Incoherence

So, Fiona has now finished her viewing of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (or THE ORSON SIDE OF THE WELLES) and pronounced it fascinating, though she’s unsure if it’s major. That uncertainty relates, surely, to the perceptible vagueness of the film’s “plot” — almost all based in character interactions, though the unfinished film at its centre motivates many of these. And the film doesn’t spell these out: why does Hannaford reject Otterlake at the end? (An inversion of Falstaff and Hal, but an exact anticipation of Welles’s spurning of Bogdanovich.) Why does Hannaford kill himself? (The film doesn’t even insist that he does, but we’re invited to think so, and surely a random DUI accident would be an even flatter ending than the suicide of a character Welles called “a miserable prick.”) The fact that Hannaford’s absconded star tricked his way into the movie is set up as a big deal, but what are the psychological implications of this for Hannaford? The film doesn’t come out and tell us.

I’m not ready to call this vagueness a flaw — it’s quite possible that Welles, while rejecting aspects of the new arthouse cinema of Fellini, Antonioni et al — what Pauline Kael called “sick-soul-of-Europe parties” — he might be embracing Pinterish ambiguity. Or he might be struggling to achieve coherence with multiple drafts of a script filmed over years in different countries with some major actors never meeting each other (he’d done that before: OTHELLO, of course, but every time a character turns their back on the camera in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, it’s a stand-in). Or Bob Murawski and the team assembling Welles’s footage may have erred, missed chances at establishing clarity, We can’t assign all the blame or credit to Welles because he only edited five or so sequences, and even those have been rejigged for the finished film.

But against any theory that Welles had lost focus, that the film is shapeless or unresolved, we have to balance things like the matching references to “the magic box” at the beginning and end, and the way the making-of doc shows that when Welles reshot Rich Little’s scenes with Bogdanovich and Bogdanovich’s with Joseph McBride, he duplicated many lines and camera set-ups exactly… There WAS a plan. It may have been incomplete, or lost some of its cohesion along the way, but a lot of this film of accidents was conceived in advance.

Remember, CITIZEN KANE has been described/dismissed as “a labyrinth without a centre” and the famous “Rosebud” punchline may or may not explain anything. Welles LIKED a certain avoidance of clarity, and did everything he could to “take the mickey out of” that film’s solution. Some have complained that the plotting in TOUCH OF EVIL and LADY FROM SHANGHAI is unclear — the former sidelines its murder mystery so thoroughly that the solution can be tossed away in a line by a supporting character, and then we get “What does it matter what you say about people?” The latter was savagely re-edited precisely to impose clarity and add windy explanations so nothing would be in doubt, but the exposition is so overwhelmed by Welles’s visuals that we simply don’t listen. And it ends with a double “Maybe” from the voice-over. AMBERSONS was mutilated, it would seem, because Welles staged a would-be uplifting ending in an un-uplifting (downputting?) manner, and audiences didn’t know how to react. Welles quite often explores areas of conflicted response, notably in the way he’ll turn the villain, especially if played by himself, into the most compelling character.

I can’t help it, it just feels so good to be discussing this film alongside the rest of the oeuvre, at last!

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23 Responses to “Incoherence”

  1. I wish I could share your copasetic feelings, but I can’t for reasons I have outlined HERE

    Incidentally A new documentary about Pauline Kael is on its way. I hope it will get into why she “turned” on Welles. She defended “Chimes at Midnight” in the wake of Bosley Crowther’s dismissal of it in the NYT. This is probably what got her the assignment of writing about “Kane” — which she unaccountably attacked.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    David C, I believe there is a definite plot or thread but it is left deliberately ambiguous but obvious once one has worked through the film. So far, I’ve only had one viewing but like all Welles’s work need several to guess and then it may be one of many.

