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I finally saw Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind now that it has “debuted” on Netflix. After all these years – shooting on the film began in 1970 and was not finished when Welles died in 1985 – others have finished the editing.

The film is pretty messy. Right off, it is a film-within-a-film. There is the black and white documentary a crew is shooting about the director at the center of the movie. John Huston, a real director, plays Jake Hannaford, an aging director trying for one last successful film. And there is the color footage for the movie Hannaford is trying to finish, The Other Side of the Wind. 

Welles started the film after his return to Hollywood after 22 years of being an self-imposed ex-pat in Europe. Of course, Hannaford will be seen as Welles. (Welles said later he regretted not taking the part himself.) The film within the film is a satire of the avant-garde films of the New Hollywood of the 1970s. It reminds me of Zabriskie Point, a 1970 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. The Arizona house where Welles shot the party scenes looks like the house Antonioni blew up in his film.

The film often seems improvised, and Welles did like magical accidents that occur on a set. But it was scripted. That party has a bunch of directors (Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom, Curtis Harrington, Claude Chabrol and Dennis Hopper) appearing as themselves.

After many stops and starts, principal photography ended in 1976. Welles did some editing in the 1980s but all kinds of things stopped him from finishing, including, I suspect, some of his own confusion on how to shape it into a coherent film.

Now, 137 million Netflix subscribers in 190 countries can see the film. Would Welles be happy to have a shot at that mass audience? Probably, yes. But I doubt it will get that many viewers. It is most appealing to Welles fans like myself who are curious. There are a good number of us who check out sites like wellesnet.com. But I wouldn’t even ask my wife to watch it. Like many people, she would bail out after 15 minutes.

I watched the film and then I watched Morgan Neville’s the companion feature-length documentary by Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor) called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and then I watched Ryan Suffern’s 38-minute documentary short “A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making.”

Oja Kodor was Welles’ lover and collaborator in the last part of his life. She is the actress in the film-within-the-film and she worked on the script. She said that in later years she thought the best thing to do with the footage was to make a documentary about it rather than try to complete the film Orson intended to make. She might have been correct. She also got the self-admitted prude Welles to add some nudity and sex into the film. (She is the nudity.)

 

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

The movie is full of cameos and it was fun to try spotting them. For younger viewers, it would be a trivia challenge to identify most of them, such as vaudevillian George Jessel. He toasts Hannaford as “the Ernest Hemingway of the cinema, the Murnau of the American motion picture. Who Murnau is, I don’t remember.” (The film is supposed to take place on July 2, 1961, the day Hemingway committed suicide.)  Susan Strasberg plays a tough critic who is probably based on Pauline Kael. She says about Hannaford that “What he creates, he has to wreck, it’s a compulsion.”  Critic Kael’s wrote an article called “Raising Kane” in The New Yorker in 1971 which pissed Welles off bigtime. Lilli Palmer is an aging Marlene Dietrich type and Orson’s buddies Mercedes McCambridge and Paul Stewart pop in and out.

Director Peter Bogdanovich played a “cineaste” in the early shooting and then became a young director in later shoots. Of course, Peter was a young director in real life. His own very successful first film was The Last Picture Show in 1971.  Bogdanovich was also a friend of Welles for many years and wrote and made films about him.

Netflix doesn’t like theatrical releases, but it will appear in a dozen cinemas in eight states. Welles probably wouldn’t be into people watching his film on TV screens, tablets, laptops and smartphones. He would have been happy that before Netflix it played in about 20 cities worldwide at special screenings following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August.

I wrote earlier about Orson Welles unfinished last film, The Other Side of the Wind, and attempts to finish it by others since his death.

Orson Welles has been gone for more than 30 years and his last feature film (F for Fake) was released 15 years before that. It has been a long time since we had a new Welles film.

I have had mixed feelings about this “new” film release since it was hot in bits and pieces over the years whenever Welles had some money to proceed. Now, it has been completed by others.

