The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, 2018)
‘He’s trying to us show how in he is. So that’s what this film is all about?”
-bemused and confused young hotshot studio exec (Geoffrey Land) screening a rough cut and wondering what the hell they’ve gotten themselves into by financing what’s turning out to be an unexpected (and unwanted), wildly experimental 60’s psychedelic comeback film, after a five year exile in Europe (gee, that sounds a lot like another real-life filmmaker I know), of Jack Hannaford (played by legendary Hollywood director John Huston, equipped with that immediately recognizable deep booming voice… just like… gee… that other filmmaker I just mentioned…)
It’s the 70th birthday of Hannaford, attempting, as he is, a splashy return to filmmaking, and throwing a grotesque carnival of a party at his Arizona ranch, filled with sycophantic journalists, cynical veteran members of his entourage (long ago dubbed the ‘Hannaford Mafia’) and fresh-faced, full of themselves young Hollywood filmmakers all vying for attention and discussing the legend of Jack Hannaford.
Bar none, true confession, Orson Welles is by far my favourite filmmaker, in terms of both the cinematic works achieved – both large scale and small — as well as the fascinating oversized and tragic life lived (of which I’m three-fourths of the way through – the fourth and last volume hasn’t been published yet — the exhaustive multi-tome defining Welles bio by Simon Callow). Yes, yes, his first film, Citizen Kane is often cited as the greatest film ever made – and, while I haven’t quite seen anywhere near close to enough films to share in that claim (though a few drinks can have me throwing caution to the wind and unequivocally proclaiming it as the ultimate truth), I will say, especially with each successive viewing over time (and with age), along with continuing to simply marvel at how a mere 27 year old could have possibly accomplished something so grand, so innovative and mature, that, yes, it is the greatest film at least that I’ve ever seen… and, yet, at the same time, I find it’s not even Welles’ most interesting work.
So when it was time to catch up with the finally finished last film, The Other Side of the Wind, of which a book on the troubled ‘making of’ and painful rights issues that followed has been written (that I had immediately devoured upon publication), and knowing all the stories of the endlessly valiant yet frustratingly unsuccessful attempts to finish the film since the final day of production over forty years ago, I was admittedly a bit cautious in my enthusiasm. I figured for sure I’d enjoy it. I even expected flashes of brilliance with what I read would be its ambitious shooting style and rapid-fire editing (not as a way to create motion and stimulation, but to more interestingly capture it, something Welles was already adept at with his crazed, multi-dutch camera angled, rapid fire and fascinating adaption of _ Othello_ but I knew that “Wind” was going to raise to an even more manic level)… but I also wondered if I wasn’t gonna have to give a bit at the office to really enjoy it; to forgive Welles and the film some awkwardness, perhaps in its construction, with, say, dated dialogue from his classic past not matching with the attempts at something more modern than Welles had ever done before (at least in a purely narrative film – he certainly revealed a modern sensibility with his 1974 F for Fake, but that was a playful and deliberately cheeky fictionalized documentary), or – even worse – some filmmaking aesthetics just not up to par for a rapidly aging filmmaker already suffering with debilitating obesity (even though he did manage to stick around this mortal coil for almost another decade of endlessly plodding after money for projects that never materialized, a bitter inability to finish “Wind” and disintegrating health).
Man, how wrong I was. Wonderfully, exhilaratingly wrong. The Other Side of the Wind is an indulgent (with Welles, could it be any other way?) feast of cinematic enjoyment, a cavalcade of vibrant shots and swirling movement, creating a sense of experimentation, yet also achieving verisimilitude (or perhaps a heightened reality, at least in the scenes outside the screening room and the film-within-the-film in which those scenes are attempting more baroque visions), with the tragic, Citizen Kane-sized Hannaford resonating at its center. With its wonderfully colliding and vibrant collage of post-modern images and mediums (35mm and 16mm, black & white and color, various film stocks) on a level so profoundly ahead of its time, it surely would have tanked and perhaps been entirely rejected if it was actually finished at the time. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the film, now living in this time of over-inundation of imagery and sensation, will be recognized for how brilliant it remains. I mean, Oliver Stone may have made the shifting media conceits fashionable, but his origins with it were way too-bang-you-over-the-head didactic (Natural Born Killers) and eventually just used without purpose because it became ‘his thing’ (U-Turn being the most egregious example). Welles’ uses, on the other hand, are entrenched within a focus and understanding of how they relate to the narrative and themes.
