Now that we have it, what do we do with it? Thirteen months ago, The Other Side of the Wind was released to the public, just like that — thirty-three years after its director’s death, forty-two years after principal photography ended. The long, improbable journey to the film’s ultimate release in its “finished” form is every bit as fascinating as the movie itself. In fact, given the film’s multivalent, hall-of-mirrors subject matter, it wouldn’t be all that pretentious to say the movie is about its own making. How appropriate that the belated bookend to Orson Welles’ filmmaking career would be, like Citizen Kane, a fictionalized dressing-down of an imperious man. This time, himself. Like an unspecified number of people, I saw The Other Side of the Wind when it was added to Netflix’s online catalog in November of 2018. (It was the only time I can think of that I actually made sure to watch a movie the very day it became available online.) While there were parts I greatly enjoyed, I was slightly bewildered by the film as a whole, unsure about some details, and perhaps still a little too besotted with auteurism to give this unique film a fair hearing. Welles can never see how “his” film finally turned out, but the film that his surviving colleagues and followers pieced together is a marvel nonetheless.
There are, in a sense, two films here, with the same name — the film and the film-within-a-film. Your mileage may vary on the kind of art that’s about how difficult it is to make art, but I tend to love movies of this type. The Other Side of the Wind is about a director named J.J. Hannaford (John Huston) who will not live to finish his final film. That film, also called The Other Side of the Wind, exists in fragmentary, unsalable form at the time of Hannaford’s seventieth birthday. Much of the film follows a party being thrown for this great man of the cinema, to which numerous people, some of them journalists, have brought cameras. As such, the exterior story is a decades-ahead-of-its-time example of the fictional “found footage” film, with shots using various film stocks, in both color and black-and-white, edited together to make an impression of the evening. Appropriately enough, with the forty-year lag between shooting and release, these scenes have now become found footage in real life. At the party, reels of Hannaford’s unfinished film are shown, and in those moments The Other Side of the Wind becomes what has been described as a parody of European arthouse films, specifically the cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni.
When I first saw the movie, I was a little taken aback by that “parody” label, because those scenes were by far my favorites in the whole thing. Entirely wordless and nearly plotless, they perhaps work best as part of the larger whole, a counterpoint to the constant chatter at Hannaford’s party. Perhaps, also, Welles would be pleased to hear that in trying to make a parody of something, he ended up making one of the coolest examples of that thing — that is, he and his partner Oja Kodar, who has been credited with directing a few of the scenes in question and who co-wrote the entire screenplay. So even before Bob Murawski, Frank Marshall, and Peter Bogdanovich got a hold of the unfinished film about five years ago and saw it through to completion, it was already an interesting example of a collaborative creative vision. That tension of perspectives is one of the reasons the film has so much life, with Kodar herself appearing in the film-within-a-film’s central role, silently commanding the screen.
It’s entirely likely that I was simply too tired to follow the rapid-fire pace of this movie over the course of two hours the first time I saw it. Whatever the case, the party scenes became much clearer to me this time, the character development therein much more legible. Vividly sketched supporting characters abound, many of them essentially playing themselves: the hilariously named Brooks Otterlake (Bogdanovich, playing a filmmaker who, in addition to being a smug acolyte of Hannaford’s, is also a skilled raconteur and impressionist) and Mr. Pister (Joseph McBride, who uses his great monotone voice to play a dorky film critic), as well as Billy Boyle (Norman Foster), whose job it is early in the film to try to convince a studio boss that Hannaford’s current project is a winner. Also on hand at the party are the likes of Dennis Hopper, Paul Mazursky, and Claude Chabrol, literally playing themselves. The acidity of these scenes is omnidirectional. The director himself comes in for criticism from various angles (and it should be said that, as he appears on screen, Hannaford is probably a more accurate portrait of Huston than Welles), but so do the critics themselves (Welles’s beef with Pauline Kael is given a mean-spirited but funny airing out), as well as the Hollywood establishment and young rebels alike. It all leads to a final image and final voice-over narration that, just by themselves, more than justify all the work that was done to get this movie in front of people.
At the end of the day, this movie might still suffer just a little bit from the changing of hands between its initial conception and final form. The present-day narration, by Bogdanovich, that opens the film is very, very Citizen Kane, describing Hannaford’s death and explaining the differences of opinion among his acquaintances as to whether it was a suicide or not. I’m not educated enough on the particulars to say whether this or that detail was indeed Welles’s intention, so I won’t speculate. Welles himself edited together about forty minutes of footage, or about a third of the finished film, so it’s easy to imagine that the educated guesses of his followers are pretty darn close. At any rate, it all fits together miraculously well. As a lament for lost creative freedom and a darkly looming future, The Other Side of the Wind sings just as clearly now as it would have in the 1970s. As a portrait of a macho filmmaker and his underlying insecurities, it’s perpetually timely. However funny it might feel to think of this as a completed fiction film (rather than a making-of documentary about itself), much less “a 2018 film,” I have to admit that it’s won me over on my second viewing. This is the very first time, in my “Uh…3 ½?” series, that a movie has managed to do that, which is incredible but also somehow fitting.