Sunday, December 09, 2018

The Other Side of the Camera

[my latest Mint Lounge column, about directors in major acting roles – such as John Huston in the “new” Orson Welles film]

Even for film buffs who weren’t weaned on the Auteur Theory, this past month has offered reason to reflect on the pet themes and personal styles of renowned directors. For instance, the deaths of Nicholas Roeg and Bernardo Bertolucci, a few days apart, reminded me of how startling it was to discover their work as an embassy-frequenting teen in the early 1990s: from the haunting, lingering eroticism of Roeg’s Bad Timing and Walkabout (and that’s before even mentioning the famous lovemaking scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now) to the gorgeous young Gerard Depardieu and Robert De Niro nude together in a very explicit, X-rating-worthy scene in the long version of Bertolucci’s epic 1900. Some of my ideas about the casual boldness of 1970s European cinema were shaped by the work of these directors. ***

More poignant than all this, though, was watching a resurrection – or an exhumation, depending on your perspective. November saw the release of a film thought to be long-dead. It was started (and left unfinished) in the 1970s by an all-time great director, and starred another great director in the central role of a fictitious filmmaker. As if that weren’t enough, other parts – a major one, as well as several cameos – were played by other real-life directors of the period.

Yes, we are firmly in meta-film terrain now, and this is Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, with John Huston in the lead. Unlike Roeg and Bertolucci, Welles and Huston died more than three decades ago – but here they are, so much of their vitality still showing, in a film that is technically a 2018 release, and which many film buffs never expected to see. (Some still argue it was meant to be left incomplete – possibly Welles’s last, knowing jab at an industry that doesn’t let artists fully realise their visions.)

Watching this film (which also stars director Peter Bogdanovich, playing a version of his own 1970s self), I thought of other instances of directors glimpsed on screen, even if briefly – as in the 1951 Baazi, which has Guru Dutt at the edge of the frame in an early scene. Hrishikesh Mukherjee does something similar in Guddi, playing “himself’ on a movie set, and also appears for a few seconds in Biwi aur Makaan. In these cases, the directors are seen only from behind, as if affirming that they are meant to be guiding spirits, not active participants. A few others weren’t so coy: a favourite childhood memory is Subhash Ghai in Hero, deadpanning
the lines “Ding Dong, Sing a Song” as the main characters zip past him on their motorbikes.

But internationally, there has been a tradition of notable performances by directors. And to clarify, I’m not talking about the famous Hitchcock cameos, or the work of actor-directors like Chaplin or Jacques Tati (or Raj Kapoor) – I’m speaking of directors, who were not especially known as actors, taking on substantial parts in other people’s films.

Often, this involves a tribute by a younger filmmaker to an idol. Consider Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, in which the lead part – a septuagenarian professor – is played by Victor Seastrom, the silent-era filmmaker whose work had a big impact on Bergman. Or Jean-Luc Godard casting Fritz Lang (as himself, with references to actual films like M) in a substantial role in Le Mepris. Or the wonderfully moving use of the legendary Erich von Stroheim in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Von Stroheim plays Max, faithful manservant to a once-legendary silent-screen actress (played by Gloria Swanson), and in a scene where he screens one of her old films on a home projector, what we see are shots from the 1928 movie Queen Kelly, which was really directed by von Stroheim and starred the young Swanson. (“We didn’t need words, we had faces then,” she boasts, and the lined faces of von Stroheim and Swanson in this scene are a moving commentary on faded careers and the film industry’s treatment of its stars.)

In other cases, the casting of a director can offer a witty contrast to the cinema he is typically associated with. Vittorio de Sica’s performance as a baron in Max Ophuls’s The Earrings of Madame De places the director of hard-hitting neo-realist films like Bicycle Thieves in a beautifully shot, glossy tale about the romances and indulgences of high-society fops. Something comparable happened when Karan Johar played himself in a party scene in Zoya Akhtar’s excellent Luck by Chance – Johar, so associated (at the time) with cheery, bubble-gum films, looks sinister and Dracula-like here as he remarks on the darker side of the film industry.

To return to The Other Side of the Wind, though. The film, much of which is presented as “found footage” – shot partly in colour, partly in monochrome, by video cameras at a party – alludes to its own director’s life and working methods. (“I’ve been over-schedule before. Let’s drink to that,” the protagonist says, sounding much like Welles, who famously cobbled together films over years, shooting part of a scene in one location and then completing it years later in another part of the world. Or like Huston, who also faced problems in Hollywood, and spent his career moving between deeply personal pet projects and films that were made largely to please producers.) It also has directors like Henry Jaglom and Paul
Mazursky as party guests, squabbling about the nature of film, art vs commerce, the workings of the system – it feels like we are eavesdropping on a very private, insiders’ gathering. (And meanwhile, some of the actual actors are literally dummies sprawled around on rocks, or getting shot at – watch the film to see what I mean!)

“Our revels now are ended” – a line from The Tempest – is wearily used here to say something about the difficulty of realising a personal artistic vision, and the fear of seeing that vision become complete and unalterable. It has been suggested that Welles subconsciously didn’t want his films to be finished, because the creative process, infinitely stretched out, was more stimulating for him than a final product could be. Whether or not that’s true, The Other Side of the Wind often feels like a record of directors talking passionately about films instead of making them.


***Incidentally, the real-life sexual exploitation of actress Maria Schneider during the Last Tango in Paris shoot was only one of many possible instances where Bertolucci set ethical concerns aside to maintain authorial dominance; 1900, for instance, has a scene where an 11-year-old boy is shown with an erection.
[More on Welles here. And an earlier piece about a documentary about the making of this film is here]

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