that career started and what it meant. All of that said, I’m very hesitant to talk about Citizen Kane. The film represents a veritable minefield. Every subject from its writing, to its cinematography, to its editing, to the production history is a hole deep and worthy of diving into merely to glimpse at its maze of complexity. I’m afraid I might undersell the fullness of Citizen Kane‘s fascinations.

The history is where lies the key to understanding the context of what Citizen Kane was to its generation. By 1941, Orson Welles was a veritable superstar personality. His infamous War of the Worlds radio-drama was behind him and he’d gained rounded across the country for both his impressive work as a radio announcer reading for radio-dramas like The Shadow. He’d also gained renown as a well-established Shakespearian actor working with the Mercy Theater in New York City. There he staged famous and widely topical productions such as a Julius Caesar set in a fascist state and an all-black production of Macbeth. The name of Orson Welles was a national icon and a protege of the stage.

Hollywood wanted in on the action and approached him in 1939 to come to Los Angeles and work for RKO Radio Pictures. The 25-year-old wunderkind was given an unprecedented contract that afforded the novice filmmaker an unheard of level of creative control. The studio system at the time was known for its rigidity and inflexibility. Giving complete power to Orson Welles was an enormous gamble and one never before seen. Welles would describe the free reign and power he possessed as “the largest train set a kid ever received.

Welles immediately began to prepare himself for the task of building a major studio film from scratch with total control. Initially, he placed scriptwriting duties in the hands of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (brother of Joseph Mankiewicz who wrote All About Eve). Welles became enwrapped in learning the business of filmmaking. He sat with cinematographer Gregg Toland and began learning the processes of filmmaking. Of all the filmmakers he sought mentorship from the one he found his most influence in was the works of legendary Hollywood director John Ford. Toland had collaborated with Ford on his most recent films The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home and accompanied Welles through the early stages of learning the nature of the business. Welles famously sat in one of the screening rooms at RKO for weeks on end watching and rewatching John Ford’s classic Stagecoach to dissect the film and learn from it.

After months upon months of waiting for Mankiewicz, Welles took stock of his progress on hundreds of pages of a script titled The American which loosely resembled the final product of what Citizen Kane would eventually develop into. Here Orson Welles put one of his greatest skills into action. Welles was one of the greatest condensers of stories born into the 20th century. He once famously condensed Shakespeare’s Hamlet, normally a four-hour play into a half-hour radio drama. Welles set to work organizing and condensing the hundreds of pages of ideas and nonsense Mankiewicz had developed until he found himself with the tighter, more manageable final script.

The story Welles and Mankiewicz conceived together was, in theory, a rather unconventional one. Structurally it’s rather awkwardly told. Information isn’t dolled out by the actions of characters so much as it is gradually discovered and reimagined by a group of people who remember the central character of Charles Foster Kane in the aftermath of his death. His life was grand and tumultuous and we see much of the breadth of a great man through the eyes of his family, business associates, and friends. As such, the film isn’t structured around a group of characters with personality and motivation. The investigators researching the man that was Kane are doing this because it’s their job. For most of the film, they’re relegated to the shadows, merely images of men walking down hallways or sitting behind the camera of interviews listening to men describe the personality of Kane.

Our investment as the audience comes from our desperate desire to learn more about this alluring and tragic figure that is Kane. We want to know what his dying word means and that drives the film forward more than anything else. Toland’s cinematography embraces the depth his shooting style affords him to place Kane and the people he loves/hates/talks within different depths in the frame. His shooting style had become famous for its revolutionary use of deep focus shooting that gave nearly everything in the frame a perfect focused look was new and here it’s used perfectly. This is a story about people remembering, connecting, and disconnecting from one man and gradual separation is one of the film’s constant visual motifs.

For all its strengths and innovations through the film nearly didn’t finish production. As the film neared completion, RKO found itself under fierce media scrutiny from media mogul William Randolph Hurst who correctly surmised that elements of the film’s story were based on his life and that the film was viciously satirizing him. He wasn’t going to allow some mere movie to not-so-quietly besmirch the image of one of 1941’s largest political voices. The film’s central character of Charles Foster Kane was a media mogul whose quest for power and love caused him to make friends with bad people, betray those he loved, and attempted to drown himself in wealth and control over others. As far as satire goes it was a pretty clear analog for Hurst at the time. It’s even guessed in some contexts that the film’s titular quote “rosebud” was an inappropriate jab for a nickname that he used in one of Hurst’s adulterous relationships designed to directly call out.

When Hurst found out about the film he went to war with RKO Pictures. He offered to buy the whole film and have it burned. The film was subsequently ridiculed and dragged through the mud across dozens of newspapers. Citizen Kane’s release was delayed and ultimately when it did premiere it severely underperformed and wasn’t shown publicly again for years outside of arthouse theaters that kept their prints. While the film’s lambasting of Herst may seem harsh the film ultimately portrays him as a tragic figure. We come to see Charles Foster Kane as a man in full even though the film meditates on whether that’s even possible. He’s a man who inherited great wealth, power, and talent from numerous places, used that ability to attempt to shape the world before the power eventually consumed him.

While the film’s ire was clear there’s a strong case to be made for just how much the film near prophetically runs parallel to Welles’ own life. The life of Orson Welles had his career trajectory planted him at the starting line as an unquestionably brilliant mind before gradually throwing him into exile, public embarrassment, and disregard for largely arbitrary reasons. As Welles himself said in F for Fake, “I began at the top and I’ve been working my way down ever since.” He would never fully have the privileges that Hollywood afforded again. His subsequent films The Magnificient Ambersons and Touch of Evil would be mutilated and reshot in post-production and Welles’s eventually self-exiled to Europe to make films privately.

If there’s one true lesson that anyone should walk away from Citizen Kane it’s that cinema isn’t a one-man show. Later in life, Orson Welles would become an outspoken critic of auteur theory, that being the idea that a director is the sole credited creative voice for a film. When Welles first arrived in Hollywood, he quickly set to work building his inner circle of reliable creative minds capable of assisting him along the path to success. He made friends with the Hollywood elite, brought his fellow Mercy Theater actors with him to star in his film, fell back on the advice of industry experts, and generally worked with the team he created. He was the driver and his talents gave him the mindset to innovate where others hadn’t conceived to but he never took sole credit for Citizen Kane. In fact, he later criticized the film for what he perceived as minute technical imperfections.

One scene he particularly hated was where the camera accidentally caught a brief glimpse at his girlfriend’s bracelet he’d been gifted and was wearing under his costume during the shoot. Late in his life he much preferred his later European films like The Trial and Chimes at Midnight. Either way, Citizen Kane to him wasn’t something that totally belonged to him entirely. The film was a group effort of the greatest filmmakers and storytellers coming together for a rare moment of perfection.