October 17, 2018
The Films within Films of ‘The Other Side of The Wind’ and ‘La Flor’
At the 56th New York Film Festival there were titles that have intrigued, beguiled, and challenged viewers, perhaps none more so than Mariano Llinás’ fourteen-hour grand experiment La Flor and Orson Welles’ posthumously released The Other Side of The Wind. One film will be lucky to achieve any life after the festival (La Flor) while the other (Wind) will be widely available through Netflix next month. These are both films of grand ambition, creativity, and, reflexivity. Quite coincidentally, both feature films within films that underscore their reflexivity, center the process of filmmaking for viewers, and also show Llinás and Welles unlocking a kind of creative freedom that very few are privileged to make and be seen in such a way.
How does any filmmaker justify a fourteen-plus hour runtime? In the case of the Argentine Llinás, it is to express or at least give the impression of self-awareness in his massive undertaking with La Flor, the six-part, eight-hundred sixty-eight minutes long that is all at once tedious, bonkers, original, riveting, and unpredictable for its entirety. Llinás first appears in the film jotting down on a public park bench in his notebook and directly speaking, in voice-over, to the audience. He draws out the symbol of ‘La Flor’ something of a flower while also something of trident, spear type of weapon as he briefs viewers into what each episode shall entail. La Flor can best be characterized as postmodern, the most accessible way to pitch to even fellow cinephiles would be to compare it to the postmodernist works of literature such as Thomas Pynchon, or Argentine literary titans Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, particularly Cortázar whose incredible novel Hopscotch notoriously included a ‘Table of Instructions’ that recommended two different ways of reading the novel out of order. Llinás’ previous film in 2008, Extraordinary Stories (that got some North American play in 2011), had a similar playful literary pretense of Llinás devising his comparably leaner four-plus hour-long film in alternating multiple voice-overs that served as anticipating, predicting, and revising the increasingly knotted threads throughout the film. And even that does not fully prepare a viewer for La Flor. Nor does any of recent epic films like Miguel Gomes’ three-part Arabian Nights film or the equally endowed to literature anthology film of the Coen Brothers western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and citing Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz or Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 as comparisons on account of length also is ill-fitting. Those films still had were unified as one whole story and situation. La Flor is quite simply nothing you have ever seen before in being six different movies. The movie is a test of a director, his actresses, and his crew. There is rigor, but there is also something subliminal percolating throughout the project.
Even while functioning within familiar narratives through genre riffs, La Flor best functions as an autopsy, deconstruction, and reconstruction of films and filmmaking through ways that are revelatory and sometimes through some pretty shaggy digressions. This will of course challenge viewers’ patience with Llinás always popping up, usually at the precise right moment to note how much time is left and wishing viewers good luck on their viewing endeavor or even mockingly snore through his voiceover. This, again, may test viewers who find no pleasure in a director being that aware. However, La Flor’s reflexivity does not make it immune for further investigation. In fact, Llinás challenges the idea of reading and interpreting of his work by dedicating the entirety of the fourth episode, or Episodio IV, by creating a film within a film standing in for La Flor called “The Spider.” This episode unlocks everything about the project, becoming a commentary of this journey in cinema that Llinás shares with four actresses who appear throughout most of the film.
Each episode of La Flor is indeed different, the first episode is a New American cinema (although at times shot in a near Son of Saul styled third person perspective of harsh rack focus) meets Val Lewton mysterious mummy movie that plagues cats and people that was intended, to paraphrase Llinás, be the type of B-movie that Americans used to make with their eyes closed but have since forgotten how to shoot. The second episode is a mixture of an anti-A Star Is Born battle of two singers, an older man and a younger woman, and an international cabal obsessed with scorpion blood. The third episode of a cross-continental Cold War spy thriller of traitors, double-crossers, and some of the most prominent uses of foreign language dubbing in quite some time (much of which is played for laughs, including a cameo by Llinás), and is the longest episode that according to Llinás took between six to seven years to complete. When Llinás sketched out the pretense of the project early on, that he has no idea what the story after the third episode would be about other than to escape from the Cold War world he did in the previous film. He admittedly did not have a complete script, instead opting for images and build stories from that than the other way around.
And so with Episodio IV, there comes ‘the switch’ in the project. If the third episode was reaching the peak of the mountain, the fourth episode is the travel back down, the aftermath of accomplishing the most rigorous labor, returning perhaps more enlightened but also at a loss of what can possibly come next as to finish this project.
A group of four actresses (all played by Llinás’ four actresses), one dressed like a First Nation woman (unsure if she is just dressed like one or playing one for her character because postmodernism), two dressed as Canadian Mounties, and one dressed like a bearded frontiersman (and unsure if she is playing a man or just dressed like one because, again, postmodernism) who are having their patience and trust tested in their Quebec location of Kashwakamak Lake. They are frustrated by their director, a surrogate for Llinás with the same hairline, facial hair, and red colored work shirt, for not having a script and developing an obsession of filming trees as opposed to filming them. They have been working on a project called “The Spider” (the director also sketches out the symbol of the film that resembles less of a spider and more of an ant) for six years and feel they have hit a creative roadblock. Their film–something of sci-fi conspiracy–goes nowhere and it is then revealed that the actresses are all witches who will avenge their grievances on their director and crew by casting a spell that has the director go missing as his blue Volvo gets found in a tree and his crew have gone mad and scandalize the local sanitarium. This leads to an investigator who attempts to use the director’s notes to crack the bizarre mystery. Some of the notes are inscrutable to this investigator, the dramatic irony that the audience knows more about the insights in the tree obsession. But there is of course new information for the audience with a section devoted entirely what the director has read, leading to his possible inspiration from Casanova’s journals that include a Peter Greenaway-esque period reenactment of four concubines (played by the four primary actresses Pilar Gamboa, Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, and, the most recognizable actress to international audiences for her appearances in Matías Piñeiro films, Laura Paredes) who all conspired against Casanova within their secret society.
Episodio IV is a riff off of the project itself and of films where the idea is unfinished and reflexively leaving it all out there while on an elusive search of that inspiration becoming the text, in the mode of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ and Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie. The episode’s middle-section is a demanding, gonzo series of digressions where narrators and perspectives change but things introduced are called back (call it Chekhov’s techno beat). The episode ends with the four actresses as themselves in portrait-like landscapes looking directly, at various distances, towards the camera with smiles and personal gestures. These are not concubines, witches, or mere pieces to bend towards one director’s vision… These images of beautiful women conclude after Llinás and his on-screen surrogate initially rebelled humans to shoot trees, as he says to start at the very beginning after the lengthiest, most grueling work he had done. It is a cinematic exhale.
What follows in the proceeding episodes in La Flor are films where the actresses become absent or filmed into abstraction. It makes Episodio IV’s conclusion indeed feel like a natural progression and perfectly placed as a celebration of these actresses. For in Episodio V, the actresses are absent in a remake of Renoir’s A Day In The Country (silent except when lifting music and French–not subtitled–dialogue from the Renoir original) and in Episodio VI are in camera obscura in recreating a turn of the 20th century narrative and early 20th century style silent film of ‘captive women’ as told from a 1900 diary of an Englishwoman among Native women in the Americas. Where the first few episodes heavily delved into conspiracies, bureaucracy, and surveillance as a frequent narrative beat, those become absent, as though the fourth episode exorcised and cleansed the remainder of the project. These episodes are short but creativity and inspiration pulsate through both with Llinás recreating and imitating other texts and styles from film to painting.
In The Other Side of The Wind, the central text is also on a director struggling to complete a project with an incomplete script that appears to be a director out of time readapting into a different kind of Hollywood movie. Given his history of many incomplete works, John Huston as Jake Hannaford can be described as Welles’ on-screen surrogate and obvious parallel. The film uses a documentary-style technique to follow Hannaford on his 70th birthday party as he shows his incomplete latest work. Jake Hannaford has returned from years of exile to make a film, a film of which, quite disarmingly, fits right into the mold of New Hollywood psychedelia.