Orson probably would have loved streaming services like Netflix producing films – especially with their generally hands-off approach.

The Other Side of the Wind debuted at the Venice Film Festival in advance of its November 2nd release. Bruno Ghetti of Brazil’s Fohla de S.Paulo wrote, “It’s a film with clearly a beginning, a middle and end. And given the complication of production, surprisingly it does not appear to have been completed by someone other than the one who started the assembly four decades ago. The Other Side of the Wind may even be a mess, but it’s a pretty consistent mess. And fascinating in its madness.”

The film was shot by Welles between 1970 and 1976. The making of the film is the subject of at least one book and a documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Netflix). The film went into a kind of editing limbo at one point because of the Iranian Revolution! (Some of its financing had come from the Shah’s brother-in-law.)

“The Other Side of the Wind” is also a film-within-the-film. That faux film is an artsy “New Hollywood” kind of movie that was in vogue while Welles was shooting which he seems to dismiss..

As the trailer shows in bits, the film has a documentary style shooting, quick cutting, and switches back and forth between color and black and white (probably as much for financial reasons as artistic ones.). I suspect the styles also vary based on when Welles was shooting and under what conditions. And we can’t ignore the impact of those who have completed the film without his involvement.

There are plenty of film references and appearances by other directors. The film’s star is John Huston and Welles’ good friend Peter Bogdanovich plays a filmmaker. Other filmmakers include Norman Foster, Claude Chabrol and Dennis Hopper. Those three directors span a lot of world cinema history.

Will I watch the film? Of course.  Welles told Huston when they were shooting: “It’s a film about a bastard director. It’s about us, John. It’s a film about us.”  (Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind)

VVG

Young Vincent

I finally saw the beautifully animated film, Loving Vincent.  It is an Academy Award and Golden Globe Nominee for Best Animated Motion Picture. It tells a part of the life and also investigates the controversial death of Vincent Van Gogh.

It is told by his paintings and by the characters that inhabit them. It takes place one year after Vincent van Gogh’s death. A postman who knew Vincent asks his son Armand to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Armand goes to the town not even knowing that Vincent is dead and interviews people who knew Vincent in an attempt to deliver that letter.

He finds the circumstances of the death suspicious. Only weeks before, Vincent had said in letters he was in a good mood, calm and working and in need of new canvasses.

What makes the film unique is that each of the film’s 65,000 frames is essentially an oil painting on canvas. A team of 125 painters using the same technique as Van Gogh created the images which often flow one into another as the paint swirls.

I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?

Vincent Van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters. Most of them were to his brother Theo who often supported him and his painting and served as his “art dealer” – not a very good one, since only one of his paintings sold in Vincent’s lifetime. He signed many of the letters “Your Loving Vincent.”  He also wrote to other family members and fellow artists including Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard.

His prose is very detailed, especially about his work. Some are illustrated with sketches and some of the collections put the letters beside the paintings he is describing.


Everyone who works with love and with intelligence finds in the very sincerity
of his love for nature and art a kind of armor against the opinions of other people.

The film was inspiring. It inspired me to borrow a few books to read more about Vincent and particularly to read his letters:  Letters of VincentVan Gogh’s Letters: The Mind of the Artist in Paintings, Drawings, and Words, 1875-1890, Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh and Van Gogh: The Life

The film and books also inspired me to take out my paints and brushes. I am the most-amateur of painters, but I have been setting things down in watercolors since I was in college, though very sporadically.

You have to let your creativity out. Usually, I do that with poetry. Visually, I am far more likely to take a photograph than paint. That is also a creative outlet but, for me, one done more from laziness.

self-portrait

Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat

What am I in the eyes of most people?
A good-for-nothing, an eccentric and disagreeable man,
somebody who has no position in society and never will have.
Very well, even if that were true, I should want to show by my work
what there is in the heart of such an eccentric man, of such a nobody.

