The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

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The Other Side of the Wind (2018)

The Other Side of the Wind (2018). 122 minutes. Directed by Orson Welles. Starring John Huston (as J. J. “Jake” Hannaford), Peter Bogdanovich (as Brooks Otterlake), Susan Strasberg (as Juliette Rich), Norman Foster (as Billy Boyle), Oja Kodar (as the Actress), Bob Random (as John Dale), Joseph McBride (as Marvin Pister), Lilli Palmer (as Zarah Valeska), Edmond O’Brien (as Pat Mullins), Mercedes McCambridge (as Maggie Noonan), Cameron Mitchell (as Matt “Zimmie” Zimmer), Dan Tobin (as Dr. Bradley Pease Burroughs), Cathy Lucas (as Mavis Henscher), and Tonio Selwart (as the Baron). Featuring Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky, Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, and Dennis Hopper as themselves. Cinematography by Gary Graver. Edited by Bob Murawski and Orson Welles. Produced by Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza.

This November, 48 years after its first day of shooting, Orson Welles’s film The Other Side of the Wind was finally released to the general public on Netflix. The film was not Welles’s last (he left behind a number of unfinished projects when he died in 1985), but it is the last film by him to be finalized and may be for a long while, given the uncertain state of the remaining unfinished Welles films. The Other Side of the Wind thus functions in its own way as a new capstone to Welles’s career that returns to some of the familiar core concerns Welles focused on throughout his five decades as a filmmaker: themes such as intense male friendships, deep betrayals, the collapse of parental and other mentoring relationships, the drama of aging, and the difficulty with which we struggle to truly know another person.

And yet The Other Side of the Wind is also a unique creation—a film that in many regards could not have been predicted. With a characteristic Wellesian disregard for convention, the movie tells the fragmented story of the last day and night in the life of fictional director J. J. “Jake” Hannaford, focusing on a bustling Hollywood party that he throws with press and film crew in tow and the screening there of his latest project, a mostly silent film following the antics of a mysterious and frequently nude couple. The Other Side of the Wind’s innovations will likely challenge general audiences, who in this era of Transformer movies and superhero yarns may not be prepared for such an intricate film.

They will not be, and are not, alone: the early critical response to The Other Side of the Wind demonstrated that reviewers were reluctant to embrace it without cautionary notes and reservations, registering both discomfort and disapproval. For example, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times observed that it both “entrances and delights” and “at times offends and embarrasses.” Others saw its appeal as limited, including Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, who called it “chaotic and jumbled and strictly for those who care about the history of film and its indispensable master builder.”

Addressing the nascent critical reception of The Other Side of the Wind, and its relationship to the overall pattern of how Welles films are generally received, film scholar and screenwriter Joseph McBride observed in an article for the November edition of Sight and Sound:

If there is one characteristic that unites Orson Welles’s staggeringly large and diverse body of work, it is this: each new film that emerges is surprisingly different from the ones that preceded it. Welles was unlike such other great directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and John Ford, whose work tended to give viewers more or less what they knew to expect. This was one of the ways Welles resembled Stanley Kubrick. Each new Kubrick or Welles film tended to confound or outrage many spectators and reviewers until, about five or ten years later, it was usually regarded as a classic.

That is to say, through The Other Side of the Wind, the creative mastermind behind Citizen Kane (1941), Touch of Evil (1958), and Chimes at Midnight (1965) continues to confound audiences, even from beyond the grave.

*****

McBride has special insight into the director whose posthumously released film has emerged as a complicated, enigmatic punctuation mark to his collected works, for McBride is writing not only in his capacity as a film critic but also as a cast member of The Other Side of the Wind. In the film, he portrays the critic Marvin Pister, who hovers as an observer on the fringes of Jake Hannaford’s final day on earth. Pister is unlike McBride, at times uttering lines to the Hannaford character that satirize the worst of film criticism, but like so many of the other actors in the film, McBride, who had no previous acting experience, was called upon to play a character that existed on the fragile boundary between the real and the fictive.

McBride spoke with me in November about the film and about Welles in general. On the subject of Welles he is an expert, having published three books on the director, including What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career (2006), in which he discusses The Other Side of the Wind in detail, and Orson Welles (1972), the writing project that brought him together with Welles and was the catalyst for McBride’s involvement in the film. Through both scholarship and experience, he can attest to the exceptionally tortuous post-production circumstances of the film (he was involved in one complicated attempt to finalize it in the 1990s), and indeed it is easy to get lost in the details of the struggle to release it, which involved conflicts between (among other parties) major stakeholders such as Welles’s lover Oja Kodar (who acts in the film-within-a-film that makes up a large part of The Other Side of the Wind), his daughter Beatrice Welles, and a French production company backed by the Shah of Iran’s brother-in-law. (I refer interested parties to the substantial accounts of the release attempts provided in Josh Karp’s Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind [2015] and in the recent documentary about the movie, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead [2018].)

