DIRECTED BY: Orson Welles
PLOT: On the last day of his life, director Jake Hannaford shares footage from the movie he’s been trying to complete despite a desperate lack of funding, the disappearance of his leading actor, and the doubts of his crew, his peers, and the Hollywood press.
COMMENTS: It’s natural to be wary of a movie where the story behind it is more interesting than the one on the screen. On the other hand, it’s arguable that Orson Welles never made a movie where that equation wasn’t in play. From his very first feature, a little picture about a newspaper publisher, the story off-camera has always been at least as compelling as the one made for public consumption, and usually with a good deal more tragedy attached. As the major studios turned against him and his efforts to assemble financing and infrastructure became more haphazard and idiosyncratic, the subject of Welles himself invariably took precedence over whatever story he actually hoped to tell.
But even by his own yardstick, the road to The Other Side of the Wind is unusually winding and protracted. Welles filmed over the course of six years on two continents, with multiple parts recast over the years and the lead role unfilled until Year 3, and with the filmmaker insisting that there was still more to shoot. Completion was held up by variety of obstacles, including producer embezzlement, flooding in Spain, Hollywood indifference, and the Iranian revolution. Like so many of Welles’ projects, Wind would remain unfinished at the time of his death, another dream lost to history… until, 42 years after principal photography wrapped, a team of Welles collaborators and admirers endeavored to assemble the many pieces of his last great work into a form he might have intended. (Whatever you may think of Netflix, they did cinema history a favor by not only bankrolling this effort but by releasing it alongside a documentary about Welles’ torturous efforts to complete the film, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead. It’s an invaluable companion piece for anyone interested in this chapter of the great man’s legendarily troubled career.)
It is impossible to know how successfully this reconstruction got to the vision locked inside Welles’ head. After all, Welles himself changed his intentions throughout production. Furthermore, he seems to have been going for something entirely new and alien to him. Welles made much of the fact that neither the framing film or Jake Hannaford’s work are meant to be in a style in any way recognizable as his own, so we can’t even rely upon the director’s previous works as a guide. Today, we recognize Welles’ use of improvisation and documentary techniques as what we’ve come to call “mockumentary,” but in the early 70s, there was very little precedent (except, possibly, Welles’ own “War of the Worlds”). But we know enough of Welles’ increasing focus on the subjects of abandonment, thwarted ambition, and betrayal to recognize that Wind is not only a continuation of those themes but maybe his most personal exploration of them.
Welles denied suggestions that the film was autobiographical, which only means he refused to acknowledge the meaning of the word. The tale of a once-great director who is spurned by those whose love he covets and fawned over by sycophants and leeches couldn’t be more of a mirror image of his own circumstances if the main character had been named “Orson.” As it stands, the casting of John Huston as an avatar of machismo, acidic wit, and wounded pride is a masterstroke, allowing him to intermingle the outsize legend of one of Welles’ contemporaries with his own. And Welles surrounds his emotional doppelganger with a host of thinly veiled stand-ins for the real-life thorns in his side, including Pauline Kael, Robert Evans, and most notably, his own one-time acolyte and eventual usurper Peter Bogdanovich, cast in the role of himself.
Using the documentary format is canny, because it serves both the storyteller (allowing Welles to mix film stocks, lighting and sound conditions, and shot length) and subject (Hannaford is perpetually in the sights of those who would lift him up or pull him down). Welles makes the viewer feel perpetually off-balance, in much the same way Hannaford feels ill at ease with the worshipful admirers who he expects to stab him in the back the moment he turns, or the nervousness of the partygoers braced for the full force of Hannaford’s caustic commentary. Unease permeates the film; the only respite comes during the screening of excerpts of the director’s work-in-progress.
So let us turn to Hannaford’s Other Side of the Wind. From what we can see, the studio is right to be wary. Aggressively obtuse, the show-within-the-show is generally agreed to be aping the styles of the era’s en vogue filmmakers, such as Godard, Bertolucci, and Antonioni. (The latter’s Zabriskie Point seems to be the primary target.) Accordingly, Welles luxuriates in lengthy stretches of film where the inexplicable unspools without explanation: a doll is hacked to pieces. An ice cube is sucked. A shirt is stolen. His leads are nearly always nude, never speak, and radiate ridiculous beauty. It’s gleefully aimless.
And yet, this vulgar parody is characterized by some astoundingly powerful filmmaking. Welles uses abandoned studio lots and the empty streets of corporate Los Angeles to capture a stark, forbidding atmosphere, while he cultivates a level of eroticism seen nowhere else in his c.v. Even while it languished in production hell, a sex scene set in a moving car was rumored to be one of the most potent things the director had ever assembled, and the release validates that praise. In short, his parody surpasses the subjects of its critique, and that’s not even the main feature. Welles has packed one impenetrable movie inside another.
Rediscovered masterpieces are impossible things. Even when they emerge from their slumber and reveal their brilliance, the very fact of their loss is inseparable from the art itself, and the passage of time blunts the power of their moment of creation. Brian Wilson’s “Smile,” for example, is a work of breathtaking beauty that opens a window into its creator’s soul, but it’s invariably colored by its meandering path to the public eye and its fundamental incompleteness. So it goes with The Other Side of the Wind. I will not go so far as to call it a masterpiece: it’s a little too proud of its own obtuseness, scattershot in its approach, and preoccupied with score-settling. But we’re better off having it than not, and as a testament to the forever-germinating potential of Orson Welles and as a piercing lens into his spirit, its emergence is monumental.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a vision — a cracked, corrosive, savagely compromised vision — it unmistakably is. A mock documentary avant la lettre, ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ has a jagged syntax that would have felt startling in the ’70s and, decades later, has lost little of its restless found-footage vitality.” Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Nick, who called it “an experimental masterpiece.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)