Director: Orson Welles
Starring: John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Norman Foster, Robert Random, Lilli Palmer, Edmond O’Brien, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart
Hardcore cinephiles have a complicated relationship with Netflix. Netflix, and streaming services like it, arguably pose a bigger threat to the sustainability of the theatrical experience than the rise of television did in the mid-20th century. For where television threatened to steal audiences away from the cinema, Netflix is stealing both audiences and filmmakers. In the last couple of years, the money and apparent creative freedom being thrown at filmmakers by streaming services has seen high profile filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, the Coen brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, and even Martin Scorsese making feature length works for release on Netflix rather than in cinemas. And yet, every now and then Netflix throws the cinephiles a bone with something like The Other Side of the Wind.
The Other Side of the Wind, was intended to be director Orson Welles’ triumphant return to Hollywood. After starting his career in the most impressive way possible, by writing, directing and starring in Citizen Kane, Welles fell afoul of the major studios and was eventually forced into exile in Europe, incapable of getting films made in the US. Starting production in 1970, The Other Side of the Wind was Welles’ attempt at making a ‘New Hollywood’ film in tune with youth-oriented, European art-cinema infused works like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Five Easy Pieces which were proving popular at the time. However, Welles struggled to complete the film and, ultimately, when he died in 1985 it remained unfinished. But the director left behind roughly one hundred hours of footage and extensive notes on how he envisaged it being pieced together, which were used by editor Bob Murawski (Oscar winner for The Hurt Locker) and a team of archivists to complete the film some 48 years after it was began. The resulting film, which at another time might have popped up at a couple of film festivals, is available for all to see on Netflix.
A mockumentary of sorts, it starts by telling us that veteran Hollywood director Jake Hannaford (John Huston) died on the evening of his 70th birthday party and the film we are going to see has been cut together from footage taken that night by journalists, biographers, photographers and partygoers. At the party is a who’s who of young Hollywood, with up-and-coming directors and stars, agents and critics all in attendance, though it is apparent that they are more familiar with Hannaford the legend than Hannaford the man – the exception being his protege Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), a successful filmmaker in his own right, whose star has seemingly eclipsed that of his mentor in the eyes of the industry and audiences. For Hannaford, however, this party is less about celebrating his birthday than about the chance to screen his new film. An art film titled ‘The Other Side of the Wind,’ it represents an attempt from the Hollywood studio veteran to reassert his relevance in this New Hollywood era. But while the film is due to be delivered in just a few days, it remains incomplete. After a falling out with his lead actor, the budget has run out, leaving Hannaford hoping that somewhere among his party guests lies the investor he needs to complete his film.
The Other Side of the Wind is a film about Hollywood at a particular time when Hollywood was changing. Welles cast his friend and contemporary John Huston, a celebrated director and Hollywood legend in his own right (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The African Queen), as the ageing protagonist. Among the guests at the party are the likes of Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Paul Mazursky and Claude Chabrol. Playing themselves, these new wave figures represent the generational shift in the industry, their youth in stark contrast to the celebration of Hannaford’s seventh decade. We hear conversations in which contemporaries of Hannaford confess their uncertainty as to where their industry is heading, while Hannaford is proactively trying to reinvent himself before the new wave leaves him behind. While Welles insisted it wasn’t the case, it is very difficult not to read The Other Side of the Wind as being, in a large sense, autobiographical. The parallels are numerous and obvious. Even the casting of Peter Bogdanovich, Welles’ real life protege, as Otterlake just as he was about to direct the film for which he would receive his first Oscar nomination, The Last Picture Show, encourages us to understand Hannaford as a Welles surrogate.
Welles was one of the cinema’s great visual stylists, but The Other Side of the World sees him working in low-budget independent mode rather than lavish studio mode, much closer stylistically to his documentary F for Fake than to Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil. However, the film still possesses a tremendous visual energy. The central conceit – that this is a film compiled from various pieces of footage taken from the night – motivates a varied style. Cinematographer Gary Graver uses documentary-style handheld camera, switching between different quality film stocks, some black and white and some colour, all edited together in a quick-paced fashion. And then, intercut with this party footage are scenes from Hannaford’s film, adding an even starker contrast to an already diverse visual platform. Obviously intended as a parody of the sort of anti-classical European art cinema that youth audiences in the 1960s were devouring – think Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni – Hannaford’s ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ seems to be composed of dialogue-free scenes of beautiful people wandering naked through striking, ambiguous landscapes. The colour photography and crispness of the image in these scenes is striking in comparison with the grainy black-and-white which makes up much of the rest of the film, but things begin to feel a bit sluggish when we spend too much time in Hannaford’s film. Where the party is energetic and vibrant, the art-film is innert and, having seemingly made its point about the art cinema quite early, uninteresting.
Perhaps The Other Side of the Wind is more significant as a document than it is as a film. It is interesting as an Orson Welles film, as an addition to his body of work. It is not often that you get a new film from one of the revered cinematic masters three decades after their death, and for a piece edited together almost fifty years after it was shot, it feels surprisingly authentic. It is, however, not one of Welles better films and not the ideal introduction to the director for anyone not familiar with his work. The Other Side of the Wind is one for the film history buffs more than for the average Netflix scroller. As such, Netflix has accompanied the release with a feature length documentary called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead which details the story behind the making of The Other Side of the Wind through interviews with those involved, and is arguably a more engaging watch than the film itself.
Review by Duncan McLean
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