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Film Review: The Other Side of the Wind

The Other Side of the Wind (2018; Directed by Orson Welles)

The filmic ouevre of Orson Welles was made to be written about, obsessively, rapturously, and above all inconclusively. Few other filmmakers have imbued their movies with so much of themselves, their ideas and beliefs and humour and pathos and tragedy and impossibly grandiose spirit. Welles balked at the thought of observers analyzing him through his films, but if he really felt that way, then he ought not to have poured so much of himself into them, filling them up like empty jars with kerosene and dropping in a lit match just to see what happens. Ultimately, even if he did not intend to make every film an extension of and commentary on his own richly-lived life, he couldn’t help himself. Orson Welles made movies as he lived: with all-consuming abandon and a completely voracious and unquenchable appetite.

When he finished those films, they were full to the brim with his boundless perfectionist energy, and thus were usually boundless, energetic perfectionist masterpieces. But he often did not finish them, for myriad reasons that tended to run towards the financial, practical, and even legal but were forever psychoanalytically diagnosed as deriving from the flaws of his own genius-level ambition or by-products of his enigmatic personality. Though a product of his times in a way that no film artist of our own era could possible be in the same way (one can just barely imagine a millennial Orson Welles today making a couple of brilliant Sundance-circuit indies before being signed on to make a Marvel movie; he’d make a pretty good one, too, probably, though might not get a chance to make a second), Welles’ epoch between the late 1930s and the start of the 1980s was in many ways the absolute wrong one for a filmmaker of his artistic predilections and methods. These decades comprised the golden age of Hollywood’s studio system, the rise of the European New Wave, then American film’s stunning metamorphosis under the influence of those works and of domestic social, cultural, artistic, and commercial forces. At every step, Welles found himself outside of not only the predominant trends and practices of the film mainstream but of its alternative, independent strands as well: his ambitions were too marginal for big-budget, profit-centric studio films and too grand for small, patchily-funded indies.

The Other Side of the Wind is probably Orson Welles’ most famous unfinished film, and was conceived and semi-executed by Welles self-reflexively and self-reflectively as a celluloid metaphor for the the themes and frustrations of his career, for his bemusement at his place in film history and at film history itself, and for the magic and the deceit of the movies. Conceived through the 1960s and filmed off and on from 1970 to 1976, The Other Side of the Wind has been mired in financial and legal disputes for 40 years which have involved unreliable producers, restrictions of French law, and the Iranian Revolution (the deposed Shah’s brother-in-law provided funding for the film, believe it or not). Now, finally, those issues have been sorted out, an edit and sound mix of the film completed, and Orson Welles’ final film, uncompleted and unreleased upon his death in 1985, can be streamed on Netflix alongside that Sabrina the Teenage Witch show, just as its creator intended.

The resulting finished product is part dated time capsule, part living, electrifying reclaimed masterwork, and all Orson Welles. The Other Side of the Wind takes Welles’ trademarked winking masked-autobiographical artistic themes and runs them to dizzying extremes. It’s the story of the final day of the life of a great, celebrated film director, J.J. “Jake” Hannaford (the magnificently craggy, stone-hewn John Huston). Hannaford, who made some classic films years ago in Hollywood but has built his reputation among cinephiles during creative exile in Europe before his swan-song return to the American cinema stage, is an obvious metaphorical stand-in for Welles himself, combined with the aggressive performative masculinity of Welles’ old Spanish-bullfight-enthusiast buddy Ernest Hemingway, whose death in 1961 was the spark that lit the film’s creative fuse in Welles’ tinder-dry mind.

The Other Side of the Wind introduces a dizzying array of characters (most of them based on then-current Hollywood figures that Welles knew and feuded with) who are travelling between the Paramount backlot and Hannaford’s desert home for a party celebrating the great auteur’s 70th birthday party, after which we are told that the man dies in a car crash that might be suicidal and might be accidental. These include Hannaford’s “mafia” of crew members, actors, and sundry hangers-on, other filmmakers (including cameos from French New Wave director Claude Chabrol, a stoned Dennis Hopper, now-disgraced CBS head exec Les Moonves, and a young Cameron Crowe), critics (including one based on Welles antagonist Pauline Kael, played by Susan Strasberg), and a gaggle of “film-freak” cineastes craving even the slightest snippet of brilliance from the great man (and dropping bitingly funny over-educated observations on his work like “the ontology of his iconography is so facile”).

Many of these film freaks are filming Hannaford and his entourage with handheld cameras, and therefore the party section of the film is presented as a mockumentary, furiously, energetically quick-cut between different lengths and grains of film. Like much of what Welles did in his films, this stylistic technique is now common practice but must have seemed, in the 1970s, revolutionary and strange. This mockumentary part of the film is contrasted with footage from Hannaford’s final film, a film-within-the-film also called “The Other Side of the Wind”, which is first screened for a dismissive Hollywood exec (Geoffrey Land, based on then-head of Paramount Robert Evans) and then shown in snippets during the party at Hannaford’s manse.

“The Other Side of the Wind” (the film inside The Other Side of the Wind, that is) is an aimlessly plotless experimental art film, a conscious parody of European New Wave movies about a young male drifter, played by Hannaford’s hand-picked lead John Dale (Robert Random), who desirously follows a sensuous, exotic, barely-clothed woman (referred to as a “Red Indian” by characters at the party, she is played by Croatian artist Oja Kadar, then Welles’ lover and partner) through blasted, post-apocalyptic locations and ruined backlot sets. Dale is conspicuously absent at Hannaford’s party (it’s suggested, with latent homoerotic whispers, that the director has used up and discarded many leading men in his time), and is replaced instead by a couple dozen dummies in the actor’s likeness perched on rocks above the pool like ravens of repressed reminder. Huston and Kadar shoot holes in the dummies with guns late in the film. The New Wave send-ups elsewhere in the film range from an unseen production in-joke (the Arizona home where most of Hannaford’s party was shot stood right next to a house blown up at the end of New Waver Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point) to openly droll mockery (a tangent of punchlines and puns name-dropping Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, and other luminaries of the movement).

