Opinion | The other side of the camera
The 'new' Orson Welles film, starring John Huston, adds to a fascinating list of directors in major acting roles
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.
He tweets at @jaiarjun