Orson Welles returns with a new film. Yes you heard correctly, and how nice it is to actually write that sentence in a review. Yes, Welles seems to have overcome the handicap of being dead for over 30 years, to deliver to a new film, not that we deserve it. If you think of the changes film has gone through since the time of Welles, you may sense an uphill battle with respect to it being deemed an art form.
Welles himself saw many hurdles to overcome ever since since the fallout of Citizen Kane caused him to lose artistic control over all of his subsequent Hollywood films. He was banished to Europe for a time, but returned to America to create The Other Side of the Wind, his once thought to be lost film. Now, after many legal battles, and financial issues, the film is finally seeing the light of day, and on Netflix of all places.
I give this brief history of Welles and his tribulations to add a bit of context, as one might find it difficult to go blindly into The Other Side of the Wind without knowing. It is a film about Hollywood, and filmmaking, and film itself, but it’s also a Welles story. I wouldn’t call it autobiographical, but like any artist, Welles borrows from himself, and perhaps also borrows from what the public perceives him to be. The result is a rather brilliant, but also a bit messy (although I would argue most Welles films have that feel) portrait of an old warhorse director in his final 24 hours.
The story, as it is conceived, is set all in one day during the 70th birthday of maverick movie director Jake Hannaford (Played by real life maverick movie director John Huston). Which we are told at the beginning, will be the last day of his life as he he will be killed in a car accident.
Hannaford is in mid production of his new film entitled The Other Side of the Wind, which he is struggling to find financing for from Hollywood big wigs. We also learn that Hannaford’s leading man John Dale (Bob Random) has walked off the set, though there is speculation that he might arrive some time at the party.
On top of this, Jake is followed by many lackeys, chief among them is his young protege and successful director Brookes Otterlake (played by real life Welles protege and successful director at the time Peter Bogdonavich). There’s also a large camera crew lead by different sorts of journalists, film enthusiasts, critics, documentarians, and it’s implied, maybe even spies, each with their own camera, each capturing different moments, for different reasons.
In fact cameras are everywhere in the film, almost in every frame, and when you can’t see one, you certainly know it is ever present. There is also the film within the film The Other Side of the Wind which we see prolonged clips of, it’s beautifully photographed and purely silent mostly featuring Welles’ lover at the time and co-writer of the film Oja Kodar. She walks around naked most of the time in the film, through desert landscapes and abandoned film sets, brimming with sexuality, while Random’s leading man is following her.
This isn’t just Welles indulging (although he is), but there is a point to the pointlessness. There becomes almost a futility to the idea of Hannaford’s film, which he seems to be making up on the fly without a script. Perhaps it’s something he wants to abandon, or he can’t finish, or it has something to do with his leading man who, it is hinted might have been something more to him.
Whatever the case may be, the film remains unfinished, and not many people are holding out hope it ever will be. For his part Hannaford gets more beleaguered and intoxicated as the evening wears on, even talking while the glass of alcohol is still in his mouth. Huston is quite effective in this role, evoking his own rough masculinity, but showing the damage behind it. At times he’s frightening, other times he’s world weary, looking ready to die.
Still ever present are the cameras poking, and prodding, intruding on the lives of guests, picking up candid, and not so candid moments. It’s Hannaford’s wish that everything be recorded throughout the night. But the whole idea of the cameras becomes unsavory and Welles makes the feeling grotesque, and unnatural, yet there is an obsession to it, and a need for it, which Hannaford feels as well.
One of the questions the film poses is how much can you film something before it loses all meaning? When we use people as our subjects, how much of their humanity is lost when photography and images are ever present? Welles obviously knew what was coming with the advent of Instagram and Facebook, where images of ourselves are seen everyday, yet he saw there was a sickness and an exploitation to it.
Yet no one was quite the master of the camera much like Welles himself. Part of the joy of this film is seeing how he weaves in and out effortlessly in a very freewheeling documentary fashion, something that feels fresh and different from his other films. Welles was never one for continuity within a scene, nor was he afraid of jump cuts or roaming sound. The effect is like a collage of images rather than a fully formed film, and maybe it’s because I grow tired of classically made, pristine Hollywood movies sometimes, I found the roughness of this to be refreshing.
Although the roughness is prevalent, there are also moments of great beauty between editing, sound, movement, and rhythm. The best of these sequences comes in the film within the film. It begins with Oja Kodar’s character entering a bathroom soaking wet, from the rain while many people are having sex in the stalls. We then follow her outside into a car where she begins to have sex on top of Random. Wearing only a raincoat and beaded necklaces.
This may sound like a scene from a porno movie, but the way this sequence is edited together is exquisite. From the booming psychedelic music blaring through the soundtrack, to the beaded necklace bouncing back and forth in the car, moving with the sound of windshield wipers pulsating against the rain, while lights of red, blue, and green glimmer over Kodar’s body. It’s an orchestrated dance of every film tool moving at once, and perhaps the best single sequence I’ve seen in a film this year.
The Other Side of the Wind is still floating through my head with all of its ideas, and all of its meanings, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of it. I’ve already seen it twice, and I feel the full mystery of it has yet to present itself. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it has that feeling of the last film ever to be made. It leaves us with the image of a film that is felt abandoned, playing out of sequence, in of all places, a drive-in movie theatre, which itself has become a relic.
The last moments of the movie within a movie contain a woman left alone in the desert while pieces of set fall down around her, and a leading man who isn’t really there. The final words of the film are delivered in voice over by Jake Hannaford, and I don’t want to spoil those words in this review, but they are fitting, biting, and poetic.
I’m grateful we are able to see The Other Side of the Wind, and glad it is available on Netflix for all to see at their convenience. At the same time, I can’t help but comment on the irony that this is a streaming film. With all that has come out recently about FilmStruck being cancelled and more companies relying on streaming services rather than physical media, one has to wonder on the preservation of film.
The Other Side of the Wind was thought to be lost, yet Netflix has made it clear it does not intend to release any of their original content onto physical media. Which begs the question, how safe is this film from being lost again, or others for that matter?
In that way, The Other Side of the Wind feels like an apocalyptic message, and very prophetic. In fact you could go through Welles’ entire career for evidence of lost footage, some of which may never be found, and see how fragile the state of film really is.
The Other Side of the Wind is many things, but its history, and reemergence should be seen as a warning, that once was lost, and be lost again. I feel unease at the thought of Netflix owning this film, because who is to say what’s in store for it once it stops trending and disappears from its homepage? It’s still as fragile as it ever was, so it’s best to see it while you can.