Tag Archives: B+

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND

Producer: Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza
Director: Orson Welles
Writer: Orson Welles and Oja Kodar
Stars: John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Bob Random, Lilli Palmer, Edmond O'Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Gregory Sierra, Tonio Stewart, Dan Tobin, John Carroll, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Geoffrey Land, Peter Jason, Joseph McBride, Dennis Hopper and Curtis Harrington
Studio: Netflix

B+

Few things are more exciting than the recovery of a work of art long thought lost forever, and though films are a fairly recent art form, their fragility has led to the disappearance of many early ones (not to mention decisions to hack out scenes and then allow the discarded footage to vanish). Determined researchers try to locate lost films or restore mutilated ones, and sometimes they succeed, at least to some extent (see the extended version of the 1954 “A Star Is Born,” or of Kubrick’s “Spartacus,” or to take a less exalted example, the recent discovery of the complete second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s “The Battle of the Century”).

Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” represents a different sort of recovery, an act of devotion to one of the screen’s enduring icons that tries, in effect, to save him from himself. His film career, from the very beginning in the early 1940s, was littered with unfinished projects, starting with “It’s All True,” the documentary that his work on in Brazil led RKO to mutilate “The Magnificent Ambersons” in his absence—an act of desecration that it has never been possible to rectify, because the original cut wasn’t archived.

The exile from the studio system that followed left Welles struggling to find financing for projects he had to try making in bits and pieces over years, often being forced to abandon them when support dried up. Even when he got another chance in Hollywood with “Touch of Evil,” his intended version was taken from his hands and only later restored, insofar as possible.

“Wind” was only the last such debacle. Filmed in snatches between 1970 and 1976, it got caught up in incredibly labyrinthine international financing problems, with the result that when Welles died in 1985, he left behind many hours of footage, along with copious notes about his intentions of how it would be assembled. (Those interested in a full account can consult Joseph Karp’s 2015 “Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of the Other Side of the Wind”).

Of course all the disarray wasn’t due to circumstances beyond Welles’s control. It was also a matter of sheer egotism and what seems to have increasingly become a phobia about finishing anything. One can argue either that Welles’s career was undermined by outside forces, or that he deliberately sabotaged it himself. The truth lies somewhere in between.

Fortunately Welles has finally found a restoration team who’ve dared to do what he wouldn’t or couldn’t—turn “The Other Side of the Wind” into a finished film. Producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza and editor Bob Murawski have taken up the torch long carried by—among others—Welles’s cinematographer Gary Graver, and have fashioned a coherent narrative out of the material he left. The question is whether all the effort was worth it.

From a purely historical perspective, the answer is a definite yes. “The Other Side of the Wind” puts a period to the career that began with “Citizen Kane” in a way that nothing else could. However, it’s no “Citizen Kane.” In this form—and probably in whatever form Welles might have fashioned himself—it’s more “Mr. Arkadin” than “Kane,” another tale of investigating the past of a “great man” that discloses mysteries that might ultimately be impenetrable. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important, and especially for film buffs, well worth watching.

The plot concocted by Welles and Oja Kodar centers on grizzled Hollywood director Jake Hannaford (played with boozy gruffness by John Huston) who’s showing friends and hangers-on footage from his latest film, “The Other Side of the Wind.” It’s an unfinished project that he’s desperately searching for funding to complete. That sounds self-referential, of course, but Hannaford is no Welles. He’s an old-line studio player struggling to remain relevant in the changing environment of the seventies, with studios interested in movies that will appeal to the youth culture of the time. So what we see of Hannaford’s picture suggests a more abstract version of Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” (1970) in which a beautiful young man with windblown hair (Rob Random as Hannaford’s latest discovery, actor John Dale) pursues a sultry femme fatale (Kodar). Much nudity and sexual play are involved, though for the most part the sequences we see consist of broad vistas, long, lingering looks, static poses and chases through deteriorating industrial landscapes.

Presumably Welles intended this as satire, though it’s of a pretty puerile sort (and also misguided—“Zabriskie” and other movies of its type were major bombs). What’s more interesting is the surrounding material—fast, fervid, jumpy snippets of dialogue first at the studio lot, where the viewing junket originates (and where a Hannaford factotum named Billy, played by Norman Foster, tries to convince a slick studio executive, played by Geoffrey Land, to pony up completion money by showing him some of the footage), then in the vehicles driving the guests (journalists, Hannaford cronies and crew members) to the ranch where the screening party is to be held, and then at the all night bash at the ranch itself, before repeated electrical outages force the relocation of the screening to a dumpy drive-in.

