The Other Side of the Wind ★★★★½

"Ahead of its time" is a misnomer because for so singular an artist as Welles, there can be no specific time. He was not the voice of a moment, he was the voice of a perspective, joy and thirst for innovation that is a rarity in American art of any form. This film is as much an overwhelming jolt as it would have been in the mid-1970s, but let's be honest: the same would be true forty more years from now if we still have hearts, minds and movies then. It's a fool's errand to pretend you understand everything this is getting at after one sitting with it, but if it's okay to be extremely judgmental in my own space, I guess I can say that if you don't see a lot of probing, permanent brilliance in this piece, I don't know why you're on this website. That's not to say I'm not as confounded by it as anyone, though having seen the clips in One Man Band I was not surprised by its radicalism, and since F for Fake is one of my favorite films I was pretty open-armed for it.

Welles made outsider art and had no easier a time making a living at it than anyone else, but he made it with a zeal that generated respect even from those without the patience to enable him. This playful, rambling but impressively lively portrait of an enigmatic "great man" director's 70th birthday party was shot and edited in fits and starts out of people's houses and with a cast and crew that was doing it out of love, right up to its bizarrely appropriate premiere on a streaming service four decades later, three after Welles' death. Unlike many, I buy that it's not really autobiography -- from what I know of Welles, he wasn't the paranoid, mean wreck Huston seems to be here, and even if we must go there, it's telling that the film largely seems designed to deconstruct the kind of mythology that builds up around any "great man" figure, as if no one was more skeptical of the Welles Legend than Welles himself. The resulting film feels like a full fruition of his vision that would have been impossible during his lifetime, and despite its considerable wit and busyness it absolutely pulses with loss and disappointment that extends far beyond the matter of the lead character's (and Welles') death. It shares some stylistic traits with Robert Altman's work and has the same sometimes unfortunate distancing quality, the making of impressions and imparting of story information almost by osmosis, but is more deliberately timed, performed and edited than Altman's work, with the result that none of the offhand dialogue and layered, complicated interactions ever feel inconsequential. There's a lot of competition but the key conversation -- more even than those about the failed quests for money and the John Huston character's shamed sexuality -- for me was that in which Huston and Lilli Palmer discuss their friendship and conclude that the great tragedy is the eventual discovery that a long-lost closeness was shared between "two other people."

My cinephile friends will probably find it a tired comparison but I recall Robert Christgau's positive impression of Brian Wilson's 2004 reconstruction of Smile, which I disliked very much, as being colored by how moving it was to hear Wilson reinterpret himself after a great deal of time had passed. Our encounters with this film are affected similarly by the decades since it was actually shot, as it can instill in us a longing for a time in which such a mess of genuine ideas, jumbled emotions and risk-taking was even possible -- when was the last time you saw a new movie that could compete with the indelible imagery of even this film's "movie within a movie" that's designed as a parody of pretentious arthouse fare but in fact is as visually arresting and masterfully edited as anything in Welles' career, therefore far more striking than anything in even great films of the modern era? Again, I'm not lamenting a lost time, I'm lamenting that Welles was not an artist we have matched, nor one we can ever duplicate. New work from him in 2018 is, put simply, an unfathomable gift.

There will be a lot more to say, I'm sure; I'm not going to try to fashion this into a coherent essay because it would be unfair to the film, but one last thought: if part of the point Welles was driving at was the anti-art sentiment that runs within and counter to the core of filmmaking as an industry and profession as opposed to an art form, he certainly did see where the entire field was heading despite his own preoccupations at the time being the trappings and debts of New Hollywood; and if he and Oja Kodar feared that said anti-art sentiment was likely to spread to the rest of the world, the dumping of this picture on so universally accessible a service as Netflix and the resulting cornucopia of star ratings and opinions from what C.F. Kane would have called "a cross section of the American public" seems like, somehow, another part of Welles' divinely considered, career-long performance artistry. Incidentally, one reviewer here on Lboxd complained that Welles "loves naked people to a disgusting degree." I would never even contemplate putting any aspect of myself on a plane with Orson Welles, but: same as hell, buddy.

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