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Non-Review Review: The Other Side of the Wind

It is still strange to think of The Other Side of the Wind as an object that actually exists.

The film has haunted film films for decades, the prospect and potential of one last Orson Welles film that remains to be found long after the iconic director’s passing. The footage had all been shot. The material was gathered. All that had to be done was to journey through those hours and hours of material, in search of something resembling a feature film. It evokes that famous story about how Michelangelo approached sculpting, except that instead of a lump of marble, this work of art is to be subtracted from mountains of film.

Of course, there is a valid debate to be had about whether the version of The Other Side of the Wind that has been screened can claim to be the real or actual version. After all, the film arguably only ever existed inside the head of Orson Welles. After his passing, the only thing that could be released was an approximation of his vision, an impression of his filmmaking. This is particularly true given the extent to which Welles relied on editing in his filmmaking. Welles famously boasted to Cahiers du Cinema that editing was more important than mise en scene.

However, watching The Other Side of the Wind, there is a strong sense that Welles himself would approve this ambiguity, that he would actively encourage it. The Other Side of the Wind is a knowingly twisty and slippery piece of work, a wry and iconic piece of film that somehow still seems avante garde more than four decades after it was originally shot. There is a sense in which The Other Side of the Wind feels like sly and biting joke, one told by a comedian with pitch-perfect timing. Only one question remains. Who is the butt of this joke?

The Other Side of the Wind is keenly aware of its own mythology. In fact the film itself, which is something of a framing device, exists within no fewer than two other outside framing devices that serve to insulate from Welles. The first of these is a serious and literal explanation of the film’s genesis and development, providing the audience with context for what they are about to see; a title card for those audience members who haven’t been waiting to see this film for decades.

The other framing device exists within the world of the film, a voice-over introduction not written by Welles, but which is spoken by one of his characters to provide context. “This little historical document has been put together from many sources,” explains acclaimed director Brooks Otterlake in voiceover, as photographs provide important introductions and explanations. “That was long before cell phone cameras and computerised images.” The audience is seeing not just a reconstruction of Welles’ film, but a reconstruction of Welles’ film-within-his-reconstructed-film.

The voice-over dialogue is clunky and forced, a little awkward and shoehorned in. However, the concept is shrewd and sets the tone for what follows. So much of The Other Side of the Wind is wrapped up in this blurring of the line between fact and fiction, the trauma within the world of the film often seeming to reflect the realities outside of it, with echoes and refractions reverberating through the framework that Welles has established. How much of The Other Side of the Wind is Welles turning the lens on himself, and how much is him smirking at us for thinking that?

It seems appropriate, in its own way, that The Other Side of the Wind should exist as a collection of footage stitched together to approximate the vision of a long-dead artist. “The choice of this material is an attempt to sketch a film likeness of the man himself as he looked,” Otterlake explains in his voiceover, but it is hard to delineate the character Brooks Otterlake and the actor Peter Bogdanovich, just as it is hard to separate the narrative explanation for the fractured nature of this footage with the real production history of the film itself.

Reality and fiction bend and double-back upon themselves in The Other Side of the Wind, which is only fitting for an incomplete film from the director responsible for F for Fake and The War of the Worlds. The character of Brooks Otterlake was reportedly always based on Bogdanovich, but was originally cast as impressionist Rich Little. Little’s casting was both an allusion to Bogdanovich’s own skill for celebrity impersonation and a comment on the recurring implication that Otterlake succeeded by imitating the real cinematic initiators.

However, Little dropped out for reasons that are still a matter of debate among the cast and crew. In an effort to save money and assist with the production, Bogdanovich stepped into the breach. As a result, The Other Side of the Wind features Bogdanovich playing a character based on Bogdanovich who was originally supposed to be played by a famous celebrity impersonator. This is all very heightened and very surreal, even before getting into the level of a film-within-a-film involving the identically titled The Other Side of the Wind.

It is perhaps revealing that it reportedly took Welles a long time to cast the role of the central character, washed-up veteran director Jake Hannaford. In a lot of the reaction shots and early footage, Welles would play the role himself, creating a Welles-shaped absence that would serve as the basis of the character before John Huston stepped into the role. Discussing the movie-within-a-movie, one observer reflects, “This part we didn’t cast, it’s an old man.” The “celebrated critic” Juliet Riche observes, “It’s Hannaford. Hannaford himself.”

