It only took 42 years, but Orson Welles’ last directorial effort, “The Other Side of the Wind” is finally finished. Granted, the legendary filmmaker didn’t oversee the final edit (that responsibility was left to producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza and editor Bob Murawski), but it now exists. At its best it’s a stirring reminder of the director’s immense talents and following its premiere at the 2018 Venice Film Festival it will screen on Netflix, a larger potential viewing audience than Welles likely ever imagined. An unexpected end to a film full of unexpected twists and turns.
First, some important context. “The Other Side of the Wind” began shooting in August 1970 and finished principal photograph five and a half years later in January 1976. The independent production was besieged by everything from a financier who embezzled funds, to a two-year break where Welles had to work on other projects to pay off an astonishingly large tax bill. The strange story is chronicled in a new companion documentary, “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” by Morgan Neville (2018’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?“) It is almost impossible, however, to watch ‘Other Side Of The Wind’ without taking its history into account. That makes the final product uniquely captivating.
Despite the numerous stops and starts, the meta-esque plotline is still pretty easy to follow. Jack Hannaford is a famous director (iconic actor/director John Huston, pretty much playing himself) who is almost finished shooting his latest feature, “The Other Side of the Wind.” It’s a last-ditch attempt at a Hollywood comeback and he’s crafted a film full of sex and violence that he hopes will endear him to a younger generation. He is accompanied by Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich, engaged), a young commercially successful director who idolizes him (much like Bogdanovich revered Welles in real life), and a cavalcade of fans, press and skeptics who follow him from a studio soundstage (the classic Paramount Pictures gates) to his birthday party where he intends to screen a good portion of his latest creation. What Hannaford won’t discuss and the chorus surrounding him eventually reveals that his leading man, Oscar “John” Dale (Bob Random, silently gorgeous), has mysteriously exited the production.
As the night progresses, more of the chorus begins to stand out. There is Juliette Riche (Susan Strasberg, impressive), a tough film critic reportedly inspired by Pauline Kael who continually prods Hannaford as well as Zarah Valeska (Lilli Palmer, divalicious), the owner of the house where the party is being held who seems to have little patience for the director or his cavalcade of sycophants. There are also a number of famous figures portraying themselves or credited as party guests including Cameron Crowe, Les Moonves, Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom and Paul Mazursky. And there is the female lead of the film known as “The Actress” or “Red” or “Red Indian” (Oja Kodar, haunting), who quietly judges the proceedings as if she’s sitting alongside the viewer. As Hannaford gets more intoxicated, the chorus and its criticisms of him get louder. Eventually, power issues at Valeska’s home force the party to head to a local drive-in where the entourage expects to view the final reel of the picture. Dale makes a surprise appearance and Hannaford’s own story takes a very dramatic turn.
The plot of ‘Other Side Of The Wind’ has been known for decades, but there is still something almost shocking about the not-so-subtle gay storyline that haunts Hannaford. Films like “Midnight Cowboy” and even “Boys In The Band” had entered the pop culture zeitgeist when Welles finished his script and the presence of queer themes are evident in his films. That being said, he had never explored anything to this degree in his earlier work. There are also pointed jabs at ageism and racism (notably how “Red” is treated) by a chorus that clearly thinks its artistically liberal for the time period (sound familiar?). Other films of the ‘70s were progressive in their subject matter, but Welles is absolutely pushing the envelope here in his own manner. If the film were finished and released in its intended decade, it would have absolutely been deemed controversial for the gay subject matter alone.
Stylistically, what resonates with Welles’ final work is how remarkable his cinematic focus stayed even with the arduous production schedule. Welles has been quoted as saying the film within the film was intended to reflect Hannaford trying to fashion something hip and contemporary (Welles used Michelangelo Antonioni as Hannaford’s inspiration). That might be the case, but every shot in the film within the film is perfectly composed, gorgeously lit and hypnotically edited in a manner that simply cannot be ignored. Every time ‘Other Side Of The Wind’ cuts back to the film within the film, you wish there was truly a finished version that existed somewhere. This portion of the picture is somehow of the time and, yet, not dated at all.
Welles not only shot the film within the film in a distinct manner often using handheld cameras and unexpected angles but intentionally alternated between color and black and white film in the “real” story. Much of the party, especially scenes with Hannaford specifically, are in black and white. He also filmed in what appears to be a 4:3 aspect ratio (some of the picture could have been shot on super-16). Where Welles stumbles is that much of that black and white party footage becomes monotonous, claustrophobic and, frankly, hard to follow. It goes without saying that Murawski has done a superb job finishing the movie from Welles notes and script. You do wonder, however, if Welles would have handled editing that portion of the film differently.
And that’s the big question that will always hang over this version of “The Other Side of the Wind”: Is this truly close to the film Orson Welles would have made? Consider this; Marshall, who originally worked as a production manager on the film, is quoted as saying “Orson always talked about having a jazzy score with different groups playing at Hannaford’s birthday party.” That led the current producers to recruit the legendary, Oscar-winning composer Michel Legrand (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg“) to score the film. And yet, although Legrand created a beautiful composition is it somehow seems wrong in context? Would Welles have recognized that and gone in a different direction? Would he have made other changes? Let the debates begin. [B+]
“The Other Side of the Wind” will launch on Netflix on Nov. 2.