Vincent was educated mainly in what he called “the free course at the great university of poverty.” He wanted to find purpose in his life after what knew was a long period of searching without purpose.

One who has been rolling along for ages as if tossed on a stormy sea
arrives at his destination at last; one who has seemed good for nothing,
incapable of filling any position, any role,
finds one in the end, and, active and capable of action,
shows himself entirely differently from what he had seemed at first sight.

self portrait

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

Vincent suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions. He often neglected his physical health, not eating and drinking too much wine.

His friendship with Gauguin ended after a confrontation with a razor, which resulted in him severing part of his own left ear. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals, including a period at Saint-Rémy.

In the film, they cover some of the time he spent after he discharged himself from a hospital. He moved to the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris. There he befriended a homoeopathic doctor, Paul Gachet.

There are two versions of his death. One is that as his depression deepened, on 27 July 1890, he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. That is a very odd way to commit suicide.

Another version is that he was shot, probably by a man from the village who had harassed Vincent during his time there. The position of the wound suggests this version makes more sense.

In either version, he dies in the seemingly non-existent care from Gauchet two days later.

 

Van Gogh was unsuccessful during his lifetime. He is considered to be a genius, a madman and a failure. His fame came after his death. I doubt that he would be happy that he is often seen as a misunderstood genius or that it took until the early 20th century for him to be recognized as a great painter.

Van Gogh gave his 1889 Portrait of Doctor Félix Rey to Dr Rey. The physician was not fond of the painting and used it to repair a chicken coop, and later gave it away. In 2016, the portrait was housed at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and estimated to be worth over $50 million.

Vincent and Theo's graves at Auvers-sur-Oise

Vincent and Theo’s graves at Auvers-sur-Oise

Jean Shepherd is best known to his devoted fans as a radio raconteur. I listened to him for about two decades on WOR-AM in New York City. Often I was listening on a transistor radio that was by my bed pillow before I went to sleep. I lived in New Jersey, and Jersey often figured in Shep’s stories, usually as the home of “slob art.”

His nighttime program was a hard-to-define blend of stories, commentary, and occasional oddities of “music” that seemed to go in ten attention-deficit directions until the program’s closing when it all seemed to somehow pull together. Though I learned via interviews and books that it was unscripted, Shep often walked into the studio with an article, letter or general theme for where the show was going to or at least where it would start.

Flick succumbs to a double dog dare to put his tongue
on the frozen pole. Don’t try this at home, kids.

To younger people or those outside of the NY/NJ metro area, he is probably best known for writing the 1983 hit film A Christmas Story. The film is now a perennial Christmas classic that is run and rerun in the way that It’s a Wonderful Life was and sometimes still is run on TV in December. Though I think of It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday classic, it is also almost film noir and gets quite dark in its second half. But A Christmas Story is pure nostalgia.

The film was based on a half-dozen stories, mostly from his 1966 collection, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash which is my favorite of his books. Those stories, some of which had run in magazines as standalone tales, are connected by the protagonist, Ralphie and his brother and parents and based on Shep’s childhood in Indiana. Though the film has become known as a family or even children’s story, I always viewed the book as more of a coming-of-age book. The stories are tied together by their time and place and connected by a much older Ralphie going back to Indiana.  Jean’s alter-ego character is Ralphie Parker (Shep’s birth name is  Jean Parker Shepherd), a kid growing up in 1930’s Indiana.

I sat down this weekend to write this because I saw that A Christmas Story Live, a stage version of the movie, is on FOX tonight, December 17, at 7 pm ET. It has run on Broadway and across the country. I avoided seeing it because I feared it would ruin the film and book for me. But, it’s free on TV and I can always turn it off and not be upset that I lost a few hundred bucks on a trip to Broadway, soI will watch the show.

