The Other Side of the Wind: The Redemption of Orson Welles

Welcome to the latest edition of Super Blog Team-Up, back from the dead after a long hiatus.  The theme this time around is “Redemption” which leads me to look at a movie that is quite far afield of comic books and sci-fi: The Other Side of the Wind, written and directed by the legendary Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil).

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The Other Side of the Wind was released with much fanfare late last year as the final film of Orson Wells.  Principle photography began in 1970, and continued on-and-off for the next five and a half years, with Welles finally getting 99.9% of the movie shot by early 1976.  As a creator who prided himself on striving for complete creative freedom, Welles was often plagued by difficulties in obtaining financing for his projects, and this played a major role in the length of the shoot.  It would also result in The Other Side of the Wind remaining unfinished when Welles passed away a decade later in 1985.

It has been said that Welles did as much of his work in the editing room as he did from the director’s chair.  The Other Side of the Wind certainly demonstrates this.  Welles filmed approximately 96 hours of footage for what was intended to be a two-hour running time.  By 1979 he had managed to assemble 40 minutes of the movie into a rough cut when, due to the extremely complicated financial circumstances of the project, it was taken out of his hands and literally locked up in a vault.

In the years following Welles passing, several efforts were made to untangle the legal Gordian Knot that The Other Side of the Wind had become.  After numerous false starts, it was only within the last couple of years that the project finally achieved momentum.

tosotw otterlake and hannaford

Peter Bogdanovich co-starred in The Other Side of the Wind.  He also knew Welles personally, sharing a close, but often contentious, friendship with the director.  Bogdanovich is himself an acclaimed director (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon).  Given his pedigree, his involvement in the production, and his relationship with Welles, it ultimately fell to Bogdanovich to at long last complete The Other Side of the Wind.

Collaborating with Bogdanovich on this Herculean undertaking were producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza, and film editor Bob Murawski.  This involved them taking Welles’ annotated screenplay, the footage that Welles had edited, and the nearly 100 hours of rough footage at long last rescued from the vault, somehow assembling the whole thing into a cohesive two-hour movie that was as true to Welles’ original vision as possible.  Words such as “formidable” and “daunting” immediately come to mind.

As others have noted, there really is no way to know how close Bogdanovich & Co.’s efforts come to achieving what Welles might have produced had he been able to complete the movie.  What we have is an approximation, a semblance… which is entirely appropriate, as Welles’ story is dedicated to severely blurring the line between reality and fiction.  It is simultaneous a mockumentary and a “found footage” movie.

tosotw hannaford

The Other Side of the Wind takes place during the last day of the life of Jake Hannaford, an aging movie director who is killed in a car crash on his 70th birthday. Prior to his death, Hannaford had been attempting to revive his faded career by making a flashy, sexy, cutting edge film that would appeal to the “New Hollywood” sensibilities of the early 1970s.  Hannaford’s movie, the film within a film, is also entitled “The Other Side of the Wind.”  On the last night of his life, at Hannaford’s lavish birthday party, he shows this unfinished film to his guests, hoping that someone will step up with an offer to finance the remainder of the production.

The movie The Other Side of the Wind that we, the audience is watching, is supposedly assembled from footage culled from the myriad cameras of the friends, fiends, hangers-on, sycophants, critics, journalists and voyeurs who attended Hannaford’s party, interspersed with scenes from “The Other Side of the Wind” film that Hannaford is screening for them.

There is definitely a prescient quality to this narrative device, in that it anticipates both the ravenous fixation with wealth & fame in 21st Century America, and the ubiquitous presence of cell phone cameras & social media documenting the minute-to-minute minutiae of celebrity lives.

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The film within a film “The Other Side of the Wind” is parody of a late 1960s art house movie, with a jumbled narrative, explicit sex scenes, and extended sequences entirely absent of dialogue.  The plot, such as it is, involves a young man’s long, strange pursuit of a silent, erotic woman.  The man, John Dale, played by Bob Random, is the latest protégé of Hannaford.  The woman, known only as “The Actress,” is one of Hannaford’s lovers, and is played by Oja Koder, at the time Welles’ real life mistress, as well as the co-writer for the movie.

The reason why production of Hannaford’s “The Other Side of the Wind” has ground to a halt is due to John Dale abruptly waking off the set.  As the night progresses, we come to learn just why this happened.

It has been observed that Welles was very likely sending up Michelangelo Antonioni here.  Welles, ever the prankster, even shot much of the footage for Hannaford’s party at a house that was literally next door to where Antonioni made his 1970 film Zabriskie Point.

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Among those in attendance at Hannaford’s party is Brooks Otterlake, a young, up & coming director already receiving critical acclaim.  Otterlake is a friend of Hannaford, as well as a disciple, having extensively studied the older director.  There is a clear implication that the young Otterlake has eclipsed his mentor, incurring Hannaford’s resentment, and complicating their already contentious relationship.

