'The Other Side of the Wind': Film Review | Venice 2018
After a 48-year limbo, Orson Welles' final dramatic feature — acquired by Netflix — is unveiled at the Venice Film Festival.
The Holy Grail for zealous film buffs, the long-awaited bookend for Citizen Kane, an attempt by a venerated veteran to make a New Hollywood film, a presumed career capstone thwarted by the director's own long-debated fear/difficulty of completion along with decades of squabbling over rights and ownership, at one point involving intimates of the Shah of Iran — these are just a few of the ways to describe The Other Side of the Wind, which has languished in limbo for 48 years as the final dramatic feature film by Orson Welles that, for myriad reasons, he was never able to finish.
But, lo and behold, here it is, at long last and against massive odds, a work largely edited by other hands but that still feels expressive of the perennial themes and late career style the great one applied to this kaleidoscopic look at the final day in the life of a rugged old Hollywood director. Like Kane, but in an entirely different style, this is the story of an eminent man's clouded legacy being investigated and assessed, to necessarily incomplete ends. Wellesians will vigorously debate the aesthetic results of this torturously achieved accomplishment but, to the credit of those who, against daunting odds and nearly a half-century's worth of obstacles, arduously pushed this project to completion, the end result feels like a plausible fulfillment of the style Welles himself established for it. Buffs will want to experience the film on the big screen, but its acquisition by Netflix assures that it will be seen by far more people than would have been the case in theatrical-only days.
The Other Side of the Wind, which started shooting in Los Angeles in August 1970, was Welles' deep dive into the New Hollywood of the time as well as a caustic commentary on it. Set at the 70th birthday party of legendary director Jake Hannaford (played with dark imperiousness by real directorial legend John Huston), Wind, like Kane, centers on a greatly flawed great man who left many things undone and innumerable victims in his wake. Stylistically, however, the films are the antithesis of one another; if Kane relied strikingly on deep focus compositions and aspects of German expressionism, Wind, in its extreme fragmentation of images, summons up the specters of Picasso and Braque in a manner reminiscent of but even more pronounced than that of Welles' 1973 quasi-documentary, F for Fake.
For those who only know Welles the director for the bold and brilliant black-and-white visuals and long takes in the likes of Kane and Touch of Evil, Wind will take some getting used to. The party and the events surrounding it are shot by the resourceful, on-his-toes cinematographer Gary Graver in rough, cinema verite–style 16mm, often in black-and-white, with everything cut so tight and fast as to throw any notion of classical continuity out the window.
Interspersed through the all-night affair are samples from the arty, bold-hued, 35mm widescreen, dialogue-free erotic opus that Hannaford is screening for the first time for his guests. Perhaps the hardest conceit to swallow is that this leathery, boozy, cigar-inhaling veteran of many wars, professional and amorous, would actually make such a pretentiously solemn abstract piece, which features a handsome young man (Robert Random) and an exotic, often nude woman (Welles' longtime consort Oja Kodar, also seen in F for Fake) pursuing each other through abstracted locations (Century City, the old MGM backlot, the desert) and, most memorably, taking a nocturnal spin in a sports car during which the provocatrice mounts the unsuspecting lad to the thrumming beat of the windshield wipers. R-rated by contemporary standards, it's the most erotic scene Welles ever created.
Hannaford's guests offer scant opinions about what they see that night. The only one who does is a young and handsome studio chief (Geoffrey Land, clearly cast for his resemblance to Robert Evans) who disdainfully rejects the footage he's privately shown by an old-school Hannaford flunky (Norman Foster, the official director of the 1942 Welles production Journey Into Fear).
Among those who turn up at the remote desert home where the gathering is being held are longtime yes-men and acolytes played by the likes of Edmond O'Brien, Cameron Mitchell, Mercedes McCambridge, Kane's butler Paul Stewart, Tonio Selwart, Dan Tobin, John Carroll and Gregory Sierra (particularly good, and the only one of them still alive). And then there are those with their own agendas and histories with the old man: A glamorous and languid Lilli Palmer is the grand bash's hostess, Susan Strasberg threads her way through the proceedings as a sharp-minded writer (partly based on Welles nemesis Pauline Kael) who thinks she has Hannaford's number, and film scholar Joseph McBride, who would go on to write several books about Welles, pops up from time to time as an academic posing deliberately pretentious questions to the great one.
On hand as exemplars of the then-New Hollywood are the very, very young-looking Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom, Curtis Harrington and Dennis Hopper (French auteur Claude Chabrol is also visible, although he never says anything). But by far the most important of these is Peter Bogdanovich, who plays the significant part of Brooks Otterlake, a hugely successful young director, not unlike himself in the early 1970s, who is Hannaford's close confidant and amanuensis but emerges as an intriguing cross between the old man's Prince Hal and Iago.
The images and scenes hit the screen like cards being swiftly dealt by a master dealer; you have to be quick to keep up with what's being said. A good bit of it is nasty gossip, snide remarks and aphoristic cracks, and when you add in the insinuating and sometimes lewd insults that are Hannaford's stock-in-trade, it's impossible not to note the generally sour and cynical tenor of the proceedings. After all the rebuffs and disappointments of Welles' then-30-year relationship with Hollywood (a history perpetuated in spades by this very film's tortuous history), it's impossible to blame the author for his disenchantment.
