The Other Side of the Wind

“I’d call him a necromancer. But I do not know if he’s raised the dead.”

At long last, Orson Welles’ much-discussed The Other Side of the Wind has been completed and is now available to the world.

Wind languished for decades since the time of its troubled production, and, by the time of his death, Welles was only able to edit roughly forty percent of the film, some of which was presented as a showreel to potential investors. The money to finish the film never came and decades of legal battles over the rights prevented the film’s completion at the hands of Welles’ original collaborators. Now, not only has a full reconstruction of the film has been assembled, but you can stream the bewildering result right into your living room via Netflix. Until now, an Orson Welles film has never received such widespread distribution.

The Other Side of the Wind tells a quasi-autobiographical tale about a Hemingway-esque director’s spectacular burnout. That director, Jake Hannaford (played with scene-chewing gusto by John Huston), has spun wildly out of control due to his obsession with the film’s leading man, driving him off of the picture and leaving the production in a state of disarray. The picture itself unfolds over the course of a mad, drunken party, during which segments of the uncompleted film are exhibited by Hannaford and his production team. A host of critics and cinephiles have also been invited to the bash with the agreement that they can film the entire event. Welles’ film unfolds as a fictional documentary, prefiguring the “found footage” movement that would arrive many decades later.

The power of art is intimately tied to the way in which it functions as a vessel for psychic forces, and The Other Side of the Wind is all psychic force, so much so that the vessel itself shatters. The Other Side of the Wind is a film about implosion, both in its subject matter and its broader metafictional resonances. It’s an unfinished movie about an unfinished movie, a nexus point where Welles’ life and film work collide, intermingle, and then spin off into the shadows.

The mysteries and contradictions of the human mind loom large in Welles’ career, and though the films could not be texturally more different, the way Wind gestures back to Citizen Kane cannot be denied. In The Other Side of the Wind, art itself becomes Rosebud, at once revelatory and utterly irrelevant. Hannaford’s uncompleted film is a carcass which critics and biographers tear at like vultures. But in its eroticism, its unfulfilled desire, its fixation on the gulf between age and youth, Wind extends more directly from The Immortal Story, with both films pivoting around similar bedroom encounters.

The Other Side of the Wind ultimately reveals itself as a story of stunted, curdled romance. The film sketches out the details of Hannaford’s fraught relationship with his leading man, John Dale (Robert Random), in dialogue, but the emotional force of Hannaford’s obsession with and repressed desire for his leading man can only be discerned within the fragmented scenes of the film-within-a-film. Hannaford’s would-be comeback film, which shares the name of the Welles’ film in which it appears, begins as an absurdly exaggerated bit of artistic pretension, skewering the kind of arthouse stunt-cinema that Welles so disdained. The vacuous, albeit colorful, theatrics gradually give way to a more and more personal expression of desire. Hannaford’s film is a bad movie that becomes a potent one only as it spirals ever further out of control, becoming a more and more honest and vital expression of its author’s repressed desires. The film is Hannaford’s confession, and, finally, his suicide note.

The film within the film contains most of The Other Side of the Wind‘s Welles-edited footage, so it crackles with an energy and fluidity that the rest of the picture cannot quite match. Welles’ editing language was a kind of alien tongue, a pulsing of pure instinct which cannot be recreated. While Bob Murawski, who was tasked with editing together the reams of footage into a film, does a more than admirable job, Murawski is also tasked with attempting to adhere to Welles’ original blueprints in a way that Welles himself would not have been had he been able to finish the picture. We can only speculate as to what impressionistic montages Welles would have produced from Wind‘s raw material. Much of Wind feels like the approximation that it is, and, being an approximation, it tends to magnify the limitations of Wind‘s structural components.

The Other Side of the Wind may be Welles’ most structurally intricate narrative picture, though, in broad strokes, it follows a format he utilized in earlier works. Like Kane and Arkadin, Wind is essentially comprised of a series of interviews and exchanges about a mythic male figure, but here all these moments are layered on top of one another. It’s often a thrilling effect, but in order to anchor the cacophony, the big dramatic pivots have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Bluntness and obviousness are not necessarily artistic sins, but whatever nuance or embellishment that Welles’ editing might have granted to this often broadly drawn material is a matter of pure speculation.

What emotional heft the film carries comes from its grace notes, those fleeting moments where, amidst the chaos, the veneers crack. Welles seems to wield Huston mostly as effect, a growling, demonic presence steeped in booze, but in moments where Hannaford’s dependence on those around him comes into focus (a dependence Hannaford greatly resents), the sadness of his existence shines through. His scenes with his great acolyte, Otterlake–portrayed by Peter Bogdanovich in a very self-effacing turn–are the closest the film comes to tenderness.

The jazz-infused score by the venerable Michel Legrand, who worked with Welles on F for Fake, locates and develops the existential momentum in the fragmented material, swinging along with the film as it shifts from despair to delirium. Of all the film’s elements, Legrand’s score feels the most complete, a gift from one of film’s greatest composers to one of film’s greatest directors.

At one point in the film, a character remarks that “no machine ever produces as much as it consumes,” a line that summarizes Wind‘s Hannaford and the carnivorous film industry he inhabits, but also plays as a bitter confession from Welles himself. In The Other Side of the Wind, Welles mined his own hardships and sorrows for drama, and ultimately the story he told in The Other Side of the Wind became a self-fulfilling prophecy, a hazy portrait of Welles’ self-destructive impulses that was derailed by those same impulses.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula is a kind of miracle insofar as it’s as free a film a filmmaker could ever make within the constraints of the studio system. Coppola’s Dracula is endlessly, joyously experimental, a love letter to the old-fashioned trickery of cinema that revels in the beauty of artifice. This makes it close kin to Coppola’s late-period triptych of Youth Without Youth, Tetro, and Twixt, the three of which comprise Coppola’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker.

Dracula boasts career-best work from a team of incredible collaborators (among them, Michael Ballhaus and Eiko Ishioka). The film contains of such unearthly beauty that they take away my breath every time I see them (and I’ve seen them countless times), such as a princess’ gorgeously staged leap from the precipice of a tower, or a romantic dinner in a private room where the shadows of dancers play off of the glass in the background. What Dracula offers is something more than mere ornamental spectacle, a cornucopia of beguiling visions that nod back to a legacy of symbolist and expressionistic art.

Sadly, the tin-eared script often rears its head to interrupt the fantasia of images and sounds. This Dracula never quite knows what its doing with the historical detail and theological architecture it so carelessly emphasizes. The film’s risible resolution, a series of non-sequiturs about love and redemption and reincarnation, only re-emphasizes the thematic muddle at its center rather than providing a pathway through it.

There’s also an odd disharmony among the performances of the cast, whose heightened interpretations of these characters often clash in ways that are not especially productive. That said, I’m very fond of Anthony Hopkins’ Van Helsing, who is less the model of Christian virtue than he is a kind of madman who attacks metaphysical monstrosities with an abundance of dark humor, and it’s undeniable that Gary Oldman’s very theatrical Dracula finds new shades and colors within a character who, even by the time of the film’s release, had been already interpreted by a host of accomplished thespians.

Of all the film’s many admirable aspects, the component I admire most is composer Wojciech Kilar’s vivid score, which perhaps does more to unify the film’s disparate pieces more than any other element of the film. The sinuous and sensual love theme Kilar conceived for this Dracula (“Love Remembered”) is a work of art unto itself.

The Shining

“In The Shining you’re dealing with a director who is working for the first time in this genre and who seems to have a bit of contempt for it. He is obviously not interested in the conventions of the genre he he’s chosen; in fact, he seems to feel there would be something cheapening or demeaning in drawing from the wellspring of the normal genre conventions. Instead you sense that he wants to revolutionize it and make it something profound or significant. But the result is inevitably heavy-handed because what he has actually done is failed to realize the intrinsic beauty of the basic form per se.

The real trick is not to ignore the conventions but to take them and then personalize them.”

~ Brian De Palma, speaking in a 1980 interview with Ralph Appelbaum

The Shining has become such a significant film in the landscape of cinematic horror that it’s often easy to forget the mixed reception it received upon its theatrical premiere in the United States (indeed, Stanley Kubrick’s films, while generally successful in financial terms, were often met with mixed critical receptions), and during the film’s original run, remarks like De Palma’s above were not entirely uncommon. While I have my own misgivings about Kubrick’s The Shining, I believe that the allegations De Palma makes in that 1980 interview somewhat fail to appropriately diagnose the problems with The Shining (though his allegations are obviously revealing about De Palma’s own approach to genre storytelling).