This live version has Matthew Broderick playing grownup Ralphie (the narrator). (He was played by Jean Shepherd and ralphie’s old man was played by Darren McGavin in the original movie version.) Maya Rudolph is the mom. (Melinda Dillon played her in the movie.) There is a nice little synchronicity in the casting because Matthews’s father, James Broderick, played Ralphie’s father (billed as “the old man” not Mr. Parker) when Shep did several PBS adaptations of his Indiana stories.

Some years at Christmastime, Jean would read a version of the original short story that became the basis for the movie on his WOR-AM radio show (see video below). The main short story for the film appeared in Playboy as  “Duel In The Snow, Or, Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” and was reprinted as a chapter in Shepherd’s 1966 book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.

Shep narrates the film and has a brief cameo as an adult also in the line to see Santa at a department store who tells Ralphie to get in the back of the line.

On the air before his NYC radio days.

Jean Shepherd the writer published many magazine stories in Mad magazine and The National Lampoon, The New York Times, Playboy, Mademoiselle, Car and Driver, and Omni. He was one of the early columnists for The Village Voice newspaper in New York City. I believe you can find almost all of the stories collected in his four book collections (see below).

In the 70’s and 80’s he became more interested in TV and film and less interested in radio. He did several pieces for PBS from small bits to television movies including The Phantom of the Open Hearth.

In 1975, he did a popular non-fiction PBS television series titled Jean Shepherd’s America and another series for the New Jersey PBS station entitled Shepherd’s Pie.

Jean Shepherd was born in Chicago, in 1925 and the majority of his written stories and films were set in his childhood years. From his adult life, the most we heard about was from his Army days in the Signal Corps.

The stories he told on-air were always improvised, but he later wrote some of the childhood ones down and he published them in collections like In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters.

Much of Jean Shepherd’s real life is unknown. He made the line between fact and fiction very blurry. Sometimes he said things had happened that others have found did not happen. He rarely talked about his adult life. He was married three times but didn’t talk about his wives. Did he have children? Where did he live?

I had heard that he is the basis for the Jason Robards character in the play and film, A Thousand Clowns, which was written by Shep’s friend, Herb Gardner. I didn’t know that when I saw that film (which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) but I liked that guy, so some Shep must have come through.

He is supposed to be the inspiration for the Shel Silverstein song made famous by Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue.” Having the gender neutral name “Jean” wasn’t easy as a kid, and in later life he was often confused with a female country singer with the same name, though Shep has certainly eclipsed her in fame by now.

The Jack Nicholson late-night radio talker in New Jersey in The King of Marvin Gardens seems like he might have been somewhat inspired by Shep.

In the film Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky who was another in Shep’s circle, the main character is a television newscaster who tells his viewers to open their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” To a Jean Shepherd listener, that has got to have some basis in Shep’s frequent habit of “hurling an invective.” I remember him telling all of us to yell out the window at the same time, and another time having all of us jump up in the air at the same moment to see if we could knock the Earth a bit off its axis.

Shep once pulled off a publishing hoax by promoting a non-existent book called I, Libertine  by a non-existent author, Frederick R. Ewing. Shep was not happy with the way the best-seller lists were compiled and wanted to prove it was a rigged joke.

He told his listeners to go out and buy the book and they did try. The requests got bookstores asking their distributors for copies and that got at least one publisher (Ballantine Books) interested in creating the title. Ballantine had Shep work up an outline of the story and hired a ghostwriter, Theodore Sturgeon, who was known for science-fictions stories. It was written, published and due to the demand it actually made the best-seller list. Copies of the original paperback are now quite collectible.

Jean also did live shows. I guess it was standup comedy but not in the way that we think of that today. He appeared at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, and I saw him a half-dozen times at colleges, high schools and other venues. He wasn’t Jerry Seinfeld. He wasn’t obscene like Lenny Bruce or political like Mort Sahl. He was closer to Mark Twain and James Thurber if they had done an hour on stage. Humor and comedy are not the same animal.

