The Other Side of the Wind
Netflix (2018), 122 minutes
There is a fitting irony to the fact that Orson Welles’s final film, The Other Side of the Wind, has now found its posthumous home on Netflix. The movie, which Welles began in 1970 and spent 15 years failing to finish, has long been an object of fascination among diehard cinephiles: notorious precisely for its status as an unfinished film, a final masterwork that would never see the light of day. Entangled in decades-long rights disputes, its negatives locked away in a Paris vault by court order, The Other Side of the Wind seemed likely to be another Welles project lost to time.
Now, thanks to the deep pockets at Netflix and the valiant efforts of a team led by Peter Bogdanovich and producer Frank Marshall, the film has at last been recovered, reconstructed, and completed in line with Welles’s wishes (or the best approximation thereof). This experimental and deeply personal film, which would have befuddled small arthouse audiences in its time, is now widely accessible to the streaming masses—on a platform that usually tends to privilege the popular, the digestible, the new.
The Other Side of the Wind is none of those things, which accounts for the strangeness of seeing Welles’s magnum opus officially labelled “A Netflix Film.” But at the same time, the peculiar circumstances of its completion parallel the subject of the film itself.
For one, just as streaming services like Netflix are now disrupting old business paradigms in the film industry, so is this film about a similar transition point: the moment when Old Hollywood met New, when the strictures of the Hays Code and the old studio system had broken down and the possibility of greater artistic liberty loomed. “The chance to make my films in America has been very hard, but I think it’s becoming easier,” said Welles in explaining why he had returned from his European exile to make this movie. “Pictures are becoming more adventurous.”1 Subsequent events would prove him wrong, but The Other Side of the Wind is alive with that sense of possibility.
Second, the film’s piecemeal reconstruction by collaborators past and present vindicates the participatory vision Welles had all along. “Everything else I’ve ever done has been controlled, every frame is controlled,” said Welles in explaining what set this film apart. “But I would like to take a whole story and make the picture as though it were a documentary. The actors are going to be improvising…” More than that, Welles conceived of the film as a kind of composite document, cobbled together from various sources after the death of its protagonist. That Welles himself died before finishing it, leaving his collaborators to put it all together, only completes the circle.
We like to think of Welles as an uncompromising genius, a perfectionist who sought complete artistic control and only rarely attained it. But for The Other Side of the Wind he was, on some level, consciously surrendering that control.
The end result is a paradox. On the one hand, The Other Side of the Wind may be Welles’s most personal film, verging on the navel-gazing in its obsession with his perennial themes and the self-awareness of its subject matter. But in another sense, it doesn’t really belong to him at all.
All well and good, but what is it about? This, too, is complicated.
In the simplest terms, The Other Side of the Wind chronicles the last night of J.J. Hannaford (John Huston), an aging Hollywood director who is working on a new film entitled—you guessed it—The Other Side of the Wind. The bulk of the movie proper unfolds at Hannaford’s 70th birthday party, which is attended by a gaggle of actors, studio honchos, eager reporters, and various hangers-on. Some seek the director’s ear or a juicy scoop, others litigate past grievances and gossip, others are just along for the ride. Chief among the guests is Brooks Otterlake, a successful young director and Hannaford protégé played by Peter Bogdanovich (an acolyte of Welles in real life). As the night wears on, the partygoers attempt to watch rushes of Hannaford’s film only to have the projector repeatedly break down. Hannaford gets drunker, the journalists more aggressive in their questioning, and the ties that bind Hannaford and Otterlake fray, as the older filmmaker sours on the younger, who refuses to bankroll his mentor’s meandering latest film. By the end of the night, Hannaford will die in a car crash, an unseen fate we are told of via Otterlake’s opening narration.
As this summary suggests, this is an aggressively metatextual movie. The sprawling cast includes old Hollywood veterans (Huston, Lilli Palmer, Edmond O’Brien), the up-and-comers of New Hollywood (Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper,), and a few French New Wave types (Claude Chabrol, Stéphane Audran). Some explicitly play themselves, others play thinly veiled alter egos. Hannaford, the self-destructive director launching a comeback bid, is a clear stand-in for Welles himself. (Welles denied this, unconvincingly.)