Despite the widespread view of Kubrick as a kind of mythic mastermind who meticulously planned every feature of his films from the outset, the truth is that Kubrick discovered his films in the process of making them, often clarifying their intentions and effects in the editing room (even to the point of re-editing films after they had begun their theatrical run). I have never been entirely convinced that Kubrick entirely found what he was looking for in The Shining, and believe that the film’s conceptual fogginess is responsible for the number of absurd conspiracy theories that have sprung up surrounding the film (a number of which are memorably explored in the documentary Room 237). Nevertheless, there remain certain clues to what fascinated Kubrick about the material, and I think those who are curious that would do best to look back to the work’s genesis (such as this early treatment, authored by Kubrick himself, which differs from the final film in some key ways, but is also very consistent with it on other key points), and the film’s most final form, the shorter European cut of the film that Kubrick constructed after the film’s initial US release.

It’s evident that Kubrick quite enjoyed playing with the tropes and shock effects of the horror story; certainly, the enthusiasm with which he describes The Shining‘s events in that early treatment would seem to make it quite evident that that was part of what drew him to the material. If The Shining‘s effects are so blunt as to verge on the comical, that stems less from condescension than from Kubrick’s essential style, which often has a “Get a load of this!” undercurrent. After all, The Shining begins with the strains of “Dies Irae,” which is so unsubtle that it must be read as both a dark joke even if it also functions as an ominous effect, and that revelry carries through the film into the film’s famous “woman bathing” nightmare to the climactic hallucinations involving a man in a bear suit and, at least in the US cut, a table full of cobwebbed skeletons that might have come from a William Castle movie.

Structurally, The Shining remains stubbornly odd, though the clearest throughline in Kubrick’s film comes from its resolution, which was Kubrick’s most significant alteration to Stephen King’s source text. Kubrick’s suggestion that Jack Torrance, The Shining‘s primary protagonist, is not a victim of the haunted Overlook Hotel (as he is in King’s text), but an extension of it–that he is, and always has been, the haunted hotel’s caretaker, as one of the Overlook Hotel’s phantoms informs him–radically alters the nature of this haunted house narrative. Note that even in Kubrick’s early treatment, we find a variation of the finished film’s conclusion, in which a photograph reveals that Jack Torrance was once at the hotel in a previous life. Thus Torrance’s arc is less of a descent into madness than an awakening of his true, repressed self. The story of Jack Torrance is the story of the re-emergence of a demon of the dark, disturbing American past.

This adds a new level of emphasis to the way Kubrick’s film opens with Torrance driving to the Overlook hotel: The Shining is Jack Torrance’s journey home. The flickers of menace that occur in early scenes of Torrance with the hotel manager and with his family on the journey to the hotel hint at his unity with the malevolence with which the film presents us. This radically transforms the nature of the dysfunctional familial relationships at the center of the film in ways that author Stephen King has famously resented, but it clues us in to the existential horror that Kubrick sought to locate in this text, in which a legacy of American violence reaches into right into the heart of the American family, connecting historical atrocity with the intimate cruelty of child abuse.

Scholars debate which cut of The Shining Kubrick ultimately preferred, and the record on that score is mixed in ways that prevent us from arriving at any definitive answer. Kubrick left two cuts in circulation: the more expansive American cut, and the considerably briefer European cut, which trims many of the film’s languors, and notably shifts the revelation of Jack Torrance’s past physical abuse of Danny to much later in the film.

While the scope and scale of the American cut has its own level of appeal, the European cut has greater clarity and unity. The film becomes even more exaggerated, more heightened, offering less room for the viewer to reorient themselves between its pulses. The nightmare inundates the viewer like the blood from the Overlook Hotel’s elevator. The European cut offers only brief glimpses of the “real world” outside of the Overlook, reshaping the film’s central trio into almost archetypal figures in the midst of an infernal play.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

“There is more evil around us here than I have ever encountered before.”

So declares Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), which embellished Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved novel into a Gothic horror picture from Hammer Film Productions.

By the time he directed Baskervilles, Terence Fisher had already firmly established the Hammer horror film aesthetic with his pictures, The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula (1958), The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), and The Mummy (1959), mingling a kind of dry, British elegance with vital sensuality. Fisher’s images, created in collaboration with the great cinematographer Jack Asher, achieved peak loveliness here in Baskervilles (as well as the marvelously lush The Brides of Dracula, which was released a year later), and they are not mere veneer, but achieve synthesis with Doyle’s story and transform it, adding both scope and existential urgency.