    One confusion re. AMBERSONS. You mention Welles “staged a would-be uplifting ending…” But surely you must known that the final scene in the version we have to day was studio-ordered, shot by another director, with Roy Webb’s atrocious music added to the rest of the re-shot scenes that Bernard Herrmann rightly objected to an removed his name from the credits. It is not the ending Welles originally shot a glimpse of which remains in the trailer.

    David E. Interesting information. I hope the documentary goes into her earlier -red-bating criticism particularly the way she trashed SALT OF THE EARTH.

  3. Oddly, if Susan Strasberg’s character in TOSOTW is meant to be Kael, it’s quite a flattering portrait. She seems to be insightful, correct in her observations (Hannaford and Otterlake are obnoxious when they pick on her) and more glamorous than the real Kael — more like Sontag, if anything, though maybe that’s just the initials.

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Kael and Welles ultimately turn out to have similar attitudes to European arthouse film-makers, i.e. a condescending incomprehension while at the same time being clearly animated by the bold vision of Antonioni and Fellini. It’s weird that TOSOW’s movie-within-movie is described as a parody of Zabriskie Point, a movie that has unquestionably aged a lot better than TOSOW has in most parts and is these days considered a classic by a lot of people. I mean the movie-within-movie has bad rock music accompaniment whereas Antonioni went all-out and got Pink Floyd and others.

    I think Orson Welles should get most of the blame for the reason TOSOW is the way it is. He didn’t leave behind any memo or detailed ideas for the film. He did that for Touch of Evil. I honestly don’t know why he didn’t do it for his other movies, like Mr. Arkadin or this one.

    TOSOW works as a movie about cinephilia, about auteurism, It’s about projecting or fixating on the creator of a movies your conception rather than the real one, and its about the directors either being transformed by that projected role to the point it affects their real self. David E’s point about Welles being devoured by his myth is I think the real subject of TOSOW. What we see in TOSOW is entirely projections, both the psychological kind and the actual cinematic one. It’s also truthful because a number of biographies look at how old Hollywood directors were transformed by their cinephile reputation. Eisenschitz’s book on Nicholas Ray is pretty depressing to read when you look up Ray’s European sojourn which is one of the most epic cases of unraveling. Then Tony Lee Moral’s book on Marnie sees that movie, as Hitchcock trying to make a more artful film in keeping with his emerging reputation.

  5. Yes, a lot of people have theorised that Truffaut harmed Hitchcock by taking him seriously. I mean, I think the deep meanings are there, but not necessarily consciously placed. He’s more psychologically acute when he’s not literally dealing with psychology.

    Hitch’s unmade Kaleidoscope/Frenzy looks a whole lot like TOSOTW.

    Of course Welles had some kind of instinctive reaction against Hitchcock and includes a bit of playful Hitch-bashing here. I think Hitch’s ability to create one big all-consuming emotion was something Welles rejected because he’s kind of the opposite of that.

    With Don Quixote Welles seems to have deliberately made the material incomprehensible to anyone but him: identical close-ups would be labelled differently, he had his own private and inscrutable system of logging everything. So that when Oja was driving around Europe in a van full of cans looking to find someone to complete it, Kevin Brownlow looked at the mess and said there was no possible way.

    With Touch of Evil the memo was written to Universal in a last-ditch attempt to have the film completed according to Welles’s wishes. He expected to finish his other films himself, so saw no need to write instructions. But there WERE notes of some kind for TOSOTW: Frank Mazzola, who played a gang member for Ray, was going to edit it at one point (after Welles’ death) and said there was a detailed plan.

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Frank Mazzola edited Performance and other Don Cammell movies and since that represents the avant-garde that Welles had a love-hate for, it’s possible.

    Well Marnie is a great movie and the Frenzy Hitchcock made in the ’70s is a good movie and I also like Topaz for what’s worth. I think Welles simply envied Hitchcock. He saw himself as a popular artist and a big chunk of his movies are genre stories and with The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai you can sense Welles trying to reconfigure himself into a genre film-maker, which he kept trying to do with Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil. Hitchcock did what Welles was trying to do but he did it better and succeeded.