If the film’s conceptual layers are knotty, its technique is dizzying. The party scenes play like home movies, crowdsourced from the cameramen at the party. Some of the footage is in color, some in black and white; some is overexposed, some is underlit. The film stocks vary. All of this is cut together in rapid-fire fashion, with shots typically lasting just a few seconds. The result, apart from the occasional feeling of whiplash, is a kind of Panopticon effect: We are witnessing the night’s events from a multitude of perspectives, but almost always trained on Hannaford, who is unable to escape the invasive glare of the spotlight.
Then there is the film within the film. Early on, Welles gives us an amusing scene of studio execs in a screening room, tearing their hair out trying to make sense of Hannaford’s daily rushes. The snippets we see hardly illuminate matters. The movie seems mainly a piece of kinky arthouse erotica, in which a leggy brunette (played by Welles’s mistress Oja Kodar) is pursued across a series of desolate, grungy landscapes by a wide-eyed hippie (the aptly named Bob Random), both in varying states of undress. There is some arcane drama about his gift to her of a doll; also some briefly glimpsed trysts in a bathroom stall; another sordid encounter in the back of a car; still another on what appears to be on an abandoned studio backlot. All of this is wordless, and basically senseless.
By most accounts, Welles was trying to parody the arthouse pretense of films where immaculately composed shots of naked people stand in for vague commentary on societal ennui. Michelangelo Antonioni, the famed Italian director, was his primary target. But the parody seems partly an excuse for Welles to parade his nude muse before the audience’s eyes. The line between knowing mockery and self-indulgence is a thin one.
The same could be said for The Other Side of the Wind more broadly. Attempts to pin a simple value judgment on it may induce whiplash in the viewer. Is this a savvy and self-aware work of genius, an ahead-of-its-time exercise in formal experimentation? Or is the joke on those of us who want to believe it is so? The movie’s cryptic closing narration, delivered by Huston, seems to shrug at attempts to parse its meaning: “Who knows? Maybe you can stare too hard at something, huh? Drain out the virtue, suck out the living juice.”
There is certainly plenty of virtue in The Other Side of the Wind, and lots to stare at. Welles the director may be best remembered as a master of composition and camerawork—think of those deep-focus shots in Citizen Kane, or the virtuosic opening long take in Touch of Evil—but here he is playing in a different cinematic register. Artfully drawn individual shots matter less than the collage-like whole; the rapid editing rhythms and shifting perspectives approximate a kind of cinematic jazz. (The actual jazz score, commissioned in 2017 by the famed French composer Michel Legrand, certainly helps.) In many ways Welles is extending the free-form editing style of his last completed film, F for Fake (1973): a sly rumination on trickery and authorship that now stands as a companion piece to this one.
The movie within the movie offers a different kind of Wellesian showmanship. These scenes are filmed in colorful 35mm widescreen, on elaborate sets or expansive landscapes, in contrast to the scrappy aesthetic elsewhere. And though the subject matter borders on the pornographic, the craftsmanship is undeniable. One scene at a nightclub, scored to a psychedelic blues jam, is a compelling piece of light-and-shadow play: a layered haze of writhing bodies, trick reflections, film projections, and neon lights. This leads into a brightly lit bathroom debauch, and then into a backseat sexual encounter amid a torrential downpour. It all adds up to a lurid, erotic fever dream, of a kind that Welles never attempted elsewhere.
The movie is best when its various strands connect, when its dizzying technique and nesting-doll structure are not just superficially impressive but actually serve the needs of the story. This particularly happens in the last half-hour, as Hannaford’s party builds to a crescendo of humiliation and bad behavior. As the drinks flow along with the bad blood, the mercurial director lashes out repeatedly: coming on to the too-young girlfriend of his friend; physically attacking a female journalist who is grilling him on his sexual proclivities; taking up his rifle to fire pot shots at a group of dummies arranged in his backyard. The film’s frenetic cutting and scattershot rhythms come to mirror the breakdown of Hannaford himself.
This is also where the film acquires real pathos, largely because of what it may imply about Welles himself. In watching the downward spiral of the onscreen director, it is hard not to think of the one behind the camera. The picture that emerges is not a flattering one: Hannaford is a man whose boozing, bullying, and sexual predations summon thoughts of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. It’s a portrait of the artist as an old rake.
