The Other Side of the Wind
Review by Mark Schwab
November 3rd, 2018
Ask twenty different people who knew or worked with Orson Welles and you'd get twenty different answers, all of them directly contradicting each other. The only thing they would all agree on was that the man was a genius when it came to filmmaking.
Orson Welles - actor, writer, director, radioman, Paul Mason wine pitchman - defied all the odds at age 26 and made what many people consider the best motion picture ever made. CITIZEN KANE was a triumph and a ball and chain though, with every movie Welles made or attempted to make destined to be compared to it. Despite this, he still went on to make some classic films - TOUCH OF EVIL, THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, KAFKA and even studio butchery couldn't totally wreck the still-beautiful MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Almost all of them scrabbled together from Orson's sheer will in the face of dwindling budgets and lack of any studio support.
In 1974, the Welles-directed pseudo-documentary F FOR FAKE was released and although it was a critically acclaimed, playful nod and a wink at hoaxes and misdirection you couldn't really call it a traditional "movie" by any stretch. There was however another movie that Orson was working on. A special film, close to his heart and mind. A true passion project where Welles would have total control of the final product...literally the first time for him since that old ball and chain CITIZEN KANE. It was called THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.
There were many obstacles though - typical for Orson of course. It took over 5 years to complete principal photography, the money dried up during post production and the footage (nearly 100 hours of it) was being held outside of the United States...somewhere. For over 40 years, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND was talked about in film circles as potentially the greatest film that would never be finished.
Thanks to Netflix and some very determined producers, we can now see what Orson Welles was up to out in that Arizona desert back in the 1970's. Using his notes and reconstructing scenes that were cut by himself in an early work print, Welles' last film premiered on November 2nd, 2018 as close to what he wanted as could possibly be guessed at.
I freely admit to being very curious to see the finished film. I had read Josh Karp's superb book on the making of the film which was written well before it was completed so it offered no clues as to how it would all play out on a screen. Could it really be a final masterpiece? I was genuinely hoping that Orson Welles would go out like baseball great Ted Williams - a home run in his very last at-bat.
After seeing the film, it isn't a home run but maybe a solid, ground-rule double.
Welles structures his film around the 70th birthday party of the once-legendary film director (nudge nudge) Jake Hannaford who has fallen on hard times (wink wink). It seems his new film (also called The Other Side of the Wind) is mired with problems and the money has dried up before he's finished it (eyebrow raise). Hannaford - cheekily played by another legendary director John Huston - seems to know that he's done as a filmmaker so why not go out with a bang by telling all these Hollywood phonies and sycophants at his party what he really thinks of them? During the party, Hannaford decides to project his arty unfinished film for the guests and we cut back and forth between the two movies.
As Orson Welles' final film, THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND absolutely needed to be completed and shown publicly of course. But can it play to an audience that isn't a film or Welles historian? That's a tough call. I'll start with the "bad news":
1. The film is dizzying in its editing with a ragged narrative that rarely makes sense. To be brutally honest, you could almost cut up the negative into random pieces, throw them all in the air, reassemble it randomly and almost have the same movie.
2. None of the cast seems to have a real handle on their characters and how they fit within the craziness. They all look lost and a little bewildered.
3. The above mentioned in-jokes into 1970's Hollywood are numerous and most likely will not be caught except by true film nerds.
However for this viewer and for all you cinephiles out there, there is plenty to cherish in Orson Welles' final middle finger to all the studios who abandoned him.
First and foremost, nearly all of this looks incredible. There are compositions and sequences here that remind you of the utter conventionality of how most of today's motion pictures are shot. Welles and his director of photography Gary Graver truly dazzle us with visuals that you have never even thought of, let alone actually seen and executed at such a level. One set piece that takes place among bathroom stalls with a soda can rolling across the floor put a huge grin on my face and activated film synapses in my brain that I thought were long dead.
Yes, the story as a whole is about as solid as wet toilet paper but there are individual pieces that scream and resonate with true artistry - the type where they are so good they could be a self-contained short film that could get into every film festival it entered. The fascinating cast - Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasburg, John Huston among others - certainly give everything they have in the service of the grand master even if you'll find yourself casting a wary eye at their motivations within the scenes.
As the New Hollywood was in its salad days during those golden 70's, Orson Welles took one last swing at moviemaking and came up with the ultimate art film - it's almost as if he decided to satirize ZABRISKIE POINT with a few nickels and some mannequins and he still went out and ultimately made a better film than Antonioni who had studio money and did it "for real".
In a weird way, I can't think of a better way for Orson Welles to have called it a career. Could I have missed a few things the first time I watched THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND? I'm going to log into Netflix and take another look. Right now.