This film within film is a ponderous thriller of barely clothed hippies, a man and a woman (played by Welles’ real-life partner and co-writer for the film, Oja Kodar, who is mostly nude), who may be involved in some politically motivated bombing–the uncompleted film does not return to that thread–but it quickly digresses into scenes of bathroom orgies and an explicit sex in a moving car. The precision and alchemy of these scenes feel out of reach by a veteran like Hannaford and also a veteran like Welles and yet, they are incredible stand-ins of the real thing. Quite intriguing on their own, these imitations also offer critiques of what these styles are representing.
Even without explicitly calling out any directors by name, it is clear that the film Welles is riffing on his film within a film is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. Other reviews of Wind have pointed out the comparisons to Antonioni’s much-maligned (but itself a cult classic) foray into New Hollywood cinema but the connections to Antonioni also influence the conflicts within Wind beyond aesthetic parallels. Like the Antonioni film, Hannaford’s film is cast with two unknowns who move across various landscapes of urban and ghostly bare Western landscapes to engage in sexual activity. But the reason why Hannaford cannot complete the work is due to the fact he got into a dispute with his actor John Dale (Bob Random), much like Antonioni had with Mark Frechette, who briefly left filming of Zabriskie Point during production. Welles concentrates on Hannaford’s deliberate self-sabotage and precarious place in Hollywood in old age as part of the reason for this crisis in film completion, but there is certainly an excoriation happening within the spoof of it all. Antonioni was a rare auteur that Welles went on-record several times for disliking. When asked about Antonioni in a 1967 interview with Playboy magazine deemed the Italian filmmaker as making ‘perfect backgrounds for fashion models’ and a ‘pioneer and founding father’ for ‘boredom as subject.’ There is deliberate imitation of this style by Welles as to show how ridiculous and absent of narrative drive these films have. As Welles would see it, the freedom of the New Hollywood cinema appeared to be more of narrative stripped away in favor of experimentation and minimalism that veered into masturbatory teenage boy fantasies; the first shot the audience sees of Hannaford’s film being a gratuitous shot of many naked women in a shower that exist for no other reason than Hannaford getting to cast a bunch of ‘nudies.’ Hannaford himself seemed to be filming in rage and embarrassing his actors either as a way of wanting an out from this film or finding no true artistic pleasure in creating it. And one can only question if Welles got any pleasure from imitating on that level. The film imitation is so well-done. Could there really have been no pleasure in making something that looks that good? What cinematographer Gary Graver achieves in balancing both the documentary-like quality of the Wind and the film within the film, such starkly different styles, is an artistic achievement in itself. And Welles himself did magician work in being a different kind of filmmaker twofold in imitating the styles of documentary filmmaking and psychedelic-infused New American cinema. In seeing this work decades after it stalled, The Other Side of the Wind shows an older filmmaker testing himself within the confines of a new style while critiquing it, serving up an imitation that is close to the real thing.
When Mariano Llinás was asked by Jordan Cronk in CinemaScope in looking at La Flor as a challenge to himself, his response was, “It was more like I wanted to give a gift to myself—pleasure, something restorative. It was more like that—exploring regions that have been forsaken by the cinema. And of course each of these stories would help the actresses develop and showcase what they can do. The genres were a way of finding new images.” Similarly, Orson Welles was doing something restorative in confronting work he detested by remaking it, showing its flaws, and having a little fun with it. Welles never completed another fictional motion picture after stalling on The Other Side of The Wind, but the film offered a glimpse of there being more to think of what he could have given cinema. There is no telling what Llinás will do next and one hopes whatever ambition in any form he has for film is served. With both of these works, we see directors at different stages of their career testing themselves and the limits of cinema that flicker with inspiration through mirroring and recreating styles in and out of fashion. La Flor and The Other Side of the Wind distill the exhaustive journey of cinema, using their films within films as exercises in genres that test their own creative capacities that, in turn, reward the patient, willing viewer.
The Other Side of the Wind hits theaters and Netflix on November 2. La Flor is seeking U.S. distribution.