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

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 29: The Third Man (1949)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Third Man (1949) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] The Third Man is about two people who do the right thing and can never speak to each other as a result.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The Third Man reflects the optimism of Americans and the bone-weariness of Europe after the war. It’s a story about grownups and children: Adults like Calloway, who has seen at first hand the results of Lime’s crimes, and children like the trusting Holly, who believes in the simplified good and evil of his Western novels. The Third Man is like the exhausted aftermath of Casablanca. Both have heroes who are American exiles, awash in a world of treachery and black market intrigue. Both heroes love a woman battered by the war. But Casablanca is bathed in the hope of victory, while The Third Man already reflects the Cold War years of paranoia, betrayal and the Bomb.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.

I was hoping to redeem myself after my relatively muted response to Casablanca by falling head over heels for its British mystery thriller descendant The Third Man, which seems equally lauded as One of the Greatest Films of All Time. The Third Man boasts the same fast talking, hard drinking, manly noir efficiency of Casablanca, although its depressive post-war exhaustion is tonally different from the Humphrey Bogart classic’s wartime unease. I found myself technically impressed, but emotionally disengaged by both works, unable to echo their set-in-stone praise as the best of what cinema has to offer. I suppose the film’s dizzying Dutch angles and classic noir attention to lighting are largely what elevate it above most pulpy mysteries that were being produced in its era, but that visual flair only took me so far as a modern audience. The Third Man is undeniably a well-made film in terms of craft, but I’m failing to connect with it as an essential, rewarding cinematic experience.

An American pulp novelist arrives in a post-war Austria looking to meet with a dear old friend, Harry Lime. He discovers that Harry Lime has died in a suspicious car accident, where everyone at the scene knew the man personally in some way. Especially disturbed by the report of an unidentified “third man” present at the scene, the American novelist embarks on a vigilante mission that mirrors the kind of genre fluff he writes for a living. In the process he learns some shocking, damning things about Harry Lime’s post-war racketeering and makes the mistake of falling in love with Lime’s girlfriend, who remains true to him even in death & among accusations of his unscrupulous racketeering (which lead to many more deaths). Harry Lime becomes a sort of mythic legend during this investigation, both in the exposure of his crimes & in the endless repetition of his name. The mystery of how he died is gradually swapped out for the mystery of who he was as a person, a question that only can be answered in the grimmest of terms.

Besides its forward-thinking (and sideways-leaning) cinematography, I suspect The Third Man is a movie remembered mostly as a collection of iconic moments, the same way Casablanca plays like a greatest hits collection of Old Hollywood dialogue. Some of these moments worked especially well for me, including a movie-stealing speech from a maniacal Orson Welles in the third act and a couple chase scenes that lead to unexpected hideouts like a Ferris wheel or a movie theater or an applauding literary audience. Occasionally, though, I’d have to scratch my head over the movie’s reputation, like when the most shrill, annoying child actor in the history of shrill, annoying child actors accuses our American makeshift gumshoe of murder in a piercing whine. I was also confused by the praise of the film’s zither soundtrack, which gives it the comedic shrug of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, completely cutting the tension of watching our protagonist get in major trouble by asking too many questions. Ebert went out of his way to praise the zither’s influence on the film, writing “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s The Third Man? […] The sound is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone; the action begins like an undergraduate lark and then reveals vicious undertones.” I don’t understand at all where he’s coming from, but I doubt he’s alone in believing that.

There’s a really interesting post-war tone that commands a lot of The Third Man (when it isn’t being disrupted by children & zithers). Piles of rubble and greedy profits made from people’s suffering in a time of crisis lurk in the movie’s fringes, rarely directly playing into the plot the way it does in Casablanca, but often overpowering the impact of the central murder mystery. Major twists in that central mystery never meant more to me than that post-war gloom, but the two narratives do compliment each other nicely. Like with Casablanca, I’m willing to accept that a few rewatches might be necessary to fully appreciate The Third Man as an all-time classic, but the film’s murder mystery reveals will likely only dull in those revisits. It’s the post-war exhaustion that’s going to matter more in the long run (along with the film’s bold visual aesthetic). The doomed romance at the heart of Casablanca sounds a lot more pleasant to experience on loop, though, so for now I’ll just have to continue to damn this film by calling it merely very good.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 15: Citizen Kane (1941)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Citizen Kane (1941) is referenced in Life Itself: Although Roger Ebert had for a time cited Citizen Kane as his all-time favorite film in other writings, the film is only mentioned in passing in his autobiography. On page 108 of the first edition hardback, Roger recalls a buxom woman he lusted after on his first trip to Hollywood as a young college student & likened her to a character in the film. On page 281, he notes that Orson Welles “allegedly watched [John] Ford’s Stagecoach one hundred times before directing Citizen Kane” as an illustrative anecdote about how directors learn from past works. In the film version of Life Itself, it’s mentioned that Citizen Kane was one of the films featured at Roger’s annual Cinema Interruptus lecture series at the Conference on World Affairs. The film is one of the most often-mentioned titles in Life Itself, but it is never addressed directly or at length.

What Ebert had to say in his review: “It is one of the miracles of cinema that in 1941 a first-time director; a cynical, hard-drinking writer; an innovative cinematographer, and a group of New York stage and radio actors were given the keys to a studio and total control, and made a masterpiece. ‘Citizen Kane’ is more than a great movie; it is a gathering of all the lessons of the emerging era of sound, just as ‘Birth of a Nation’ assembled everything learned at the summit of the silent era, and ‘2001’ pointed the way beyond narrative. These peaks stand above all the others.” -from his 1998 review for his Great Movies series.

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“If I hadn’t been very rich, I might’ve been a really great man . . .”

Citizen Kane failed to make back its production budget at the box office. Each time the title was announced at the Academy Awards in 1942 it was audibly booed. Although its writer/director/producer/star Orson Welles eventually did take home an Oscar for his screenwriting (one sole win for the film’s nine nominations), the movie studio he was signed to weaseled out of a contract that would allow him similar creative control on future projects. Audiences & critics alike were downright hostile to Welles’s first feature film. For at least a decade, Citizen Kane was considered a “bad movie”, a failure, and thanks to a smear campaign for an infuriated newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (whose life the film not so subtly mines for both drama & humor), a legal liability. Orson Welles gave the world one of the greatest films ever made and it effectively ruined his career.

Looking back at Citizen Kane‘s struggles for legitimacy is entirely unreal in a modern context. The film might’ve forever laid dormant in cinematic purgatory had its studio, RKO, not licensed large chunks of its library for television broadcast in the 1950s. It took over a decade for Citizen Kane to be reborn as a television mainstay & to reignite conversation over its merits as a work of art. In those intervening years the film had silently changed the industry, telegraphing a wealth of technical change that was to become standard in its wake, but obviously sat wrong with people at the time of its release. Critic noticed the sea change in the mean time and the loudest folks in the room, voices like Pauline Kael’s, began to point to its visual accomplishments & ruthless sense of style as a new watermark for the medium. Roger Ebert once called the movie “the greatest film ever made,” going on to say, “People don’t’ always ask about the greatest film. They ask, ‘What was your favorite movie? Again I always answer with Citizen Kane.” However, at a later time he confessed, “I found it easy to reply ‘Citizen Kane,’ hoping that my questioner’s eyes would glaze over and I could avoid a debate,” a comment on the ubiquity of its accolade as “the greatest film of all time.” It’s difficult to think of a film that’s experienced that drastic of a critical turnaround except for maybe Peeping Tom or its American cousin Psycho, and even those works are still sometimes considered to be on the wrong side of the trash/art divide. Citizen Kane‘s decades-long roundabout success story is entirely singular in its enormity.

Honestly, it’s sometimes easy to see, even today, where a 1940s audience would’ve soured on this well-regarded work. The two framing scenes that begin the film clash against each other wildly in what would be a jarring start to telling any kind of story. In the first scene, the titular Charles Foster Kane utters cinema’s greatest spoiler, “Rosebud”, as his last words in what feels like a downstream drift of deliberately slow pacing & is followed by lines form Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s eternally ambitious poem “Kubla Khan.” This high art reverie is immediately smashed to pieces by a newsreel mock-up of Kane’s biography, a loud & brash mashup of stock footage & talk-shouting so ludicrous I almost checked to see if the film weren’t, in fact, directed by Ed Wood. There was even a fake octopus & some Criswell intonation mixed in there to back up the comparison. Citizen Kane alternates its tone this way, mostly bulldozing through fragmented images & moments of intimacy and only occasionally slowing down to allow the audience to breathe through a slow crawl of stunning cinematography. I only know so much about cinema in the 20s & 30s, having seen mostly comedies & horrors, but it’s tempting to label Citizen Kane as the first modern film, the birth of an auteurist fever that wouldn’t fully take hold of the industry until the New Hollywood movement got rolling three decades later. Citizen Kane‘s punishing rhythm and hands-off-the-handlebars fragmentation feels strikingly modern even at today’s standards. I’ve seen it done before in earlier works like A Page of Madness, but not with such lush photography & such strong confidence in maintaining a narrative through the chaos. It’s easy to see how a 1941 moviegoer would balk at this kind of expressionistic filmmaking, as artful as it may seem in retrospect.

Citizen Kane is a character study that bucks against the idea that a person’s essence could ever be reduced to something as crass as a character study. In the aforementioned newsreel segment that opens Charles Foster Kane’s life’s story from birth to death to the audience not much is learned about the man except the bullet points of his public persona. In order to punch up the story with something more substantial, a journalist is assigned to interview every surviving character of interest from Kane’s life, assembling a more feet-on-the-ground type of journalism instead of the 1940s equivalent of sensationalist clickbait. It’s in these interviews that the story takes the fractured, hazy shape of memory and Welles uses this lens to explore topics as wide-ranging as love, lust, wealth, greed, narcissism, celebrity, journalism ethics, and ennui. Charles Foster Kane overtakes a normal, run of the mill newspaper early on in his career & turns into a literary circus, which is a nice parallel to the way Welles hijacks & reshapes the purpose of cinema with the film, a parallel he invites you to notice by playing Kane himself. He also asks you to draw comparisons between the futility of reducing a person’s life to an newspaper article or a feature length film and the idea that any similar kind of comprehensive knowledge could be obtained through something as small & insignificant as a single word, in this case “Rosebud.” Even assuming that you’ve been spoiled on Citizen Kane by knowing the unavoidable identity of “Rosebud” is a kind of folly, since the movie attempts to be about something more ambitious than what that identity could ever possibly signify. Orson Welles found a way to discuss the essential nature of Art & Humanity in the guise of a straightforward biopic, all while debunking the very idea of a biopic. It’s a feat that deserves all of its decades of ecstatic praise since its 1950s reappraisal, especially considering the time of its release & the technical accomplishments of its packaging.

Part of the brilliance of Citizen Kane is the way Welles structures his argument that the human spirit cannot be captured by a menial work of art around a character so much larger than life that the assertion resonates as wholly convincing. Obviously, audiences in 1941 saw a fair amount of real-life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst in Charles Foster Kane, including an incensed, litigious Hearst himself, but it’s difficult to think of a modern equivalent to that kind of iconoclast. Would a Kanye West or Donald Trump archetype be able to capture the over-the-top “I’m an American and I will always be an American” human contradiction that inspires both ire & adoration with every mere wave of their hand? Both examples have expressed interest in being President of the United States, so they at least share that with Kane, but it’s difficult to draw a more direct comparison. Citizen Kane may not have been appreciated in its time, but it could not have been made anywhere but 1940s America. Capturing the spirit of that time with the tools of filmmaking future (pioneering deep focus, forgoing opening credits, fracturing traditional narrative, etc.), Welles constructed a stunning work that clearly stood as a cinematic crossroads between the past and what was to come. William Randolph Hearst was merely a cipher for the times in which he thrived, but he was an extremely well-chosen one.

With titles like this, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Vertigo, what have you, that are often touted as “the greatest film of all time”, there’s always an enormous pressure for the film to perform to the previously uninitiated like myself (I’m just shy of 30 years old and just watched this film for the first time for this feature). Citizen Kane lives up to the hype. It’s a consistently entertaining work that can be riotously funny (actors Dorothy Comingore & Everett Sloane are especially hilarious), punishingly kinetic, and shockingly beautiful (the final pan over Kane’s untold number of possession in particular dropped my jaw; it was like a boundaryless metropolis of fine art, knickknacks, and shipping crates). As much as I love modern, well-crafted throwbacks to Old Hollywood landmarks like Hail, Caesar!, it’s difficult for them to stand up to the real deal, which this film certainly is. It establishes what it even means to have a modern cinematic eye while still having its foot in the door of old school filmmaking with its noir-bent purple prose, its art deco beauty, and its impossibly massive interior sets, all while attempting to encompass the nature of Humanity & Art (or questioning the validity of such an attempt). While I’m not exactly shocked that Citizen Kane‘s radical sea change was misunderstood upon its initial release, I’m thankful that it’s been championed as a pinnacle of the medium in the decades since. We’re extremely lucky to have its massive presence towering over us is a modern audience. It came a lot closer to disappearing into obscurity than a lot of people realize.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

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Brandon’s Rating: (5/5, 100%)

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Next Lesson: From Russia With Love (1963)

-Brandon Ledet