If The Other Side of the Wind already sounds mind-bogglingly meta, rest assured that we have barely scratched the surface of how meta it is. Hannaford’s more-successful directorial protégé Brooks Otterlake is played by Peter Bogdanovich, who was, in the early 1970s, Welles’ more-successful directorial protégé. The character was originally played by impressionist Rich Little doing a Bogdanovich impersonation, but scheduling conflicts led to Little’s scenes being scrapped and Bogdanovich playing his own barely-fictionalized proxy. Welles plucked a blond waitress (Cathy Lucas) who couldn’t act to play a thinly-veiled version of Bogdanovich’s then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd, and ends the party with a moment of betrayal between Hannaford and Otterlake that presaged a public falling-out between Welles and Bogdanovich (though Bogdanovich executive produces the finished film, and was instrumental in its eventual release). The scene in which Hannaford’s candy-sucking toady Billy Boyle (Norman Foster, in an apparent reference to aged-out former child star Mickey Rooney) screens footage from the unfinished “The Other Side of the Wind” for the doubtful studio exec in an attempt to secure the funding to finish it was shown by Welles himself at his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award event in an attempt to secure funding to finish The Other Side of the Wind. Neither showcase worked. One nearly requires a flowchart to keep track of it all.

If The Other Side of the Wind sounds like an impenetrable thicket of inside references, art-film winks and nods, and intellectual navel-gazing, it’s not (only) that. This is the most kinetic, lively film that Welles ever made, largely because his chosen satirical targets required him to depart from from his usual style of directing, shot-making, and editing to either ape styles unlike his own (the New Wave stuff) or innovate entire new ones (the constantly intercutting, immediate mockumentary style) to achieve what he needed to. The Hannaford party scenes are a stunning flood of bon mots about Hannaford’s (and thus Welles’) life and work and about movies and Hollywood and humanity in general, each one cleverer than even the cleverest snatch of dialogue in a dozen other movies and also presented by Welles as taking the piss out of people impressed by such bon mots.

And even if “The Other Side of the Wind” is intended as a film-within-a-film send-up of Bergman-esque experiential art films, it’s better than all but the best of those films at being that. Its shots are wondrously composed, each frame a pure artistic creation by Welles and his cameraman/cinematographer Gary Graver (who shot B-movies and even porn films to make enough money to allow him to keep working with Welles on this movie). There are many beguiling reflection, mirror, and window shots of Dale’s pursuit of the woman (again, for a director who resisted the suggestion that his movies were mirrors on his own life, Welles constantly used and indeed mastered the symbolically charged use of mirrors in cinematography). There’s a bathroom orgy sequence, and an erotically impressionistic sex scene in a car on a rainy night (an incredible, gorgeous sequence which was among the AV Club’s film scenes of the year). Welles was a bit of a prude with his films, and considered sexuality and nudity to be unnecessary distractions from the fundaments of the narrative, but in copying the explicit content of New Wave film, he opens the floodgates on a rampant sensuality that was previously compressed into his camera’s voyeuristic gaze. “Is cinema a phallus?” one of the film freaks asks Hannaford at one point, and for Welles, it certainly is in this scene.

Most of all, The Other Side of the Wind sounds like a mess, but it isn’t. Or it is, but in a focused, intentional way that always makes perfect sense and always has its well-considered reasons. As is demonstrated (along with many of the other details of the production and Welles’ thinking about the film) in Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead which accompanied the film’s Netflix release, Welles worked in a manner that often seemed haphazard or improvised (a criticism also levelled at Hannaford in the film), preferring to leave room for serendipitous moments of magic that were the heart of filmmaker for him (which he called “divine accidents”). He could also be cryptic or poetically vague when describing what his films were to be about: “This film is about the love of death”, he said of The Other Side of the Wind (the title itself is entirely cryptic, too), not exactly a pitch finely-tuned to appeal to a studio suit concerned with box office grosses.

But Welles always had a clear idea in his own capacious brain of what the final film should look like, even if his inability or (more likely) unwillingness to share the entirety of that vision with his collaborators could prove damagingly frustrating. Is this final, released version of The Other Side of the Wind, based on some of the master’s own rough assemblies and surviving instructions and guidelines, the film Orson Welles had in his head before he died? Of course we can’t know. But as a document of a master filmmaker’s obsessions and frustrations, of his craft and his humour and his aesthetic prankster’s energy, The Other Side of the Wind is tremendous.

This film might have come to life as a tiresome inside joke about the Hollywood glitterati who showered him with praise and awards for his past work but wouldn’t pony up for his future work, the talented young filmmakers who worshipped him while borrowing his techniques and style and surpassing his commercial success, the cinephiles who embalmed his achievements with self-serving treatises but did not create films of their own (Bogdanovich did the first before doing the second, typifying Welles’ appreciation and resentment of his young acolyte). But instead this film is a deceptively ambitious closing statement on a remarkable, turbulent career in filmmaking, a masterpiece about reaching your end with your self-critical faculties firing at all cylinders but with your legacy in doubt and ultimately in the hands of others, who will inevitably betray you in ways both small and large, unintentional and malicious, sadly unjust and entirely deserved. It’s a film about failure and tragedy, and it’s a gigantic, inspiring success. Whatever the particulars, that much had to be the intent of Orson Welles with The Other Side of the Wind, at the very least.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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