The clashing shifting perspectives (not only in the film mediums themselves, but in the various styles, from the hand-held impressions of the ‘real’ scenes at the party, and at the later drive-in that shows a rough cut of Hannaford’s film, to the classic noir-ish lighting and formal compositions of the screening room scenes, where ‘fairy tales’ are made, to the garish, color-drenched giallo/eurotrash experimentation of the film-within-the-film) act as a perfect representation of the ultimate central conflict of the film — New Hollywood vs Old Hollywood – and everything that drips like sad tears directly from it (aging vs youth, betrayal vs loyalty, image vs truth and – perhaps most deeply close to Welles – a deep disdain for all of Hollywood and what it represents vs a childlike desire for acceptance and acknowledgement from those very same forces).
It’s the New as defined by Peter Bogdanovich, Welles’ one-time lapdog acolyte, who was – something that must have been painfully humiliating for Welles, a man, like every film director, with an enormous ego – now dwarfing his idol with his Hollywood success. In one of the endless examples of the whirling meta-conceits that swirl in and out, looping in on each other, Bogdanovich plays celebrated newcomer filmmaker Brooks Otterlake (a ridiculous and belittling name choice I assume Welles enjoyed attaching to Bogdanovich) who is in an almost the exact station as Bogdanovich was at the time, finding himself arriving at the door of Hollywood success, and now unwilling to help the aging, once-revered, but fallen far from Hollywood grace, powerfully voiced director Orson Welles – oops – I mean Jack Hannaford. Welles shows Otterlake (and Bogdanovich?) as opportunistic and self-centered (don’t know if Welles would have imagined Otterlake to fall as far as Bogdanovich eventually would in real life though). Otterlake turning down the desperate and ashamed Hannaford’s plea for money in “Wind” to finish his movie is the last straw between them… and isn’t too far off from how it played out between Welles and Bogdanovich (one really has to wonder what Bogdanovich was thinking as he shot these scenes and spoke the dialogue). It’s the New as shown by the glimpses at Hannaford’s party of hippie upstarts like Dennis Hopper, Paul Mazursky and Henry Jaglom (amongst a whole slew of others), 70’s filmmakers who suddenly were granted room at the Hollywood table, something that Welles – while deeply admired by all the New generation — and the fucking director of Citizen Kane! – couldn’t get close enough for even a scrap by this point.
It’s surprising to learn celebrated impressionist Rich Little was originally cast to play Otterlake, eventually getting fired or leaving on his own (there are conflicting stories) – you can still see him floating around in some of the party scenes, including speaking lines of dialogue – because it was when he was replaced by Bogdanovich (who also does impressions of Old Hollywood greats like stumbling actor Jimmy Stewart throughout the movie) that the narrative entirely shifts into place and operates on that overtly raw and meta-level; it becomes no longer a question of whether Bogdanovich is understanding from afar that the deeply flawed Otterlake is meant to be him because, no, he’s actually playing him(self) now.
The Old is defined by a veritable treasure trove of familiar character actor faces from yesteryear, some of them from Welles’ own ensemble (the tight-lipped Paul Stewart, rising from Charles Foster Kane’s butler in Welles’ first film to oh-so-fittingly play manager for another larger-than-life tragic figure, Hannaford, in Welles’ last) and many others from Hollywood’s illustrious classic film past (including the tough, butch Mercedes McCambridge, the vet of many a genre film Cameron Mitchell, noir film-stand-out and now clearly sadly withering drunk Edmund O’Brien and many, many more). They pontificate on the legend of Hannaford as if the legend has past and all that’s left is the death.