The Other Side of the Wind is an unusual movie for many reasons, including the way that this lengthy struggle to bring it to the general public threatens to overtake conversations about the film, potentially eclipsing the plot and the many performances that support it. But the film can be experienced as a complicated and at times astonishing work of art apart from its production circumstances, and indeed it should be. Fueled by high-octane cutting in the cinéma verité style (which McBride observed “has the potential to be valued more now than it was in 1970”), layered dialogue, and dozens of characters, the movie is an onslaught of people, conversations, shots, images, and impressions captured in different film formats. Through this tangled web of characters and perspectives, it follows Jake Hannaford (played by John Huston) as he trudges through a Hollywood party pining for his leading man John Dale, who has abandoned him in spite of or because of Hannaford’s romantic feelings for him. Hannaford rejects the party guests and industry insiders who hover around him and subtly dissolves into bitterness, becoming more openly spiteful towards his guests as the night wears on.

The party is punctuated by sequences from his latest work, which he screens for guests first at his house and then at a drive-in theater. The film-within-a-film (a color movie that mingles New Hollywood trends with the European avant-garde) stars Dale (played by Bob Random) and an unnamed actress (played by Oja Kodar). It is chic, explicit, suggestive, and mysterious—revealing insight into Hannaford’s inner life, contextualizing his struggle to remain current in the industry, and denying us a more direct expression of his desires.

The film-within-a-film at times has the energy and feel of an exploitation film, which is to say it can be intense and provocative, but its editing style is not as frantic as the main film’s. I must admit that some of the more hectic cutting made me feel slightly ill, and the cheeky dialogue that frequently accompanied it in the party scenes was a little too rapid fire for my tastes. But McBride pointed out that as for the saucy one-liners, “that’s the way Hollywood parties are.” While The Other Side of the Wind may be “a very talky film, which might be hard for an audience to take,” part of the fault may lie in what we are accustomed to in 21st-century movies—“maybe we’re not used to listening to people talk as much, we’re used to action.” We agreed that the unconventional editing trends established in Welles’s master cut could also indicate that the movie is ahead of even our times.

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Still, McBride acknowledged that some of the movie’s best scenes occur when the frenzy dies down and Welles focuses on sustained exchanges with the opportunity they present for us to “look at looks between the characters.” (Throughout our conversation, McBride underscored the importance of what actors do with their faces, taking a cue from director John Ford, who recommended that the audience “watch the eyes.”) The scene with Dr. Bradley Pease Burroughs, the former schoolteacher of Hannaford’s absent actor Dale, is a great example of the tension that the film can build when it is not rapidly shifting from shot to shot and line to line and grants us more time to focus on faces. “It’s excruciating because of all of these pauses and glances back and forth,” McBride noted. The effusive Burroughs, who is initially delighted at having been invited to Hannaford’s Hollywood shindig, is coaxed into sharing a story about teacher sex abuse at his school (McBride confirmed that we are meant to believe Dale had been involved in the scandal). Burroughs is then taunted by Hannaford and his friends, who “leer at him in a nasty way–it’s chilling,” and their homophobic tendencies are made clear, if they were not already. The developing discomfort of Burroughs and the increasingly sadistic pleasure that Hannaford takes in watching him squirm are startling and contribute to our growing sense that Hannaford’s party has a dark side.

McBride observed that early critics of the 2018 release of The Other Side of the Wind have made the mistake of confusing Hannaford’s macho malevolence with Welles’s own attitudes, including homophobic moments like this and racist and sexist comments made elsewhere in the film. For example, Oja Kodar’s Native American actress character is derisively referred to as “Pocahontas,” and there is the implication that the character Mavis Henscher is pursued by Hannaford as a young sex toy of sorts to irritate some of the other men, even as he demeans her. There is also the extensive nudity of the Kodar character.

But McBride asserted during our conversation that although Welles contemplated playing Hannaford, one of the reasons he chose not to was that he did not wish to be conflated with his protagonist. “It should be quite clear to an intelligent viewer that Welles is criticizing Hannaford’s racism and sexism” throughout the movie, he said, pointing out in addition that even though critics have focused on Kodar’s nudity, Random, her co-star in the film-within-a-film, is often similarly naked, complicating the sexual politics of both Hannaford’s film and Welles’s overall project. Welles must have known that when he created Hannaford—a director with a powerful artistic mind—people would liken the character to himself and the film-within-a-film to one of his own projects, but his willingness to invite this criticism, however unwarranted it may be, is evidence of what a daring filmmaker he was.

In spite of its sometimes morose and serious nature, The Other Side of the Wind is fundamentally a playful movie, one that teases us frequently by inviting us to feel as if we can identify vestiges of Welles, other figures, and real-life relationships in the performances. But over the course of the movie, our ability to say with confidence that there is a direct correspondence between what we see on-screen and what we suspect is true off-screen is on shaky ground. The metacritical dimension of the film is especially potent in scenes played between Hannaford and his protégé Brooks Otterlake, portrayed by director Peter Bogdanovich. Bogdanovich engages in some of the repartee early on at Hannaford’s party where the fast cutting lost me at times, but I enjoyed the more drawn-out interactions between Otterlake and Hannaford that take place in what McBride called the movie’s “slowed-down and somber second half,” such as the scene where Hannaford is behind a closed bathroom door and Otterlake inquires about his financial status (McBride refers to this as “the King Lear scene”). Hannaford is humiliated and feels betrayed, and one is reminded of the real-life relationship between Welles and Bogdanovich, which also eventually involved an older mentor leaning on his younger friend for help of a financial nature. The scenes at the drive-in where Otterlake confronts Hannaford obliquely about their disintegrating relationship are disturbing, laden with Shakespearean tinges, and Otterlake even quotes the “Our revels now are ended” speech from The Tempest.