No scenes in the Hammer filmography are more eerie and arresting than Baskerville‘s prologue and climax, both of which unfold around and within the ruins of an abbey, and in which carnal desire and malice collide in fatal combinations. Sherlock Holmes, with his rational mind, explains away the mythic beast with which the story is concerned, but the supernatural is still very much in evidence in Fisher’s film, in which metaphysical evil becomes tangibly physical. Evil possesses people much in the same way that vampirism possesses the victims depicted in Fisher’s vampire pictures, twisting human expressions into unhinged, animalistic desire. In vivid departures from Doyle’s considerably less operatic and less sadistic conclusion, the cosmic forces of nature turn against wickedness as evil’s perpetrators are torn apart by beasts and, in one especially chilling image, swallowed up by the earth itself.

Strait-Jacket

William Castle’s explosive 1964 film, Strait-Jacket, emerged in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic proto-slasher, Psycho. Castle, an impish showman with a strong instinct for gimmickry, had been making horror pictures for years by the time Psycho was released, and the picture he made immediately after it–1961’s Homicidal–was accused by contemporaneous critics of being a crass ripoff. Castle’s effects were considerably more blunt and less “respectable” than Hitchcock’s, but if Castle wore the aura of carnival barker proudly, he could still be a very canny, expressive filmmaker. Homicidal may have sprung from the shadow of Psycho, but Strait-Jacket, made just a few years later, may be an even clearer descendant; Strait-Jacket was written by Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel from which Psycho had been adapted. Strait-Jacket repurposes some of Psycho‘s structures and motifs, but it proves to be more of a cousin to Psycho than a twin.

The psychological rupture at the heart of Psycho serves as background material to be doled out as exposition in the film’s denoument, but Strait-Jacket presents that rupture as its inciting incident, centering its dramatic arc on its protagonist’s attempts to re-enter society after years of recovery (in this way, its trajectory is actually more similar to that of Psycho II (1983), in which murderer Norman Bates struggles with his psychological stability as he returns to civilian life, than that of Psycho). Strait-Jacket does share Psycho‘s fixation on a maternal figure, but here the mother is both the film’s bogeyman and the film’s protagonist.

Joan Crawford stars as axe-murderess Lucy Harbin, who, in the film’s opening moments, brutally murders her younger husband and his lover after discovering them together. The film follows the psychological warping of Lucy Harbin–who first emerges as virile, confident, and sensual–as the realization of betrayal pivots from shock to dismay to psychosis, shifts that are all telegraphed with striking clarity by Crawford. As the violent act occurs, the film breaks apart before our eyes, blurring the line between the feverish experience of Lucy and that of her daughter Carol (who tragically witnesses the violent event). The decapitations are the first of many in the film, and in their cleanness as well as their unconvincing gore effects, they have a decidedly unreal quality that has been enhanced by the passage of time. The sequence climaxes with the image of Lucy, strapped to a gurney, screaming protestations of innocence, her twisting form superimposed over her daughter’s horrified eyes.

The shared trauma between mother and daughter turns out to be the heart of Strait-Jacket, and the title sequence, which serves as a pause as the film leaps forward twenty years, takes us into abstract, feverish images of that trauma: silhouettes traversing landscapes of severed heads and watchful eyes. The bookends–painted images of Crawford’s face as a vacant, eyeless mask–foreshadow the film’s climactic twist and suggests the way in which Lucy Harbin’s identity that has become untethered from the psyche. Van Alexander’s title cue disrupts lushly romantic, tender passages with eerie, wailing effects, the musical expression of a woman’s soul unable to reconcile itself to itself.

Crawford, now in the post-What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? phase of her career, anchors it through sheer conviction. Strait-Jacket demands that Crawford utilize the full range of her expressive abilities as she performs astonishing dramatic gymnastics, portraying a woman continually phasing through modes of meekness and anger and strength and weakness. Crawford proves adept at maintaining a sense of consistent character throughout all these sensationalized pivots, somehow able to reconcile the the vampy, confident woman she first emerges as and the washed-out, timid shell of herself that she has emerges as after twenty years in the asylum.

