The Other Side of the Wind
For decades, no one thought that Orson Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind, would be finished, let alone shown publicly. Welles shot the movie between 1970 and 1976, but never completed the thing before he died in 1985. Now, thanks to Netflix, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, we’re finally also able to see this cinematic white whale.
By the end of his career, Welles was a man beaten down by cinema, which he loved so dearly. A young prodigy, Welles began his stage and radio career early and began production on his first feature film, Citizen Kane, at the age of just 24. After decades of bad investments, bad attitudes, and bad relationships, he was left scraping together money through commercials and small acting gigs. A man who was celebrated as having created the greatest film of all time couldn’t get a job. Still, he loved the movies
It is from this disdain and romanticism that The Other Side of the Wind was born. Always the self-referential navel gazer, Welles decided to tell the story of an aging film director crafting his art in a changing Hollywood. The film stars directors of the era, playing directors of the era. John Huston is Jake Hannaford, the old man who’s working on finishing his latest masterpiece. On this day, he screens what he has so far of a sexy thriller, and is followed by a gaggle of journalists, a couple biographers, and his usual entourage. Among them, and arguably Hannaford’s closest confidante, is Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich). Otterlake started his career as a journalist, but after learning from the best, he went on to make far more profitable films than Hannaford ever did. Their constant trade of ass-kissing and side eyes drive forward much of the dialogue in The Other Side of the Wind.
Visually, the film takes some getting used to. The entire movie, save the film-with-a-film, is cobbled together found footage from the journalists there to record the day. The shots zip from one end of the room to another, from black-and-white to color, and the effect can be intentionally jarring. This creation of chaos, from a chaotic world, makes for a frenetic viewing experience. It also serves as a stark contrast to the film Hannaford has created and screens to these hungry masses.
Hannaford’s film is beautiful, and colorful. It stars Welles’ longtime romantic partner Oja Kodar as the often naked but quite powerful woman who has her mission, but stops to seduce the lead actor along the way. The camera lingers on her body more often than not, in a way to highlight and criticize Hannaford’s obsession with her beauty.
That tension between two modes of consumption are at the heart of The Other Side of the Wind. Welles is clearly of two minds, and not torn, about his relationship with cinema and it’s all laid bare on the screen through his various metaphorical stand-ins. The new class of filmmakers are opportunistic parasites but still manage to outshine and out-earn the previous generation. Critics are pretentious back-stabbers, but they love film and can generate good discussion and even revenue. This constant dialogue between Welles’ two impulses toward his beloved movies are at war with one another constantly, but there will never be a victor. Up to his dying day, Welles both loved and hated cinema, and it both loved and hated him in return.
While The Other Side of the Wind is not the easiest or most pleasant filmgoing experience, it’s so chock full of delicious rhetoric and visual artistry that it can’t be ignored. Netflix has surprisingly arranged for certain cities to screen it theatrically, and when a film has been in-production for nearly 50 years, it deserves to be seen as big as possible, with an admiring crowd. Welles would have both loved and hated it.