The Other Side of the Wind
Time capsules are a funny thing. Most of us go through some period in our lives when the concept of a time capsule sounds appealing, usually at a formative time of childhood. Maybe it’s a school project, maybe a thought experiment, maybe an exercise in wistfulness or prescriptive nostalgia. But if you look up videos on the internet of people unearthing and opening time capsules, it’s often a rather unimpressive result. Life doesn’t always change as quickly as we think, and as we grow older our priorities and interests shift. What we thought was cool or important enough to preserve for “future generations” tends to amount to little more than a curiosity. It’s cool for a bit when we first open it, but don’t we have better things to do with our time than this?
You could argue that Netflix’s resurrection of Orson Welles’ unfinished The Other Side of the Wind is the cinematic equivalent of a time capsule. Welles mounted the film (troubled as his projects so often were) in the late 60s and into the 70s, shooting his final footage in 1976. He never managed to complete it prior to his death in 1985, but as was so often the case, he left behind 100 hours of film and copious notes on shot selection and editing that allowed Netflix, with the help of Welles’ friend and one of the stars of the film, Peter Bogdanovich, to finish The Other Side of the Wind to the best of the great director’s specifications. Now, in November 2018, more than 40 years after the cameras stopped rolling, the finished product has seen release.
it is so strange to try and contend with The Other Side of the Wind as a new piece of content in this day and age. Welles has been dead for 33 years. His star, the equally monolithic John Huston, has been dead for 31. But perhaps more importantly, the film was meant to be a product of its time, a reaction to the New Hollywood movement that purported to leave the old guard like him (and John Huston, for that matter) behind. It was mounted at a time New Hollywood was, well, new, and not the basis for decades of cinema that have taken their advancements to heart. The Other Side of the Wind is a long time removed from when Welles was the hotshot new director wrecking paradigms with Citizen Kane, but we’re also a long time removed from when The Other Side of the Wind was attempting to grapple with.
Obviously, even calling The Other Side of the Wind “finished” is a questionable endeavour, the sort that has led to a companion documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead from Morgan Neville (lately of Won’t You Be My Neighbor fame). It’s finished in the sense that restructured versions of The Magnificent Ambersons or Touch of Evil are finished, attempts at stitching together the pieces in assumption that this is what Welles wanted as final cut was unceasingly taken from him at every turn. As such, it’s tough not to think of The Other Side of the Wind as an academic project and temporal anomaly instead of a new film that’s capable of being judged on its own merits in 2018.
With that as a backdrop, what about the film itself? Outside the wider conversation of the oddity of it existing as a new film in 2018, what can we glean from this unearthed time capsule? The actual product itself is pretty typical for late era Welles. Compare it to F for Fake, his 1973 pseudo-documentary mockumentary, and you see quite a few of the same hallmarks. Shaky hand cameras, quick cuts, tons of close-ups of talking heads, a diffuse and often incomprehensible narrative. It doesn’t help that The Other Side of the Wind operates on the movie within a movie paradigm, the eponymous title of director Jack Hannaford’s final unfinished film. That narrative, seen in fits and starts at first as dailies intercut within the high octane and purposefully chaotic editing of the first half hour. Once the film (and the caravan of journalists, photographers and hangers-on) reaches Hannaford’s 70th birthday party, things coalesce a bit more. We’re treated to an extended slice of the film within a film, and it’s something you can hold onto, something concrete. And it’s very much a product of an old man trying to come to grips with the techniques and interests of the New Hollywood movement, both in the plot of the film itself and behind the camera. At the time, Welles claimed it was not autobiographical, but that’s about as believable as his claim that Citizen Kane wasn’t about William Randolph Hearst.
Something assembling a narrative begins to emerge, with Hannaford revealing he’s broke and is using the party as an opportunity to woo investors to allow him to finish it. Again, this should hit close to home for Welles historians, as he constantly ran out of money making this very film and had to take acting gigs and commercials to get the scratch to keep things going. Hannaford is a man obsessed with image and the belief that he is the Platonic ideal of a man’s man, so this stumbling block and the need to proselytize himself before the monied elite (though it’s notable he attempts to have his underlings do it whenever and wherever possible) turns the second half of the film into the slow destruction of his character, stripping away his guard until the pitiable man below is exposed. Huston is utterly captivating throughout, his legendary voice commanding every scene he’s in, even when what he’s saying is often overly macho bloviating nonsense. You can see how he built this cult of personality around himself; who wouldn’t want to hang around John Huston at every possible opportunity?
In the end, The Other Side of the Wind is another formatively daring arrow in an Orson Welles quiver full of similarly audacious work. It doesn’t always hold together, often veering off too much into incomprehensibility, but it always seems to right itself and find its footing and show off why Welles was one of Hollywood’s great geniuses. Even late in his life, after absconding to Europe and constantly finding himself at war with studios and distributors everywhere he turned, none of that mattered with a script in his hand and a camera at his beck and call. And watching him struggle against these new techniques after a lifetime of being the one on the cutting edge is fascinating. Even in his old age, doing the work that would become his final film that he worked on right until his death, he still had tricks up his sleeve.