The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

It’s almost impossible to say anything about Orson Welles’s posthumous bomb-thrower The Other Side of the Wind, positive or negative, that the film doesn’t already say about itself. A notoriously troubled production that only came to completion though Peter Bogdanovich’s stubborn devotion to boosting Welles’s legacy, the film features Bogdanovich as a sycophantic right-hand man to an elderly auteur. A frustrated return to Hollywood filmmaking for Welles after years of European exile, the film features Old Hollywood director John Huston as an elderly auteur struggling to gain backing for his first American production in years, titled The Other Side of the Wind. A collaboration with porn & B-movie cinematographer Gary Graver, it’s a lusciously sleazy affair that cheekily blurs the line between European art film & cheap porno. A messily meta commentary on youthful rebellion & a changing film landscape overrun by New Hollywood upstarts, the film both approximates the same Industry-condemning self-indulgence of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and features Dennis Hopper as himself talking out of his ass about filmmaking philosophy. Caricatures of critic Pauline Kael & New Hollywood producer Robert Evans, who Welles saw as roadblocks to getting this doomed project off the ground, create conflict as the film-within-the-film version of The Other Side of the Wind attempts its first screening to drum up financial support—only for the filmmaker to die at the party before that’s accomplished. For a sprawling, incoherent mess that’s been cooking for four decades solid before finally arriving on Netflix, The Other Side of the Wind is almost impossibly self-aware; it also weaponizes that awareness so that anyone who has ever made (or even seen) a movie is a target.

Another way The Other Side of the Wind feels incredibly self-aware is in the ways it brings Orson Welles’s career full-circle. The director’s legendary debut, Citizen Kane, not only suffered the same troubled path to respect & admiration as what would prove to be his last, but also functions like a documentary profile of a fictional man explained to be larger than life. “A film likeness of the man himself as he looked,” The Other Side of the Wind’s central concern is the psyche of John Huston’s bitter old pervert auteur, frustrated that he has to grovel for funding in a post-Studio System where the New Hollywood rug-rats have taken over. Instead of the birth-to-death portrait of Citizen Kane, however, this film mostly captures the events of a single night, with the details of its subject’s past filled in by partygoers’ gossip & hearsay. In staged found-footage captured on a wide range of cameras, The Other Side of the Wind is supposedly assembled from documentation of the party where the film-within-the-film is meant to be screened, like an arthouse version of the first-season party episode of American Vandal. This fractured structure allows cinematographer Gary Graver to play around with a variety of tones & textures, as if he were filming an especially smutty Guy Maddin picture. It also allows Welles to poke fun at every cinematic archetype – from the Studio System elite to New Hollywood brats to European art snobs – as they swirl around a disaster of a party waiting for The Other Side of the Wind to finally screen. It’s no wonder this film took 40 years to complete; it must have been an editing room nightmare. Still, it opens the floor for Welles to lash out (from beyond the grave) at as many Hollywood phonies as he can strike within a two-hour span, including whichever version of himself is represented in John Huston’s avatar.

The frantic, fractured editing style on display here makes it difficult to latch onto any solid character or narrative definitions, so that the slow, stony baloney movie-within-the movie that interrupts that chaotic party feels like a huge relief. The fake movie in question becomes one of the more intense focal points of the picture, then, which is hilarious because Welles packs it with pornographic smut: naked breasts, cuckolding, bathroom orgies, strap-on dildos, etc. Even in The Other Side of the Wind’s quieter, more thoughtful moments, Welles attacks the audience with the menacing sleaze of a Russ Meyer picture. Of course, he’s aware of his own indulgences in smut here, and the screenings of the movie-within-the-movie often cross-cut to John Huston’s peeping-Tom auteur intensely licking his lips, gazing at the prurient glory of his own work. This meta commentary on Welles’s own pervy interests in those sequences is only compounded by his casting of his real-life young lover Oja Kodar as the star of the psychedelic art-house porno, billed simply as The Actress. Part of me wishes that the entirety of the movie were dedicated to feature-length parody of pornographic art-house pretension in this style, as the filmmaking craft of the fake Other Side of the Wind is much more pleasurable to watch than the frantic satire of the real one (although even the party scenes recall Russ Meyer’s rapid-fire editing style in films like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). For me, the relentless sketch comedy-like humor of the party scenes wears a little thin in the second hour, but the smutty art house psychedelia parody of the movie screening at their party remains potent throughout. I suspect Welles’s own interests were also more . . . aroused by the sensory pleasures of those sequences as well.

