Before the internet, you had to go much greater lengths to hunt things down. Libraries were held in higher regard then. And specialist libraries were even more fervently revered. I remember when I arrived at university in the late 1990s and discovered they had a film library of over 3,000 VHS videos, for reference only, with copies of everything from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas – to name just two films I’d heard lots about but never actually seen. I grew very excited by this new repository opening up to me.
Another feature of pre-internet days was that new discoveries, whether it be in music, books or films, were often made under more capricious circumstances. Things were less in your control. Searching for something was more long-winded and depended greatly on what was on offer on-the-shelf. So when you made a new discovery that really mattered it sometimes seemed to have the backing of fate.
When I was young I discovered Woody Allen films in this vein when the BBC began showing a series of his best movies late at night. The sensation for me was one of fragile delight; I had found a new channel of expression, one that might have been so easily missed had I not turned on my bedroom TV late at night when my parents thought I was asleep. The idea that I would have arrived at Allen’s oeuvre sooner or later anyway didn’t cross my mind. It was providence at play; another night, a different decision, and I may have missed out altogether.
A similar encounter I made at about the same time was with an unfinished film by Orson Welles called The Other Side of the Wind. Welles had begun planning this experimental film in the late 60s but never completed it. It is now considered “lost”, or at the very least, the preoccupation of film buffs raking around in the obscure margins of cinema (of which I am not one.) This ruffled, tangled, disorientating excerpt of film caused a storm in me. I had no idea of it’s meaning, which is not surprising, since it was merely an excerpt. Not only that, but the style was so frenetic that it was hard to hook a single narrative idea onto the stream of images.
(I’ve since found out that the television documentary that proffered this extraordinary slice of cinema was called The One-Man Band (The Lost Films of Orson Welles) by Vassili Silovic, .)
Take a look at what I mean (you may want to zip forward to about 4 mins 30 seconds to reach the excerpt):
The effect of this piece of footage was very profound on me. I took great inspiration from the montage styling, from the experimental cross-cutting of different film formats, and from the humour that cuts through each piece of dialogue.
Orson Welles worked on the film on and off for more than twenty years. The full story concerns the 70th birthday party of movie director Jake Hannaford (John Huston) as he struggles to acheive commercial success in a changing Hollywood scene. It was shot in a variety of different styles – colour, black-and-white, still photography, 8mm, 16mm and 35mm film. Due to legal wrangles over the ownership of the footage only certain excerpts ever entered the public domain. I pray that fate has a different destiny for the remainder of the film.