The Other Side of the Wind (Iran-France-US, 2018)

What to make of it?

An Orson Welles film over 40 years in the making (he’s been dead for over 30 of them), The Other Side of the Wind is an extraordinary gasp of a great filmmaker from beyond the grave. Of course it’s unclear how much of the film is Welles’, though he’d edited 42 minutes, it fell to Bob Murawski to put it together with the help of many and, crucially, Netflix’s investment. Netflix is a villain (it’s difficult to see Roma in cinemas in the UK and no doubt in most places) but a hero in the case of Welles’ final breath.

I watched the film knowing little about its content and it’s both easy to watch, the visuals and editing are often outstanding, and difficult to follow. I shall have to see it again having now ‘done the reading’. John Huston, in brilliant form, is playing a Welles-like character (though significantly Welles distances himself by not playing the role) of a director returning to Los Angeles, after making movies in Europe, and is trying to get funding to finish his film. What could be a postmodern conceit is elevated by the artistry; there’s no doubting that, even though stylistically the film is very different from his other work, the director is a genius. So we should take it as a Welles film and applaud those who brought it to the screen.

Despite not playing the lead, the film is clearly autobiographical: Susan Strasberg plays a Pauline Kael type of critic allowing Huston’s Jake Hannaford to take verbal pot shots at her (Welles and Kael feuded) and there are some appearances by filmmakers, such as Dennis Hopper and Henry Jaglom, as themselves thus mixing up the real and unreal. Added to the mix is the film Hannaford is making, a parody of later Antonioni, featuring Welles’ partner (and co-screenwriter) Oja Kodar as a Native American and usually undressed. This is mixed with documentary-like footage of the party hosted by Hannaford to raise money. Peter Bogdanovich plays an up-and-coming director (as he was after The Last Picture Show, 1971) who previously hero-worshiped the director (again an autobiographical element). Some of the film is in black and white, and the aspect ratios vary, to indicate the different sources of the footage.

As I’ve said, I need to see the film again but the first viewing had enough breathtaking moments to satisfy. For example, a swirl of red dust blows across the screen to reveal Kodar’s ‘The Actress’ and Wellesian ‘cut on movement’ is evident throughout creating dynamic transitions.

As an epitaph it’s a remarkably different film from the expressionism that preceded it and so a testament to Welles’ creative vitality. It was worth the wait. (Netflix)

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Bone Tomahawk (US-UK, 2015)

Not your average ‘Indian’

S. Craig Zahler’s debut as a director (he also scripted) is less a Western than an outback horror movie, though the tropes of the former are present. A posse of four ill-matched men go after some particularly savage ‘Indians’ who have kidnapped one of the pursuers’ wife. So far so conventional and the unspoken male creed of ‘what a man’s gotta do…’ underpins the men’s bravery. The landscape, a mixture of scrub and glorious vistas, is typical of the genre too though the setting, in the last decade of the 19th century, is later than ‘classic’ Westerns.

The (for me) dread hand of Tarantino is present in some of the dialogue that seems to be trying to be clever but that’s never over-bearing and it’s delivered brilliantly by the cast. The actors are the main reason to see this film unless you wish to be grossed out. Kurt Russell’s rugged visage was designed to be a sheriff and Richard Jenkins’ garrulous old man is a delight.

The film risks going back to the reactionary ‘Indian as savage’ trope but Zahler’s careful to distinguish the savages with ‘authentic’ Native Americans. And savage they are ‘treating’ us to the ‘best’ dismemberment I’ve seen in film; if that’s your bag.

One bright spot, in terms of it being a Western, is Lili Simmons’s character, the abducted wife. Although marginalised for much of the film she does get a great speech where she talks about the problems of the frontier (which had disappeared by 1890) not being the terrain or ‘Indians’, but male stupidity. The ‘men’s gotta do…’ is certainly stupid in some contexts and the narrative stretches too far in allowing them to do it; even in the context of a genre film, it is not believable.

The film is overlong, some of the dialogue could have been trimmed, but is worth seeing for the cast but if you’re squeamish avoid the last half hour.

The Swimmer (US, 1968)

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Swimming to oblivion

This is an interesting ‘New Hollywood’ film where the French ‘new wave’ can be seen infiltrating the commercially desperate Hollywood. Though it was an independent production, Sam Spiegel was pretty much establishment Hollywood and Columbia Pictures distributed. Of course the presence of Burt Lancaster brings the Hollywood star system into play but the fact that Spiegel took his name off the film and had Sydney Pollack reshoot some scenes give an indication that this isn’t a product of the Dream Factory.

It was filmed in 1966 but took two years to be released and so predated both Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, key films in the emergence of Hollywood films that challenged the American consensus about their ‘Dream’. Lancaster plays Ned Merrill who, an a whim, decides to swim via his friends’ swimming pools back to his house several miles away. What starts as genial romp deteriorates as it becomes clear that all’s not well with Merrill.