I’m not sure the second hour of The Other Side of the Wind fully lives up to the promise of its first, as it’s difficult to care too deeply about a story meant to disorient & frustrate its audience at that length. Even that complaint is addressed in the film’s script, however, both in screening room scenes where the continuity of the movie-within-the-movie is explained to be not quite the mess it appears to be, and in the question posed to the fictional auteur, “If the audience can’t get it, why even go to the movie?” That question plays as a jab both at the creator and at the public, as The Other Side of the Wind can find no shortage of enemies in Welles’s expressed frustrations with an industry that had essentially abandoned him. John Huston’s character is detailed to be far from a saint – exploiting women (and sometimes men) he’s attracted to for both professional & personal pleasure, treating little people as novelty objects, and just generally acting like a drunken asshole who believes the world of himself and little of anything else. There’s certainly some self-laceration detectable in that portrait of a despicable auteur the world has left behind, but it’s a critique that extends to all selfish, self-aggrandizing men who have shared his profession – from Russ Meyer to Antonioni. The Other Side of the Wind is both critic & participant, both weapon & target. It’s both incredibly flawed & incredibly aware of those shortcomings, easily making for one of the most fascinating & storied releases of the year—just not the most wholly satisfying one. Even if you somehow walk away from The Other Side of the Wind as frustrated with its stops & starts as Welles did, you still have to admire the picture for all its go-for-broke smutty audacity and its drunken willingness to throw a punch.

-Brandon Ledet

The Last Movie (1971)

After the breakout success of his debut film Easy Rider, Hollywood had immense, naïve faith in Dennis Hopper. Along with other late-60s game changers like Bonnie and Clyde & The Graduate, Easy Rider was one of the foundational texts of the New Hollywood movement, convincing producers that Hopper had the formula for a new kind of cinematic alchemy that could turn bargain-budget countercultural angst into buffo box office. It was this blind faith in Hopper’s money-making instincts that convinced Universal Pictures to allow him a long creative leash & a $1 million budget to film whatever project he wanted in his chosen location of the Peruvian mountains. It took two years of drugged-out haze & frustrated artistic hubris for Hopper to scrape together a cohesive first-cut of his sophomore feature, which he then destroyed when friend/mentor Alejandro Jodorowsky teased him for being a convention-bound coward. With a newly-charged ambition to break new cinematic ground (and amuse his own tragically stoned mind) Hopper cobbled together a much less straight-forward edit, one with zero commercial appeal. The Last Movie was a notorious flop, a commercial misfire that derailed Dennis Hopper’s career for more than a decade and has since had a long, hard-fought road to minor cult status. A new 4k digital restoration of the orphaned, little loved vanity project is now making the theatrical rounds for a second go, testing whether it was a secretly misunderstood, ahead-of-its-time masterpiece or the drug-addled ramblings of a power-mad ego whose ambitions had outsized their means. The verdict, of course, is that it falls somewhere in-between.

