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‘The Other Side of the Wind’ Review: Orson Welles’ Unfinished Final Film Still Feels That Way, But It’s Essential Viewing Anyway

Venice: Welles' long-lost final film feels like it exists inside its late director's head.

other side of the wind

“The Other Side of the Wind”

The Other Side of the Wind” has been such a legendary chapter in Orson Welles mythology that its completion represents some sort of victory for all involved. By the time the filmmaker died of a heart attack in 1985, he’d spend over a decade cobbling together this ambitious New Hollywood vision, the experimental story of a washed-up filmmaker who more or less stood in for Welles himself. At long last, Netflix chipped in the sizable restoration costs to assemble 100 hours of footage shot for “The Other Side of the Wind” into something close to Welles’ intentions. The result is messy and meandering, but always in that distinctive Wellesian way that proves his talent was unparalleled even when it fell apart.

An opening scrawl declares the restoration “an attempt to honor and complete that vision,” but it’s a misnomer for a movie that’s incomplete by definition — and, perhaps, by design. As “The Other Side of the Wind” shifts between two movies as well as multiple film stocks (including color and black-and-white), it often seems as though it exists within Welles’ restless consciousness. Fans of the director’s late-period work (particularly his last completed effort, the rapid-fire diary film “F for Fake”) will find it thrilling to return to those unpredictable, garrulous recesses, no matter the bumpy ride. Welles continues to contemplate storytelling, Hollywood, and his own troubled career by transforming these obsessions into a marathon of creativity. Stitched together by star editor Bob Murawksi, “The Other Side of the Wind” is a fascinating resurrection.

The narrative of sorts revolves around revered auteur J.J. “Jake” Hannaford (a terrific cigar-chomping John Huston) as he throws a bash to screen an audacious, racy art film that itself has remained incomplete, after his leading man (Bob Random) fled the set in the middle of a bizarre sex scene with the project’s seductive leading woman (Welles’ late-in-life partner Oja Kodar, who has owned much of the “Wind” footage for decades, and spends the bulk of the movie in various states of undress). As Hannaford gathers a sprawling crowd of Hollywood characters for an impromptu viewing party, he’s accompanied by wingman Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdonavich), a cocky younger filmmaker who supports Hannaford at every turn.

Bogdonavich, a key player in the “Wind” saga who became Welles’ closest friend in the early ’70s, more or less plays a variation of himself at the time — and the pair’s onscreen chemistry, as they trade barbs with each other and various party guests, provide the movie with many of its comical highlights. Their mutual disdain for the commercial industry is incisive and irreverent. At one point, Bogdonavich playfully uses an Oscar from the older director’s past as a microphone, pretending to interview a bemused Hannaford. (When the frumpy man shoots back, “You can kiss my sweet ass,” Otterlake responds, “What’d I do wrong, daddy?”) The pair might have carried a more conventional buddy movie, but that’s not the trajectory here, as “The Other Side of the Wind” hovers between the hectic gathering at Hannaford’s place and prolonged cutaways to his incomplete movie, also called “The Other Side of the Wind.” That project, a parody of Antonioni-esque arthouse clichés, revolves around a silent Kodar roaming through orgies and strange outdoor environments as she entrances her newfound partner.

The imagery is at once astounding and empty, which naturally instigates heated debate once the power shuts down and the guests start talking. Welles’ script is loaded with amusing takedowns of the complex analysis so often applied to his work by highbrow aesthetes. (“Camera image or phallus?” says one, and the response is, “I need a drink.”) It’s remarkable to watch a prickly Huston, Hollywood filmmaking royalty himself, lord over his party with a mixture of self-deprecation and condescension to everyone in his orbit. Chief among them is a nagging film critic (Susan Strasberg, in a terrific, fiery turn) who forces the director to answer questions about the intentions of his work, even as he keeps eluding her. She provides a key voice of reason that injects the movie with a modern tone, confronting the director on the inherent misogyny of his work to the point where all he can do is shrug.

Such fragmentary interactions ground “The Other Side of the Wind” with an incendiary tone that epitomizes the movie’s overarching attitude about Hollywood’s self-destructive cycle, and the disillusionment left in its wake. These scenes succeed far better on their own terms than a distracting opening voiceover by Bogdonavich, seemingly recorded in more recent times, as he describes the entire project as a collection of moments from the fictional film shoot. The movie doesn’t need this fictional context because its appeal lies in discord — the frenzied pace, jarring editing style, and overlapping narratives drive the movie forward as the party descends into chaos. It’s hard to discern between Welles’ intentionality here and what’s been cobbled together from his notes, but Michel Legrand’s absorbing new score and the hectic atmosphere keep the mayhem moving forward at an engaging clip.

The movie’s scattershot approach can be frustratingly vague. Nevertheless, “The Other Side of the Wind” confirms Welles’ avant-garde tendencies, pushing them even further than his meta-narrative approach in “F For Fake.” While that movie sums up the filmmaker’s ethos about the elusive boundary between truth and fiction in cinematic storytelling, “The Other Side of the Wind” shows just how much the process of chasing his ambition wore him down. In one telling moment, Huston grabs a shotgun and begins firing on a sea of small dolls set up throughout his yard; it’s no huge leap to view this scene as a metaphor for Welles’ disdain for his audience.

After decades of rejection from a system that celebrated him early on, he envisioned a movie that brought the full weight of his frustrations to bear. The result is as broken and disorienting as the filmmaker’s career, though its arrival at least provides a welcome coda. In an extraordinary final shot, the camera pulls out from a screening of Hannaford’s movie to show an empty playground, as if the entire world has abandoned the artist for good. At least now, with “The Other Side of the Wind” on Netflix platforms around the world, it arrives at a better fate.

Grade: B

“The Other Side of the Wind” premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. It premieres on Netflix on November 2. 

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