Watching Bogdanovich hold his own with Huston demonstrates that the younger director is an exceptional actor, and he should be credited not merely for playing himself but for creating a complicated character. It would be unwise to forget while watching scenes such as these that—as the many shots of film cameras, still cameras, production lights, and microphones spread throughout the film serve to remind us—the film-within-a-film, the behavior at Hannaford’s party, and Welles’s film itself are all performances. The Other Side of the Wind might encourage us to walk along the sometimes blurry line between art and reality, but the movie is highly aware of its existence as a created thing.

*****

Anyone who knows about Welles’s relationship with Bogdanovich might be surprised at how candidly and sometimes painfully the film gestures towards their history together, even as the film’s treatment of this subject remains at times fictional and oblique. But The Other Side of the Wind also surprises in other areas, most notably in its pronounced sexual content. I am thinking especially of the sex scene that takes place in a car with Kodar and Random in the film-within-a-film, which McBride argues in Sight and Sound is the movie’s greatest sequence. The colored lights of passing cars and the spraying rain cascading down the side of the vehicle (all effects masterminded by Welles) create a brilliant, sleazy rhythm that supplements Kodar’s nude rutting on top of Random, her hair and beads shaking against her breasts as she moves. The car sequence is the movie’s most impressive sex scene but it is not alone: in the film-within-a-film, there is also a steam room scene that features female nudity and a salacious orgy scene that takes place in a bathroom.

Sex treated in such a graphic and sensual way would be utterly foreign in any other Welles movie, and its inclusion in The Other Side of the Wind lends credence to McBride’s claim in Sight and Sound that Welles films are largely unpredictable. McBride agreed that previous Welles projects such as Othello (1951) were “prudish in their treatment of sex,” and that in satirizing the New Hollywood through Jake Hannaford, Welles found the freedom to film frank sex scenes that he might not have felt comfortable doing otherwise. (Welles once mentioned to McBride on the set, “I’ve always wanted to do sex scenes but was embarrassed to do them, so now I can finally do them in someone else’s name.”)

The clips we see of the car sequence are beautiful and filmed in lush color, and they are evocative owing to their lack of dialogue and emphasis on artful staging. But how to value the film-within-a-film is difficult to establish. Its silent action and wall-to-wall erotic content are provocative but also inscrutable. Additionally, it is unclear how much of Hannaford’s project is an ironic commentary on the New Hollywood and reflective of Hannaford’s efforts to pander to a younger set, a sincere commentary on the fictional director’s inner life and private fantasies, and a more straightforward art film by Welles. Yet while I often felt as though I did not fully grasp the significance of the film-within-a-film, I appreciated the way that Hannaford’s project frequently functions as a sort of center of calm in a tossing storm, an opportunity to drink in rich shots that offer a reflective alternative to the agitated pace established elsewhere in the film. At the very least, McBride said, the comparatively silent film-within-a-film works well because, paraphrasing Lillian Gish, “The characters never say anything that displeases us because we write all the lines ourselves.” Indeed, filling in the quiet spaces of the film-within-a-film with unspoken words and desires is what Hannaford appears to be doing and, Welles seems to be saying, is also an inescapable part of watching movies for us all.

*****

For McBride, the process of acting in the film as it was shot, working to ensure its release in the decades that followed, and serving as a critic of it now that it has been released make for a unique experience—possibly one of the more unique experiences in film history in what must certainly be one of Hollywood’s longest-gestating film projects. He mentioned that time has brought with it perspective on the filming, and even though certain aspects of the story or performances were not originally clear to him, they now seem just right—“when you see [the performances] all together, they cohere.” Part of that is due to the efforts of people like producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza, who led the final effort to assemble and release the film, and to the skills of editor Bob Murawski, who took Welles’s footage and initial edits and made them fit together into a cogent story.

The result can be exhilarating—a chance to see one of film’s great practitioners working at a sometimes frenzied and frequently liberating pace. It ought to feel that way: The Other Side of the Wind is, on top of everything else, the surviving brainchild of a titanic filmmaker, the strength of whose creative forces apparently could not be quashed even by death. The movie is evidence of his powerful love of his chosen medium, and the movie’s release at this late date is a testament to people’s enduring love for him and his work. With luck, the response to its release will spur on the release of other unfinished Welles projects, but even if those films remain out of the public’s reach for the indefinite future, The Other Side of the Wind is full of sufficient complexity and intrigue to keep people who care about movies talking for years—at which point, if McBride is right, it will finally achieve its rightful status as a Welles classic.

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