  7. James W Cobb Says:

    I am not sure of the exact quote or indeed who said it but it indicated that the difference between Welles and Hitchcock is that Hitchcock shows extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people and Welles shows the ordinary lives of extraordinary people. Anyone know what the correct quote is and who said it?

  8. Here’s Sarris: “Mark Shivas of Movie once said that Welles shows extraordinary people in ordinary situations, and Hitchcock shows ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”

    But I’m not sure anything in Welles is ordinary. In his theatre days he would say, “If you want realism, go out and look at the street corner. It’s boring!”

    Welles had made popular theatre but couldn’t manage to make cinema that brought in a wide audience. And he spoke of the difficulty of this, not knowing who your audience was.

    One filmmaker he did like, early on at least, was Kubrick: when Kubrick was making stylistically bold genre films that still had a humanist component.

  9. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Kubrick is basically Welles with insight and knowledge of studio politics. Welles showed what you could do if you let a young guy have the keys to the studio all to himself. Kubrick proved that you could make a career as an auteur within the mainstream. I think the idea among directors is to be like Orson Welles but pragmatic like Kubrick. And I think Kubrick had a deeper understanding of the audience than Welles did. Kubrick knew the zeitgeist he was tapping into with ”2001” and ”A Clockwork Orange”. As did Hitchcock whose ”Psycho” is lightning-in-the-bottle.

    Whereas Welles was against-the-grain. It’s interesting that both Welles and Nick Ray came from Wisconsin but Ray was three years older than Welles and yet he managed to make movies about contemporary life, something like Rebel Without A Cause, which caught the spirit of the time. Getting the sense of the times is something even arthouse film-makers did, like Fellini with La Dolce Vita, Antonioni with Blowup or you know Renoir with Grand Illusion where he captured the international mood of that time better than anyone.

    TOSOW is the one time Welles really engaged with contemporary life. And what it proves is that Welles is inspired by other movies and other contemporary film-makers more than real life. So you have Bob Random’s ersatz James Dean character, which is decades out of date but you know Dean inspired the male archetype for that generation so it fits. We have cinephile prattle and non-sequiturs a la Godard and Fellini, and arty movies a la Antonioni inspiring the movie-within-movie.

  10. Of course Kubrick stopped seeming in any way humanist as the sixties went on (although Malcolm McDowall argued to Lindsay Anderson re Clockwork Orange, “*I’m* the humanist element in that film!”) I don’t know if Welles’ admiration continued up to The Shining.

    As for not being inspired by life, Welles was more political than Kubrick… and also, I have never seen a film capture the sensation of staying too late at a party as TOSOTW.

  11. t to meet both Donald Cammell and Frank Mazzola — separately. Cammell was doing his own publicity for “White of the Eye” — his other masterpiece. Mazzola told me quite a lot about him and about James Dean

  12. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Welles said sometime in the ’70s that he would see Barry Lyndon provided they released it in a shorter version based on his idea that no movie should be 3 hours long. He probably meant that as some ironic joke. Bill Krohn argued in his Masters of Cinema monograph on Kubrick that the latter was inspired by Welles, but never fully admitted to it.

    In the case of TOSOW, what I meant was that the references to contemporary stuff was a little behind the times. Like Welles fixates on Zabriskie Point, a movie which was a commercial failure and was virtually forgotten about at that time. He’s arthouse references are mid-60s Godard when at that time he had gone Dziga-Vertov. There’s not much references to the American avant-garde. Like in terms of arthouse directors inspiring Hollywood, Alain Resnais whose work inspired Boorman and Petulia is a major reference point surely. American avant-garde inspired the use of split-screen in stuff like Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler.

    So that’s what I mean when I say it’s inspired more by movies than contemporary life because what you see in TOSOW is stuff that was already dated by then. I think Demon Seed is also a great film. I haven’t seen his last film yet. White of the Eye is probably his greatest film and Catherine Moriarty is brilliant there.