One of the more interesting aspects of The Other Side of the Wind is how Welles makes a point to keep Hannaford at a remove, in particular during his early engagements with reporters. Otterlake initially attempts to answer questions directed at his failed idol, before eventually falling back on recorded answers that the auteur provided long before. There is a clear sense that Hannaford does not want to provide any clear answers about his work or about himself, and Welles has made that reflexive after a fashion.

The parallels repeatedly suggest and reinforce themselves. The Other Side of the Wind focuses on Hannaford’s last movie, which represents an attempt by an over-the-hill director to ape the style and technique of the “New Hollywood” movement. This film-within-a-film is abstract and impressionistic, reflecting the more experimental side of directors who would have grown up influenced by Hannaford. Of course, the film around that, built by Welles is very much the same thing. It is an older director demonstrating his continued vitality and experimentalism.

The Other Side of the Wind often feels like that hall of mirrors from The Lady from Shanghai, to the point that it often rests with the viewer to determine how much or how little they wish to read into it. Hannaford’s muse within the film is played by Oja Kodar, Welles’ own creative muse in later life. At one point, Hannaford greedily steals out a young adoring woman from the younger Otterlake as an expression of his masculine authority, which is perhaps a very pointed jab at Bogdanovich’s relationship with Cybill Shepherd.

The Other Side of the Wind doesn’t just embrace this idea of blurred lines between reality and fiction, it actively encourages them. Critic Juliet Riche is introduced working on a book about Hannaford. “Mine is the authorised biography,” she boasts. One of Hannaford’s old allies replies, “One of them, anyway.” There is a sense that The Other Side of the Wind is intentionally disjointed and twisted – repeatedly coming back to shots of cameras staring at cameras or characters lying about whether recording equipment is running – to reflect a fractured reality.

Even within the film-within-the-film, there is a sense of barriers fraying, reality bleeding in (or perhaps fiction bleeding out) through the scratch marks. At one point within Hannaford’s movie, the characters seem to wander out of the familiar sets, behind plywood walls and onto decaying and eroding studio lots. Hannaford edits his own vocal track into the final cut of the film, commanding the stars like a divine authority. “Somebody’s watching,” he tells them. At another point, the actor and character literally walk out of the film.

There is something very playful in all of this. The missing leading man from the film-within-the-film is literally played by an actor named “Bob Random”, replaced at Hannaford’s lavish birthday party by a number of interchangeable mannequins. As the characters gather around to watch Hannaford’s latest cut, their revelry is interrupted by what one character describes as “a power failure.” Welles is clearly amusing himself with the film, which seems to wear a perpetual cheeky smirk.

Perhaps the most impressive part of The Other Side of the Wind is how well is has aged; although perhaps that is to be expected from something that has never really existed. This is true both thematically and technically. The film’s anxieties about collapsing reality and shattered perspectives obviously spoke an America that was still trying to make sense of the sixties, but it still resonates in the modern era. The idea of trying to stitch together a portrait of a man from conflicting snippets of always-recording cameras feels much more plausible in the twenty-first century.

(There is even a strange parallel with the film’s use of race, the awkward casting of Croation actor Oja Kodar to play a Native American. This feels like a nod towards increased seventies awareness of Native Americans, as demonstrated by incidents like Marlon Brando sending Marie Louise Cruz to collect his Oscar or the infamous crying Native American commercials. However, there is also some more decidedly unpleasant echoes in the way in which the characters around her dismissively refer to her as “Pocahontas.”)

However, there is more to it than that. Welles was always a filmmaker ahead of his time, in terms of craft and technique. In fact, it often seemed like the world had to catch up with Welles’ unique perspective. In both The Other Side of the Wind and the film-within-the-film, aging directors are trying to demonstrate they still have what it takes to make movies in the modern world. While Hannaford struggles a little bit to adapt his technique to the New Hollywood style, Welles’ direction feels very fresh and even contemporary.

The Other Side of the Wind repeatedly plays with format. It is full of rapid cuts for different angles, rarely holding focus for more than a few seconds. Although the aspect ratio remains consistent, the footage changes in other ways, most obviously in shifting between black and white. This constantly reminds the audience that they are watching something that has been shot inside the world of the film. There is a sense in which The Other Side of the Wind makes more sense after The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield than it would at the time.