Still, Welles at this point in his career had made his way to the extremes of a stylistic approach that differed radically from the one he had employed through the early 1960s. The formal stability and democratic approach to characters within the frame facilitated by deep focus and extended takes evolved, due initially to the imperatives of economic constraints but increasingly to the limitations of some of his actors, financial constraints and extended time spent on cutting, into a sleight-of-hand style of editing that, in the event, served an identical thematic purpose: To stress the ultimate elusiveness of what motivates people, to acknowledge that we can only ever get a partial sense of what makes people tick, no matter how closely they might be scrutinized.
Why, despite great renown and success, is Hannaford so cutting and destructive? Why are his acolytes so ready and eager to countenance his continued nastiness? Why does the more-often-than-not naked Kodar in Hannaford's dreamscape new film seem to regard the man she lures as a female praying mantis does her perspective mate? The world seems clearly divided here into two camps: Those empowered to dish it out and those willing to take it.
The one person here who manages to maneuver between these two poles is Bogdanovich's Otterlake, a slippery fish who looks to have absorbed his mentor's skill for responding to all questions and remarks with cutting, conversation-stopping one liners, while at the same time maintaining a connection with the world of strivers and hangers-on from whence he very recently came. It's a role — and a performance — that could have profitably been expanded and deepened in a different, more dialogue-dense film, and its Shakespearean function could well have been further plumbed under more traditional circumstances.
As for the film-within-the-film that Hannaford is making, its arty ambiguity is surely meant to send up the sort of vacant-headed blather that sometimes got made during Hollywood's momentary deep-dive into trendy, hippie-era with-it-ness. Indulgent scenes of young lovelies wandering beaches and parks and forests wearing the wispiest of garments or less were a staple of such films (Woody Allen made great fun of this instant cliche in his first feature, Take the Money and Run, in 1969). Those who might take issue with it on the grounds of sexist objectification would be advised to put it in the context of its era, as well as to note that Kodar takes a co-writing credit on the screenplay. At the same time, it's hard to imagine a director like Hannaford/Huston ever making a film like this; symbolic, nondramatic nonsense never entered such classicists' vocabularies.
It's not known what sort of musical score, if any, Welles ever contemplated for this film, but it's fair to say that one of the luckiest and/or savviest moves of its rescue team was to engage Michel Legrand to provide the soundtrack. At least partly derived from pre-existing music, this jazzy score goes a very long way both to smoothing out some of the jumpy continuity and providing a resonant through-line to a bifurcated tale. It's propulsive, energetic and alive without ever being intrusive or distracting and, as such, stands as one of the outstanding composer's greatest film soundtracks.
The enormity of the task confronting those who brought The Other Side of the Wind to completion, beginning with producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza and editor Bob Murawski, can scarcely be overstated. Those interested in a lively and pretty thorough account of the film's complicated backstory are referred to Josh Karp's well-informed 2015 book Orson Welles's Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, which, however, doesn't cover the final rescue and completion of the task.
Netflix's involvement with Wind also embraces two documentaries: Marshall has made a 37-minute piece that illuminates the daunting rescue and rehabilitation effort it took to bring the project to fruition, while Morgan Neville has made the feature-length They'll Love Me When I'm Dead about the history of the entire project.
So many of Welles' blighted projects — It's All True, Don Quixote, The Deep, The Merchant of Venice and others — were never properly finished and have been seen, if at all, in bits and pieces. For decades, it seemed that The Other Side of the Wind would forever face a similar fate. It's entirely possible that, if Welles were able to behold or dream the result that's now on view for all to see, he might well emit a roar of wrath that would resound throughout the solar system.
But as things stand, it will be up to us mere mortals to assess this sincere, carefully and astutely judged assemblage. From this perspective, it well surpasses what was widely thought to be possible and in no way feels like a transgression or a betrayal. Which is saying a lot.
Full disclosure: Partway down the end credits crawl listing everyone who passed before Welles' cameras during his many days and nights of shooting is a credit that reads, “Party guest — Todd McCarthy.” Yes, that would be one and the same as the author of this review, who as a wee lad, had the good fortune to be invited at a certain point to wander around at a birthday gathering in honor of one Jake Hannaford (without recompense, of course) and appears to have turned up in one blink-or-you-'ll-miss-him shot.
Venue: Telluride, Venice film festivals (Netflix)
Production: Royal Road Entertainment
Cast: John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Robert Random, Lilli Palmer, Edmond O'Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Gregory Sierra, Tonio Selwart, Dan Tobin, John Carroll, Geoffrey Land, Peter Jason, Joseph McBride
Director: Orson Welles
Screenwriters: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar
Producers: Frank Marshall, Filip Jan Rymsza
Executive producers: Peter Bogdanovich, Carla Rosen-Vacher, Olga Kagan, Jon Anderson, Beatrice Welles, Jens Koether Kaul, Dominique Antoine
Director of photography: Gary Graver
Production designer: Polly Platt
Editors: Bob Murawski, Orson Welles
Music: Michel Legrand