But the unmaking of Welles was a boyish trait too: his impatience. He wanted to storm every castle, with no exact notion of why or of what he would do with the castle once stormed. He had little time for patient virtues like structure, development, cogency of theme. No wonder his three best films, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight, were structured by others. Respectively: (co)screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, noir novelist Whit Masterson, and William Shakespeare.
But It’s All True? The Lady from Shanghai? Even F For Fake? They are glittering improvisations, scintillating and untidy, from which we pick out the moments that sparkle like broken glass. The hall-of-mirrors shootout at the end of Shanghai is a great sequence but it’s also inorganic and standalone. Its reverberance bears less on the story in which it features, more, with ironic potency, on Welles’s own nature and genius. He thought in fragments; he crafted in fragments; unless some master craftsman-collaborator was standing by the mirrors, protecting them, making sure an artistic whole somehow survived.
The Other Side of the Wind is supremely a bunch of broken glass, as vast as a landscape. “Jake is just making it up as he goes along,” someone says of the hero-artist’s new movie. “He’s done it before,” comes the reply.
Shards of Kane lie about this landscape, as a dead man’s life is explored in extended flashback. Kane apart, The Other Side of the Wind has almost no structure beyond a kaleidoscopic layering of mortality motifs and love/death meditations. The already-famous sex scene in a car, in the film within a film, is a walpurgisnacht of desire and despair, like an old man’s delirious clutching at carnal memory. There is a car crash too, elsewhere; there are images of inferno and collapse (the crumbling Hollywood backlots, perhaps a payback-apocalyptic vision by a Hollywood outcast).
Like a bizarre blend of celebration and grief-binge — a wake for creativity as we knew it — this is also a director’s film full of other directors. Not just Huston and Peter Bogdanovich, but in cameos, and some holding inquest on cinema’s notional heydays, Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom.