What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Orson Welles’ THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (Netflix 2018)

The day has finally arrived. November 2, 2018. I ordered a free trial of Netflix specifically so I could watch the completed version of Orson Welles’ final film, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND . Welles worked on this project for over a decade, and the footage sat for decades more before finally being restored and re-edited. A film buff’s dream come true – perhaps. There were questions I needed answered. Was there enough salvageable material to make a coherent movie? Does it follow Welles’ vision? Would it live up to the hype? Was it worth the wait?

The answer: OH, HELL YEAH!!

Welles shot over ten hours of film, utilizing different film stocks (Super 8, 16mm, 35mm), switching back and forth from color to classic black and white, to create his movie, which is a documentary about the movie-within-the-movie’s director – a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie. It took six years (from 1970-76) to shoot due to financial problems and his own perfectionism, and Welles had about a third of the film edited himself before his death in 1985. Legal battles have kept THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND unfinished and in limbo ever since, until at last producer Frank Marshall (who appeared in it as an young filmmaker) and Netflix stepped in earlier this year. A team was assembled to put the whole thing together, notably editor Bob Murawski, who (I think) painstakingly captured the vision of Welles and makes this 40+ year old film really come alive.

The film itself centers around Jake Hannaford, an Old Hollywood director attempting to reach a new audience by making a youth oriented film called THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Hannaford has just perished in a car crash (was it an accident or suicide?), and what we get is a cinema verite-style mockumentary of Hannaford’s 70th birthday party, where he’s to unveil his latest masterpiece. The film jumps all over the place with it’s multiple cast members, and Welles takes the opportunity to skewer some of his bugaboos: Old vs New Hollywood, cineastes and pretentious film school types, his critics, auteur theory (though a case could be made for Welles being the original film auteur!), studio honchos only out for a buck, macho men, sycophants and hangers-on. Using dazzling and innovative techniques coupled with some truly stunning imagery, Welles made a film way ahead of its time, and perhaps it’s just as well that it sat so long, when it can finally be appreciated.

John Huston  is incredible as the dissipated, tortured genius Hannaford, trying his damnedest to get his film made his way. Huston, one of Old Hollywood’s greatest directors himself, is at turns charming and cutting as the Welles stand-in Hannaford, who may or may not be bisexual, but is definitely misogynistic, alcoholic, and at the end of his rope. Welles acolyte Peter Bogdanovich plays Hannaford acolyte Brooks Otterlake, and does his mentor proud in the part. Susan Strasberg gives what I think is her best performance ever as acidic critic Julie Rich, patterned on Welles’ bete noir Pauline Kael. Edmond O’Brien , ill and already suffering the devastating memory loss of the Alzheimer’s disease that killed him, delivers a great performance as Hannaford actor Pat Mullins in his final role. Paul Stewart , CITIZEN KANE’s butler, plays another of Hannaford’s cronies, Matt Costello. My God, you could have a field day just spotting Familiar Faces in roles large and small: Stephane Audran, John Carroll , Claude Chabrol, Norman Foster , Curtis Harrington, Dennis Hopper , Henry Jaglom, George Jessel, Rich Little, Paul Mazursky, Mercedes McCambridge,  Cameron Mitchell , Lilli Palmer, Stafford Repp, Angelo Rossitto , Benny Rubin , Gregory Sierra, Dan Tobin, and so many more.

Hannaford’s film within the film stars Welles’ mistress Oja Kador (who also gets a  co-screenwriting credit) and actor Bob Ransom in the pivotal part of John Dale. This is where Welles truly shines, making it a comment on the pretentiousness of New Wave Cinema by having it look in some scenes (to my eyes, anyway) like some kind of AIP hippie or Crown-International sexploitation flick. I’m sure Welles was familiar with the low-budget work of people like Roger Corman and Richard Rush , and in one shot taken in a moving car I noticed a drive-in advertising a double feature of I EAT YOUR SKIN and I DRINK YOUR BLOOD. Principle cinematographer Gary Graver (who also appears as the documentarian) toiled for years in exploitation cinema, particularly with Al Adamson. Graver (who directed porn in his spare time, and actually managed to get Welles to edit one of his Triple-X efforts!) worked side by side with Welles, and his work here is nothing short of brilliant.

