The Other Side of the Wind is a fiery missive against toxicity
Once upon a time, in a Calvin & Hobbes strip, young Calvin asserted that “genius is never understood in its own time,” a statement that heartily applies to the career of Orson Welles. Citizen Kane’s status has been fairly secure since it first graced Sight & Sound’s “Greatest Films of All-Time” list in 1962, but, apart from scholars, critics, and cinephiles, the narrative at large appears to portray Welles’ career as a classic case of early promise eventually squandered. Blasphemy! Thankfully, the past thirty years has seen a reckoning of sorts, with 90s reissues of Othello, Macbeth,and Touch of Evil introducing the “lesser works” of Welles to a whole new generation. (The love fest continues later this month when Criterion issues a brand-new restoration of the compromised-but-criminally-underrated The Magnificent Ambersons on DVD and Blu-ray.)
Count yourselves in for a real treat, because the latest offering of Welles-philia comes gusting its way onto a Netflix app near you in the form of a previously unreleased feature-length film. Shot throughout the early 70s, Orson Welles’ long-delayed The Other Side of the Wind unfurls before us as a poison-penned missive to Hollywood, friendship, and machismo; a collage-like relic from an age when movies still dared to rebel and polemicize, and even show traces of individuality. Acerbically witty, blisteringly tragic, and oozing an infectious verve, there’s certainly more to glean here than simple fury. All card-carrying cinephiles ought to get jazzed.
Taking the form of what we now call a “mockumentary”, Welles’ Wind is no joke. We’re only a few seconds in when the dulcet baritone of Peter Bogdanovich, playing aged director Brooks Otterlake, recalls a vehicular crash that claimed the life of filmmaker Jake Hannaford. (Was it an accident or predetermined?) Flashback nearly forty years to the Hollywood of old, where Hannaford (director John Huston, so butch he even puts down Hemingway) and crew are en-route to celebrate his 70th birthday, at which will be a rough-cut screening of the eponymous experimental art film he’s labored over for some time, and the lead actor of which recently walked off the set. Documenting the festivities is a camera crew that’s seemingly been granted unlimited access. There’s backstage bitching galore early on, including a riotous scene of Geoffrey Land aping Paramount studio boss Robert Evans, and sundry instances of art imitating life; Otterlake mentions a study he’s writing on Hannaford, a stand-in for the yet-to-be-compiled tome This is Orson Welles. Hannaford’s posse proves a veritable who’s-who of Welles’ closest collaborators and friends, including actresses Lilli Palmer, Mercedes McCambridge, and Susan Strasberg, scholar Joseph McBride, and directors Paul Mazursky and Henry Jaglom.
At once, jocular and scathing, mournful and rowdy, breezy and pensive, Welles has scarcely made a picture so fiery; even the most enrapturing passages of Chimes at Midnight seem to lack the go-for-broke-and-see-if-it-sticks mentality at work here. The frantic crosscutting at work in the opening stretch might take some getting used to, but the undercurrent of aggressive masculinity makes itself unquestionably known. Formally, Welles embarks into aesthetic territory hitherto rarely explored, marrying documentary style with backstage myths. He might’ve glimpsed the early pseudo-documentaries of Peter Watkins or PBS’ reality-TV prototype The American Family, but it’s hard to conjure a pretext wherein the camera’s gaze was so invasive, so eager to finagle its lens into the confines of the partiers’ private moments. It predicts the reality-TV/tabloid media world that sprung to life in the late 90s and continues to dominate our culture to this very day. As such, the collage effect and camera style might not bear the immediate power they might’ve had the movie been released in the 70s or 80s, but Welles’ technique probes more than that of the glib Big Brother or Jersey Shore. It catches the minor details, acts of happenstance, and facial/bodily responses to other characters’ speeches or behavior that get lost amid today’s desire for sensationalism. At once, the voyeuristic technique adds a layer of muted paranoia to the party, a feeling that’s sensed but never quite fully manifests, and reveals the ragtag group, their motives and inner thoughts, blemishes and humanity, for who they really are, for better or worse.