The Other Side of the Wind is pure revelation. If Welles had any doubts about his prowess to speak in modern cinematic language (while remaining deeply informed by a formal history), he shouldn’t have. While he felt painfully slighted by a system that had discarded him (a lot of it due admittedly to his own destructive impulses), as well as ultimately dismissed by a New filmmaker like Bogdanovich, who started out idolizing him but would turned his back on him after achieving his own success, The Other Side of the Wind is as erotic, as mature, as cinematically savvy and daring as anything Welles ever attempted – or even achieved (okay, we’ll set aside Citizen Kane and perhaps even The Magnificent Ambersons) in his profoundly fascinating – and I dare say – under-appreciated (at least post-Citizen Kane, other than Touch of Evil) film career. “Wind” shows again that Welles was actively going places, in post-modern meta- nooks and crannies with his last few films, when few, if any, films and filmmakers were really considering it.
As far as the hypnotically sumptuous film-within-the-film in “Wind”, meant as a pointed parody of the indulgent artsy-fartsy pretentiousness Welles was feeling about celebrated Italian director Antonioni and many of the European directors as they tried to merge their existential conceits with a desire to be hip and relevant to the cool (musical) times (while being increasingly elliptical – the moment of the projectionist shrugging to the outraged Hannaford producer that nobody will notice that the movie reels are playing out of order at the drive-in is a really funny and clever jab by Welles) with films like Blow Up and the now overtly dated hippie-dippie Zabriskie Point (though I still love that screamingly nihilistic Pink Floyd tune playing over the rich guy’s house in the desert exploding at the conclusion), it’s clear to me that, along with massive amounts of steak dinners and wine, Welles also consumed copious quantities of all sorts of glorious cinematic indulgences, everything from 60’s Jess Franco-style eurotrash (the brazen nudity of his real-life female love, and mind-searingly stunning to look at, Oja Kodar, that Welles puts on display is simply glorious, and falls right in-line with an erotic European sensibility that has been there, if less openly, in the entirety of the director’s work – a sensuality that I’ve always said marks him as a more mature, if far less prolific and commercial, filmmaker than the far more celebrated and brilliant, though English uptight and emotionally stunted, Alfred Hitchcock), to Italian gialli, to the French New Wave, then molded through his own prescient ahead-of-his-time sensibility.
The scenes of the two characters, Kodar’s and the stunning and youthful unnamed male figure who follows her (riffing on the hot leads in Zabriskie Point), including Kodar’s magnificent bathroom scene, with the glimpses of perversity going on each stall as she passes, played to the early metal-throbbing psychedelia of Blue Cheer’s “Fruit and Icebergs”, are so deliciously sublime, they’re like watching cinematically transcendent candy-cane through a time portal. One of the thrills of going back to see “Wind” a second time was the opportunity to indulge again in the film-within-a-film that hypnotizes with Kodar’s wildly enigmatic face (and gorgeous naked body), the giallo film-like shots, faux hippie Antonio riffs, lighting designs that matched Dario Argento’s wildly color-dripping schemes (I was certain that, with the fiendishly crafted driving scene with Kodar slowly opening the turned-on boy’s pants without any words spoken, only quick glances given, Welles was deliberately copying the original Suspiria – that is, until the head honcho Offscreen editor himself pointed out to me that Argento’s vibrantly textured nightmarish masterpiece came after “Wind” – well, let’s say they were drinking from the same creative waters then) and the pulsing score – these scenes may not be Welles’ most mature moments, or even most ambitious (thematically or production-wise, anyway), but they explode as some of, if not the, most sensually charged cinematic concoctions of his brilliant career. Ironically, while attempting to poke fun at filmmakers like Antonioni and what Welles’ saw as their desperation to prove how ‘in’ they were (as the quote above suggests), Welles ended up displaying how magnificent he was at owning that very style of filmmaking (while adding in some charming and sexy eurotrash naughtiness and vibrant gialli riffs to spice up the existential heaviness and make it his own).