Hardcore film buffs will be totally blown away by THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, Orson Welles’ last movie. It’s a heady experience, and I thought it well worth the wait. It may not be The Great Man’s best, but as a lifelong movie lover I thoroughly enjoyed it. Kudos to all involved in bringing this historic piece of art to life. The question I must ask myself now, as I do with all films, is would I watch it again?

The answer: OH HELL YEAH!!

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #18: Remember Those Fabulous Sixties?

There’s a lot of good stuff being broadcast this month, so it’s time once again to make some room on the ol’ DVR. Here’s a quartet of capsule reviews of films made in that mad, mad decade, the 1960’s:

THE FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE (MGM 1967; D: Michael D. Moore) –  MGM tried to make another Elvis out of rock legend Roy Orbison in this Sam Katzman-produced comedy-western. It didn’t work; though Roy possessed one of the greatest voices in rock’n’roll, he couldn’t act worth a lick. Roy (without his trademark shades!) and partner Sammy Jackson (TV’s NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS) peddle ‘Dr. Ludwig Long’s Magic Elixir’ in a travelling medicine show, but are really Confederate spies out to steal gold from the San Francisco mint to fund “the cause” in the waning days of the Civil War. The film’s full of anachronisms and the ‘comical Indians’ aren’t all that funny, but at least Roy gets seven decent tunes to sing. Familiar Faces Lyle Bettger, Iron Eyes Cody, John Doucette , Joan Freeman, and Douglas Kennedy try to help, but the story kind of just limps along. Worthwhile if you’re an Orbison fan, otherwise a waste of time. Fun Fact: Roy’s MGM Records label mate Sam the Sham (of “Wooly Bully” fame) has a small part as a guard at the mint.

 

KILL A DRAGON (United Artists 1967; D: Michael D. Moore) – Minor action yarn with ruthless Fernando Lamas out to hijack a load of nitroglycerine washed upon a small Japanese island, and the villagers hiring soldier-of-fortune Jack Palance to protect them and their bounty. Palance gives an engaging, tongue-in-cheek performance, Lamas makes an evil adversary, and Aldo Ray is among Jack’s mercenary crew… seeing Aldo in drag is something you won’t wanna miss!! Nothing special, but an adequate time filler for action fans. Fun Fact: Director Moore (who also helmed FASTEST GUITAR) was a former silent film child star (his first film was 1919’s THE UNPAINTED WOMAN, directed by Tod Browning ) who began working behind the scenes in the 1940’s. He became one of Hollywood’s highest regarded Assistant and Second Unit directors, and worked on films ranging from THE TEN COMMANDMENTS to GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, KING CREOLE, BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, PATTON, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (and it’s two subsequent sequels), and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. His last was 2000’s 102 DALMATIONS before retirement; Moore passed away at age 98 in 2013. His contributions to Hollywood movies may be unsung, but for people like Cecil B. DeMille and Steven Spielberg, Michael “Mickey” Moore was the go-to guy for action scenes. Job well done, Mr. Moore!

PSYCH-OUT (AIP 1968; D: Richard Rush) – A Hippiesploitation classic! Susan Strasberg stars as a runaway deaf girl looking for her brother Bruce Dern in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. She hooks up with pony-tailed rock musician Jack Nicholson and his bandmates (Adam Roarke, Max Julien) in a drug-soaked film full of far-out thrift store fashion, plenty of hippie-dippie jargon (“Peace and love, baby!”), LSD and STP induced nightmares, and classic rock from bands Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Seeds (featuring their immortal lead vocalist Sky Saxon!). A group called Boenzee Cryque (with future Poco members Rusty Young and George Grantham) plays a sideways instrumental version of “Purple Haze” called “Ashbury Wednesday” during Henry Jaglom’s trip scene, and the cast includes Dean Stockwell as a philosophical, groovy satyr, future producer/director Garry Marshall as a cop, and low-budget stalwarts John ‘Bud’ Cardos, Gary Kent, and Bob Kelljan in support. Director Richard Rush went on to films like THE STUNT MAN and COLOR OF NIGHT, and the cinematographer is none other than Laslo Kovacs (EASY RIDER, FIVE EASY PIECES, PAPER MOON). It’s a psychedelic artifact of its time, and a treat for exploitation fans. As Stockwell says, “Reality’s a deadly place”! Fun Fact: One of a handful of late 60’s youth films produced by the legendary Dick Clark, of TV’s AMERICAN BANDSTAND and NEW YEAR’S ROCKIN’ EVE fame.

