I'll never forsake the medium because we're in the middle of a 30 year conversation I happen to enjoy, even though while we were talking a huge portion of my life left my body. But this is what I love so it doesn't feel like a loss. Film talks to me and the movies talk to each other and they let me listen. Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Shoplifters and Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Kings prop each other up, their tales of makeshift families on society's margins merge to form one giant family. How do you say no to that? Adds a year to your life. That's why I was most excited to see Orson Welles' newly restored and truly towering meta-diary entry The Other Side of the Wind come back to life. I knew what that film was going to be, but seeing it was still so important. The thing can be imagined forever but only seen once, if you catch my drift. Imagining a Welles decision just doesn't hold a candle to seeing one and experiencing that ecstatic melancholy that only his edits and close-ups provide. Not merely because he was a profoundly talented director, one of the finest, born with a camera in his mind, but because Welles is almost metonymic with stolen vision. He tried, time and again, to give us the gift of art, and moneymen, audiences and critics alike turned up their noses like they'd get another artist like him. As of 2018 we're still waiting.
The Other Side of the Wind is a cacophonous journey towards death. The death of film, of many careers, of film appreciation, of the mystery of art, of its creator, its stars and its chances of being completed. A film about itself, failing to become real. It's also a log flume ride into a bottle of whiskey, one of the finest portrayals of professional alcoholics ever made - more interesting and surreal than Clint Eastwood's White Hunter, Black Heart on roughly the same subjects. A man who staved off dysentery by accident because he only ever drank liquor playing a man who drank away every meaningful relationship he ever formed directed by a man who died penniless, knowing his legacy would be misused if we ever found it. This could only really have come out now (despite the fact that it could have come out literally decades ago if anyone with money had cared enough) because it happens to be a funhouse mirror with our image frozen in its cold glass surface.
John Huston plays a director going to his own funeral, the guests just don't know it yet. He drinks and smokes and gives flippant, evasive answers to every question fired at him. His hangers-on watch him trundle through life like the giant in N.C. Wyeth's painting of the same name (the second time I've had recourse to mention this work this year), painted with their backs to us, staring in wonder at a man ten thousand feet tall. Their identities are fashioned in his reflection, their art never discussed without his name on any critic's tongue. That exposure chafes bad. Journalists are stuck asking third-rate Cahier-du-cinema-style questions, old friends are stuck in his shadow, and he's stuck in skin he doesn't recognize. He drinks, his lips purse like a chimpanzee's (Huston was gifted one on the occasion of his wedding to Evelyn Keyes and it trashed his apartment - an ominous sign of things to come. Monkeys know), and out spills a cagey taunt to beloved and hated alike blanketed in cigar smoke. The silken black-and-white coffin in which he finds himself is perhaps the best a Welles-image has ever looked. Even better than the gorgeous and purposely dated faux-nioni film Huston is directing and trying to find money for. Art imitated life. Welles spent years trying to find a home for his film. No one bit. Spielberg bought the Rosebud sleigh instead. Little did he know it was one of 12. Even the myth was a disappointment.
The film is thus about the pieces everyone tries to grab from an unknowable artist. The tragedy was Welles never hid. He told Bogdanovich a story once about D.W. Griffith washing dishes at the Brown Derby or some such place in the 40s. Anyone who wanted to know how to make films just had to know which joint he was cleaning and go ask him, but no one cared, even as Birth of a Nation and Intolerance became the yin and yang of silent cinema. I'm not positive Welles knew when he died. He had his own troubles. And for them, he wound up washing dishes of his own, narrating bunk documentaries about Nostradamus, playing generals and dying pimps and fat robots. He was trying to hand back his crown of thorns and no one would take it. He was right there, arms open, if anyone wanted him.
There's another rosebud in the razor-wire genius of The Other Side of the Wind, the perfect surface in his film-within-a-film. Bob Random, the Canadian heart-throb eating Huston's director alive from the inside like a cancer, plays a rich cypher who lied about being poor to get cast in his work. And just as soon as he joined the circus, he ran off in the middle of making the movie. Random's own career isn't extremely dissimilar. He worked for a few decades and then vanished. I could see Welles projecting a thousand things onto him. The beauty that changed with the times. He looks like a zillion mumbling beauties who graced the screen around then. His look was almost a type in-and-of-itself, square jaw, pouty lips, sad eyes, long curly hair. Maybe it's my mind playing tricks on me but I don't think he says a word in the whole movie. He's Welles inner beauty, the beautiful star he only got to be for a little while. The man full of promise who can't possibly deliver (he did, but no one told Welles that).
Perhaps that's why it was so shocking to see him barking threats in Budd Boetticher's final fiction film, A Time For Dying. Boetticher had a career about diametrically opposed to Welles'. He was a studio director who made cheap b-movies (some of our very best cheap b-movies, it begs pronouncement) who found himself in a unique position to become a kind of cult figure. He, producer Harry Joe Brown and star Randolph Scott collaborated on some of the finest westerns ever made. Seven Men From Now, Westbound, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Buchanan Rides Alone, Commanche Station, lean, poetic things. All beauty and clenched courage. Westerns were in a sort of a golden age, and even among such tall company they stand out. Scott retired in 1962 after making Ride The High Country, rightly believing few people would know what to do with him and his enormous image after that. Times were changing. Scott looked a hundred years old when he threw in the towel, you'd never guess he lived another 25 years from looking at him. Boetticher hung in after his star quit on him, but either no one wanted him or he didn't know what to do with anyone who did.
