The Other Side of the Wind - Review
The greatest movie ever lost lives up to the expectation.
For audiences, there has never been a film quite like The Other Side of the Wind. First announced, shot, cast, and repeated for six years starting in 1970, and lost to the world after the passing of its creator. Orson Welles died in October of 1985. He was seventy years old, and despite the significant amount of time between his death and the six year period when The Other Side of the Wind was being made, it was never finished. Now, 48 years after it began, it is finished, and distributed by perhaps the most 21st century film studio there is. Netflix’s purchase of the film is like the final nail in an Orwellian coffin: there has been no effort to promote the film since its initial release, and it will only be in select theaters for a few weeks. But Netflix isn’t the story here, and it is not surprising that they should make such a purchase, what with their forthcoming Scorsese picture. Don’t be distracted by the small screen you are likely to watch The Other Side of the Wind on. Place yourself in a theater, and imagine what it might have been like to see the film as Orson intended.
That, of course, is impossible, as the version of the film we have cannot be what Orson intended. His editing process was cut short, and considering the 100+ hours of footage editors had to comb through, it is unlikely the film would have met Welles’s standards. It is presented as a documentary, focusing on the last day of fictional filmmaker Jake Hannaford’s life, assembled and released by his closest acolyte, Brooks Otterlake. Played by Peter Bogdanovich (Orson originally cast Rich Little before replacing him with Bogdanovich), he’s a shrewd, hilarious parody of 70s film stars like Jack Nicholson and Burt Reynolds, with a serious soft spot for Hannaford. The relationship between them is one of the backbones of The Other Side of the Wind, mirroring the real life relationship between Orson and Bogdanovich. John Huston plays Hannaford, in a part that Orson described as being between himself and Huston, Huston being his top choice for the part. It’s better for this film that Orson remains behind the camera; it keeps him focused on tone, dialogue, and direction, all of which this film excels at. This is a drastically complicated film, one that requires several viewings to be fully understood. Events are foreshadowed, characters’ fates are told first, then pieced together for hours. The entire film takes place in one day despite having the feel of a multi-year shoot; this is all thanks to the sporadic editing style employed by Welles and Bob Murawski. It’s a proto-documentary, with dozens of cuts in a single scene that form a grand portrait of a man struggling to get his art released.
The parallels to the film’s production and the fictional movie within the film are poignant. For example, the various power failures in Hannaford’s Arizona home that cause his film, also titled The Other Side of the Wind, to crash are reminiscent of the funding issues Orson’s film faced. He had to stop shooting for years at a time, in a film that began production in 1970 and was still in limbo when Orson died in 1985. Much of it was out of Orson’s hands, and the way in which Hannaford reacts to the power failures is revealing as to how Orson dealt with his own unforeseen complications. He sees the outages as routine, unsurprised and undaunted, as he saunters to another story in another room. The producers run frantic and work to get the power back on as quickly as possible, as they would have in the real world, but they can’t seem to stop the house from losing power. When they decide to move the screening to a local drive-in, the audience is gone before the film is over. Orson’s confusion and frustration over his lack of recognition by American audiences guided a large part of his late career, and is reflected in this, much more caustic than his own life, film. Jake Hannaford’s disillusionment with the audience’s reaction to his film could be a product of several things: perhaps he knows it’s uninspired, too European for its own good, or maybe he doesn’t care at all. Producers urge Jake to get back to the studio and finish the film, but he couldn’t be less concerned. “He’s done it before” is an echoed statement throughout the film, and used in one of the funniest scenes in which an off-the-rails producer pitches Hannaford’s film to a major exec. The exec asks if Hannaford is making it up as he goes, to which the producer responds, “he’s done it before”.
If anything guides The Other Side of the Wind, it’s improvisation, a tangible feeling that the actors are making up lines on the spot, which would make sense, since much of the actual crew appears in scenes that primarily involve talk of filmmaking. I can’t help but be reminded of Terrence Malick, specifically Knight of Cups. That film’s dynamic camera and difficult to predict cuts are very similar to those in The Other Side of the Wind. The film frequently changes from black and white to grainy 70s color, which may have been out of necessity, and the idea that dozens of documentarians’ film is what we are seeing gives ample justification for the editing style.
Somewhat buried underneath the mountains of editing, writing, and personal connection are the two lead performances from John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich. They blend so well into the picture that it can be easy to forget that we’re not watching a real documentary on the two actors, attributable to the film’s excellent writing, but the role of Jake Hannaford is one of the real gems of this film. John Huston’s grizzled appearance is perfectly suited for his role as an aging filmmaker, seemingly past his prime, always ready with a thoughtful comeback. His rapport with Otterlake mostly falls on Bogdanovich, but a careful and wise word from Hannaford often ends these memorable and fast paced conversations. His journey to understand why his leading man left his picture is seen at a distance, as in a real documentary, so that we learn everything that we do through the people around him. As things escalated and Jake started shooting dummies in the backyard, I became aware of the magnitude of Huston’s performance. In many ways, it feels like a beaten down Charles Foster Kane, subdued into complacency only to explode in a fiery end.
The pace of The Other Side of the Wind can be deceptive. It may distract you from the powerhouse acting of the entire cast, John Huston turning in another career defining role despite his comparatively fewer lines. The emotional impact of Hannaford’s cathartic journey is the center of this film, and the connection to Welles’s own life makes it all the more effective. The film comes from one of the most productive decades in American film, and one of its best directors. This is not a simple watch, but it is overflowing with personality, in a way that Citizen Kane never has. The metaphor of a perfect storm seems the best way to describe The Other Side of the Wind. It is, indeed, a perfect film that tears through any expectation of what it might have been, engulfing itself in its size and variety, and is without a doubt one of the best films of the year.