The following is a review of The Other Side of the Wind — Directed by Orson Welles.
Legendary filmmaker Orson Welles, who died in 1985, has had his final film released as a Netflix film in 2018. That is one of those sentences that makes no sense to anyone unfamiliar with the situation. It isn’t a spoof film. It isn’t a joke. The Other Side of the Wind is actually a long-discussed unfinished Welles project that is now finally seeing the light of day thanks to a streaming service.
Welles started shooting the film in 1970. Many years later, the film was lost in a legal dispute at a time when Welles had supposedly only edited less than an hour of the film. Many years after Welles passed away, multiple people have fought for the rights to and the footage of the film, and now Netflix is ready to present it to audiences. Whether or not it was worth the wait for cineastes will depend on the individual. Though I’m sure Welles’ cineaste disciples will look upon it with great enthusiasm, the finished product, whether as Welles intended it to be or not, does leave itself open to some quite damning criticisms.
Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is presented as somewhat of a mockumentary — i.e. a fictional narrative presented as if it were a documentary — that is meant to look as if it has been stitched together using various peoples’ footage. The footage from students looks different from the documentary crew that follows some of the characters around. This can be fairly jarring since not all of the individual footage is in color, which means that the film, time and time again, switches from gorgeous black-and-white visuals to grainy and jarring colorful visuals.
The mockumentary has some narration, but it does not at all dominate the film. To the best of my recollection, only the introduction to and the ending of the film are paired with voice-over. These brief voice-over sections are guided by, first, Peter Bogdanovich’s character, Brooks Otterlake, and, then, John Huston’s character who is, at one point, described as the Ernest Hemingway of cinema.
In the mockumentary, we are immediately told that the enigmatic director of Old Hollywood, Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston), died in a car crash after his 70th birthday. The rest of the mockumentary then serves to guide us through the last day of Hannaford’s life, which was spent with many people he disliked but who he had to interact with out of necessity.
Hannaford has invited the press, students, and whatnot over to his home for his 70th birthday so that he can screen his assembly cut of his latest film, which is also titled The Other Side of the Wind, for the purpose of attracting attention and money to complete the project even though the film’s male lead actor has reportedly left the production.
In reality, Welles’ film is two films in one, and these are very different from one another. The mockumentary is an unconventional and scattershot documentation of a birthday party and the screening of Hannaford’s film, whereas Hannaford’s film within this film is an art house film with pornographic scenes, which also includes long scenes of the characters studying one another. What Welles’ and Hannaford’s films have in common is that they both follow thin plots.
Hannaford’s film is a borderline incomprehensible, almost completely silent film about an androgynous man (played by Bob Random) and a mysterious, Native American woman (played by Oja Kodar) following each other through nightclubs, into cars, and out into the middle of nowhere. They study each other and act as wild animals when they fall into each other’s arms.
“Movies and friendship. Those are mysteries.” – John Huston as Jake Hannaford.
The Other Side of the Wind has been completed for those people who think it is neat that a Netflix ‘original movie’ opens with a long introductory text that describes the lengths that people have gone to for the purpose of honoring Orson Welles’ vision for the film, which previously had never seen the light of day.
On the flip side, The Other Side of the Wind isn’t made for Netflix audiences. The vast majority of Netflix subscribers will look at Netflix’s in-app preview and immediately see that this isn’t for them. Some Netflix viewers will give it a chance, but it stands to reason that the viewers that don’t call themselves cinephiles, film fans, or film historians will not make it through the film’s opening twenty-four minutes, which it takes for Hannaford and those that he has invited to arrive at the location of the birthday party.
Those that make it past the twenty-four-minute mark will, however, be given access to discussions of Old and New Hollywood, the problematic relationship that art has with potential profit, and general discussions about the inner workings of a celebrated director who seems to have misogynist attitudes, but who may have a very different relationship with his feminine side than he appears to.
At the center of all of this is a director who has clearly grown tired of the system and who has a natural disdain for image-makers. He hates interviews, he has a chilly relationship with a celebrated female critic, and his position of power on a film set is being dissected by his harshest critics, who may have the ability to tear down his career.
The most interesting relationships in this film are, first, Hannaford’s relationship with his mentee Brooks Otterlake whose success Hannaford seems to envy, and, then, his relationship with the press as personified by the female critic character Juliette Riche, who is played by Susan Strasberg and who seems to have been inspired by Pauline Kael.
The parallels between the characters in the film and Orson Welles and his real-life acquaintances are tough to miss. It is almost scary how both Welles and Hannaford are stuck with incomplete films that may never see the light of day, and how Welles seems to have clearly sprinkled in characters that are inspired by his own circle of friends.
Though the film sets up an interesting connection between the subjects of Hannaford’s latest film neither Kodar nor Random gives us much to go on. The clues to guide you through the potential underlying story are sprinkled out across the party scene by gossiping crowds and vultures from the press, and, on subsequent viewings, I am sure you may discover new things about Hannaford and his guests. I have seen the film twice thus far, and though it did, admittedly, take some time to get used to on my first viewing, I did think that Welles’ idea became much clearer on my second viewing, which ran much smoother than my first.
I will also say that, though a film shouldn’t need this to work, the Netflix documentary — Morgan Neville’s They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead — that has been released at the same time as The Other Side of the Wind contextualizes and explains many things about the film itself. Again, a film should work without this, but I think some may need this background information to appreciate the final product.
There are things about this film that are really promising, and if the final product, which does still seem somewhat unfinished, hadn’t been so scatterbrained, then I think this could’ve been a truly great film about an artist’s disdain for those who’ve made him.
But I think that there are too many reaction shots stitched together, too many shots frantically edited together to a dizzying effect, which doesn’t quite work and takes much too long to get used to nowadays, and an unpleasant jarring effect to the switch in color to colorless images.
Although some of the relationships are a bit out of focus for my liking, what little we have to go on provides us with an interesting story about a self-destructive artist, who may or may not have lost his ability to function in the age of Hollywood that he had come to reside in. I think Huston and Strasberg provide the film with the most interesting characters, and Huston especially manages to lift and embody his disdainful character. Huston also looks the part. Huston looks exactly as drained of cinematic life-blood as you can imagine.
The story of the making of the film and the complex reality that caused the film to not be released before 2018 will always be more fascinating than the film itself. Furthermore, the fact remains that we will never know if this is quite how Orson Welles wanted the film to be. Indeed, The Other Side of the Wind is more fascinating than it is good.
But don’t be fooled by the style which is both unconventional for the time and appears to be somewhat incomprehensible to modern eyes. There are some things hidden beneath the surface — a frustration that Welles perhaps needed to get out, a satirical perspective on changing attitudes in Hollywood, and more in that vein — which are genuinely fascinating to study. We will never know if this final product is exactly how Welles intended it to be, but I see the method in the sometimes maddening film. The Other Side of the Wind is a diamond in the rough.
7 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.