NYFF: Hopper/Welles (2020) & The Tango of the Widower and its Distorting Mirror (2020)

This year’s New York Film Festival greets us with newly released films by two of the most renown filmmakers of the 20th century, Orson Welles and Raúl Ruiz. Recently these two late directors have been surprisingly prolific, with Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, having spent decades in post-production hell over disputes of its ownership, receiving a belated release by Netflix in 2018; meanwhile, Ruiz, who passed away in 2011, had his final film Night Across the Street posthumously distributed in 2012 while his widow Valeria Sarmiento supervised a reconstruction of his lost picture The Wandering Shadow (2017).

The latest Welles picture released is Welles/Hopper, an extended conversation between Dennis Hopper and himself.  Recorded in November 1970 and originally intended as a supplement to The Other Side of the Wind, with an unseen Welles adopting the guise of Jake Hannaford, the gruff, swashbuckling filmmaker John Huston played in that film, Hopper/Welles functions as an extended interrogation of New Hollywood and counterculture.  Welles, an open skeptic of the European art cinema of the 60s and the newest generation of American directors, probes the maker of Easy Rider on the role of a filmmaker as a social and political activist and (in the persona of Jake) goads him with fascist and racist remarks and brands him as a leftist and revolutionary.  Hopper, for the most part, is a bit shaken by the lionization of himself as a political figure by the press, confessing that both rednecks and UCLA students misinterpreted Easy Rider’s nihilistic ending and refuses to divulge his political ideology.  The result, like Wind, is a juxtaposition between classic and contemporary American auteurism and exhibits an uncertainty on the substance and intellectual intent behind New Hollywood, although it isn’t as cohesive of a thesis as that later film would become.

Raúl Ruiz’s The Tango of the Widower and its Distorting Mirror is an entirely different beast.  Originally produced in 1967 in Chile, Tango was intended to be Ruiz’s first full-length feature and was only recently completed by Sarmiento.  The story follows a professor haunted by apparitions of his late wife and who loses his sense of time and identity.  Like the experimental pictures Ruiz would produce later on in his career, Tango is largely nonlinear, with the bulk of its final half being reversed footage of the previous thirty minutes.  The film unfortunately suffers a bit from its glossy restoration, its heavy dubbing and jarring, modern-sounding soundtrack added by Sarmiento to accommodate the soundless original footage are too overly slick and clash with Ruiz’s dreamy imagery.  Yet as a genesis for the Chilean surrealist’s filmography, it’s thoroughly engaging and never uninteresting, displaying Ruiz’s talent for making low-budget oneiric dramas feel as grandiose as D.W. Griffith’s monumental epics.

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