“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
– Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
“A fact of life: we’re going to die.”
– Orson Welles, F for Fake
Orson Welles is dead. He has been for some time. Film did not die with him, but it is dead now that his final work has been released. I don’t say this lightly, nor do I say it without self-awareness. I know I am being dramatic. The cynic in me had some input on this decision, but it was the romantic who signed off on it. I cannot think of a more beautiful farewell to the art form than The Other Side of the Wind and so it is the one I have chosen.
Allow me to set the scene. It has been a particularly unremarkable year for film, and a discouraging one too. Very few movies have impressed me. Many overtly political films have been praised for their messages, but those messages lack insight or any concrete worldview. A Marvel movie is a current frontrunner for best picture. Theater attendance continues to decline despite growing box office numbers. People keep praising television, for some reason. Disney acquired Fox. AT&T merged with Time Warner. Filmstruck was shut down. Amidst all of this, the long-incomplete final film from the director of Citizen Kane was released for the first time, by Netflix of all people. I won’t speculate about the company’s motives for doing this. I won’t get carried away praising them for it either. The fact is that this film was released in only a handful of theaters before disappearing into an ever-increasing streaming catalog. All of the details surrounding its release and reception show how much times have changed. There is a stark reality to seeing a film shot in the 1970s debut in 2018. As someone astutely tweeted: “Though of historic interest, certain elements of The Other Side of the Wind are hopelessly dated. For example, it’s a movie that is visually interesting, and contains more than one idea.”
I won’t spend too much time describing the film or its long journey to completion. Both are rather complicated. It is better to watch the film itself, along with They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, the behind the scenes documentary. Suffice it to say that The Other Side of the Wind is about an aging director (played by John Huston) trying to secure the funding for his final film. At his 70th birthday party he screens what he has shot so far to a collection of critics, fans, and fellow directors. The film and its director are fiercely debated throughout the evening, often with the director present. The wall-to-wall conversation is dizzying and exhausting, all of it filmed in an on-the-fly cinéma vérité style. The only break we get from this is the footage of the film within a film, Welles’ parody of European art cinema that is often astonishingly beautiful, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it gets.
Among other things, The Other Side of the Wind acts as a critique of the auteur theory, which grants sole authorship to the director. More recently, this theory has fallen out of favor in many film circles. How can the”A Film By” credit be accurate when it takes so many contributors to make that film? Through his surrogate, JJ Hanaford, Welles depicts the symbiotic relationship between the director and his crew, revealing how that relationship can turn parasitic when an ego grows too large. Welles himself abused many relationships so that he might finish this last work, alienating many in the process. In spite of all of this, The Other Side of the Wind gives credence to the theory. No matter how much he may have relied on his collaborators, the fact remains that a talent like Orson Welles has not existed before or since.“Movies and friendship. Those are mysteries.”
Even if I have over extended myself by declaring film dead, there is no denying that The Other Side of the Wind is about the death of cinema. Much of it plays like a frustrated lament, but Welles is rather frank about the art form’s inherent limitations. By the end of the film, JJ Hanaford is dead in what is presumed to be suicide. His final bit of narration plays over a shot of the projector screen at a now desolate drive-in theater. “Who knows?” he says. “Maybe you can stare too hard at something, huh? Drain out the virtue, suck out the living juice. You shoot the great places and the pretty people, all those girls and boys – shoot ’em dead.”
Maybe film wasn’t built to last. I’ve certainly wondered as much recently. Perhaps a hundred years were all we could get before the medium ran out of ideas and was consumed by its commercial interests. Now what we have is a shadow of its former self, but we go on heralding masterpieces and giving out awards, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that the times have changed. They don’t make them like they used to. It would be a mistake, however, to romanticize the past too much. Welles himself is a testament to the reality that it has never been easy to make a great film. “You have fallen in love with an impossible medium,” he once said.
I wonder what Welles would think of the state of Hollywood today. No doubt he would be disturbed by much of it and just as ruthlessly critical as he was during his own time, but somehow I think he would have found a way to come to peace with it all. In his experimental documentary F for Fake, Welles promises to tell nothing but the truth for an entire hour. Much of this time is spent detailing the very complicated story of two art impersonators, but as the clock runs down, he broadens his focus. Never mind the death of film. One day, every work of art will fade and disappear forever.
All of this leads me to the subject of mortality.
I have no experience with death. I can talk about concepts like memento mori as much as I like, but writing about it now, I risk sounding glib. Someday someone I love will die and every preconceived notion I have will go with them. Death is not an ideal. It is not a theme. But there is value in considering it.
This year has done much to dissuade me of film’s ability to convince anyone of anything anymore. I’ve given a lot of thought to why this is and I have developed several working theories. Maybe movies don’t believe in Good and Evil anymore. Maybe they don’t believe in God. Maybe they don’t believe in death.
Recently, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs had something to say about that last option. To paraphrase and extrapolate, death is something that happens in the movies, but not to us, the audience. Cinema is the distraction, never the reminder.
So what is the purpose of me declaring film dead? Is it simply another one of my opinions? The hook with which I get you to read this essay? Is it an excuse for me to give up on my own dreams, to wash my hands of Hollywood before ever truly entering it? That possibility troubles me the most. I don’t know the answer to it. Not yet. I’ve lost many of my own ideals about film, but what were those ideals in the first place? I once believed film could communicate truth to the world. Now I’m not sure. The theater is just one more screen to look at. The Other Side of the Wind is lost amidst a sea of other Netflix Originals. It is all noise. But forget all of that for a moment. What do I believe is true?
I never love God more than when I see Him on the big screen, but where else do I look? Terrence Malick’s films might make me want to be a better Christian, but that is not enough. I have to be a better Christian. If film is dead, what am I left with? Simple. I must turn my ideals inward. I must live them out to the fullest, knowing full well that I too will one day die.
Art is not the end.