Lancaster looks terrific, although clearly middle-aged he’s in trim particularly compared to the peers he meets on his journey. The hard-edged optimism of his persona is used to good effect and, as the day progresses, Lancaster conveys his mental deterioration with some brilliance. The time he spends with the teenager (Janet Landgard), who had a crush on him as a child, are superbly creepy.

An interesting piece describes Merrill’s decline as tragic. My reading was less charitable as his treatment of women was full of self-regard and his fall is entirely deserved. The shallowness of the bourgeoisie, flaunting their wealth, is well presented and some of the dialogue crackles (the script was by Eleanor Perry) and was no doubt drawn directly from the source material, John Cheever’s short story of the same name.

Director, husband of the scriptwriter, Frank went of to make Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), which I remember enjoying a long time ago. The ‘new wave’ influence I mentioned above refers primarily to the occasional non-conventional use of film form rather than specific aspects. For example, the editing, particularly when Merrill’s on the move, sometimes uses very rapid montages to convey the dynamic movement. There is one very striking zoom into an extreme close-up of Merrill’s eye. It wouldn’t be mistaken for a classical Hollywood film.

The only other film I’m familiar with that Perry directed was the Joan Crawford ‘hit piece’ Mommie Dearest (1980). Would be good to see the Diary of a Mad Housewife again.

Summertime (UK-US, 1955)

When the living is uneasy

The opening scenes of this melodrama look like a travelogue graced by Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. I guess tourism was becoming more popular in the post-War era and the shots of Venice would no doubt have tempted many to visit. All these scenes lack is a complacent voice over selling us the place’s charms in a twee way. Fortunately the film stars Katharine Hepburn.

The slight ‘holiday romance’ story was adapted, from Arthur Laurent’s play, by director David Lean and H.E. Bates (and the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart). Hepburn’s ‘independent woman’ persona is to the fore at the start as she’s touring on her own but finds the ‘romance’ of Venice casts her loneliness into the foreground: cue Rossano Brazzi’s Italian charmer, Renato di Rossi. What makes the film distinctive is the way Jane Hudson’s (Hepburn) loneliness is portrayed as it isn’t just something that is presented as a ‘narrative lack’ to be fulfilled ‘happily ever after’ at the film’s conclusion. There’s real pathos in Hepburn’s performance as she hesitates to go for the ‘holiday fling’. Her ‘middle aged spinster’ characterisation takes up a fair proportion of the film and the scriptwriters don’t compromise with their ending.

In a striking scene, when di Rossi first sees Hudson we get that rare beast: the male gaze directed at an ‘older’ woman (Hepburn was 48 at the time). We see him appreciatively look at her body, particularly her exposed calf. Even the ‘cute’ kid isn’t too irritating though Lean’s tendency to shoot a lot of the conversations in long takes and an immobile character tends to drain the drama. However, the numerous shots of Hudson wandering around a crowded Venice are skilfully executed.

Apparently the adultery fell foul of the Production Code and scenes were cut: the film leaves us with a firework display. Hepburn received one of her numerous Oscar nominations; Lean, too, was nominated.

Puzzle (US, 2018)

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A puzzle as why Kelly MacDonald isn’t a bigger star

I had my doubts as to where this melodrama was going near the start of the film. I wasn’t fussed by the unusual milieux (jigsaw puzzle contests) just worried I’d seen it all before: mousy, downtrodden woman finds her voice. It’s not that that’s not an important narrative arc but it is well weathered so needs freshening up and this remake of the Argentinean Rompecabezas (2009) does just that.

Even if it hadn’t the performances are enough to make the film worthwhile. MacDonald is sensational as Agnes and Irrfan Khan’s charisma carries him a long way. David Denman, as Louie Agnes’ husband, is also very good and his character never becomes a simple sign of patriarchal repression. Cinematography (Christopher Norr) is great too: light floods into Agnes’ home which, nevertheless, remains gloomy. The film is about a darkness of the American Dream.

Spoilers ahead: but what makes the film stand out is Agnes who doesn’t take long to develop into an independent woman. Instead of a slow burn of realisation she gets it quickly and acts accordingly. MacDonald’s brilliance is that she convinces us of the fairly rapid transformation.

Superbly made, director Marc Turtletaub produced Little Miss Sunshine (US, 2009), this made me almost want to do a jigsaw.

BlacKkKlansman (US, 2018)

Emotional truth

Spike Lee’s brilliant return to form has been criticised for not being true to the facts. Although it is based on Ron Stallworth’s memoir of infiltrating the KKK, most of the film is fiction. Anything that’s ‘based on a true story’ is unlikely to be trying to be a documentary so assuming the film must be entirely based on actuality is nonsense. That said, if it hadn’t been based on a true story, black cop infiltrates the KKK but needs a white cop to appear in his stead, the central premise would seem ridiculous. As it is, we get a slightly surreal situation entirely in keeping with the stupidity of racists, even though Jasper Pääkkönen’s portrayal as the demented Felix is slightly too ‘swivel-eyed’. However, it must be remembered that ‘going over-the-top’ is how Lee often works as he is a melodramatist at heart.

