It ought to be a delight for any cinephile to be presented with a new Orson Welles film in 2018, over thirty years after the great director’s death. The Other Side of the Wind is another in a laundry list of films that Welles spent years fighting to finance. He made a career of shooting and editing over massive periods of time, constantly struggling to gain the backing of mainstream Hollywood. Despite being one of early Hollywood’s great filmmakers and directing arguably the greatest film to emerge from the Hollywood studio system, Citizen Kane, Welles spent his career as an outsider.
While this fact prevented Welles from getting the money he needed for the projects he wanted to pursue, it did make him an icon among the New Hollywood filmmakers of the late 60s and 70s who bucked the established order. Peter Bogdanovich, who directed New Hollywood classics like Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show, was a disciple of Welles’. However, he was far from the only young director who admired the master’s work. It is fitting then that Welles’ final film is somehow both a satire and an appreciation of the sort of risque and experimental style that young filmmakers began practicing in 70s Hollywood.
The Other Side of the Wind follows aging director Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston, another prolific Hollywood actor and director. While Welles would deny that the role was autobiographical, it is virtually impossible not to see Welles projecting his own likeness and struggle into Hannaford. The film follows Hannaford as he seeks funding for his newest project: an experimental film titled The Other Side of the Wind which is filled with explicit sex and which mimics the sort of plotless stream of consciousness style of New Hollywood and the experimental European cinema after which the movement modelled itself. Meanwhile, the audience sees the final day of Hannaford’s life unfolding in a cinema verité style as it is meant to appear shot by a variety of documentary filmmakers and students observing a party at the director’s house.
Both modes (Welles’ film and Hannaford’s film) are shot with distinct but equally hyper-stylized visual languages. Welles’ film uses frequent cutting and fluctuations between color and black and white which create a disorienting effect, particularly given the wide range of characters involved. The style underscores the hectic scrambling that Hannaford is doing trying to pull this project together and as we watch, we as an audience begin to feel progressively more drunk along with Hannaford and his cronies. Hannaford’s film on the other hand is much more slow and expressive. Rather than utilizing black and white as the documentary scenario does, Hannaford’s film fluctuates between a variety of vibrant colorscapes evoking all manner of powerful emotions and anxieties.
Absent any dialogue, Hannaford’s film sends its message viscerally with provocative imagery. The scenes at his party, on the other hand, play with a constant barrage of sound and dialogue. The camera cuts from person to person each spewing a witty line of dialogue with nobody listening as much as they are simply waiting until they might speak again. All of this unfolds with a near constant stream of freestyle jazz in the background creating its own anxiety inducing atmosphere. The music, prepared by prolific composer Michel Legrand, is one of the film’s greatest strengths.
The Other Side of the Wind may or may not have been intended as an autobiographical film, but the larger-than-life Hannaford certainly seems to be prepared in Welles’ image of himself. Hannaford is worshipped by those he keeps closest to him, viewed as a God of cinema even as the larger film world rejects his art. Certainly Hannaford’s own struggle for funding matches Welles’ experiences. The film also makes a conflict of Hannaford’s sexuality, questioning his desire to gain ownership over his male stars by first bedding their wives and girlfriends. One has to imagine in the age the Welles rose to prominence that a well spoken thespian likely had to answer for his own sexuality on a number of occasions.
Unfortunately, it does seem that The Other Side of the Wind runs out of steam a little over halfway through. As the film drifts away from the format of switching between the two separate narratives and engages more with the deterioration of Hannaford’s final evening, the plot seems to stall and some zaniness ensues that doesn’t serve an explicit purpose. That said, it does find its way back to its central message and ends with a powerful climax.
The fact that Welles was unable to complete the editing of this film before his death will likely give people permission to quickly dismiss it. It is undoubtedly a puzzling film. It is anxiety-inducing and may be frustrating for those hoping to engage with it on an intellectual level. It cedes little ground and asks its audience to do a lot of leg work in deciphering its message. Still, I hope that people will take their time with The Other Side of the Wind. It is a film that is worth pondering and revisiting prior to passing judgement. Few will consider this to be Welles’ masterpiece, but it is an appropriate conclusion to the career of one of cinema’s greatest independent artists.