Lucy’s daughter, Carol, played by Diane Baker, remains preoccupied both with her mother and the past; the full extent of this fixation is not expressed until the film’s climax. Following her mother’s release, Carol seeks to return her mother to her past self in a sequence reminiscent of Judy’s transformation into Madeleine from Vertigo (and Baker herself has some of the Hitchcock aura; she memorably appeared in Marnie, which was released the same year as Strait-Jacket). Carol’s attempts to conjure the past also conjures up its demons, and hints of the latent violence in Lucy emerge, as well as hints of the raw sensuality of her youth. In one of the film’s wildest scenes, Lucy meets her daughter’s fiancé (who resembles the murdered husband, a hint at the daughter’s own fixations) and instinctively returns to her younger self, lasciviously flirting with him in a borderline predatory fashion. It’s a scene only Crawford could play, and she does it with panache; in a magnificent gesture, Crawford’s Lucy confidently lights a match by striking it on a record. This Lucy quickly crumbles when confronted with her greatest fear, the fear she might once again be imprisoned in an asylum. Another sequence in the film finds her trapped in a bathroom, frantically crying for release as she beats the room’s striped walls.

Much of the film features Lucy entrapped by the conceptions and demands of others, whether that be those of her daughter, of the doctor from the asylum (who stops by for a visit and, after seeing her distress, tries to return her to the asylum before losing his head), or of the parents of Carol’s fiancé. Without a strong sense of self, she is intensely vulnerable to the projections of others, both yielding to and resisting them simultaneously. But in the midst of these moments, glimpses of her vulnerability and tenderness emerge, her desperate hope that she might escape her own legacy of violence. None are quite so moving as when Lucy, fresh from the asylum, sees her daughter’s sculpture of her younger self and is left stunned by this monument to her lost beauty.

There’s a ghoulish sense of humor undergirding Straight-Jacket‘s trajectory of violence, a humor which will be familiar to anyone who’s spent some time with Castle’s filmography. Carol lives on a farm, and much is made of Lucy’s visible discomfort with the slaughter of the animals, as well as the cosmic pull of sharp knives and axes. The violence itself is staged with a keen sense of the lulls and pauses necessary to heighten the sense of anticipation, leading up the exclamatory burst of gore as the heads are removed from the bodies. That same perversity tilts over into the way in which the film relentlessly tortures Lucy, who the film continually pushes toward the breaking point, haunted by voices of children singing nursery rhymes about her murder and waking up to hallucinations of severed heads in her bed.

The hallucinations turn out to be nothing of the sort. Lucy has been a victim of a campaign to drive her back to insanity, a campaign led by her daughter, Carol. This reveal occurs as the film’s climax, as Lucy discovers that her daughter, Carol, is the murderer. Carol has become her doppelgänger, dressing up as Lucy in the same outfit Lucy wore during that tragic night twenty years ago, complete with an unsettling mask she sculpted on her mother’s features. Lucy pulls away, unable to utter a word. Carol’s own calm facade crumbles as her fiancé finds her, pleading with him as she explains she sought to kill his disapproving parents so that they could be married. Carol’s frantic explanations give way to incoherence; she pummels the mask of her mother with her fist, alternating proclaiming her hatred and love of her mother. Like practically everything in Strait-Jacket, the moment has no real subtlety, but it’s still agonizingly raw. Baker’s collected manner gives way to the frantic mania that Crawford’s gave to in the film’s opening minutes, as Crawford’s Lucy stumbles outside, bewildered.

That gut-wrenching revelation and its aftermath functions as the film’s true ending, the jarring conclusion of a nightmare. The scene that follows feels like the morning after, with a serene Lucy talking to her brother, neatly explaining all of Carol’s insidious attempts to exacerbate her mother’s mental instability and frame her for murder. If the film would be better without this attempt to assuage the audience, the film nevertheless concludes on a poignantly sad note: Lucy will be joining Carol in the asylum in the hopes of helping her heal, a mother bound together with her daughter in trauma and violence and madness.

Raúl Ruiz and Narrative

“To say that a story can only take place if it is connected to a central conflict forces us to eliminate all stories which do not include confrontation and to leave aside all those events which require only indifference or detached curiosity, like a landscape, a distant storm, or dinner with friends–unless such scenes punctuate two fights between the bad guys and the good guys.”

~ Raúl Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema