Orson Welles’ ‘The Other Side of the Wind’

❉ Somewhere between a rant and a meditation on film-making, this is the closest audiences will get to experiencing Welles’ vision of his lost movie.

“I asked myself constantly, ‘How would Orson have reacted?’ The very subject of the film touched me: the idea of the passage of time, the renewal of inspiration. I am proud to be the link between these two Welles films. I take it as a gift from Orson, through the clouds.” – Michel Legrand

It may seem odd to discuss someone who directed a consensus choice for the greatest film of all time in terms of being a cult filmmaker. However, while Citizen Kane remains a towering cinematic achievement, the career of Orson Welles was anything but monolithic. The man who came to Hollywood riding a wave of iconic achievements in theatre and radio is not the same one who went into European exile later in the 1940s, taking whatever acting jobs presented themselves to fund his own movies because no studio would support him. Nor is that godfather of guerrilla film-making the same artist who struggled to complete a would-be late-career success, one that would have said to those studios in no uncertain terms “I told you so”.

Considering Welles’ affinity for Moby Dick, it’s tempting to wonder whether the filmmaker ever saw his struggle to complete The Other Side of the Wind in terms of Captain Ahab and the white whale. When he started shooting, the director hadn’t made a film in Hollywood since the late-50s. Arguably he didn’t do it with The Other Side of the Wind either. Though shot in and around Los Angeles, his cinematic poison-pen letter to the movie business could not have been less “Hollywood”.

Independently produced yet featuring a prestigious cast – because Welles’ peers appreciated him far more than those running the studios – the film was supposed to be the commercial success that returned him to Hollywood on his own terms. The circumstances that prevented this from happening in his lifetime have long deserved a movie of their own. That cultural oversight has been rectified by the documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which accompanied the recent release of a version of The Other Side of the Wind on Netflix.

Much of the discussion surrounding this long-awaited premiere refers to the film as being completed, but that term doesn’t feel quite appropriate. While Welles apparently left detailed notes about his intentions before he died, which his friend and fellow director Peter Bogdanovich doubtless followed diligently, there’s no way of knowing whether the onscreen articulation would have satisfied him. More so than most filmmakers Welles understood that movies are written in the editing room as much as on a typewriter. It was the same principle that enabled him to turn productions like his adaptation of Othello – shot in fits and starts over multiple years on multiple continents – into cohesive films.

To its credit, this iteration of The Other Side Of the Wind holds up as a cohesive work as well. It’s also almost certainly the closest audiences will get to experiencing the director’s vision of the movie. Whether that vision would have translated into the triumphant return and commercial breakthrough he hoped for is a more elusive question. His own work demonstrated that artistic value and commercial appeal often failed to intersect, and the auteur-friendly climate which briefly flourished in Hollywood was already fading by the time he finished principal photography in 1976.

Four decades on, the overriding question is quality, specifically where the movie ranks within Welles’ body of work. Between the movie-within-a-movie structure and mix of film-stocks and shooting style, it’s as formally audacious as any of his other movies. Likewise the cast – led by John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich – has a stature comparable to any ensemble Welles ever assembled. Unfortunately, while his showman’s instincts and eye for talent clearly remained intact, the application of those abilities yielded mixed results in The Other Side of the Wind.

Somewhere between a rant and a meditation on film-making, it feels more like a curiosity than a major work, invoking weighty matters of life and art but treating them in a glib fashion throughout. The Other Side of the Wind is hardly alone among Welles’ work in emphasising showmanship over substance, especially when the focal point is an enigma. The same can be said of Citizen Kane or The Lady From Shanghai. However, where those films were infused with a desire to entertain The Other Side of the Wind feels driven solely by the chip on its maker’s shoulder.

This would be less of an issue if anyone in the cast had the charisma Welles himself displayed as the star of those earlier films. John Huston obviously looks the part of aging director Jake Hannaford yet never fully commands the screen. He and Bogdanovich – the latter playing Hannaford’s protege Brooks Otterlake – get plenty of screen-time together to flesh out their relationship, but both performances come across more like a collection of quips and mannerisms than proper characters.

Equally mannered is the film-within-the-film whose production and viewing instigates much of the onscreen action. Technically impressive, this pastiche of the era’s European art-house style actually integrates quite well with the narrative sequences. For all its craftsmanship, though, it gives The Other Side of the Wind the air of a time-capsule rather than an instant classic.

While the best of Welles’ movies seem timeless regardless of when and where they’re set, this one feels intrinsically tied to the period in which it was shot. Perhaps this the lengthy disconnect between shooting and editing made this inevitable. As talented as the team who assembled this release are, they could only view it through a retrospective lens. Welles himself may have foreseen this possibility, telling a friend shortly before his death in 1985 that he thought the film had become “strangely dated”. In any event, their sense of history, duty and in some cases love for the man and his work couldn’t help but skew the end result.

The old saying goes that one should never meet their heroes. The Other Side of the Wind makes a case for expanding this advice to encompass legends of any sort. After decades of waiting, it’s not the masterwork or vindication many fans hoped for. Having said that, one could also argue that a movie that’s both touched by brilliance and thoroughly frustrating is the perfect epilogue to the career of Orson Welles.

❉ ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ is directed, co-written, co-produced and co-edited by Orson Welles, and starring John Huston, Bob Random, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg and Oja Kodar. Available now on Netflix.

❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture,  Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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