In the late 1990s, Shepherd was working on new film projects, but his health was failing. I lost touch with him because he stayed out of  the public eye, and his personal life had always been a mystery in a Bob Dylan way with lots of misinformation and outright lies perpetrated by him.

We do know that his longtime companion, collaborator, and third wife of 21 years, was Leigh Brown. “Little Leigh” always seemed to be in the WOR studio with him and sometimes was referenced in his comments on air. She died in 1998 and Jean died the following year in a hospital near his Sanibel Island, Florida home. I have read that he had no survivors, so his intellectual property is owned by an entertainment group.

I have discovered a good number of Shep fans over the years, from people my age who lived in the tri-state area of WOR and listened, to young people who discovered him through the film and traced their way back in his career, to other humorists influenced by him like Harry Shearer.

A good free collection of Shepherd radio show audio online is The Shep Archives. All you have to do is register and you can listen and download mp3 files of old WOR shows, interviews, and audio from some of the television shows.

There are other sites too because many devoted fans back in the day recorded the show on their reel-to-reel or cassette recorders. I’m glad they did because the radio station certainly didn’t care enough to archive shows. The Brass Figlagee podcast has 300 show files and some are on also available free at archive.org.

Bob Kaye’s Jean Shepherd Page is a nice site, and Jim Clavin has a good fan site called Flick Lives! that includes links to places where you can hear some of Shep’s old broadcasts.

“Flick Lives” is a reference to a character in many Shepherd tales from his Indiana days. Flick is the kid who gets his tongue frozen to a pole in A Christmas Story.  Fans used to write “FLICK LIVES” as graffiti in the way that soldiers once wrote “Kilroy was here.”  We marked our turf and showed that we followed Shep with those two words.  And yes, people used to often join the L and I in Flick to create a totally different message to the world.

Books


Christmas Eve 1974 – Shepherd reads the story on air at WOR-AM in NY
that would later become the movie, A Christmas Story.

 

 “Beer” from Jean Shepherd’s America

 

Opening from an episode of Shepherds’s Pie (not great audio/video quality)

The New York Times had some suggestions for movies to watch this Labor Day weekend – but they are movies about the workplace! That seems like an odd series for a weekend that may be about labor but is usually a time to celebrate not being at work.

Admittedly, these are odd “workplace” films.  Office Space is a satire that should help disgruntled workers vent. Desk Set is a Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy  romantic comedy. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is a good film, but not holiday viewing for modern viewers. Sing along with the Newsies9 to 5 is a good office takeover by the workers. The Wall Street workers with big hair and big shoulder pads rule in Working Girl. And in Clerks, Dante is forced to work at the convenience store on his day off.

The Times gives info on where you can stream all those films, but if you want to see something on a big screen as a film should be seen, I recommend the escape of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The encounter of the third kind occurs at Devil’s Tower

Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind  came out about six months after the original Star Wars but Close Encounters was about real people dealing with visitors from distant stars. Suburban Middle America is “invaded” when Indiana electrical lineman Roy Neary experiences a close encounter with a UFO. But no one, including his family, believes him.

The New York Times ran an article on the film’s re-release making the argument that the film’s original release was when “the movies got new-age religion.” That is not my recollection of that time, but J. Hoberman points out that some Catholic and conservative Christian reviews of the film were surprisingly quite rapturous about it.  New York Magazine‘s film critic questioned “who is Spielberg to define religion for us?” My take on it then was that it was good sci-fi with much better effects than what had come before it.

More than any theological connection I might have had to the film in 1977, I connect more with Baby Boomer Spielberg watching the Disneyland TV show and hearing Jiminy Cricket sing “When You Wish Upon a Star” which he said was his inspiration for the feeling he wanted in the film.

The film started out in several more sinister versions  with UFOs and a post-Watergate scandal government trying to keep the lid on the real UFO and ET incidents that were in Project Blue Book, the Air Force’s very real study into UFOs in the 1950s and 1960s. That script was called Watch the Skies. There was another version that was more government whistleblower on the cover-up of aliens that was a political thriller written by Paul Schrader with the title Kingdom Come.

