The Other Side of the Wind Review
When you conjure up the idea of taking on the work of someone widely regarded as a genius, deciding to resurrect a project that is as complicated as it is legendary, you can be forgiven for leaving open as many back doors as possible. Quite how many exit strategies producers Filip Jan Rymsza and Frank Marshall needed as comfort is unknown as they decided it was high time that Orson Welles’ ‘lost’ film, The Other Side of the Wind, was completed and shown to the world. They may have seen the project through to the last but judging by the end result there probably wasn't much value in doing so.
As well intentioned and ambitious the whole project may be, the question of how much of this is Welles’ film will forever linger. Whether or not this is the vision originally intended by the director 48 years ago when he began principle photography remains open to question. Once released on Netflix this week it’s a debate that will no doubt continue for years to come and the finished version we now see will probably divide devotees of Welles right down the middle.
The Other Side of the Wind seems to be as much about Welles and his own career as it is about Hollywood and everyone in it and those craving to be part of it. As an entry point into understanding Welles the director you'd be advised to go back to the beginning and leave this until last. While it’s never anything less than fascinating, the film is also nothing more than an experiment of an experiment - the salvaging of ideas and concepts taken way out of context that lack coherence almost five decades later.
It tells the story of legendary Hollywood director Jake Hannaford (John Huston), taking place on his birthday ahead of his long awaited return from filmmaking exile in Europe. The title of his film is also The Other Side of The Wind and the abstract, wordless glimpses we are shown throughout prove to be (intentionally) as confusing as its title. Among the throng of people milling around the party there are a host of real-life directors such as Welles’ long-time friend Peter Bogdanovich (who plays a version of himself looking up to his mentor), Claude Chabrol and Dennis Hopper, all playing slight send-ups of themselves.
Early on we see Hannaford’s right-hand man Billy (Norman Foster) attempting to explain the elusive narrative of the film to a new actor who has been called in at the last minute to take over from Johnny Dale (Bob Random), the leading man who suddenly walked off set mid-way through the shoot. Welles is openly mocking the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernard Bertolucci and the European art films of the period and it raises a few wry smiles.
And yet it is also ironic that he is able to mimic the style so perfectly that it ends up being the most visually interesting part of his own film. Hannaford’s experiment may not make any sense and probably only exists for Welles to poke fun at what he saw as the state of filmmaking in 1970, but it’s also beautifully shot and proves to be a welcome distraction from the ongoing events at the party.
Everyone from film critics, producers, agents, managers, directors, biographers, actors and the media take more than a few bitter digs from Welles. Huston’s imposing presence makes him an ideal meta-choice for the lead role and he serves as the mouthpiece for Welles to verbally attack almost everyone within his sphere.
Aside from the sniping and bitterness openly on display it’s hard to decipher what the exact point is. Was it just Welles taking the opportunity to offload on an industry he felt wronged by years before? A criticism of misogyny as we see his then long-time partner Oja Kodar parading around naked in Hannaford's film? A commentary on contemporary film in an age where Welles had lost relevance? You’d like to assume Welles had something grander in mind but whatever it was seems to have been lost in the dust that gathered on the film canisters over all these years.
Most punishing of all is the rapid-fire editing that makes it a nightmare to find a rhythm with the narrative. The producers have since said that no-one had used this editing style before - and it’s hard to think of a comparison from the time - but that doesn’t mean it benefits the storytelling in any way. It’s a difficult watch to say the least.
A montage of film stock including everything from 16mm, 35mm and black and white flashes across the screen and you are left wondering if the entire exercise is intended as a mockery and nothing about it should be taken seriously. That in itself sounds incredibly pretentious and only invites a wild goose chase about any layers and deeper meanings that may not even exist.
Some films are never meant to be finished and the mystique of their legend is often far more interesting than the end product. Terry Gilliam’s wrestling with the Don Quixote story is another that looks like it struggles to live up to expectation, although at least he managed to finally get it in the can himself. Stepping into the shoes of such a huge cinematic figure is a bold move but one that was always likely to offer meagre returns. Maybe Welles is laughing at us all now as we try to decipher its meaning, content in the knowledge it's sealed by a lock that can never be unpicked.
The Other Side of the Wind opens on Netflix Friday 2nd November.