THE BIG CUBE (Warner Brothers 1969; D: Tito Davison) – Glamorous Lana Turner plays a glamorous stage actress who marries rich Dan O’Herlihy against the wishes of his daughter Karin Mossberg. Dad drowns in a yachting accident, and daughter conspires with LSD-making gigolo George Chakiris to drive Lana mad by slipping acid in her sleeping pills! This awful attempt at mixing Lana’s Ross Hunter-era soap operas with 60’s “youth culture” features bad acting, a putrid script, heavy-handed direction, and is a total mess all around. Even the presence of Lana, O’Herlihy, Chakiris, and Richard Egan couldn’t stop this movie from stinking up my living room! No redeeming qualities whatsoever (except the fact that the wooden Miss Mossberg was never heard from again!) Fun Fact: As I sat watching this bomb, slack-jawed and shaking my head, I kept muttering to myself, “This is bad. Just… bad”. The film’s worse than a bad acid trip, but I stuck with it for this review. You have other options. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!!

I hate to leave you on such a sour note, so here’s Roy Orbison doing “Pistolero” from Mickey Moore’s FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE! Take it away, Roy:

Roger Corman’s Electric Kool-Aid Tangerine Dream: THE TRIP (AIP 1967)

“You are about to be involved in a most unusual motion picture experience. It deals fictionally with the hallucinogenic drug LSD. Today, the extensive use in black market production of this and other so-called ‘mind bending’ chemicals are of great concern to medical and civil authorities…. This picture represents a shocking commentary on a prevalent trend of our time and one that must be of great concern to us all.” – Disclaimer at the beginning of 1967’s THE TRIP

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“Tune in, turn on, drop out”, exhorted 60’s acid guru Timothy Leary. The hippie generation’s fascination with having a psychedelic experience was a craze ripe for exploitation picking, and leave it to Roger Corman to create the first drug movie, THE TRIP. Released during the peak of the Summer of Love, THE TRIP was a box office success. Most critics of the era had no clue what to make of it, but the youth of suburban America flocked to their theaters and drive-ins in droves to find out what all the LSD hubbub was about.

Corman also wanted to know, so he and some friends dropped acid one balmy night and headed to Big Sur to trip. Having had a good experience, Corman sought to translate it into film (and make a buck in the process, no doubt). He solicited his pal Jack Nicholson , who’d experimented with LSD himself, to concoct a screenplay depicting what it was like to do acid. Nicholson came up with an acceptable script, and Roger went to work translating it for the big screen.

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It begins as TV commercial director Peter Fonda, in the midst of a divorce from wife Susan Strasberg , decides he want to try acid to “find out something about myself”. Pal Bruce Dern brings him to drug dealer Dennis Hopper’s pad, they cop and return to Fonda’s place, where he takes a 250 microgram dose, Dern staying straight to act as his guide.

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Dern advises Fonda to “turn off your mind, relax, and just float down the stream” (paraphrasing The Beatles), and soon he’s off on a journey to the center of his mind. THE TRIP then turns into a visual and aural assault on the senses filled with kaleidoscopic imagery, stunning light-show effects, and hallucinogenic nightmare sequences as Fonda gets deeper and deeper into his trip. The plotless structure now becomes pure film, with quotes from Fellini, Bergman, and Corman’s own Poe films. The “Psychedelic Special Effects” credited to Charlatan Productions, bold cinematography by Arch Dalzell (in ‘Psychedelic Color’), rapid-fire editing by Ronald Sinclair, and Corman’s knowing way behind the camera, combine to dazzle the viewer and, if it doesn’t quite truly capture what it’s like to trip, comes pretty damn close.