I was outright shocked by how much I appreciated The Last Movie, if not only because I’m largely cold on the cinematic titans it’s most closely comparable to: Jodorowsky, Easy Rider, any Malickian storytelling-though-editing picture you can name. I’m unsure that it would have the same potency in a home viewing, where it’s much easier for the mind to wander, but confronted with it on the big screen I was mesmerized. Admittedly, its central narrative is an incomprehensible jumble that only becomes clear minutes before the end credits (and only with the help of a few sentences of plot synopsis to guide the mental configuration of its strewn-about jigsaw pieces). Still, every disconnected image & jarring edit feels purposeful to the themes & tone of what Hopper was trying to accomplish, where they could just as easily have been for-their-own-sake indulgences (which is the sense I get from typical works by Jodorowsky & Malick). Considering its premise and the amount of confidence & money behind Hopper at the time, I fully expected The Last Movie to be a macho, self-aggrandizing act of modern colonialism where a director pilfered & exploited “local color” in Peru under the guise of making Important Art. Instead, the film is a self-lacerating critique of that exact monstrous attitude. The Last Movie plays as if Hopper realized mid-production that the film he was making was actively, directly harming Peruvian people and the discovery broke his mind. Watching the film for the first time, I got the sense that it may not actually have been Jodorowsky that convinced Hopper to derail his own career with this incomprehensible, self-sabotaging mess; it plays as if Hopper was filming his own epiphany that the movies were an inherently evil, exploitative business that he desperately wanted to exit.

The events are cyclical & out of sync, so no synopsis could fully do the story justice, but The Last Movie is more or less about a disenchanted Hollywood stunt man (Hopper) who drops out of the film industry after seeing the damage it causes Peruvian locals, yet remains haunted by its consequences all the same. A fellow stunt man dies while shooting a scene for a movie biography of Billy the Kid (as directed by Sam Fuller, practically playing himself). The industry dries up in Peru after that accident, but Hopper & the locals who stay behind in its wake are driven mad by the memory of the death. Hopper continues his colonizer role in a toxic romance with a local sex worker, only to be later shown exactly what that feels like by a wealthy white woman who holds financial power over him. Locals who worked on the Billy the Kid set strive to stage their own rendition of the script left behind by Fuller’s crew; only the violence they perform isn’t at all faked and puts everyone nearby in danger, especially Hopper. Everyone drinks to the point of perpetual blackout, confusing what’s real & what’s movie-making artifice, often to the point of meta-textual self-damnation. The camera’s POV is confused with a prop camera the locals make out of bamboo & adopt as a religious symbol. The real local church is abandoned for the prop church constructed for the movie set. Mountainous landscapes are covered up by tapestries depicting mountainous landscapes. Movies have made everything in the village fake, hedonistic, and empty; the only thing left that’s real is the lethal consequences of the violence staged for the mock cinema. The guilt of that social breakdown weighs on Hopper’s mind like a war crime.

The Last Movie isn’t always a pleasant watch; Hopper often overwhelms the soundtrack with a collection of the most annoying sounds imaginable: bells, jackhammers, screaming babies, moans, off-rhythm violins. That aural chaos always feels purposeful, though, especially when it’s echoed in the chaos of wrangling hundreds of crewmembers on a film set or a drunken Hollywood party or a town left in shambles once that party leaves & the money dries up. Hopper also acknowledges the narrative chaos of his jumbled editing by prominently featuring the script supervisor’s continuity concerns on the set of Billy the Kid. As frustrating as the sequencing of sound & imagery (the building blocks of cinema) can be in the moment to moment rhythms, their cumulative effect is directly tied to the film’s overall central theme: Hopper’s growing disenchantment & outright hostility towards moviemaking as an industry. After Easy Rider, Hollywood gave him complete freedom to do whatever he wanted wherever he wanted, and he chose this self-flagellating, career-sabotaging vanity project in the mountains of Peru. The shot from The Last Movie that most haunts me is a documentarian stroll through a Peruvian open-air market, where local merchants shyly cover their faces as the camera films them without permission. I get the sense that the guilt of that act weighed heavily on Hopper as well, as the film overall appears like a desperate attempt to escape an industry that feels increasingly exploitative & destructive to the supposed radicals who were given newfound freedom to run it at the start of the New Hollywood movement. The Last Movie may be the failure that derailed Dennis Hopper’s career, but that’s exactly what makes it a success.