Then it's 1969 and he decides to try one last Western before tossing in the sweat-soaked towel. A Time For Dying can be thought of as Boetticher's Psycho. It's got TV-budget sets and actors, it's discursive and seemingly easily distracted, it's got no real heroes, and it's darker than compost. Random plays a kid who's hooked up with Jesse James. James is played by Audie Murphy in his final screen performance, though he's really only got one scene - what they called a Guest Star back in the day. Murphy only really stands out because he seems like a star. It's not that he's any better than the rest of the cast - Random's got him beat for charisma, no mistake. He's just got that bigness; he smiles and you want to grab sunglasses. Random looks like a surfer who got lost and stumbled onto the set. He's electrifying, but it helps that the leads of the film - Richard Lapp and Anne Randall - just sit there waiting for the end credits. Randall's a posable doll in gingham skirts and Lapp looks like clay waiting for the sculptor. He looks like the Quay Brothers tried to make Barry Keoghan, got reasonably close and called it quits to get drunk. Lapp and Randall wind up married through no real fault of their own and so he's got to woo her after the fact with a display of his shooting skills. James and his gang are impressed and offer him a spot on the crew, while his courage sweats out of his body. Pay close attention to that sweat, it comes back.
Boetticher by this point hasn't done much to indicate he's awake back there. Film kind of looks like a painting someone forgot to start so he tosses a bucket of red just before calling "Action!" But then the fucking strangest thing happens. Ebert called the film the "damndest" western he'd ever seen and I was starting to wonder what he meant until the final reel. Lapp challenges Random to a duel in the street, reasoning if he can't kill Jesse James he could at least kill his youngest disciple, and that ought to prove his mettle. Here's where it becomes clear Boetticher's been playing possum. Why would this hideous kid with a gorgeous, loving paramour for an accidental wife need to prove anything to anyone? He's just some bumpkin. James and his gang ride into silver city to raise hell and rob their bank and for a minute it kinda sorta looks like Lapp's going to stop them. Which is absurd. The James gang fell on hard times but they weren't stopped by some lumpen pipsqueak. And then he calls Random out and they're in the street, the movie's got 8 minutes left. It's got to go one way, you think, but the guns slip out of Lapp's hand and Random fucking kills him. Shoots him twice and then goes back and finishes him off with a shotgun. When Randall wakes up she's in the town whorehouse about to be groomed, and you know she knows it because her eyes go wide with terror just before the edit, just as another gal just like her rides into town on the stage and every man in a town cleaned out and shamed by Jesse James (who just saw a kid gunned down in the street) walks in after her. The charitable thing to do would be to burn the cathouse down with all of them inside of it, but Boetticher just watches 'em file in. Roll credits. Welcome to Hell. The 70s started the minute that movie ended. The damndest western ever made.
Boetticher and Welles knew before we did that their time was up, that they'd be misplaced, their memories dry cleaned for whatever rich schmo needed to compare himself to someone dead. Steve Bannon infamously tried to insert himself into Welles' The Chimes at Midnight in the middle of Errol Morris' punch-pulling American Dharma. The rich always see themselves as aggrieved. Boetticher and Welles were at their mercy and at least had the tact to not whine like drunken derelicts when their fortunes dried up. It was over. Welles, to his last, put on a good face ("I get to play a whole planet!" he chortled as he took his last paycheck to grace the Transformers movie) even as he knew it was over. Movies, which Welles understood better than anyone alive at the time of his death in the mid-80s (can you imagine dying in 1985?), had taken it all away from him. He was no longer as handsome or thin, no longer praised, his genius no longer whispered about by sibilant industry goons, his friends no longer coming to him for work or advice. His nest was empty and so were his coffers. Boetticher at least had fans tracking him down, reminding him he had done great work and he'd gotten to roll a grenade into the genre he'd helped perfect before he stopped. That had to count for something. Welles left a dozen projects hanging in the wind, whichever side, and then couldn't hang onto life anymore. Everything caught up with him.
Strangest goddamn thing is that when I look at pictures of Welles just as he was starting to age, I see myself. We have similar facial features, our hair grows the same way, he seems to be looking at me with a knowing sort of grin. Is there a phrase for a face that ages like your own? An inverse Dorian Gray? A roadmap to your mortality? Naturally I'd change some of the contours, but I guess it's good to make peace with what life and the cinema CAN do to someone, just in case they decide to. But until I find myself voicing Unicron the eater of planets, the last stop before death as foretold by Nostradamus in the ancient book of prophecy, old when the seas drank Atlantis, I'll keep having the conversation because I know film will always answer back.