The Other Side of the Wind
Unseen and unfinished for over forty years, The Other Side of the Wind, the final film embattled auteur Orson Welles was attempting to make long before he passed away in 1985, has finally reached completion thanks to the restorational, editorial, and logistical efforts of admirers, modern day contemporaries, and former collaborators, and perhaps unsurprisingly it showcases some of his most ambitious and finest work. After shooting for six years from 1970 to 1976, and then languishing in a Parisian vault since 1979 due to complicated legal, political, and financial issues that weren’t resolved until recently, The Other Side of the Wind has been pieced together from over 100 hours of footage and workprints on various mediums – some of it partially assembled by Welles – and various notes left behind, it’s a restoration effort shepherded largely by those closest to the project who are still alive to talk about it.
The results firmly and unequivocally feel like a Welles film, not the work of a bunch of meddling cineastes dabbling in some form of celluloid archeology, and ends up becoming the closest thing the director ever made to a Citizen Kane follow-up. It’s a passionate, bitter, unapologetic, fast paced, and purposefully confused film-within-a-film that finds Welles opening up to viewers on a deeply personal and profound level about many of the problems that held him back in Hollywood. Welles would’ve bristled at such a description, often preferring that his personal connections to a work not be analyzed, but the deep parallels between his private life and the one that ends up on screen here are probably why The Other Side of the Wind was such a monumental and painful film to complete in a timely manner.
The Other Side of the Wind unfolds its tale of professional jealousy and toxic masculinity on the final day in the life of American filmmaker Jake Hannaford (John Huston), which also happens to be his seventieth birthday. Jake has recently returned from a self-imposed European exile to work on The Other Side of the Wind, a ponderous and pretentious tale about a doomed love affair between a motorcycle riding pretty boy (Robert Random) and a frequently naked femme fatale (Welles’ co-writer and off screen romantic partner Oja Kodar) who might be a left wing activist. While Hannaford – dogged by journalists, documentarians, and various budding film scholars – attempts to make his way to his estate for a birthday celebration, the studio head (Geoffrey Land) screens what little footage the director has been able to produce, and he loathes what he sees. Hannaford is given the ultimatum that The Other Side of the Wind has to be completed before the week is through or all financing will be cut off and the project will be forcibly abandoned. This artistic dilema drives a wedge between Hannaford and one of the party’s most esteemed guests, Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), a younger contemporary and friend of the aging director who’s become the third highest grossing filmmaker in the world during Jake’s exile.
It’s hard to parse what makes the completion of The Other Side of the Wind such a monumental achievement without taking a deep dive into the history of the project, but I shall do my best to divorce the history of the project from the film itself, mostly because once I’ve completed writing about it, I will be looking at two documentaries made about the history of the project that Netflix produced to be released at the same time. Most analysis of Welles’ “final” work (he left many projects unfinished over the years) is of the obvious sort, but that doesn’t make the final results any less energizing or stimulating. Through his characters, Welles is painfully and obviously grieving the loss of his own career, and boldly and existentially questioning if such a fall from grace was inevitable.
The gruff and malevolent looking Huston is the perfect choice for a blowhard like Hannaford; a hard drinking, acerbic artiste who doesn’t have the self-awareness to realize that he’s lapsed into a parody of himself. He wants to do what “the kids” are doing, but he hates them just the same for changing the art form. He’s devoted his life to cinema, and now that the rules have changed, he foolheartedly believes that he’ll be able to do whatever he wants, using the same brusque, bull-headed methods that forced him to be labeled as unfashionable to make an art picture. Huston, playing an obvious Hemingway surrogate when one considers that the film’s date is the anniversary of the macho author’s death, understands this archetype perfectly, and he’s certainly doing his best to balance his own take on the character with subtle nods to the more boorish traits of the person behind the camera. Huston might be a director in the vein of Hannaford when working on his own pictures, but he never made a film like the one his character attempts to produce in/with The Other Side of the Wind.
The oblivious and selfish Hannaford is placed in opposition to the eager, increasingly pompous, but more level-headed Otterlake, played brilliantly by Bogdanovich, who, like Huston, gives one of their best performances. By Welles’ design and wishes, Bogdanovich, who filmed most of his part just after succeeding as a director in his own right with The Last Picture Show, has placed a lot of his own feelings about Orson into The Other Side of the Wind. Everything that Otterlake says to and about Hannaford could be the exact same feelings that Bogdanovich has about Welles. Otterlake is atop the cinematic world, while Hannaford couldn’t be lower, and the resentment that the elder has towards his fellow filmmaker and friend is palpable. Hannaford can’t understand why Otterlake is able to make the kinds of films that resonate with modern viewers, and he’s consumed by jealousy and second guesses. Otterlake rarely has the nerve to tell Hannaford that he’s wrong, but the older man will happily tell the younger man to kiss his ass whenever he feels his authority and genius is being threatened or challenged. Bogdanovich, who imbues his part with equal parts observational humour and potentially all too realistic consternation, provides a perfect foil for both Huston and Welles.