During these sequences, the lines come fast and furious, and are often witty bits of repartee, particularly when there’s a back-stabbing motive behind them. Plenty of familiar faces show up to deliver them—including Cameron Mitchell, Lilli Palmer, Mercedes McCambridge, Edmund O’Brien and Paul Stewart (the greedy butler from “Kane”) along with a number of filmmakers—Curtis Harrington, Paul Mazursky, Curtis Harrington, Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol—who either add to the conversation or simply walk around in the background.

The most voluble of the party, though, is undoubtedly Hannaford protégé Brooks Otterlake, a director who’s scored some hugely remunerative success and spends the night fending off rumors about his mentor from the likes of a critical journalist played by Susan Strasberg and cynical screenwriter Jack Simon (Gregory Sierra)—as well as, in the end, appeals from Hannaford for monetary assistance. Played by Peter Bogdanovich in his most unctuous, slick style, Otterlake represents the film’s ultimate statement about the reality that friendship means very little in the cutthroat world of Hollywood.

That’s certainly one obvious, and very personal, message in the picture, but it has another major thread surrounding the disappearance of Dale, its “mystery” element. The young man was supposedly rescued from drowning—perhaps a suicide attempt—by Hannaford, but in the end he stalked off the picture and is nowhere to be found. Why? A suggestion of the reason emerges not only in the insinuations that Simon makes about “man’s man” Hannaford, but in the revelations about Dale’s background offered by one of the party’s most unlikely attendees—a prissy English teacher from his old school played by Dan Tobin. They broaden the definition of playing the Hollywood game considerably, though it’s a debatable point whether in the final analysis the overall picture they draw, and the decision taken by Hannaford in reaction to them, will convince you that the time you’ve spent awaiting them was worthwhile.

What is more certain is that the display of typically bravura Welles style is something no film buff will want to miss. If the plot of the film—what little there actually is—might not be all that compelling (in fact, the script is less so than the story of the film’s resurrection), watching the flickering images will convince you that you’re in the hands of a master, even if he’s not on his best form. Graver’s cinematography, which mixes the smooth, widescreen visuals of the “film within a film” with gritty, hand-held black-and-white clips of conversation occasionally punctuated by color footage, isn’t precisely what you’d call beautiful, but it certainly has impact. And Murawski, following Welles’s instructions as much as possible, has edited it skillfully, covering over the parts that remained unshot so that you don’t much notice the omissions. It was also an inspired move to enlist Michel Legrand to compose the jazz-inflected score, which helps minimize the disjointedness.

Certainly the cast threw themselves vigorously into the effort, giving unstinting support to Welles’s vision. Huston presides over the proceedings with the same leonine presence he brought to “Chinatown,” and Welles gave him some great lines to rumble off with a growl. Bogdanovich, who was of course as close to Welles as Otterlake is to Hannaford, does as oily a turn as one could desire; and Random and Kodar spare nothing in their Antonioni-style footage. All the others offer pointed turns, clearly relishing the chance to put forward their very best for the director.

“The Other Side of the Wind” does not emerge from its long hibernation as a masterpiece on the order of “Kane” or “Ambersons,” or even “Touch of Evil.” Mainstream moviegoers will be baffled and bored by it, as many were by those earlier Welles films; and even cineastes are unlikely to embrace it fully. But this painstaking restoration effort fills a major lacuna not only in Welles’s résumé but in cinematic history, and anyone who loves film will appreciate the opportunity to see it on that ground alone.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Producer: Anne Carey, Amy Nauiokas and David Yarnell
Director: Marielle Heller
Writer: Nicole Holofcener
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella, Ben Falcone, Marc Evan Jackson, Christian Navarro, Sandy Rosenberg, Kevin Carolan, Mary B. McCann and and Gregory Korostishevsky
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

B+

Melissa McCarthy’s choice of projects hasn’t been particularly astute of late, but she hits paydirt with “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” a deliciously down-and-dirty portrait of Lee Israel, a failed author who overcame her writer’s block, after a fashion (and solved her financial woes to some extent), by forging collectible letters supposedly written by dead celebrities and selling them to unsuspecting dealers as the real thing. Catty in every sense—from its human characters to its scabrously funny dialogue and the fact that one of its major performers is an actual feline—the film, sharply written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and skillfully directed by Marielle Heller, provides McCarthy and co-star Richard E. Grant with their best roles in years and winds up a thoroughly engrossing dark comedy.

