The other side of the cam­era

Mint ST - - THE SCOOP -

Even for film buffs who weren’t weaned on the Au­teur The­ory, the past month has been a time to re­flect on the per­sonal styles and pet themes of renowned di­rec­tors. The deaths of Ni­co­las 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 to the gor­geous young Ger­ard Depar­dieu and Robert De Niro nude to­gether in an ex­plicit, X-rat­ing-wor­thy scene in the long ver­sion of Ber­tolucci’s epic 1900.

More poignant, 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 film-maker. As if that weren’t enough, other parts—a big one, plus many cameos—were played by other di­rec­tors of the time.

Yes, we are firmly in meta-film ter­rain now, and this is Or­son Welles’ 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 in­tact, in a film that is tech­ni­cally a 2018 re­lease.

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 film-maker to an idol. Con­sider In­g­mar Bergman’s Wild Straw­ber­ries, in which the lead part—a sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian pro­fes­sor—is played by Vic­tor Sjöström, the silent-era film-maker whose work had a big im­pact on Bergman. Or Jean-luc Go­dard cast­ing Fritz Lang (as him­self, with ref­er­ences to ac­tual Lang films like M) in a sub­stan­tial role in Le Mépris. Or the use of Erich von Stro­heim in Sun­set Boule­vard ,as Max, a manser­vant to a once-fa­mous silent-screen star played by Glo­ria Swan­son. In a scene where Max shows an old film on a home pro­jec­tor, we see shots from the 1928 Queen Kelly, which was di­rected by von Stro­heim and starred the young Swan­son.

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’ 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 cob­bled to­gether films over years, con­stantly chang­ing lo­ca­tion). But 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.

“Our rev­els now are ended”—a line from The Tem­pest—is wearily used here to say some­thing about the dif­fi­culty of re­al­iz­ing 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.

Above The Line is a col­umn on cinema and how it presents the world.

@ja­iar­jun

Or­son Welles (left) on the sets of ‘The Other Side Of The Wind’.

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