Their relationship – and indeed many portions of the film-within-this-film – underlines an uneasy and homoerotic attraction. Hannaford feels so passionately about his work that it’s never actually clear if he wants to be Otterlake or be with him. Hannaford is so filled with internal and external loathing that his repression is both obvious and comical. The character of Hannaford is described at various points as a lecherous fascist, racist, control freak, but he also paradoxically goes on a rant about how he thinks God is a woman, and all of his mannerisms appear like someone trying their hardest to seem as unlikable as possible in a bid to mask deeper traumas. Like Hemingway, the character is so resolutely masculine that it comes across as overcompensating in an effort to hide a secret. Hannaford is making a film that presents itself to the world as something sensitive, artful, and heterosexual, but that might be why the whole thing feels so patently false. Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind is packed with so much female nudity that it blows well past being patently ridiculous, and the beefcake leading man is doted over more longingly than the naked women. The documentary crews and journalists darting their way around Hannaford’s birthday party are as hip to this repression as they are his professional jealousies. It’s a somewhat muddled thread, but well observed by Welles, and expertly brought out of the characters by Huston and Bogdanovich.
Welles also creates plenty of fascinating side characters that enhance and underline his tale of messy Hollywood relationships, with almost all of them played by well known character actors and filmmakers jumping at the chance to work with Welles. Paul Stewart appears as Hannaford’s slimy assistant and legal counsel, who once worked with Joe McCarthy on the Anti-American Activities Committee. Land’s studio executive is intended as a thinly veiled caricature of then rising superstar producer Robert Evans. Susan Strasberg plays a character inspired by noted Welles critic Pauline Kael, and Gregory Sierra does a spot on impression of John Milius. Fellow director and part time actor Norman Foster steals almost every scene he’s in as a jittery, overly apologetic, candy munching, glad-handing “yes man.” Joseph McBride gets a choice role as one of the more eager documentarians attempting to get inside the head of Hannaford. The party sequence is also peppered with cameos from the likes of Dennis Hopper, Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom, and Claude Chabrol, none of whom do much of note in the grand scheme of things with their brief screen time, but all of them enhance Welles’ understanding of cinema’s changing landscape in the early 1970s. The Other Side of the Wind is a film with no bad parts, and only one bad performance, courtesy of a non-actor Welles’ hired to make fun of Bogdanovich’s then considerably younger partner Cybill Shepherd, which borders on tasteless and unnecessary.
Working from the partially edited footage and detailed notes Welles left behind as a guideline for how The Other Side of the Wind should come together, editor Bob Murawski has done a brilliant job of recreating the deceased director’s vision for how the film should look and move. Murawski works here from various, predominantly black and white media sources employed by cinematographer Gary Graver that were employed to make The Other Side of the Wind look like a chaotic, almost experimental documentary in the style of Welles’ F for Fake (albeit in a much more linear fashion). There are moments where the cuts will come in such quick succession that the film becomes purposefully disorienting, only slowing down when the action is at its most depressing and miserable for the characters. At various moments in the film, Hannaford attempts to screen footage from his latest opus amid an inopportune blackout (not to mention the bits that are screened early in the film for the studio), and Murawski’s work becomes even more complex because he has to recreate a film from the point of view of one of Welles’ main characters. Few editorial feats have ever been as taxing, complicated, and daunting as the ones placed before Murawski, and The Other Side of the Wind becomes just as much of an achievement for him as it is a posthumous one for Welles.
As for the film-within-the-film, The Other Side of the Wind finds Welles delivering both the most erotic and most satirical work of his career. In no small way poking fun at the counterculture works of Hopper and Roger Corman that were all the rage at the time of the film’s production and a reaction to European New Wave luminaries (most obviously Demy and Antonioni), the technicolor, widescreen aesthetic of Hannaford’s picture is as gorgeous as it is hollow and empty. The only effective and memorable moments in Hannaford’s film come whenever he’s doting over the gorgeous bodies of his stars, and never in any moments pertaining to the film’s convoluted, potentially non-existent story. The best sequence is a lengthy sex scene that unfolds in a car during a torrential downpour while an increasingly uncomfortable driver watches Kodar and Random going at it in the passenger seat. It’s patently ridiculous, but also the only moment of Hannaford’s film with genuine mystery and passion. The rest of it is sun drenched nothingness, filled with splendid tricks of light, ominous effects, and precious little else. In these sequences that are designed to let the viewer know that Hannaford has made a shitty movie far removed from his comfort zone before the character realizes it, Welles displays both love and disdain for what cinema has become, providing the film’s “reality” with a strong metaphorical and cultural backbone. If the party scenes are reflections of Welles’ anxiety of constantly having to live up to his mythos in the wake of Citizen Kane, the film made by the characters he created is a reaction to everything that’s happened in world cinema since his fall from fashionable graces.
The Other Side of the Wind is the type of film I wish I had weeks to discuss instead of mere hours. I fear that this only scratches the surface of Welles’ work and the dizzying heights of what he attempted to achieve. It’s easy to see from the film’s narrative and technical complexity why he never fully completed it when he had the chance. There are so many ways and directions The Other Side of the Wind could have gone, and I’m sure that the intentions of those spearheading this restoration effort will be hotly debated by those who thought they would have achieved something closer to what they think were Welles’ wishes. In the final, admittedly messy thirty minutes, one does wish that Welles were around to figure out the conclusion, but that sloppiness could still be seen as something intentional, and it in no way diminishes the power of The Other Side of the Wind. Like Welles’ best works, it’s one worth revisiting again and again to uncover details and subtexts that remain hidden from a surface glance. The notoriously controlling Welles never got to see the film in any remotely finished form, and one wonders if he’d even sanction such a project without his input, but the final results of The Other Side of the Wind still point to one of the best things he ever produced. In the end, that might matter more than any other debating about the issue.
The Other Side of the Wind is now available to stream on Netflix.
Check out the trailer for The Other Side of the Wind: