Monday Movie: The Other Side of the Wind, by Scott Nye
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This article originally ran as a theatrical review.
If Da Vinci was right, that art is never finished, only abandoned, it’s little wonder we consider Orson Welles to be perhaps the greatest filmmaker of all time. He firmly completed films count among masterpieces – Citizen Kane, F for Fake, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight – while those that were tampered with by their distributors or by Welles himself – The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, Othello, The Lady From Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin – are no less imaginative, insightful, and in their own way masterful. An Orson Welles film is as much a glimpse into the process of its making as it is into its maker’s soul, which says quite a lot about both.
His latest and last film, which will be released 48 years after it began production and 33 years after he died, fits into neither camp and is all the more exciting for it. The Other Side of the Wind was shot intermittently between 1970 and 1976, during and after which Welles continually tinkered with it to get it into a workable form, ultimately leaving it unfinished at the time of his death, the assets contested by family and financiers alike. Efforts were made ever since, but ultimately the conclusive work came through Netflix, who paid to finish the film and clear outstanding rights issues.
Yet despite the many hands that helped complete it, as with so much of his previous work, The Other Side of the Wind is persistently an Orson Welles film. His artistry, intelligence, and character is too plain to be ignored or shuffled aside in a “well who can say how closely this truly resembles Welles’s intentions” bid for equanimity.
Besides, how Wellesian is this premise – Jake Hannaford (John Huston) was in the midst of shooting a youth-oriented art film (titled The Other Side of the Wind) in an effort to rehabilitate his declining career when he was killed in a car crash. Some say he killed himself, others aren’t so convinced. The night before the crash, he celebrated his 70th birthday, gathering together collaborators from throughout his career, younger cinephiles who adore his work, and a few people who seem to outright hate him. The party was captured almost entirely on film thanks to a documentary crew and those innumerable movie buffs who brought along their own cameras. The film assembled from this footage is a glimpse into the final night of a great man’s life.
We’re introduced to the massive cast in a flurry – here’s his protege (Peter Bogdanovich), his hostess (Lilli Palmer), his secretary (Mercedes McCambridge), his long standing entourage (Norman Foster, Paul Stewart, Edmond O’Brien, all loyal to the last and a little corrupt), his biographer (Howard Grossman), the executive overseeing his new film (Geoffrey Land), the critic who seems intent on tearing him down (Susan Strasberg), and a dozen others. Those who know their Old Hollywood character actors will have a field day picking through the line-up to see them in one last appearance, so much so that you may have trouble fixing their role in the actual film.
Even if you struggle – and I did on first view, a second viewing critical to really getting everyone totally straight – their general association to Hannaford seems to track, and the film smartly deploys a fairly ambitious style to convey the arc of the evening. Cinematographer Gary Graver uses a barrage of film stocks, both color and black-and-white, to show the gradual decline of the evening. The color increasingly drains from the picture, which began on a bright studio lot and concludes at a drive-in theater that feels like a graveyard. Bob Murawski’s editing (which, even apart from the facts of the film’s making, is breathtaking) retains nearly as quick a pace throughout the film, but the shots depict elements that have less and less to do with the story at hand, so that their rapidity no longer feels like a barrage of information, but an avalanche of reflection. The house party, a mixture of location and stage work, gives Graver license to play with some wilder color schemes, and some shots could very well have fit in with the film Hannaford is making.
That film, which explodes the frame from Academy 1.33:1 to full 1.85:1 widescreen, is easy to write off as parodic of the movement toward “trippy” visuals and abundant nudity that caught Hollywood by storm in the late 1960s and early 70s. But the devil’s in the details. Like several other Welles films (Kane, Arkadin, Othello, Shanghai), it’s got a thing for an older man obsessively watching over a young woman and any man accompanying her, and contains a sequence of such extraordinary editing – apparently done by Welles himself – that it seems difficult to believe Welles had totally written off the hip new scene.
All of this gradually forms a kaleidoscopic portrait of a man, but also a time, when men like Hannaford were admired but unsupported, and even if they were psychologically attuned to the morale of the era – the 1960s would not have been the first era of upheaval a 70-year-old man lived through – they simply could not keep up with the attitudes. It’s a turning point at which fashion begins to overtake ideology, where insight that wasn’t expressed in contemporary terms starts to be discarded as old-fashioned. It’s sometimes difficult to imagine men of Hannaford’s generation coexisting with Dennis Hopper (who briefly appears as one of the camera-wielding young cinephiles), but rather than try to deny this inherent conflict the way too many directors his age did, Welles confronts it. He doesn’t valorize or villainize either generation, but remains intensely interested in how people adapt themselves to both. Hannaford is admired but not loved, and is honorable only by the stake of his reputation.
According to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s timeline of the nearly-six-year shoot, most of John Huston’s scenes were shot in early 1974, including reversals of conversations filmed years prior. In 1974, Huston was no stranger to portraying abhorrent men – Chinatown would be released a few months later. With Hannaford, he plays into the mystery, playing near-defeated one minute only to turn around and immediately start hitting on a college-aged girl, his eyes brighter than ever. Huston has that sort of defiant optimism in his nature, his particular strain of happiness a sort of fuck-you to everyone else who wants him to be miserable. This plays as well against Hannaford’s worshippers as it does his detractors. A scene of Hannaford begging for money from Bogdanovich’s character rings all too true, both in its fact (Bogdanovich himself reportedly contributed $500,000 to the film’s production) and in Huston’s way of playing rejection as inevitable and inevitabilities as not worth mourning. Conversely, he greets every criticism from Strasberg’s Kael-esque critic as a happy opportunity to gain some momentary pride, knowing the gaggle of admirers behind him will laugh no matter what he says. These sorts of exchanges could emerge drenched in misogyny, were Hannaford’s cronies not so craven, and especially if Strasberg’s portrait wasn’t so commanding. Her physical presence, leaning into each conversation, mixed with her mastery of Wellesian dialogue rhythms, make her Hannaford’s ideal sparring partner, and subtly ingratiate her as his equal.
Whatever she says of him, though, can be no more gospel than his defenses. Neither can we take the film’s closing meditation, which redirects our focus to a relationship that had gnawed at the film without ever taking center stage, as some ultimate explanation. “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” William Alland says at the close of Citizen Kane. Neither, too, can a single look, captured by a camera that couldn’t possibly exist in the film’s rubric. But this is vintage Welles. From the jump with Kane, he was interested in how unknowable a person really is, and how trying to sift through the evidence of their life will inevitably create an incomplete, contradictory portrait of them. You can see that explored again in The Trial, Othello, Mr. Arkadin, and F for Fake; these traces people leave of themselves that others are tasked with hunting down, but which really don’t tell you much of anything. The Other Side of the Wind takes that proposition further than he ever had before, creating an impossible pseudo-doc that incorporates elements of his own life without resolutely equating the two men. Orson Welles has made another great film. Long live Orson Welles.