|TOXIC MALE GAZES|
Orson Welles was a magician - not a necromancer - but the joke about resurrecting the dead is in every frame of the Netflix released THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, his best movie, yet. Welles, foremost an artist and a charlatan (he was obsessed with tricks, fakery and illusion throughout his visionary work for stage, radio, and the screen), would have known that nothing is as haunting as the posthumous work. Only the truly great get to come back from the grave.
Of course, Welles famously crafted his late-period film-as-process oeuvre and praxis from his inability to get financial backing, and the way his final forays were often left unfinished; after a while, his unmade movies took on more weight and anticipated value than the ones he had completed. Yet even here, the story is faked. Welles always (except in KANE, usually considered his masterpiece) left his work unfinished, more or less - often intentionally, or accidentally. His signature style was abandonment; like Zeus in 'Leda and the Swan' the beak finally drops what it has taken.
Even his second film, AMBERSONS, was butchered by the studio. but partially because Welles abandoned it. Welles was always on to the next show, the next act - his restless protean creativity was rarely about a finished product.
This new film is the most unfinished major motion picture to ever likely be considered truly great. By any standards, it is now must-see viewing for every film student, film-maker and film-critic in the world, simply because it represents over 120 minutes of a completed film by the greatest American film director so far since the medium was invented; and likely one could edit out the American qualifier above. By dint of its being brought out by Netflix, a central player in 21st century film and the digital age, and representing an unexpected blast of 70s nostalgia at a time when America is about as riven and crazed as it was 40-plus years ago, it feels crazily contemporary; nor are its themes out of sync either, however much some critics have called it un-PC.
The sexual, cultural and electoral politics of the past few years might seem to suggest a film about a power-crazed mouthy, rude, dictatorial 70-year-old white man lording it over chaos and flunkies at a quasi-orgy in the desert as power seeps from him would render it persona non grata - except WE have to contend with a president who is himself the parody of toxic masculinity Welles' protagonist (intentionally) is. Welles was thinking Lear or Prospero (or God), or Hemingway, not Trump, but the effect is the same - this is a film that squarely confronts the sins of the "white man" - who come, kill the native folks, and found a dirty and dishonest nation based on acquisition, greed, rapine desires, and ultimately, violence. Hollywood stands in for a rotten America, and Welles, always political, knows the evil inherent in the American push Westward, the so-called manifest destiny.
In THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, the director Hannaford is all out of destiny; and all he can manifest is an Eliotic heap of broken images. The film is, quite literally, a modernist cut-up and restructuring, of an art work, following ideas from Pound, Picasso, Kurosawa, Eisenstein, and Welles himself; that it has been re-edited, re-formatted and re-made 33 years after Welles' death makes it also post-modern. However, the central myth at the core of the film, its bleak mystery, is about the tragedy of any man, or god, who seeks, as in Wagner's Ring Cycle, for too much; or, in the case of the Arthurian legend, the land is sick, for much the same reasons. This is a twilit world, and the film gods are receding. It is no surprise the film begins in sunlit revelry, speeds to a party plunged into darkness, and ends at day break, with no one watching the end of the film at the drive-in. The director and leading lady, are gone or going. Magic is leaving the world.
But the sin at the heart of the film is #metoo resonant, since Welles was nothing if not a self-lacerating hater of men like himself - from Kane onwards, he portrayed men outside their own power roles, incapable of reconciling their evil with their good sides - lost men, but also guilt-ridden men, because guilty. Hannaford is, by today's standards, a predator and a bully - a bad man. He drinks too much, fires and insults people, but more to the point, sleeps with all his leading men's wives and girlfriends (arguably to cope with homoerotic needs unmet otherwise); his latest film, already a fiasco, is collapsing because it is insane and plotless, not because it is too erotic, but mostly because the main actor has fled - like Lancelot, in reverse - cuckolded and hurt; but also, because in Welles everything mirrors everything else, cuckolding and hurting. Hannaford, in the gaze of dozens of cameras, hits a woman, also a major critic, signalling his ultimate moral decline. He is a male director without a "hit", who can only beat up women - the farthest thing from a hero he is a monster (as Huston, playing him, was in CHINATOWN). In short, the film is all about revelations of terrible impropriety coming to light, via film, not least the central impropriety of commerce and finance, and white male domination.
Welles even casts his co-writer and romantic partner, Oja Kodar, as the sex symbol, shockingly exposing her in a Grindhouse fashion that Tarantino could not even rival. The car sex scene is probably the most lurid and astonishing of its kind in mainstream cinema, shot as it was by a sometime-porn cameraman. But that is not all - Kodar is made to represent her character onscreen as "Pocahontas" - perhaps in a kind of "blackface" racism that sears the screen, and is not, as some have said, an error of Welles'.
By having Hannaford mock her with an inscribed "Indian bone" from a terrible atrocity in public, Welles establishes his understanding that the macho Western film directors too often celebrated the darkest side of America. The mockery of "faggots" and the effeminate in the schoolteacher scene (Nabokovian in its strangest aspects) only seeks to underscore the malevolent and infantile way in which the movie world's alpha males confront (imperfectly, at best) sexual identities that threaten their own (manufactured) masculinity. Sometimes, the director's cigar is just the phallus that is punctured at the end of the film-within-the-film (to capture the conscience of the king?)… and yes, there is a "Mousetrap" about this feigned madness among actors, acting out.
As an aside, not since TOUCH OF EVIL have yes-men, flunkies and broken acolytes been shown so dynamically revolving around (another) larger-than-life compromised good-bad man (in that film a tragically crooked law-breaking law man, the central Wellesian paradox) - their scenes, dialogue lines, and briefest of fleeting cameos overlapping zanily, pathetically. And, one has to look far back to Mr Bernstein to find friends and allies so neglected and mistreated.
If Welles is Falstaff he is also Prince Hal - his principle interest is how weaker friends get harmed in the wake of power's cruel eventualities (with time being, historically, the cruellest enactor of such change). One of the chiefest of aesthetic pleasures in this film are the looming and receding faces and figures, the bit actors losing their jobs, falling off the wagon, and generally finding themselves out of luck and work, lovingly directed by Welles, who knows that there is no Hamlet without the gravedigger, let alone Yorick.
As in Wagner's cycle, the end is complex - the gods are losing their power, but the gods have made tremendous, self-wounding errors - Wotan has acted incorrigibly. The final frames of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND make it clear that Welles saw film-making as a most tragic art, inherently tied-up with the seeking of access to gold, sex, power, and immortality - none of which is natural, or even, finally, bountiful or tenable. The bought sports car wreck death of the director leaves us in no doubt that no one gets out alive, as Jim sang; as Welles would have known, since he cast John Dale (the fictional actor) as if he was Morrison. Art is always, for Welles, the Promethean reach too far. But what is yielded is, regardless, still, a resonant blood-letting.
Given its posthumous bizarre provenance, its totally satisfactory (in)completion of the Welles Legend, and its markedly feminist placing of the only illuminating, potent, or morally questioning characters as women (the male interviewers are bumbling or asleep, falling off cars and stumbling about unable to find their rosebuds), as well as its dark echoes of KANE (including parts for some of that film's actors), there is no doubt that one day, everything that currently makes this Welles' least-appreciated film will make it the perverse first choice among his achievements. I simply claim the perverse early. I like getting to parties early.