There has been quite a bit of debate regarding just how much of his own personality and experiences Welles drew upon when making The Other Side of the Wind.  Whether by intent or accident, or perhaps a combination of the two, there is a genuine metatextual quality to The Other Side of the Wind.  One can easily see parallels between Welles and the character Hannaford, and the relationship between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich bears similarities to that of Hannaford and Otterlake, who was played by Bogdanovich himself.

Hannaford is portrayed by another acclaimed aging director, John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen).  Before Huston was cast, Welles shot around him, and himself stood in for Hannaford.  As a result, in many scenes the actors were actually playing opposite the offscreen Welles, with footage of Huston as Hannaford recorded afterwards.

tosotw hannaford smoke

In particular, one scene between Hannaford and Otterlake appears to be very much about Welles and Bogdanovich.  Speaking to Coming Soon this past November, Bogdanovich explained:

“I think the scene in the car, when I say “our revels now are ended,” that’s a powerful scene. But I didn’t play it with John. John wasn’t there. I played it with Orson. Orson was off-camera, and his only direction to me was, “It’s us.” ”

I can only imagine how frustrated Welles must have been in the early 1970s, to see a new generation of young directors such as Bogdanovich achieving the creative freedom & acclaim that had so often eluded him.

The irony is that the arc of Bogdanovich’s own career would later parallel that of Welles; after his early successes Bogdanovich was often plagued by under-performing, critically lambasted films, executive interference, and severe financial difficulties.

There is also something of Huston himself in the character of Hannaford: the bravado, the quick wit & easygoing charm that masks a ruthless drive for control, the mocking, needling disdain for those he considers beneath him.  Huston, much like Welles, was reportedly a difficult, hard-driving director who often pushed his crew to the breaking point; it’s no wonder that the two men got along so well!

tosotw otterlake

Of course, it is possible to over-analyze these things. As critic Darren Mooney puts it:

“How much of The Other Side of the Wind is Welles turning the lens on himself, and how much is him smirking at us for thinking that?”

It is interesting to consider how The Other Side of the Wind might have been received if it had been completed during Welles’ lifetime. Perhaps audiences of the late 1970s would have regarded Hannaford as a flawed yet nevertheless sympathetic character. However, looking at Hannaford through the gaze of 2019, we can see that he is an example of toxic masculinity run amok.  And it is not only those in Hannaford’s orbit that suffer due to his hyper machismo, but Hannaford himself.

At more than one point it is suggested that Hannaford is a closeted gay man who is in deep denial concerning his sexual orientation.  The macho posturing, the well-publicized seductions of the various actresses who appeared in his movies, the booze-guzzling, cigar-chomping lifestyle, the fondness for firearms and fast cars; all of these may be Hannaford’s attempts to convince both himself and the outside world that he is as heterosexual, as “manly,” as can be.  If that is so, then in his desperate attempts to live up to the hyper-romanticized myth of the two-fisted American male, Hannaford suggests an incredibly tragic, damaged individual, full of a poisonous self-loathing that he projects upon those who surround him.

tosotw hannaford gun

There is a great deal more to The Other Side of the Wind.  It is a complex story that is open to analysis and interpretation.

In addition to streaming The Other Side of the Wind, Netflix has presented They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a full-length documentary about the movie’s long & tortured production.  Directed by Morgan Neville, it’s an informative companion piece, one that is as intriguing as The Other Side of the Wind itself.  I definitely recommend watching both.

Why do I consider The Other Side of the Wind to be the “redemption” of Orson Welles?  It has to do with the public perception of him as a creator.  Citizen Kane is considered one of the all-time greatest movies ever made.  This was a source of consternation to Welles, as it was his first film, and the clear implication was that people felt all his subsequent efforts fell short.

In other words, Welles hit a grand slam home run his very first time at bat, and even though he spent the rest of his career batting .300, people were disappointed that he wasn’t knocking it out of the park each & every time he stepped up to the plate.

tosotw the woman

For a long time a common perception of Welles was of a once-great director who failed to live up to the early potential of Citizen Kane in his subsequent films, and who eventually ended his career ignominiously, reduced to hawking frozen peas and cheap champagne on TV commercials.

The Other Side of the Wind lays bare this fallacy.  It reveals that in his later years, in spite of professional and personal setbacks, Welles was still a bold & ambitious filmmaker, still stretching his boundaries, still producing work that was interesting and frustrating and provocative.

If there is one good thing about The Other Side of the Wind finally being completed, however imperfectly, it is that it had led to a revived interest, and reappraisal, of Welles’ entire career.  It is certainly one that is long overdue.

