Cast: John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Susan Strasberg, Robert Random, Joseph McBride, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Edmond O'Brien, Lilli Palmer, Geoffrey Land, Peter Jason
Director: Orson Welles
Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind is an incisive look at one of our most brilliant auteurs wrestling with the new wave of late 1960’s art cinema. Taking elements of his 1973 mocumentary F for Fake and bleeding it into a meta-deconstruction of the Hollywood machine, The Other Side of the Wind deflates patriarchal power while also basking in its privileges. It’s a film which began production in 1970 and then stretched on for nearly six years; ballooning out of control even as Welles seemed to relish the idea of never completing it. It’s a work of madness that has, at its center, a wounded heart; the story of an aging patriarch desperately trying to stay relevant as the world he helped shape disappears behind him. It is the vision of the ultimate Hollywood classist fearing his demise at the hands of a more politically radical wave of new cinema, and then attempting to outsmart them all.
The basic premise is this: Jake Hannaford (John Huston) an iconic director is celebrating his 70th birthday while attempting to complete a film entitled The Other Side of the Wind. The picture in question is one of those erotic narrative-less works recalling late 60’s hippie drug culture (ala Easy Rider) with the arty pretensions of a Michelangelo Antonioni joint. Despite his cigar-chomping ego, Hannaford is afraid of the younger batch of Hollywood elite; including Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), a filmmaker not unlike the real-life Bogdanovich, who at this time would have been riding a wave of success from The Last Picture Show. Out of money and missing his leading man, John Dale (Robert Random), who stormed off set after multitude abuses by the filmmaker, Hannaford’s aims are to leach funds from producers at the party, even if no one involved seems to have any idea what The Other Side of the Wind is actually about.
Structured like a shaggy hang out movie, Welles’s virtuosic techniques come together to create a disorienting atmosphere where multiple realities converge. As Hannaford encourages the press to film his birthday bash, we get bodies scurrying everywhere; with cameras in nearly every inch of the frame and lenses zooming. The effect is like a three-ring circus gone awry, predating reality TV and Internet culture. Once again, in both style and form, Welles was way ahead of the curve here, even as narrative coherency is mostly absent.
As someone obsessed with myth-making and his own status as a legend, Welles’s notion of cinema as one continuous loop of content is embraced with such gusto as to be prophetic. Throughout, the picture changes from color to black and white, incorporating a variety of film stocks and allowing bursts of light and motion to infiltrate the frame. Dialogue overlaps, the editing is propulsive and jagged, the score jazzy, and the use of montage breathtaking. The usual Welles technique of deep focus (in which the foreground, middle-ground and background are all in focus) are done away with altogether in lieu of frames-within-frames and compositions shot through refracted surfaces.
Throughout, we get long stretches of the unfinished Hannaford project where John Dale and an unnamed woman (Oja Kodar, Welles’s lover and co-writer) play a sensual game of cat and mouse. Phallic imagery abounds, as does psychedelic colors and an old man’s parodic vision of hippie youth culture. There’s a level of self-awareness here, exemplified by Hannaford’s arrogance in thinking he could really pull this kind of thing off, which extends to Welles’s grasping for relevance near the end of his career. And yet, sections of the Dale/Kodar film are ludicrously thrilling; including a bravura sex scene inside a moving vehicle, allowing Welles to achieve the rare carnal set piece which actually stimulates the senses.
Interestingly, the world Hannaford depicts onscreen is diametrically opposed to the one he actually inhabits. Though his party is filled with booze, cigars, and women, there is little chance of scoring. The only notable female character here, for instance, is a Pauline Kael stand-in played by Susan Strasberg, who is on hand to expose Hannaford’s inadequacies. In fact, he seems much more comfortable lording his power over men, including Bogdanovich’s Otterlake, and younger newcomers to the scene such as Dale. The self-destructive nature of Hannaford—his inability to complete the film while sabotaging working relationships and maintaining a god-like facade—is an intensely personal spilling of the soul by Welles, whom may have never completed another feature even if he had lived to tell the tale. In that way, The Other Side of the Wind has a haunting allure; a movie about creation, destruction, and self-loathing that works mostly because it remains unfinished.