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All’s Welles That Ends Welles: “The Other Side of the Wind” and a Sense of Seventies Timelessness…

There is a tendency to think of the current moment as the most important moment; call it “modernity bias.”

There is a certain egocentricism inherent in this premise, in the idea that this moment when we exist will always be the most important moment. On a purely philosophical level, there may some truth in the idea. After all, this is the one moment when we actually get to make a decision and exercise agency, this is the one moment where a course of action can be changed. Of course, people have made decisions in the past and can plan for the future, but this is the moment that exists right now. It’s understandable to think of the current moment in such terms.

Sometimes this can make it hard to engage with popular culture outside of those terms. Of course, a lot of popular culture is defined by the moment in which it was released. It would be hard to separate All the President’s Men (or even conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation or The Parallax View) from the cultural paranoia of the seventies, just as it would be hard to divorce films like Fight Club (or The Matrix) from the pre-millennial anxieties that informed them. This is not to suggest that these movies lack relevance outside their moments, but instead to acknowledge they are rooted in their times.

In most cases, works are released relatively close to the time at which they were produced, meaning that audiences and critics respond to these films in the context in which they were made. Audiences reacting to films like All The President’s Men or Fight Club were very much in step with the culture that informed it, and so there was a strong communion between what the film was saying and what the audience was hearing. Indeed, any critical reevaluation of these works exists in conversation with the original evaluation, and so the cultural conversation about these works of art tends to move forward from a fixed point.

However, this creates a challenge in assessing works that exist outside of that template. “Lost” works that have been recovered. “Incomplete” works that have been finished. Even older works that have been revisited. It is, for example very hard to separate Doug Liman’s reworked 2018 director’s cut of his 2010 film Fair Game from the context of its later release, specifically President Donald Trump’s pardoning of a key official involved in the events depicted in the film. It becomes an even bigger challenge when dealing with a work that is seeing the light of day for the first time years removed from its original context.

Is The Other Side of the Wind a lost seventies film, or is it a film for the closing of the second decade of the twenty-first century? Is it both? Is it neither? Is it something else entirely?

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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?

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