  13. Like Jonathan Rosenbuam, I believe that Strasberg’s character is more Barbara Leaming than Kael since I can not conceive of either Hannaford (or Welles) allowing her into any of their social occasions. She also resembles the anonymous reporter in KANE who is searching for THE KEY to any interpretation and like Simon Callow in his follow-ups to the miserable THE ROAD TO XANADU ends up realizing that there is more to meet any “cinematic eye”.

    As with all Welles and Kubrick films on initial release, this one is going to take some time for critics to really comprehend what is going on since it is supposed to be a challenge not a document of everyday life in the 70s, an enigmatic puzzle very much in the spirit of F FOR FAKE.

    Also where is the citation for the supposition that “the film-within-a-film” is supposed to be a parody of ZABRISKIE POINT? Surely, the point is one of a Hollywood director attempting to emulate the style of a contemporary European Art Movie, one which he was entirely unsuitable to make. While there were successful Hollywood versions of the New Wave (the technique of BONNIE AND CLYDE) there were others that failed miserably. The presence of Mazursky, Hopper, and Jaglom at Hannaford’s Party is not accidental and much of their dialogue has been edited out of this version where they discuss different aspects of film-making.

    Also, the film is inspired by one aspect of “contemporary life” namely the contemporary cultural crisis in Hollywood when the New American cinema was losing steam in the same way that THE STRANGER also deals with one particular example (the resurgence of Nazism in American life) and the blinkered attitude of small town America in the same way that THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI criticizes the still homegrown fascist tendencies existing in Grisby and the Bannisters. In this respect, OUTW is Welles’s version of WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? since the supposed progressive tendencies of Hollywood are now at at end.

    Also, one of my problems with this version is Michael Legrand’s soundtrack.We have no idea what music Welles would have used for the “fwtf” had he lived to complete it. I’m irritated with the exchange between “Robert Evans” and the Norman Foster stooge that has unnecessary background music during this scene. It worked better without the music.On the other hand, the music used for the flashbulb part of the party sequence was far better.

    Finally, it is important to remember that Nicholas Ray was also going into his version of independent film at this time .WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN is another film dealing with a declining director and his attempt to relate to a different type of cinema he was unfamiliar with and contributed to. Also, Ray directed THE JANITOR, an avant-garde porno film that one could compare to the erotic sequence between Kodar and Random in the full version (one that Joseph McBride regrets was edited in this Netflix version) that is going to appear on a future DVD release.

  14. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Hannaford’s party in TOSOW is about him not fitting in the New Hollywood but it doesn’t say anything about “the New American Cinema running out of steam”. The movie was made and is set around the early 70s when the New Hollywood wasn’t even at the halfway point, Nashville, 3 Women, Alfredo Garcia, Taxi Driver, New York New York, Apocalypse Now and others were all in the future.

    For that matter, since the movie encourages slippage between Huston and Hannaford, we can’t forget that John Huston actually recovered his career in the 70s, he made Judge Roy Bean, Fat City, Man Who Would Be King, Wise Blood in that same decade. Then in the 80s he made Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor, before ending with The Dead, possibly his greatest ever film. So the idea of Old Hollywood guys not cutting it in the new wasn’t universally true and certainly not applicable to everyone. We can’t forget Samuel Fuller who in the 80s made two of his best films (Big Red One, White Dog). Joseph Losey another European exile and Hollywood refugee also did good films in the 70s.

    So I think TOSOW is really about Welles and his own predicament and feelings. I don’t see any grand statement or observation about the times and feelings to be gleaned from the content of that film itself. The movie is still poignant and it’s a time capsule but that’s because of external circumstances. Like when Welles made that film he can’t have predicted that by the time we see it: Dennis Hopper, Chabrol, Harrington, and Mazursky would all be dead when in this film they are embodiments of young new guys.