Thanks for joining us.  I hope you will check out the contributions from the other Super Blog Team-Up participants.

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Between The Pages Blog:  The Secret Origin Of Spider-Man

Black, White and Bronze: The Redemption of Red Sonja

Chris Is On Infinite Earths: The Pied-Piper Reforms!

Coffee and Comics: Green Lantern #100

Comics Comics Blog : Elfquest :Cutter’s Redemption

Comic Reviews By Walt: SBTU Presents – Redemption/Coming Home: Shredder

Longbox Review: Nightwing’s Redemption

The Crapbox of Son of Cthulhu: Iron Man: Alcoholic, Part I

The Daily Rios: Thanos: Samaritan

The Retroist Via Vic Sage:The Redemption Of Magneto

The Source Material Comics Podcast: Penance – The Redemption of Speedball

The Superhero Satellite: The Walking Dead: “Redeeming Negan”

The Unspoken Decade: What If Vol 2 #46 and 47

Two Staple Gold: Just a Pilgrim

 

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The wedding of Ben Grimm and Alicia Masters

For a brief moment it appeared that 2018 was to be the Year of Super-Hero Weddings. Batman and Catwoman were all set to tie the knot, and Colossus and Shadowcat were also ready for wedded bliss.  Unfortunately, Selina Kyle left Bruce Wayne at the altar, and Kitty also backed out at the last sec, much to Peter’s consternation. In that case longtime on-again, off-again couple Rogue and Gambit decided to take advantage of the occasion to impulsively leap into holy matrimony, so at least somebody got hitched in the X-Men books.

Third time was the charm, though, and as 2018 came to a close we finally got a scheduled wedding go through as planned: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, aka the Thing,  married his longtime girlfriend, blind sculptress Alicia Reiss Masters.

fantastic four wedding special cover

The blessed event took place in the pages of Fantastic Four #650, or if you prefer issue #5 of the current volume. Setting up the event is the Fantastic Four Wedding Special. Dan Slott was the main writer, with Gail Simone stopping by to give us Alicia’s bachelorette party.

(What volume of Fantastic Four is Marvel up to, anyway? I honestly don’t know! With all the renumbering and rebooting that Marvel keeps doing, who can keep track?)

Of course, as soon as the news broke about Ben and Alicia’s impending nuptials, alarm bells immediately began blaring in the heads of longtime readers, myself included. After all, back in FF #300, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, had married Alicia, only for this to later be retconned away when Alicia was revealed to have been replaced by a Skrull imposter named Lyja.

Dan Slott swore up & down on social media that there would be no Skrulls involved. The house ad for FF #650 even boldly proclaimed…

“No bait. No switch. Not a dream. Not a hoax. And we swear, not a single Skrull around. This is really happening!”

Of course, that still leaves shape-shifters, and evil other-dimensional duplicates, and Space Phantoms, and LMDs, and clones… hey, Dan Slott spent a decade writing Amazing Spider-Man, so at this point he probably has clones on the brain!

*Ahem!*  Actually, there was a moment towards the end of FF #650 where it briefly appeared the wedding was going to be called off, and I literally considered tossing my copy of the issue across the room in frustration.  Fortunately, though, Ben and Alicia did go through with the ceremony.  So it seems that this is really, truly supposed to be the real, permanent marriage of Ben and Alicia… at least for the present. Keep your fingers crossed!

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Whatever the case, unlike a lot of super-hero weddings, which come across as sales events, this actually does feel like a natural progression. Alicia was first introduced waaaaay back in Fantastic Four #8 (1962) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers.  Alicia was manipulated into disguising herself as the Invisible Girl as part of a cockamamie plot by her step-father, the diabolical Puppet Master, to destroy the FF.  There was an immediate attraction between the Thing and the sensitive young woman, and the very next issue they were already dating.

The Wedding Special contains a humorous back-up by the great Fred Hembeck. Narrated by Alicia’s stepfather, the diabolical Puppet Master, this vignette touches on how her introduction prompted a crucial turning point in the Thing’s early development. If you read the first few FF stories by Lee & Kirby, the Thing was very much depicted as a dangerous character, a being whose rage and self-loathing at his horrific mutation threatened to lead him to villainy.

And then he met Alicia, who sensed the kind, sensitive soul underneath Ben’s anger and depression. From this point forward the Thing was written as alternately tragic and comedic, a heroic and loyal figure who masked his pain at being trapped in a monstrous form with a gruff, irreverent persona.

fantastic four wedding special hembeck

It has often been observed that the Fantastic Four is not so much a super-hero team as it is a family, one that is often dysfunctional, but which at the end of the day will stick together through hell & high water. Slott has only been the regular FF writer for a few issues, but he’s scripted the characters several times in the past, including on the Thing’s short-lived solo series in 2006.  So I find that he already has a really good grasp on them. Slott’s stories are the perfect mix of soap opera dramatics and irreverent humor. He was definitely well-suited to write the wedding of Ben and Alicia.