The Other Side of the Wind is as experimental and provocative as any contemporary indie. Welles couldn’t just keep pace with the generation that followed. It would take decades for the mainstream to catch up. The handheld footage is disorienting and jarring, lending the movie an impressive intimacy. It is far more ambitious and experimental than Hannaford’s own experimentation. There is an impressive vitality to the film, the work of a director long dead working with many cast members who have long since passed on.

Of course, Welles has fun at might be termed his own pretension. “What’s happening here?” an executive asks on watching the reels. “I’m not really sure, Max,” replies one of Hannaford’s acolytes. At the party, one of Hannaford’s disciples worries about a mix-up with the reels in the projection booth. “I’m afraid you’re getting out of sequence,” he complains. “You’re showing it in the wrong order.” The projectionist shrugs and replies, “Does it matter?” A less-than-forgiving viewer might look at Welles’ intentionally disjointed and unfocused work and ask the same questions.

However, there is a rub in all of this. The Other Side of the Wind is a very angry and very bitter film. The intentionally broad and unguided nature of the narrative means that The Other Side of the Wind seems to be raging at absolutely everything at every single moment. There is a lot of bile and vitriol in The Other Side of the Wind, a lot of contempt that isn’t even buried behind a veneer of impartiality or emotional distance. As befitting the hand-held camera work, there is a raw quality to the contempt that drives so much of The Other Side of the Wind.

To be fair, Welles had every reason to be angry towards Hollywood, and ever right to vent his own frustrations with the industry and what it had done to him. “No machine ever produces as much as it consumes,” offers one observer by way of justifying Hannaford, and perhaps by way of justifying Welles. However, there is something in the implication that Hollywood itself is this machine, and it has consumed Welles as he rages against it. The Other Side of the Wind is a movie that comes out swinging wildly and indeterminately.

It is often hard to tell exactly where Welles is directing his contempt. Is The Other Side of the Wind eviscerating those younger directors who stood on his shoulders to greater financial success? If so, it seems mean-spirited to take such pot-shots at directors like Peter Bogdanovich who were supporting Welles. Is The Other Side of the Wind a swipe at critics who try to make sense of directors like this, with the obvious stand-in from Pauline Kael? If so, it seems petty to devote such effort to it. Is The Other Side of the Wind Welles condemning himself? If so, it is undeserved.

This unfocused anger sours The Other Side of the Wind, seeping into the wounds of the film’s fractured reality. This is a shame, because there are some very interesting ideas here. The Other Side of the Wind works best when it finds time to focus its anger on something bigger than Welles’ own insecurities, when it alludes to questions of masculinity and sexuality. Then again, this feels like an appropriate theme to explore within the context of a movie about an ageing director grappling with the changes within New Hollywood.

The Other Side of the Wind is undoubtedly Welles’ most sexually explicit film, most obviously when he’s shooting Hannaford’s film-within-a-film. The film’s sex sequence is already the stuff of legends, but it also features an orgy within a public restroom and a climax where the female character seems to get crushed by a gigantic phallus. This is to say nothing of our introduction to Hannaford, shooting scenes of naked women cavorting for his own amusement or whatever he believes to be his artistic mission statement.

The Other Side of the Wind returns time and again to the idea of masculine insecurity as expressed in sexual terms. It is telling that the film’s central critic is female, just as it is revealing that the female actor is left anonymous. Riche accuses Otterlake and Hannaford of hiding something. “And what would we be hiding?” Otterlake inquires. “How much you really hate each other,” she posits an early guess. However, that isn’t quite right, as even Otterlake seems to acknowledge. “You got it slightly wrong, lady.”

Riche returns to that idea of Hannaford’s emotional investment with younger men. She ruminates on his reputation for seducing the wives of his leading men, despite being largely disinterested in feminine narratives. “Men are the subject of his films,” Riche explains. She goes on to elaborate how Hannaford treats his sexual conquest of his leading men’s wives as a power play between two men. “He must possess her, so he can possess him.” The film teases this idea out in Hannaford’s relationships with the two stars of his latest film.

The Other Side of the Wind is as tantalising as it is frustrating, as engaging as it is exhausting. It often feels like more of a work of art than a satisfying movie, which feels somewhat appropriate given its status as a mythic object among film fans. The Other Side of the Wind is an impressive piece of work, both from Welles as a director far ahead of his time and from the team that stitched this vision together. However, it remains an uncomfortable watch. It is an angry and mean-spirited film, a raised middle finger to a system that discarded one of its most important figures.

That the gesture is earned, and delivered with incredible artistry, does not make it any more palatable.

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