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    But is there a specific year given for the events that occur in the film? The “New American Cinema” I mention is the early phase influenced by the European art film, the French New Wave, and others that encouraged non-Hollywood cinematic experimentalism. The films you mention all use the classical Hollywood narrative form as defined by David Bordwell in one way or another and are less experimental such as in earlier films like THE TRIP, ALEX IN WONDERLAND, BONNIE AND CLYDE, MICKETY ONE, EASY RIDER, and THE LAST MOVIE.

    Atmosphere is central to this film and a feeling of creative malaise is in the air which is culturally and historically generated in terms of a sense of recognizing no new avenues to go and the dissipation that is in the air. If anything Welles is being prophetic in recognizing a stasis and cultural stalemate that would pave the way for JAWS and STAR WARS.

    Huston’s Hannaford is a fictional construct and I don’t think the film encourages such a “slippage.” That would be equivalent to identifying Welles with Charles Foster Kane. A much more complex mode of interpretation is needed here, one that would do justice to the deliberate fragmented style of the film.

    Young guys were not invulnerable from falling even at that time as with the new director of ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE who made one film and then disappeared from the scene.

  16. There’s no specific year… Dennis Hopper’s presence makes it feel like 1971 and The Last Movie (which would make a good title for this one too). Which would make the movie less out of date. If it had appeared post ’76 I can see this being a problem, maybe, but at this far greater distance, who cares?

  17. What TOSOTW most reminded me of —

  18. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    If there’s a movie-about-movies that actually captures the malaise of that time then Wim Wenders’ The State of Things is it. It has everything, the end of the New Hollywood, the end of the arthouse, the sense of depression with neoliberalism in the air, and it has Samuel Fuller in his best performance as the cinematographer Joe (based on Joe Biroc, a mutual collaborator for him and Wenders, who worked on Run of the Arrow and Hammett, and who before that shot Aldrich’s late masterpiece All the Marbles…). TOSOW doesn’t have anything as specific as that. The State of Things also averts the usual movie-in-movie formula since the movie they are making actually looks to have a decent idea, being a standard post-apocalyptic science-fiction film.

    I think TOSOW is primarily about how Welles saw his time. And that perspective tells us a lot about that time but it tells us ultimately more about Welles. And of course the way external circumstances shaped and defined the film give it a layer that Welles could not have intended. Brooks Otterlake is a good example. The 40 Years Documentary has Bogdanovich talking about how he felt that in lieu of Welles not being able to record his voiceover, he decided to voice it in-character as Brooks Otterlake. That gives the movie a poignancy. Otterlake becomes a more complex character especially when he says that even though the documentary with him shows him looking bad he’s too old to care about how well he comes across anymore. That implies that Otterlake ultimately became someone rather like Hannaford and it makes their interactions in the film more interesting and sad.

    That it’s Bogdanovich saying this is also meaningful because he’s a guy who’s been through a lot of tough times, being a film-maker of the new hollywood era whose career most resembles Welles –i.e. strong beginning but marginal middle-career and now spending most of his time making cameos and video interviews and so on. Compare that to the other guys of that era who are covered with glory, even Altman. So when he gives the voiceover at the start, you do have a sense of generation-defeat and disillusionment that rhymes with Hannaford’s.

  19. I don’t think Otterlake has aged like Hannaford, though the film Welles shot may imply this. Bogdanovich’s own VO suggests an awareness and a capacity for shame looking back that Hannaford lacks: in other words, Otterlake has aged like Bogdanovich. In this way, PB adds a grace note to an otherwise fairly bitter work.

    I like The State of Things. I need to have a Wenders discovery session, there are still a lot of important ones I haven’t seen.

  20. Viva (who I first met at the Silver Factory and who I chat with on Facebook every day) is marvelous in “The State of Things”

  21. Just saw her this evening in Midnght Cowboy!

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