Netflix's The Other Side of the Wind Review
Indulging the late, great auteur's last self-indulgences
Almost half a century after it was started, Orson Welles' swansong is finally finished, a frenetic but quintessentially 70s production.The late, great Welles enjoyed a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with Hollywood, particularly in the latter decades of his expansive filmmaking career, returning in 1970 to start a project which had been gestating ever since the suicide of his friend, celebrated author Ernest Hemingway. The story was about the last day in the life of an old-school director who is struggling to complete his latest film - also called The Other Side of the Wind - and is thrown a grand birthday party where old and new filmmakers and journalists alike congeal.
Focussing on the end of the free-living 60s, the increasingly jaded post-Manson 70s and the change in filmmaking from the era of Classic Hollywood to the era of New Hollywood, Welles originally intended to play the lead role himself, but settled instead upon getting his lifelong friend and fellow filmmaker John Huston to take the part, a man who had been, ironically, called the 'Ernest Hemingway' of cinema, which further made him perfect for the role.
Shot around the time of Huston's memorable performance in Chinatown, the production would be plagued by problems, with filming completed over a whopping six-year period (Huston himself would never be in the same room as many of the people he had dialogue with) and editing taking place over the next decade. However, although he'd shot almost all of the film, Welles had still only fully edited half of it before his untimely death in 1985.
Although he'd shot almost all of the film, Welles had still only fully edited half of it before his untimely death in 1985
It took decades for some of the filmmakers involved (in front of the camera) to fight and secure the film's completion, championed by director Peter Bogdanovich, who played a big part in the finished product, with veteran editor Bob Murawski (who collaborator on many of Sam Raimi's projects, including the Spider-Man trilogy, as well as editing Woo's Hard Target) returning to complete the unedited half of Welles' film and deliver it as close to what the great filmmaker intended, almost half a century later, for audiences to finally experience.
Shot with a striking blend of experimentalism, classic Hollywood filmmaking and New Age Hollywood - all designed to reflect the changing period - and using colour, black and white, handheld and long shots to give a documentary/mockumentary feel, this unfinished project was never going to come out feeling like classic Welles, but it makes for a hell of a lost treasure.
Wantonly self-indulgent despite some impressively chaotic editing - it's almost impossible to discern which bits Welles edited, but he shot the whole thing and so his style remains a constant presence throughout - The Other Side of the Wind is hardly a newly-discovered masterpiece, but the Welles name curries enough favour to warrant indulging this indisputable genius one last time from beyond the grave.
The Welles name curries enough favour to warrant indulging this indisputable genius one last time from beyond the grave
The ostensibly simple story is obfuscated by some rather audacious attempt by Welles to deliver one of the first almost entirely free-wheeling, mockumentary productions, driven by improvised dialogue and a filmmaking style that basically looked like it was shot by dozens of different people who were all filming at a party. This wasn't just casual improvisational filmmaking, Welles was actually orchestrating chaos.
But in order to do so, the filmmaker had to throw you off balance, with a dozen cameras in your face right from the get-go. As if this style wasn't difficult enough to embrace, Welles juxtaposed these frenetically-cut sequences with his film-within-the-film, an (ironically also incomplete) experimental effort which is strikingly - but also controversially - shot.
Almost devoid of dialogue, and driven by a leading lady - Welles' then muse Oja Kodar - who spends about 1% of her screen time actually wearing clothes, it's an odd feature to say the least. Obviously this was the intention, but the final cut here spends a ponderously long time watching sequences of this film-within-the film, throwing you off-balance even before you've gotten to know Huston's Hemingway-esque director.
That said, Welles was clearly as enamoured by the idea of making this other movie as much as he was his 'main event', revealing in interviews that it was his first opportunity to do a film that was not an Orson Welles film (it was basically Huston's character's attempt at making an artistic Euro-style movie), both sending up, and embracing the style of fellow directors like Antonioni, even if just for half a movie.
Thus the film-within-the-film is a rather strange combination of Euro-arthouse flick and 70s sex movie, only lensed with some of the most impressive - most quintessentially Welles - shots fans will have ever see. Mirrored shots, reflections, shadow-play - it's tremendous and enchantingly intoxicating.
A glorious and unexpected posthumous gift from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time
So whilst these parts of the film are desperately self-indulgent, they are not unpleasantly so, with some truly visionary shots that colour the background - particularly with the benefits of a striking modern Dolby Vision presentation, lapping up every curve of Kodar's perpetually naked physique in a kaleidoscope of primaries - as Welles expounds his thinly veiled semi-autobiographical tale of the last days of this director. Welles may have been inspired by Hemingway, Huston may be just playing Huston (and, for fans of Chinatown, the film is worth watching for Huston's irascibly charming powerhouse performance alone), but there's no denying that a lot of Welles' own self - not least his own bitterness towards Hollywood, which he shared with Huston - is at play here within the movie.
The end result of The Other Side of the Wind is a strange experience, like an old film from a director you really love which you'd never actually seen - which is exactly what it is - but also like a film which you'd heard wasn't quite the director's finest work, which is a part of the reason why you never made the effort to see it in the first place. This isn't Welles' finest work - maybe another decade would have gotten him there - but it is a very personal project, and it is unlike anything you've seen in the last few decades at least, if ever.
Half a century later and time is wondrous to these 70s director-driven works; in the same way that audiences have reevaluated the excesses of the Box Office bomb that was Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate as an underappreciated masterpiece. Perhaps The Other Side of the Wind will take another few decades to achieve that status but, at the least, it's a glorious and unexpected posthumous gift from one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
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