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The music soundtrack is provided by The Electric Flag, a 60’s San Francisco-via-Chicago band featuring Mike Bloomfield, Buddy Miles, Barry Goldberg, and Nick Gravenites. Their trippy raga-rock sound serves as the perfect backdrop for Corman’s visual feast. They are not the group shown at the club, though; that’s Gram Parson’s International Submarine Band, whose music Corman didn’t feel was  “far-out” enough. Corman regulars Dick Miller (as a bartender), Barboura Morris (hilarious as a woman Fonda meets at a laundromat), Salli Sachse, Luana Anders, and Beach Dickerson all appear, as do (briefly) Angelo Rossitto , Michael Blodgett (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ), and Tom Signorelli. Look fast for Peter Bogdanovich, Brandon DeWilde, and rock scenemaker Rodney Bingenheimer.

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Fifty years later, THE TRIP remains a film lover’s delight, something that has to be seen to be truly appreciated. AIP honchos Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson tacked on that opening disclaimer, as well as superimposing a “cracked glass” effect over Fonda’s face in the film’s final shot, implying he’d been permanently damaged by the experience. This pissed Corman off, and after they later butchered his 1969 satire GAS-S-S-S!, he struck out on his own and formed New World Pictures, where he and others could enjoy artistic freedom (on a low-budget, of course). Whether you’ve ever tripped or not, this film is worth seeing for its technical mastery and daring concept. Also, it’s downright groovy, man!

   

Halloween Havoc!: BLOODY BIRTHDAY (Ignite Films 1981)

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When I sat down to watch BLOODY BIRTHDAY, I was expecting a big slab of 80s cheese. What I got instead was a suspenseful (albeit far-fetched) horror film about three murderous children. The little darlings were born during a solar eclipse which, according to astrology buff Joyce (Lori Lethin), blocked Saturn during their births. This makes then completely without empathy. I don’t know about that, but I do know one thing: these are the creepiest fucking kids since Spider Baby!

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Cutie-pie Debbie (Elizabeth Hoy) keeps a murder scrapbook and charges 25 cents to let kids watch her teenage sister Beverly undress through a closet peephole. Steven (Andrew Freeman) is a shy child with a fondness for knives. And nerdy looking Curtis (Billy Jacoby, later Jayne) is a total psycho who shoots people. These enfants terrible kill a teenage couple doing the wild thing in a cemetery in the opening scene, bash Debbie’s sheriff dad (Bert Kramer) in the head with a shovel, lock Joyce’s brother Timmy (KC Martel) in an abandoned refrigerator, shoot the teacher (Susan Strasberg), and generally behave badly. Joyce figures out they’re causing all the mayhem in Meadowvale, and the murdering moppets trap her and Timmy inside Debbie’s house, terrorizing the frightened siblings with guns, knives, and a bow and arrow!

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Director Ed Hunt piles the terror on thick during the film. Hunt’s responsible for cult films like STRANGE INVASIONS (1977), PLAGUE (1979) and THE BRAIN (1988). BLOODY BIRTHDAY is his best by far. The cast is peppered with familiar faces like Strasberg, Ellen Geer, William Boyett, Ward Costello, and even Michael Dudikoff!  You’ll also see Jose Ferrer, slumming it in a small role as a doctor. As in most 80s thrillers, there’s tons of gratuitous nudity involved! The whole movie’s got that Totally 80s feel, from Joyce’s giant headphones, the fashions and hairdos, and even the posters on Beverly’s wall (Van Halen, Blondie, and Erik Estrada, among others). Beverly was the film debut for Miss Julie Brown, a Totally 80s actress/comedienne who had some success in film, TV, and music. In fact, I’ll end this review with Julie’s Totally 80s (and Totally Un-PC) video for her hit song, “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun”!           

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