Posts Tagged ‘Oja Kodar’

Every now and then I reflect on all the films that I would like to see but almost certainly never will – the original cut of The Wicker Man, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula, Zeppelin Vs Pterodactyls, Queen Kong, Tiptoes, and so on. Some of these don’t physically exist any more, others were never made, while still others have vanished into obscurity due to either legal problems or their sheer weirdness. For quite a long time I would have added The Other Side of the Wind to this list. This is, or was, one of Orson Welles’ projects as director and writer, which he worked on intermittently between 1970 and 1976 (parts of the great man’s filmography are a litany of incomplete films like Don Quixote, The Deep, and The Dreamers). As you might expect, given the lengthy production period, a huge amount of material was filmed for The Other Side of the Wind, but turning it into a completed film was something beyond Welles’ ability, and his death in 1985 plunged the project into a legal limbo.

Welles enthusiasts and acolytes, some of whom were involved in the film’s production, never quite seemed to give up on it, however – and here we must acknowledge the role played by the market-leading film and TV streaming service in stepping in and assisting in the final completion of The Other Side of the Wind. Forty years after it was filmed, and thirty years after Orson Welles’ death, is this one final example of the director at his best, or just another frustratingly misjudged piece of work?

The film concerns the last day on earth of a legendary film director (played by legendary film director John Huston) who, as the 1970s proceed, finds himself increasingly struggling to find financial backing for his film projects (it is perhaps worth saying that Welles himself always dismissed suggestions that The Other Side of the Wind was in any way autobiographical). The director, Hannaford, is celebrating his 70th birthday (rather eerily, the same age that Welles died at), and as the film begins he, his cast and crew, and various acolytes and hangers-on decamp to an Arizona mansion where a rough cut of his new film, The Other Side of the Wind, will be screened for the assembled company. (Part of the film is also shown to a studio boss, who is thoroughly unimpressed by it.) Also present is a fan of the director who has become a hot young film-maker himself, played by Peter Bogdanovich (a fan of Orson Welles who had become a hot young film-maker himself at the time). As the night wears on, the screening is beset by problems and interruptions, and Hannaford’s dealings with those around him become increasingly fractious. Hard truths emerge, friendships break down, and dreams are shattered.

Intercut with all of this are sequences from the other The Other Side of the Wind – not Welles’ film, but the one that Hannaford has been working on. This is a wordless, heavily symbolic piece of art-house cinema predominantly featuring a beautiful young actress whom Hannaford has apparently become somewhat fixated upon (played by Oja Kodar, a beautiful young actress who was in a relationship with Welles himself at the time).

Perhaps it is worth saying again that Welles was always very clear that The Other Side of the Wind was not intended even semi-autobiographically. This does seem rather like another instance of the great man being somewhat disingenuous, for there seems to be a deliberate attempt to blur the line between fact and fiction in progress for much of the film – Hannaford is described as a Hemingway-esque figure in the world of cinema, which is exactly the same kind of thing that was also said about Huston (Welles had his own, predictably ambivalent relationship with Hemingway, too).

The parallels between Hannaford and Welles are just too numerous for them to be accidental – both are renowned figures, now struggling to get their projects made, both seem to have a thing for Oja Kodar, and – of course – both never quite managed to finish their version of The Other Side of the Wind, either. Once you accept this, the casting of Bogdanovich as the director’s one-time disciple makes perfect sense, as do the various other in-jokes and references to Hollywood denizens of the period when the film was being made – various characters are tuckerised versions of figures like Cybill Shepherd, John Milius and the film critic Pauline Kael. It has to be said that the film is very much a piece from a very particular time and place, when the ‘old Hollywood’ in which Welles got his start was attempting to come to terms with the ‘new Hollywood’ presaged by films like Easy Rider and The Godfather. Outside of this context, many of the jokes and observations in the film simply don’t function.

The same can be said for the film-within-the-film, Hannaford’s version of The Other Side of the Wind, a spot-on imitation of the kind of art-house films being made by Michelangelo Antonioni at around this time (Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point appears to have been Welles’ primary target) – the kind of film which looks suspiciously like a soft-core movie but can’t be, because it’s Art. It is probably most memorable for the rather lengthy sequence of Oja Kodar wandering naked around the MGM backlot – the film-in-the-film doesn’t actually have a plot, and deliberately so.

The problem is that, while Welles may have intended this as a spoof of painfully self-regarding, pretentious, symbolic film-making, his reproduction of it is so effective, and goes on for such a long time, that it really comes across as more of a pastiche than an actual spoof. You get the joke quite quickly, but there’s still a lot to come, and a naked Oja Kodar only goes a certain distance when it comes to making this sort of thing more palatable.

One has to wonder about the role of Oja Kodar in the chequered history of The Other Side of the Wind. As I mentioned, there have been numerous attempts to finish off this movie before, by participants in it and also Welles’ champions in the film industry (some people are, of course, both) – and one of the consistent things to emerge from this frustratingly lengthy process is Kodar’s apparent determination to sabotage them, either consciously or unconsciously. Kodar’s stated desire was apparently to avoid a repeat of the debacle which ensued when an under-funded restoration of Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote, overseen by her, was assembled and released in 1992 (to unfavourable reviews), but, as I say, one wonders. Could there have been an element of reluctance to let her appearance in some rather rum material finally emerge into the wider world? Or even a suspicion that the finished version of The Other Side of the Wind would be unlikely to add to Welles’ reputation as a film-maker?

Well, I have to say that I am by no means an unconditional admirer of Netflix, and do have my concerns about the company’s influence over modern cinema, but I have to admit that the average ‘Netflix original’ (which is what The Other Side of the Wind technically is) is a reasonably polished and proficient piece of work, in terms of its production if not its conception. Parts of this film, however, show its ramshackle, cash-strapped nature all too clearly – there are sections, particularly early on, which are dismayingly primitive in their execution. Still, as it proceeds, it improves, and even if you can’t quite grasp all the in-jokes and allusions in the scenes with Hannaford at the party, you’re never in doubt that there’s a distinct artistic sensibility at work here – the sheer number of film directors amongst the cast, coupled to the frequency with which movie cameras appear in the background, suggests that Welles is making a point about how film-making can become an all-consuming, solipsistic pursuit.

Certainly there is a rising sense of despair running through the final scenes of the film, in which Hannaford perhaps breaks through the artifice of the world which has formed around him and approaches something resembling truth. At this point we are reminded that the first thing we learn about him is the fact of his impending death. Perhaps, yet again, Welles is alluding to the story of Don Quixote, who regains his sanity only at the end of his life. One wouldn’t be surprised; Orson Welles is that kind of erudite, allusive artist. And this is an erudite and allusive film in many ways, even if in others it feels frustratingly laborious and even somewhat pretentious: some of the Welles magic is there, even if it’s in a raw and unpolished form. I still don’t think this is genuinely a masterpiece, but another thing you can say about Orson Welles is that while not everything he did was brilliant, it was seldom ever boring, and The Other Side of the Wind is a welcome reminder of that.

(Hey, and it turns out that Queen Kong on the internet. I know what I’ll be doing this week.)

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