But what of Hannaford’s film? Turns out Welles was in the mood to thumb his nose at Antonioni, but his means of parody run deeper than facile mimicry. What’s the movie about? Beats me. When it’s screened for the Robert Evans stand-in, Hannaford’s representative can’t even explicate the narrative events as they unfold on screen. In short, it consists of a young man stalking a striking beauty (Oja Kodar, Welles’ creative collaborator, muse, and mistress) through various urban settings before ending up in the desert. It’s uncanny how much Welles understood Antonioni’s MO, particularly since he thought the Italian a total bore, but this mise en abyme peppers the Antonioniennui with Wellesian histrionics. There’s an extended sex scene in a car that morphs into a startling visual kaleidoscope; the harsh, retina-scorching reds and greens of a traffic light are augmented to surreal effect, illuminating flesh only after being filtered through a torrential downpour. It’d be too shallow a joke to retitle Hannaford’s movie Zabriskie Point-less, because, even if Welles meant to poke fun at the chicness that obscures what he believes to be vacuous filmmaking, it plays more as rejoinder than ridicule.
A great but troubled artist, Welles spent the majority of his post-Ambersons years encountering tremendous difficulty in getting projects off the ground, leaving him to workhorse as an actor in order to raise the funds needed for to realize his visions. For instance, Chimes at Midnight, an ambitious restaging of portions from no less than five of the Bard’s plays (chiefly Henry IV Parts I & II) and possibly Welles’ greatest film, took nearly two years to complete, with a break partway through its seven-month shoot for Welles to scrounge additional funds, not to mention a post-dubbing phase that found him voicing several roles to cut back on costs. These strenuous hardships, however, would result in one of the medium’s grandest entertainments – Shakespeare was never better served by the cinema – and the epic battle scene, drawing from Griffith (Birth of a Nation) and Eisenstein (Alexander Nevsky) and looking toward Coppola (the cutting in Apocalypse Now’s helicopter attack) and Boorman (the opening scene of Excalibur), is a set-piece of such sweeping eloquence and grandeur that it relegates Wagner to blushing-bride status.
Welles isn’t working on the same scale in The Other Side of the Wind, but his ambition to pull the rug out from under the industry’s feet exhibits the same audacity found throughout his oeuvre. Treading thornier regions without batting an eye, Wind underlines the toxicity present in certain members of Hannaford’s collective – be the transgression a history of blacklisting or cavorting with a lady young enough to be one’s granddaughter – even going as far as to equate the showbiz entourage mentality with gangsterism. Welles’ themes – master/pupil relationships, betrayal, and corruption – permeate the proceedings, but there’s also a curious exploration of the intersection between hypermasculinity and homosexuality, as well as a plethora of raw, underwrought evocations denoting the maker’s self-hatred. Moreover, industry hypocrisy gets a spear through the throat, explicitly so when Hannaford expounds a friends-don’t-beg-to-each-other philosophy only moments before striving to retrieve completion funds from Otterlake. Not even Hannaford’s macho act can withstand the burden of despair, be it personal or professional; the most horrifying epiphany he has is that of his own irrelevance. Incapable of processing grief, he attempts to expel it through explosive acts of virility, including one of the more surreal displays of marksmanship on record.
The Other Side of the Wind is now streaming on Netflix, alongside a supplemental documentary entitled They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which supplies a great deal of context for the uninformed but, in regards to the inner workings of Wind, commits the cardinal sin of doing too much of the audience’s homework for them. Let’s not fool ourselves though. The real place to watch Windis at the cinema. Here’s hoping some enterprising Philly-based programmer follows the lead of their brethren in New York and LA and grants this a week-long theatrical run (or at least a one-off on a sizable screen). Genius might continue to receive its due, but, sadly, we can’t experience it at the ideal venue. C’est la vie.
The Other Side of the Wind is available on Netflix.