“So… how was it?” my wife asked when I called her after the screening ended.
“There’s a lot to unpack,” was the only reply I could think of at that moment.
That was going on five days ago as I write this, and it has been a lot to unpack. There’s still a lot to unpack, and that is one of the great things about Orson Welles. His films are not a “one and done” effort. You don’t just watch them and forget about them a day or two later. They get in to your mind and your soul. That’s what makes for a world-class filmmaker.
But herein lies the problem… this isn’t necessary an Orson Welles movie. Sure, his name is there as a co-writer and director and co-editor, but this isn’t necessarily his movie. The movie may have a number of his original collaborators as active participants in this… well, jeez, I don’t even know what to call it. It’s not a restoration, because it was never completed before. It’s not a reconstruction, because that implies an original formation. This team might be working from Welles’ notes and from footage he edited together over the years he worked on the film, but it’s still other people’s interpretations of what they think he may have wanted at various points he was working on it. But even with more than a hundred hours of material to work from, there is, at the very least, one new moment of narration (there’s a huge difference in the vocal cadence of a thirty-two year old and a seventy-nine year old), some lines dubbed by the actor son of the lead actor (who died more than thirty years ago), and, based on the list of people in the end credits (which includes Cameron Crowe, who would have been a nobody young teenager not yet on his way to becoming a writer for Rolling Stone when the bulk of this movie was shot), one new scene.
There’s a lot to unpack.
There’s actually two movies within “The Other Side of the Wind.” One follows those who are following famed filmmaker J.J. “Jake” Hannaford (John Huston) as he tries to attract new money to finish his latest film, a flashy and trashy work called “The Other Side of the Wind.” At the start of the film, Hannaford is bringing a whole mess of people from Paramount Studios, where he has just finished a day’s shoot, to a friend’s home in the desert, which is both a 70th birthday party for himself and a screening of footage to get people excited for his work and help pay for its finishing. Amongst the many people being transported from here to there are Hannaford’s protégé Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich), who in a few years has gone from a fanboy who just showed up on one of Hannaford’s sets one day to one of the most commercially successful filmmakers working, Juliette Riche (Susan Strasberg), a prominent film critic who may bare a striking familiarity to those familiar with iconic film critic Pauline Kael, Marvin Pister (Joseph McBride), one of many cinephiles who are following Hannaford around, looking for good material for a book about the filmmaker, and various Hannaford cronies, confidants and fans looking to spend time with the legend. Interspersed throughout the main storyline is the completed and assembled footage for “The Other Side of the Wind,” in which a handsome young man follows a beautiful young woman around. The footage itself is gorgeously shot, but there isn’t much story there. This basic fact is why one studio head, shown some footage from “Wind” early in the movie by another Hannaford crony, turns down the “opportunity” to help Hannaford complete the film, and why, as the night continues, more footage is shows, first at Hannaford’s house and then at a drive-in down the road from his house.
Now, here’s where the unpacking comes in to play. Some of the narration at the start of the film informs us of an event that happens at the end of the film, so all throughout the film we are aware of how this all ends. What now happens between these two points becomes moot, since the ending is absolute. The journey we are about to take with Hannaford and everyone else is no longer meaningful. The focus is no longer “Will X happen?” but “Why did Y happen?” And, sadly, while the X journey could have been rather interesting, and portions of it are very much so, the Y question that becomes the dominant force of the narrative is never answered. And are all these characters really based on other people in Welles’ life? Is Welles’ really settling scores here? Is Juliette Riche really Welles’ way of getting back at Pauline Kael for her essay which professed Welles didn’t write “Citizen Kane?” Is Zarah Valeska, whose house is where the Hannaford party is being hosted, really based on Marlene Dietrich? (Add to that the speculation that, at one point allegedly, Dietrich was supposed to play Zarah.) Is The Baron a thinly-veiled representation of former Welles partner John Houseman? Is the studio head really spoof of then-Paramount head Robert Evans? Is party-going screenwriter Jack Simon really a representation of John Milius? Is Mavis Henscher really a goof on Cybill Shepherd, who was dating Bogdanovich around portions of the shooting? Some slights may have been very much on Welles’ mind at the time, but why would he go after someone as inconsequential at that time as Shepherd?