Lee’s also a political filmmaker with his focus on racist America and his Do the Right Thing is rightly lauded as a classic on this topic. Melodrama and politics are somewhat antithetical as the former couches its narrative in terms of individuals whilst the latter requires analysis of society. Lee overcomes this, to a degree, with Brechtian devices, where he draws attention to the fact that we are watching a film in order to get us thinking. For example, in BlacKkKlansman a discussion of blaxploitation films of the time (it’s set in the early ’70s) is illustrated with split screen film posters: the ‘fourth wall’ is clearly broken. More powerfully the film ends with footage from Charlottesville, August 2017, and Trump’s disgraceful excuses for the fascists: there’s no doubt what Lee is saying about now.

Spoiler alert: Jack Lowe’s critique that the film whitewashes the police force makes some good points. The scene where the overtly racist cop is arrested contradicts Flip’s (the Jewish cop who was Stallworth’s proxy) statement earlier in the film that the police are ‘family’ and so even tolerate racists in their ranks. Both the chief of police and Stallworth’s sergeant come across as too liberal particularly as Stallworth was the first black cop in Colorado Springs; the conventions of portrayals of the time, from a liberal perspective, would suggest that Stallworth would have had a much harder time. The arrest of the racist cop is so unbelievable that maybe that was Lee’s point and the seemingly happy resolution is a fantasy. Lee saves his trademark ‘double-dolly’, a shot where characters ride on the camera and are moved without walking, for the final scene when Stallworth, and his black activist girlfriend, move forward in tandem, guns drawn, as a KKK cross burns in the distance. This shot signifies that the characters are not in control of events and so further undermines the happy ending. That this is followed by the Charlottesville montage is further evidence of this.

Lee proselytises through Kwame Ture’s (aka Stokely Carmichael) rousing speech and Harry Belafonte’s cameo, discussing ‘old time’ racism with youngsters. These are powerful scenes. In addition, whilst at film school (New York University) Lee almost didn’t get to complete his studies as some in the faculty objected to his short ‘The Answer’ where he emphasised that the ‘classic’ The Birth of a Nation (1915) is a racist film. His professors (as did mine) merely used it to demonstrate innovative film craft rather than a disgraceful recruiting tool for the KKK. Lee incorporates footage of the film where, in different places, both the activists and the KKK watch the film with predictably different reactions.

It’s gratifying to see BlacKkKlansman do good business at the box office, Lee won the Grand Prix at Cannes for the film, and kudos to Jordan Peele (of the brilliant Get Out) for suggesting Lee make the film and for Blumhouse Productions for producing.

Hombre (US 1966)

Soulful eyes

Hombre is a revisionist western where the ‘savage Indian’ is shown to actually have been the victims of rapacious white men. I was slightly worried at the start of the film where we see Paul Newman as an Apache (above) but we find he was merely adopted by the Native Americans and it’s not a case of ‘whitewash’ casting. The ‘good but indecisive’ Mexican stereotype, however, is embodied by Martin Balsam; we shouldn’t go too far in condemning racist conventions of the time (though we can condemn the practice now – see Emma Stone in Aloha, 2015, and others) particularly in a film that is trying to be progressive. It should be noted, however, that there are no speaking parts for Native Americans; as is often the case with liberalism, ‘white man speak for all’!

The narrative is driven by Richard Boone’s brilliant bad guy chasing down a disparate group on a stagecoach who defer to ‘hombre’s’ (Newman) expertise in survival. Blessed by James Wong Howe’s widescreen cinematography (the western landscape looks tough), and Martin Ritt’s (the sixth and final film he made with Newman) careful compositions, the film’s modernity stands up well 50 years later, not least in the ending. It presaged ‘New Hollywood’ – heralded by Easy Rider – by a couple of years but probably would sit comfortably alongside Little Big Man (‘probably’ because I haven’t seen it for a long time). According to Wikipedia (citing Variety – behind a paywall) Hombre took $6.5m in rentals at the domestic box office, it was the 14th top film of the year, though well behind Bonnie and Clyde, another movie that showed the type of films made by the Hollywood studio system were about to be consigned to the past.

One link to the past, in the film, is the casting of Frederic March, one of Hollywood’s heart-throbs of the 1930s. Diane Cilento, an Australian who spent most of her career in Britain, is excellent as a ‘moral conscience’ despite her admission that, even though she is unmarried, she shares her bed with the local sheriff. It was unusual for such a ‘loose woman’ to be presented as such; she’s not a victim like many ‘tarts with a heart’ played by, for example, Claire Trevor in Stagecoach. I liked the line when she is – for purely practical reasons – trying to persuade the sheriff to marry her: “I don’t say ‘no’ when you wake me up in the middle of the night”. She’s rebuffed but she’s not bothered; the character is a strikingly modern woman for the time (sexual emancipation in the 1960s framed women as sexual active at the service of men). The screenplay’s based on Elmore Leonard’s novel so sparkling dialogue is to be expected.

The film was produced by Hombre Productions; presumably created to produce this one film. It was distributed by 20th Century Fox.