-Brandon Ledet

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

campstamp

There are few films, campy or otherwise, that better exemplify the fine wine rule than Super Mario Bros. The first & only live action Nintendo adaptation continuously gets better with age & I fall further under its intoxicating spell every time I watch it. This is a box office bomb critics have long slammed as definitive proof that video game adaptations are an inherently bad idea, but those marks against its character matter less with every passing year. Super Mario Bros. is a cartoonish fantasy comedy that somehow, unfathomably marries elements of Blade Runner, Jurassic Park, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? into one unholy cacophony of cinematic cheese & bloat. I marvel at this film’s sheer audacity every time I watch it, just as I find myself continually reeling from its grocery store joke book humor in the exact same breath. Without the pressure for Super Mario Bros. to prove or disprove that a video game adaptation could possibly be worthwhile (there’s now a crowded field of examples to swing that conversation either way you want it to go), the film has found a nice, comfortable space of its own as a cult-worthy camp fest. It’s thoroughly ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous in a fun & above all memorable way that dares you to sour on its 90s relic antics, but never gives you a solid reason to. Super Mario Bros. is a great film. It’s a little sad that three decades later it still feels a little transgressive to say so.

The only video game imagery that graces the screen in Super Mario Bros. is an opening prologue featuring pixelated dinosaurs in a fictional version of reality where the force of the meteor that extinguished the dinos & started the Ice Age created an alternate dimension in which humans evolved from reptiles instead of apes. If that doesn’t sound like a video game to you, much less the plumber-and-princess adventure game that iconically defines the medium, that’s because this movie is floating in its own bizarre orbit lightyears outside the property it’s supposedly adapting. There are video game-type dinos in that opening prologue, though, which proves that the husband-wife directorial team that helmed this major studio disaster are aware that Super Mario Bros. previously existed as a game with its own characters, motivations, and basic aesthetic. They just chose to ignore all that in favor of their own bonkers sense of whimsy, a fantasy realm that calls into question whether or not they’re also aware that there’s no possible way that the dino-killing meteor crash site could’ve been in Brooklyn or that a reptilian-evolved humanity would be so different from our primate selves that they’d be almost entirely unrecognizable as humans at all. No matter. This is a big budget kids’ fantasy adventure at heart, so its faithfulness to video game lore or basic science is almost entirely beside the point in the question of its entertainment value.

There are, admittedly, a few details of the Super Mario Bros. film that vaguely resemble their video game source material. They at least included some of the same characters: Mario & Luigi are Italian plumbers from Brooklyn, NY, which feels about as faithful to their video game visages as you can get. Princess Peach is now Princess Daisy for some unexplained reason, but it’s a mild change at best and the boys still have to venture out to rescue her from the reptilian clutches of an evil monarch named Koopa, which is more or less where the video game’s narrative begins & ends. Other details begin to get a lot fuzzier, though. Instead of being a giant, scary turtle-dragon motherfucker that lives in a castle full of lava, Koopa looks an awful lot like Dennis Hopper doing a dead on impersonation of Donald Trump (complete with the gaudy tower & political grandstanding). Toad is the furthest from his original form, ditching his miniature guru looks from the game in favor of a delightfully out-of-place, full-sized Mojo Nixon singing dumb protest songs about King Koopa on street corners. Staying faithful to the video game can be a double edged sword, though, as is exemplified by the baby dino Yoshi, who is cute as a button in this film, but also much more along the lines of Jurassic Park-type dinosaur puppets than what his video game creators likely intended. One of the reasons Super Mario Bros. stands out as such enjoyable schlock is that it embraces this damned if you do, damned if you don’t mentality whole-heartedly and just runs wild with the freedom adapting a video game with a very thin backstory affords it. It includes just enough characters & visual cues to resemble the Super Mario Bros. game at a glance, but does anything but keep it safe in the way it fleshes out their universe.

The most common argument against cinematic video game adaptations is that they necessitate a backstory where none is truly needed. No one playing the Super Mario Bros. game is likely to care exactly how or why the princess they’re rescuing was captured by an evil dino turtle dragon; they just hop in the green pipes & smash the mushroom-shaped baddies that get in the way of saving her. A movie requires a little more narrative coddling & a lot of the fun of Super Mario Bros. is in tracking how it either stays faithful to the game’s basic layout or disregards it completely on a minute to minute basis. The film is confident enough in its own right to exist as a standalone property that it ditches the fantasy genre brick & mortar castles of the video game for a distinct Blade Runner-style of urban dystopia. However, it also bends over backwards to include a way for Koopa’s guards to shoot the video game’s fireballs or make sense out of the role mushrooms & fungus have to play in all this (in the shape of a hideous fungal life form that would give Cronenberg nightmares). In some ways the film completely runs wild, like in its creation of an alternate dimension where the entire globe is one vast desert outside a single metropolis or in its de-evolution weapons that can turn people “back” into lizards. There’s also a few areas of compromise between the two extremes, like an inclusion of goombas that makes them out to be de-evolved lizard people instead of tiny mushroom monsters so that both properties can get equal representation. Super Mario Bros. plays along just enough to pass as a video game adaptation, but takes tremendous glee in constructing its own over-the-top fantasy realm where lizard people fight over a dino dictator’s crumbs & dance “Thriller” video-knockoff routines to bullshit like “Everybody Do the Dinosaur.” It’s an insane spectacle from front to end and because it feels little need to stay close to its source material’s limited backstory beyond its basic sketch and it’s a pleasantly unique spectacle at that.

Divorced from its source material, Super Mario Bros. is barrels of vapid fun. I honestly believe there are few children’s films from its era that match it in terms of ambitious set design, campy humor, and pure, directionless inanity. A lot of the film’s charms are a credit to the performances of Bob Hoskins & John Leguizamo as Mario Mario & Luigi Mario (speaking of video game background info that didn’t need to be developed), as well as Hopper’s Koopa-Trump & Harry Potter’s wicked aunt, Fiona Shaw, as his soul-sucking sidekick. Hoskins in particular is pretty great as the titular plumber & I honestly believe this film is his best work outside his iconic turn in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It’s way too easy to buy Hoskins as a spaghetti-slurping Brooklynite, to the point where I’m never truly convinced that the now-deceased actor actually hailed from Britain. Besides the cartoonish performances from the cast, I also appreciate how intricately detailed its production design can be. There’s a consistency in the leather spikes fashion wear that seem so popular in Koopa’s alternate dimension Brooklyn & I’m always picking up on new, small details hiding elsewhere in the fake city’s dingy nooks & crannies: Mario’s NYC apartment features a plunger rack instead of a gun rack; there are tiny lizard rodents fighting over the city’s plentiful trash; the de-evolution chamber is operated by a Duck Hunt controller; Mario & his girlfriend have plans to attend WrestleMania; a run-down cinema is screening I Was a Teenage Mammal, etc. Then there’s the now-disturbing shot of the Twin Towers partly dissolving thanks to Koopa’s evil deeds, an image that looks strikingly similar to a real life tragedy from a decade after this film’s release. As much fun as these grimy details can be, however, this is still just a silly children’s media fantasy, a fact that becomes apparent when everything magically, inexplicably reverts back to normal once Koopa is defeated (in a moment punctuated by Mario delivering the glorious one-liner “Later, alligator” to the evil, reptilian brute).

It’s a shame that Super Mario Bros. was scorned for its absurd deviations from its paper thin source material in its time. In the decades since it’s become increasingly apparent that devotion to its video game roots would have left the film far more mild & forgettable that it ended up being by learning to cut the kite strings & float on its own over-the-top, over-budget inanity. This is one remarkably silly movie and it’s amazing that it ever managed to reach theaters in the first place. My only complaint at this point is that it teased a sequel that never arrived because audiences were more than eager to let it die on arrival. Continuing down this absurd path could’ve lead to something even more amusing & special had audiences given it the chance.

-Brandon Ledet