Review: The experimental mosaic that is The Other Side of the Wind
By Alec Warkentin, Staff Writer
Perhaps it’s a tad ironic that Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind — a film-within-a-film that revels in celebrating and satirizing mid-20th-century filmmaking and all of its production-related quirks — would finally see the light of day on an on-demand instantaneous streaming service that didn’t even debut until 22 years after Welles was put in the ground.
Evidently, that irony extends even further when you consider the slow and arduous process that the film had to go through before it even saw the light of day — one that included allegations of embezzlement, pre-internet crowdfunding, a decades-long legal quagmire and the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran.
In this current era of on-demand streaming, lightning-flash attention spans and excessive and indiscriminate media consumption, the dedication of those behind the film to get it out is almost beyond believability. But, holy hell, is this film something.
It’s easy to forget that Welles, late in his life, was not viewed as the same man who produced Citizen Kane (1941) at 25.
His final completed film — F for Fake, a quasi-mockumentary on art forgery released in 1974 which Welles also starred in — was a masterwork in experimentalism and deception. The Other Side of the Wind, which began shooting in 1970 and stars the late John Huston alongside acclaimed director/actor Peter Bogdanovich, carries much of those same touchstones.
The film follows aging director Jake Hannaford (Huston) as he attempts to make a career-reviving picture, with scenes of Hannaford’s movie spliced in-between the main narrative of The Other Side of the Wind. Every shot in the primary story is frenetically-paced and busy as all hell, contrasted against those of the film-within-the-film (starring Welles’ long-time muse Oja Kodar in unfortunate and regrettable redface) which are almost entirely silent, patient and visually-striking.
The film itself (perhaps autobiographical, though Welles denied it) is at times a disorienting mess because of this. However, there are moments of enjoyability to be found within the madness; flashes of brilliance that pay homage to Welles keen eye that was always centred on the critical lambasting of nu-experimental (read: “artsy nonsense”) filmmaking, especially in relation to the viewer’s perception.
In other words, the film is not really meant for casual viewing, but the fact that it made it to the releasable state that it’s in with so many hands in the pot over the years is still worthy of some admiration.
The thing with The Other Side of the Wind is that it almost works best as a time-capsule, a now-lament for the earlier years of those big personalities of Classic Hollywood, drinks in hand, sitting in rooms filled with smoke from their ever-lit cigarettes and pipes, trying to make a picture.
With filmmakers in general, there’s something to be said about producing movies about “the movies,” or, in the case of Welles, movies within movies that are about producing movies about “the movies.”
A lot of it comes from nostalgia sure, but so much of it also comes from the fact that none of us, as viewers, ever really know how the sausage is made. Though, in this analogy, we might want to. Think David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), which explores the mental horrors of the false dreamland of Hollywood, or Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002), a fantastic Nicolas Cage film that shows the often-pathetic life of writers.
What Welles (and those who carried on in his stead) have done with The Other Side of the Wind is given a glimpse into the ever-present fear of inadequacy and change. Like Welles, who created possibly the greatest film ever made at an incredibly young age, the film reinforces the idea that you’re only ever as great as your last picture. Yes, you may have directed Citizen Kane back then, but now the cultural miasma is shifting towards the arthouse. You may recognize that this is how things are now, but can you do these things and make it work?
Filmmaking is a very human thing, perhaps even more than reality itself. Welles knew this and explored this. Huston-as-Hannaford, that last titan of Old Hollywood, perhaps puts it best in The Other Side of the Wind’s final voiceover, as the sun sets on the horizon:
“Who knows? Maybe you can stare too hard at something, huh? Drain out the virtue, suck out the living juice. You shoot the great places and the pretty people, all those girls and boys – shoot ‘em dead.”