And then there’s the biggest unanswered question… how much of the official story of this film’s production is actually true? It’s been stated “The Other Side of the Wind” film-within-the-film is a parody of movies like Demy’s “Model Shop”” and Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point.” Welles is even quoted in the 1970s that “There’s a film with the film, which I made in 1970-1971 with my own money. It’s the old man’s attempt to do a kind of counterculture film, in a surrealist, dreamlike style. We see some of it in the director’s projection room, some of it at a drive-in when that breaks down. It’s about 50% of the whole movie. Not the kind of film I’d want to make; I’ve invented a style for him.” I’m not sure that’s 100% accurate, or at least being interpreted accurately. There’s too much care in how the “Other Side of the Wind” film-within-the-film was shot to be a mere goof. While it very much looks a product of its time, like a Kodachrome photo come to life, these sequences are clearly shot with some affection for the material. One could interpret, when Welles said “It’s the old man’s attempt to do a kind of counterculture film,” that he was talking about himself, trying to make something of its time but in his own way and on his own dime, and when he wasn’t able to get anyone to help him complete that film, he decided he was going to destroy this desperate attempt at modern mainstream success by using it as a framing device to voice his own frustrations about the then-state of the film industry.
The career of Orson Welles was a beautifully sad tragedy. When given the time and resources to create magic, he showed he could do it time and time again even if, like in the case of “The Lady from Shanghai” and “Touch of Evil,” the final product was equal parts a copy of what was happening in Hollywood then and his own unique singular vision. Even working under near-chaotic conditions, Welles was still able to pull out minor masterpieces like “The Trail.” So why was Welles never able to get the money he needed to finish “The Other Side of the Wind?” Maybe it’s because those who he passed the hat to saw what he had and decided, like that studio head at the start of the film, that what they saw was not worthy of the phrase “An Orson Welles Film.”
Which is somewhat the end result. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” it has been famously said. And the legend of “The Other Side of the Wind” was able to grow unabated because those who loved and worshipped Welles just could not accept there was a Welles movie that was mostly done but no one was willing to step up and complete it. And I was one of those people. One of those people who wondered how so many of Hollywood’s best and brightest, and richest, couldn’t or wouldn’t lend the financial support to make this film happen, before his death or just after? Why couldn’t the chain of ownership be cleared up sooner? Why did there need to be multiple attempts at crowdfunding? And why did it take an online streaming service so damn long to step up to the plate, when the potential marketing hook of finishing and presenting the final film from this acclaimed filmmaker would set your service apart from all others?
Because, for all the interesting things contained within the final film, the end result could never live up to the hopes and the hype unfairly put upon it by film nerds. It’s great that we have two more indelible performances by two of America’s best acting directors (Huston and Bogdanovich). It’s great that we have one more performance of record by the likes of Norman Foster, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Edmond O’Brien, Gregory Sierra and Susan Strasberg. It’s great that we have these interesting little cameos from Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom and Paul Mazursky. It’s great that we have this new time capsule of Los Angeles from half a century ago. And it’s great that this film has finally passed out of the annals of legend and in to reality. But the reality is that “The Other Side of the Wind” is very much one of Welles’ lesser projects, one that will remain a curiosity for a short period of time, until more people have the chance to see it and unpack it, and realize the final trip was only worth part of the journey. It’s like winning a free trip to Paris, only to discover it wasn’t France you were traveling all along to but Texas. You got what you were promised, but you thought you were promised something else.
That’s “The Other Side of the Wind” in a nutshell.
I’m glad we have it now. I will cherish the numerous positive parts of the film, and I will give it a slightly positive final rating because I do feel it is a film worth watching. It’s a tough watch, and it’s not as satisfying a watch as you’d prefer, but it is worth the time.Rating: B-