The legend of Hannaford, like Kane (and a bit even like the brutal corrupt cop Quinlan, also played by Welles with putty make-up on his face to make him look even more grotesque and bulbous in Touch of Evil) is so mythic it’s hard to know, with the sycophantic film journalists flinging about all sorts of innuendo and tall tales about Hannaford (as well as Hannaford himself building on the legend), where the fabrication ends and the truth starts. While in all three of these Welles films, in one way or another, the male push for power and thirst for recognition (and ‘love’) is ultimately revealed as tragic and empty, Hannaford’s fate is tied around something different… an avenue interestingly Welles never explored before (perhaps, and likely, because it wasn’t part of his own identity… a single place where him and the Hannaford character schism apart rather than reflect each other). In looking to break down and destroy the destructive machismo and rampant womanizing celebrated in so many male figures (apparently as a direct rebuke by Welles against the self-image created by his friend and ultimate rival Ernest Hemingway), Welles reveals Hannaford’s entire identity as built upon a foundation of a single closeted lie. His aggressive bravado, and ribald drunkenness, is based upon concealing a deep secret of shame… one that ultimately leads to Hannaford’s tragic death, found alone in a wrecked car at the side of a desert road (don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler – similar to “Kane”, “Wind” opens on a media announcement of the director’s death, with the entirety of the rest of the film existing to make sense of this opening tragedy).
I’ve seen “Wind” twice now. On the first viewing, while I fell completely under Welles’ alternatingly hypnotic and cinematically cacophonous vision, I came out into the daylight, giddy with excitement, considering the film as brilliant (staggeringly so, in fact), yet a mess. Seeing it again a few days later, I’ve changed my thoughts. It’s just brilliant. It’s messiness and contradictions are a deliberate construct within that. It’s a Welles masterpiece. Its chaotic narrative and aesthetic sensibility is, if not entirely deliberate and conscious, then accomplished by a madman artist who trusted his unconscious instincts to merge image with narrative and theme and turn it all into something sublime.
Each moment, as random as they sometimes felt on the first viewing (is it just a wonderful coincidence or a deliberate casting irony that – follow me here, as things get really meta-wonky — the young man in the film-within-the-film who plays cat-and-mouse with the Kodar character and who we learn is, outside of that film-with-the-film the real object of Hannaford’s desire, has the actual name of Bob Random in real life?), such as the subplot following the firing by Hannaford of his long-time collaborator Zimmie (Cameron Mitchell, he of a fifty year career with directors like Ford, Dassin, Bava, Corbucci, Hellman and obviously Welles, just to name a very few) I now recognized as no mere throwaway filler… it’s part of the fabric, revealing yet again, a riffing on an overriding theme, in this case the conflict between intense loyalty and cruel dismissal that scarred Hannaford’s (and Welles’) careers.
“Wind” is a mass of super-sophisticated, hyped-up imagery and iconoclastic casting… and yet, mirroring its theme of conflicted nature, it also shares an underlying sense of innocence, and even naivety. Its characters, the film, and Welles himself, while filled with an overriding cynicism and world-weariness also somehow still believe, child-like, in the magic of the movies. “Wind” shows Welles could have become the king of the indie art-house, or perhaps a eurotrash sleaze master — or an art-house king of eurotrash – if he would have been able to continue to make movies and follow his muses. How sad it is that he wasn’t. At least we were lucky enough, after a forty year delay, to receive this last gem to thankfully remind us yet again how brilliant, unique and ever-exploring a cinematic artist he was.
Perhaps it’s even a fitting ending. For as frustratingly sparse a career as it was, filled with fits and starts of genius, it’s with this last film that Welles finally seems to have grasped, perhaps with the painful wisdom that comes with aging, something we all already knew – namely, that the larger-than-life public figure hiding a desperate emptiness he created for his very first film, Citizen Kane? That character, as The Other Side of the Wind shows us (through the dual Welles stand-ins, Jack Hannaford & John Huston) was, in fact, Welles himself.