Welles claimed to have modeled Hannaford on Ernest Hemingway, not himself, and there’s a plausible case that the film is an “attack on machoism,” as Welles described it. The film also repeatedly intimates that Hannaford is a closet case, passing as a womanizer to mask predatory designs on his leading men. But the film’s solipsistic qualities also suggest that this is Welles’s critique of his own pathologies. The man was, after all, notorious for his own exploits; his affair with Oja Kodar, his mistress and muse in this film, came in the midst of his third marriage. And Welles would often channel his own demons into his protagonists, his dissolute Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight being perhaps the best example.
There are shades of Falstaff here, too, in the themes of betrayal and abandonment that characterize the ending. As dawn rises, Hannaford and Otterlake exchange a few bitter parting words that confirm their estrangement. (In real life, Welles and Bogdanovich would have a falling out too). Soon, Hannaford is speeding off alone in a sports car to the death we know awaits him. Meanwhile, the final scene of his unfinished art film spools out at a nearly empty drive-in. Hannaford’s leading lady watches herself on the big screen, in the nude, stabbing and slashing a giant inflatable phallic symbol, which then collapses all around her.
It’s easy to laugh at the absurdity of that final imagery; as with much of this movie, Welles films it with a wink. But the connotation is bleak, and the aftertaste bitter. It’s an ending suggestive of collapsed ambitions, of Welles’s own romantic and artistic demons driving him to self-destruction. One is reminded of an elderly Charles Foster Kane, abandoned by his wife and brought low by scandal, furiously trashing his room at Xanadu.
So what are we left with at the end of all this—just sound and fury, signifying nothing, to quote another Welles protagonist?
I think not. This movie is no Rosebud, some skeleton key that perfectly unlocks the mysteries of its maker. But perhaps that expectation is the error in the first place. For all that it says about Welles, what most distinguishes The Other Side of the Wind is how it points beyond its creator, offering a prescient glimpse into our own time.
The party scenes in this movie are a funhouse mirror version of our own age of distraction. We live in a world that is drowning in images: fleeting Snapchat stories, carefully filtered Instagrams, streaming videos. These can be summoned and dispensed with at a moment’s notice; indeed, the very platform hosting this film encourages such behavior. (Don’t like this? Watch that!) To see this film’s disparate, crowdsourced images flitting before your eyes is to glimpse our own media-saturated present.
It is also to see our modern, performative culture of self laid bare. Intentionally or no, Welles anticipated the blurring of public and private lives—and the allure of self-absorption—that characterizes so much of social media. His filmic alter ego opens his home to strangers armed with cameras to record him acting out his petty vanities. Today, this behavior transpires on a daily basis across the globe, beamed into our phones via Livestreams, YouTube channels, Facebook feeds, and Instagram stories.
The film’s self-critical qualities are likewise prescient. The movie seems in part a therapeutic exercise for Welles, an attempt to acknowledge and atone for his faults even as he (partially) indulges in them. The film’s intimations of sexual predation, its implications about the lead’s closeted homosexuality, and its inconsistent reckoning with his sexual transgressions all resonate with the confusions of our #MeToo era.
The truth is, there will never be a fixed, agreed-upon meaning to this movie—and never, if we’re being honest, a definitive form of it either. The very act of “completing” this film is by necessity an imprecise one, involving the mind-reading of an artist on the other side of the grave. But that’s a fitting fate for a film that was conceived as a radically collaborative project all along: an exercise in “divine accidents,” as Welles put it.
In his penultimate film, F for Fake, Welles delivers a monologue that anticipates the lesson of this one. Standing before the magnificence of Chartres Cathedral, Welles marvels at a work of art that is all the more beautiful, and enduring, for being anonymous: “The premier work of man perhaps in the whole Western world, and it’s without a signature.” He goes on:
Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.
Welles’s name will matter for as long as movies do. But perhaps his final lesson in The Other Side of the Wind is to abandon the unthinking valorization of the singular artist, the notion that any artwork can be the exclusive domain of one individual.
In its proliferation of meanings, its strange straddling of past and present, and the radically inclusive process that defined its making, The Other Side of the Wind does not belong to Welles alone. His collaborators and the latecomers at Netflix have done their best to reconstitute the master’s pieces, and the rest is up to us. Join the party.
1This quote is featured in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, an accompanying Netflix documentary about the film’s making.