When we meet Israel, it’s 1991, and after a couple of moderately successful books she’s embarked on a biography of Fanny Brice that her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) tells her there will be no market for even if she manages to finish it—something that seems doubtful, given that she can barely manage to type a single word. (When she overhears Tom Clancy, played by Kevin Carolan, pontificating at one of Marjorie’s parties that writer’s block is just an excuse for laziness, you can see in McCarthy’s eyes Lee’s urge to punch him out.)

Israel lives in a squalid NYC apartment she shares with her only friend, her beloved cat, which she allows the run of the place (even—as we will see—the use of the area under her bed as a litter box). The animal is sick, but Lee can’t afford an appointment with the vet any more than she can her own rent (her imploring super, played by Gregory Korostishevsky, keeps begging for payment). She begins selling off books at second-hand shops to try to get a few bucks together. Israel is obviously in a bad place, and her scowling, sarcastic manner doesn’t help, even though while drinking away the day at her favorite watering hole (presumably on a growing tab) she encounters a kindred spirit in the aptly-named Jack Hock (Grant), an ostentatiously swishy, utterly disreputable British gent who commiserates with her over tales of parties they both once attended.

Then the proverbial light bulb goes off. In doing some desultory research on Brice in the library, Israel finds a couple of letters from the performer tucked into one of the long-unread books, pockets them and sells one to a sweet bookseller, Anne (Dolly Wells), who’s actually kind to her and obviously looking for friendship herself. (We eventually learn that Lee’s long-time lover Elaine, played by Anna Deavere Smith, left her some time ago because she was too high-maintenance in the emotional department.) To increase the value of the second, Israel tacks on a witty typewritten postscript that makes it more personal, and thus more desirable to collectors.

Realizing there’s a market for such stuff, Lee goes into self-training as a forger, procuring some old typewriters, getting together the right sorts of stationary and learning how to age the results to make them look authentic. Being a natural-born researcher, she can collect data on people like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker to give her products the verisimilitude they require, and then approach dealers like prim Paul (Stephen Spinella) and greedy Alan (Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband) to sell them as purported inheritances from relatives. Not too many questions are asked, since the hope of profit can blur principles on all sides.

The business grows to such an extent that Israel requires a partner of sorts, and Hock is happy to play the part and step into the salesman role when Lee has become too visible—or suspect. He also suggests a wrinkle to the enterprise: Israel could substitute her copies of actual letters for the originals in archives, sell the real thing, and no one would be the wiser. It’s a scheme she tries at the Yale library, and it succeeds despite the watchful gaze of the chief librarian (Sandy Rosenberg); but it also proves her downfall, since in her absence from the city Israel has left her place (and cat) in the care of Jack, whose dalliance with a handsome busboy (Christian Navarro) proves disastrous and leads to the collapse of their partnership. Worse, it invites federal investigation of Israel’s little racket and leads to her indictment and conviction. Happily the sentence (delivered by a judge played by Mary B. McCann after a delicious not-quite-remorseful statement from Israel) only requires probation, and it’s soon clear that Israel does not feel bound by its restrictions. In fact, she goes on to write a book about her forging career that becomes her biggest professional hit.

McCarthy seizes on the possibilities of the script and plays this brash, colorful character to the hilt. She communicates Israel’s emotional insecurity, especially in the quasi-courtship scenes with Anne, to whom Wells brings palpable vulnerability, and her reunion scene with Elaine, played with affecting simplicity; but she especially revels in the writer’s pushy, domineering side, ripping into people at the slightest provocation and only later showing signs of regret at having burnt another bridge. Grant goes even larger than McCarthy does, clearly relishing the opportunities Hock offers for grandiose gestures and explosions of juvenile delight. The supporting cast offer gemlike cameos, with Curtin standing out as the long-suffering Marjorie, who’s accustomed to the desperate Israel’s penchant for petty theft.

The film is also successful in capturing the seedy New York atmosphere in which Israel lived, as well as the genteel but slightly decadent ambience of the world of collectibles into which she entered in a spirit of larceny that doesn’t seem all that out of place. (At one point, when told that a letter boasts a certificate of authenticity, she asks who authenticates the certification.) Stephen Carter’s production design, Sarah E. McMillan’s set decoration and Arjun Bhasin’s costumes are spot-on. And while Anne McCabe’s editing accentuates Heller’s sometimes overly permissible attitude toward the actors, allowing scenes to run on a bit long, Nate Heller’s score, interpolating some golden oldies like Henry Mancini’s “Charade,” adds to the sense of rightness.

In fact, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” paints such an indelible portrait of this brusque, reckless, caustic, but deeply sad woman that you may be be willing to forgive McCarthy for the many comic misfires she’s foisted on audiences in the past few years.