Over the past couple of decades, I have gravitated away from mainstream super-hero books. My interests are much more on books that are character-driven. I am a huge fan of Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez.

I think that’s why I appreciate Slott’s work on FF so much. He isn’t writing a book that centers on super-powered beings slugging it out, but on the family dynamics of Reed, Sue, Ben, Johnny, Franklin, Valeria, Alicia and the rest of the extended FF family.

That’s certainly the case with the Wedding Special and issue #650. Slott does a superb job at exploring new sides to characters who have been in print for decades. I appreciated Slott’s look at the friendship between Susan Storm and Ben Grimm, and the examination of how Sue feels about what happened to Ben, the sense of responsibility she feels, as she was the one who pushed him to pilot Reed Richards’ ill-fated spaceship.  Slott reveals that in the early days of the team, in an effort to help the Thing find some happiness, Sue played matchmaker, encouraging him to pursue a relationship with Alicia.

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The interaction between Ben and Johnny during the bachelor party is also well done. It’s one of the best scenes between these friendly rivals that I’ve seen in the series’ entire history.

The actual wedding was beautifully written by Slott. It’s a lovely scene. I was especially moved when Slott revealed Reed’s wedding present to Ben and Alicia. It actually made me a bit misty-eyed.

I was also happy that Ben and Alicia had a Jewish ceremony. After all, the Thing is Jewish. At the same time, I appreciate that Slott didn’t make it a huge deal.  It was just one detail in the story. As I’ve said before, I like that Ben Grimm is Jewish, but I certainly do not think that should be his defining characteristic. In other words, he is a character who, among other things, happens to be Jewish.

By the way, I am curious if Alicia might also be of Jewish ancestry, as her late biological father was named Jacob Reiss.

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Among the close family members who attend the wedding are Ben’s Uncle Jake and Aunt Petunia. It was nice to see them again after so many years.

A few readers were upset that Aunt Petunia was depicted as being in her 40s or 50s here. After all, when we first met Petunia in FF #238, she was shown to be both young and attractive.  I realize that John Byrne did this to humorously subvert reader expectations, since before that, whenever the Thing mentioned Petunia, the implication that she was a tough, feisty old lady. However, I don’t know if in the long run that was such a good idea. Maybe it wasn’t such an issue back in 1982 when Byrne wrote that story, but nowadays the idea that Uncle Jake, a senior citizen, married a woman who was young enough to be his daughter is sort of weird & uncomfortable. It’s probably a good idea to nowadays depict Petunia as being somewhat closer in age to Jake.

Anyway, I really did enjoy Slott’s work on these stories. I like the idea of Ben and Alicia as a married couple. I just hope that Galactus doesn’t end up eating the Earth before we get to see Ben and Alicia go on their honeymoon!

Gail Simone also does good work with the characters in her segment for the Wedding Special, penning a tale that is both humorous and poignant. I hope she has another opportunity to write the FF again in the future.

The artwork on these two issues was also great.  Laura Braga does sexy, humorous work on the bachelorette party story in the Wedding Special, while Mark Buckingham & Mark Farmer turn in some effective art on the second tale, evoking the style of Kirby as the Thing has a surprising encounter with the Puppet Master.fantastic four 650 pg 61

The framing sequences of FF #650 are illustrated by Aaron Kuder, culminating is his gorgeous depiction of Ben & Alicia’s wedding.  In places Kuder’s art here brings to mind the work of John Romita Jr and Frank Quitely.

Mike Allred & Laura Allred contribute the moving flashbacks to the couple’s early days.  The Allreds possess a style that is distinctively “indy” while nevertheless evoking the wacky, offbeat elements of Silver Age stories.

It was a pleasure to see Adam Hughes illustrating the bachelor party sequence in #650. Hughes is very well known for his cover artwork, and for his depiction of sexy women. As a result, it is often forgotten that he is also a good storyteller who knows how to lay out pages. He certainly does good work here, both on the humorous sequences and in the quieter character driven moments.

The reason why Hughes mainly works on covers is because he is not an especially fast artist who is capable of drawing a monthly series. That’s unfortunate, because as he demonstrates here, he knows how to do solid interior work.

Providing the letters for both issues is VC’s Joe Caramagna.

fantastic four 650 cover

Topping off these two comics, quite literally, are covers by Carlos Pacheco & Romulo Fajardo Jr and Esad Ribic.  Pacheco’s cover is my favorite of the pair, but I certainly like both.

Let’s raise a toast to Ben and Alicia.  Long may they be a happy couple.  What God has joined together, let no man (or Skrull) put asunder!