Spielberg was coming off the giant hit Jaws and five years away from making E.T.  He gets sole credit for the final script, though a handful of writers worked on earlier versions.

I saw it in a theater 40 years ago and loved it. I watched it when my sons were 8 and 10 years old and it wowed them and scared them in all the right places. Hey, a three-year old kid gets taken by the aliens. That’s scary. (Spoiler: He gets home seemingly unhurt at the end – as he should in any Disney-inspired movie.)  These aliens didn’t attack like in War of the Worlds (which Spielberg directed in 2005) but they weren’t toy-doll huggable like E.T. either.

Those were my two encounters with the film, and I just may go back and have a third encounter with it this week.

As part of the 40th anniversary of the film, it was presented at the Venice Film Festival this past week in its even shinier newly remastered and digitally restored version. It will open this weekend for a week-long run in theaters across the country.

Of course, the best screening will be tonight at the base of Devils Tower in Wyoming which is the location of the film’s finale and the encounter of the third kind. That finale was actually shot in a hangar that had been used for dirigibles during World War II at Brookley Air Force base in Mobile, Alabama, but don’t let that movie trivia ruin the Wyoming experience. Maybe some real UFOs will buzz the site tonight.

I don’t think the film really goes into explaining the title but it has some science behind it. Spielberg got the title and some ideas from the research of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a civilian scientific advisor to Project Blue Book and a ufologist.  Hynek’s alien close encounter classification system made a close encounter of the first kind be a sighting of a UFO. The second kind is physical evidence to prove the existence of an alien. The third kind is actual contact with alien life forms.

Hynek was a technical advisor on the movie and he shows up as the man smoking a pipe and wearing a powder blue suit who pushes through the crowd of scientists to get a better look at the aliens in the final scene of the film.

I’m not sure which version of the film is in this re-release. Spielberg originally wanted a summer of 1978 release but was pushed by Columbia Pictures to have it ready for a November 1977 release. Spielberg was not really happy with that version, as he was pushed to do the effects faster than desirable.

In 1980, Columbia let him finish what he had wanted to do as long as he added a sequence inside of the mothership so that there was something really new to market.  Spielberg added that and other new scenes and cut some scenes and it was promoted as the “Special Edition.”  Spielberg was not thrilled with the mothership scene and later cut it for the “Collector’s Edition” home video release.

This is a film to see on a big screen, but if you’re doing a home viewing, you can choose the original version, the director’s cut, the collector;s edition,  and the Blu-Ray or 4K Ultra-HD editions. That’s a lot of encounters.

Art imitates life and sometimes life imitates art, and sometimes films imitate art.

Filmmaker Vugar Efendi put together a compilation of shots from films along with the paintings that inspired them.

You may have seen filmmakers pay homage to older films by imitating shots – the original Star Wars film has shots that echo a number of other films including John Ford’s The Searchers and the Stranger Things series on Netflix has lots of tributes to films from the 1980s that the filmmakers watch and loved.

Paintings may be less obvious. Not everyone would pick up on Jean-Luc Godard filming a shot based on a painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. It is an old tradition. One referenced in Efendi’s supercut is from the 1927 silent film Metropolis.

L’empire des lumières influenced William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, and La Robe du soir is alluded to in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight while Architecture au clair de Lune slips into Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. Some instances are unexpected: Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy used in in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Sometimes the reference is not exact but a scene feels like it is “in the style of”a painter – such as the look of the Bates’s home in Hitchcock’s Psycho looking like a house from an Edward Hopper painting – but without the color or sunlight. (Wim Wenders used a much more literal recreation of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in his film The End of Violence.)

I first saw these videos mentioned on the Slate website, but the three-part video has been posted in other places too.

Here are the pairings so that you can check you “art of the cinema” knowledge.

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