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The Other Side of the Wind – Review

November 10, 2018

Jake Hannaford spends the last day of his life at an Arizona ranch surrounded by ‘students, critics and young directors who happened to bring 16 and 8 mm cameras having been invited to Jake’s 70th birthday party’. Hannaford is trying to revive his flagging directorial career with a sexually explicit, experimental film which has just run out of financing. At the end of the evening Hannaford, the opening narration informs us, will be killed in a car crash. He spends his final hours screening clips from his arty, dirty movie and debating his career and the nature of cinema with a host of colourful, bizarre and largely embittered party guests.

I’ve begun this review with a plot synopsis as, most likely, everything you will read about Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (recently released for the first time 33 years after Welles’ death) will focus on the extraordinary story behind the making of the film. And yet the slender plot, so slight it could almost float away in the breeze, oddly dominates this movie and stands above its stellar cast, although everyone who appears here is jarringly memorable.

The Other Side of the Wind was filmed between 1970 and 1976. The reason it has not been released until now can be traced back to its tortuous production which descended into a convoluted legal mess after Welles accepted financing from the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran and ended up being swindled by a Spanish embezzler. It was the tragic final act of Welles’ career, and it may well have irrevocably broken his spirit. The endlessly complicated copyright problems which engulfed the film have only recently been resolved, and The Other Side of the Wind can now be viewed on Netflix. It’s undoubtedly part of cinema history, but is it, truth be told, a good film? I was left traumatised by Twin Peaks: The Return when I finally saw just how abysmal it was. Just because a work develops a mythic reputation and audiences have been waiting years (decades in this case) to see it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. Fortunately, after two viewings The Other Side of the Wind has been dominating my thoughts and chipping away at my initial scepticism. It truly is an extraordinary film. One that defies labels and is much easier to experience than to explain even though much of it consists of nothing but talk.

Hannaford’s party is a boozy, rambunctious affair. All of the guests are essentially figures from Welles’ life: there is the protege who is rapidly gaining on his master (Peter Bogdanovich), the Pauline Kael-like film scholar who is a critic of Hannaford but is still fascinated by him (played by Susan Strasberg), and there is the fading star actress in the mold of Marlene Dietrich ready to consign her friendship with Hannaford to the past (Lilli Palmer). Hannaford is played to grizzled perfection by John Huston, and while Welles claimed the character was based on Ernest Hemingway (he began working on the story shortly after Hemingway’s suicide in 1961), Hannaford nevertheless comes across as a strongly autobiographical figure. When Hannaford jokes, ‘It’s alright to borrow from each other, what we must never do is borrow from ourselves’, you realise that Welles is having the last laugh. Welles has borrowed from his own legend to tell his story through Hannaford.

Welles spent years as a Hollywood exile, wandering, absorbing cultures and enjoying the artistic freedom only so far as his oft-precarious finances would allow him. He had become a revered figure by the avant-garde New Hollywood generation who were becoming more influential by the late 1960s, but despite this new critical acclaim, the studios still wouldn’t hire him. The glimpses we see of Hannaford’s film – a sordid, unfinished odyssey of an Native American woman (Oja Kodar), being pursued by a young American male (Bob Random) and the series of sexual encounters that ensue give insight into Welles’ pain. He had a long history of abortive film projects, and I suspect that his obesity precluded him from many of the sexual activities brazenly displayed onscreen. There is a contradiction, perhaps a hypocrisy, at work here. Welles was often prudish about sex, criticising Hollywood’s increasing reliance on sex and violence, and yet here its inclusion verges on the pornographic. The film opens with a glimpse of a lesbian steam room scene which, by the standards of its time, seems designed to shock. At other points, the sex is erotically and wittily portrayed. The consecutive slamming of toilet doors and one lustful car journey linger in the mind long afterwards.

There were moments in the film which left me cold. Much of the overlapping dialogue and frenetic editing, which would have been revolutionary in the 1970s had the film been released then, only serves to push the viewer out of the story. At times it seems almost punishingly impenetrable even for Welles aficionados who might otherwise enjoy playing the ‘Name- the- figure- from- Orson’s- life- this- character- is- based- on’ party game. You get the sense Welles never really believed in the New Hollywood generation. Cameos from Dennis Hopper, Paul Mazursky and others drift by in a drunken haze, and Welles is quite happy for them to make fools of themselves as they spout cineaste waffle. Many of the characters, including Bogdanovich, would later have their own Wellesian struggles with Hollywood. One gets the sense that Welles is gleefully egging them on to their own destruction.

the-other-side-of-the-wind

John Huston, Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich

Where the film won me back was in its hauntingly melancholic portrayal of friendship, and the inevitable disappointment that comes when relationships run their course or, as Welles had come to believe, one party betrays the other. The documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (also released on Netflix) gives compelling insight into Welles’ frayed psyche and working style during the making of the film. He had concluded that the best moments in directing happen through happy accidents or a degree of improvisation. His plan was to make The Other Side of the Wind so full of these moments that the script served as little more than an outline. The problem lies in the fact that there aren’t enough of these moments to elevate the film among the best of Welles’ work. It demands repeat viewings, and it will slowly work its magic on you but The Other Side of the Wind is not a masterpiece.

And yet it is a masterful film.

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