The following essay was produced as part of the 2018 NYFF Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 56th edition of the New York Film Festival.
Orson Welles’ long-incomplete film “The Other Side of the Wind” has been a topic of fascination and intrigue for decades, billed as Welles’ final feature, and one that, like other projects before it (including “Moby Dick” and “Don Quixote”), had consistently been deemed unfinished. But after years of work from trusted collaborators following Welles’ death in 1985, “The Other Side of the Wind” is now complete, soon to be distributed on the streaming service platform Netflix, and has already made the festival rounds from Venice to Telluride to the recent New York Film Festival.
Beyond Welles acolytes, the film is also of interest because of its interwoven content and form, and a conceit that sees various cameramen following an older, famous film director, giving the film an amusing documentary-like appearance. On the surface, it’s certainly a different style for Welles, whose elaborate compositions and innovations in cinematography in his more well-known works feel in complete opposition to what “Wind” builds. Yet the film is full of stylization and inventiveness that consciously echoed the time period in which it was made, especially as it applied to Welles’ own life and career.
Welles returned to Hollywood after industry exile following his studio-compromised “Touch of Evil,” and first began shooting “Wind” in 1970, filming sporadically through 1976. Entering the 1970s, the Hollywood studio system was in financial disarray as the counterculture and European New Wave’s influences crept into mainstream American films.
Welles may have rebuffed autobiographical readings in his work, but the autofiction in “The Other Side of the Wind” is undeniable. In the film, filmmaker J.J. “Jake” Hannaford (John Huston) returns to Hollywood after his own self-imposed European exile, where he struggles to complete and get financing for his latest film. The Hollywood that Hannaford returns to has granted his pupil, Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), incredible success, while Hannaford’s career is a topic of fascination, but only in the past tense. He’s simply billed as a “living legend.”
The film centers around Hannaford’s birthday party, where reels of his own uncompleted film are watched as Hannaford himself is being filmed, constantly peppered with questions about the state of his own life and career. Film critic Juliette Riche (Susan Strasberg) declares Hannaford’s current mode as self-sabotage, telling a crowd, “What he [Hannaford] creates, he has to wreck. It’s a compulsion!” Welles clearly heard and read many similarly unfavorable criticisms of himself and his work, and yet his Hannaford is the one who invites the cameras into his world.
By the time he started work on “Wind,” Welles himself had been the subject of documentaries, including the Maysles Brothers short “Orson Welles in Spain,” which followed Welles in trying to lure investors into what would be the unproduced film “The Sacred Beast.” It is notable that among Welles’ last completed feature films were documentaries, the essay films “F for Fake” and “Filming Othello,” that were themselves studies of the medium’s potential.
Smartly enough, “The Other Side of the Wind” uses “found footage” that Welles imitated with incredible precision. Before his death, Welles himself assembled forty minutes of the near-two-hour runtime. That assembly cut included much of the documentary-like surveillance of Hannaford (along with the film within the film, an uncanny “Zabriskie Point” spoof).
“The Other Side of the Wind” was a logical step by Welles, and one that so happened to align with the time period’s more popular Direct Cinema and cinema verite styles in documentary filmmaking. In his own life, Welles was seeing filmmaking in fiction and non-fiction change, and he became a different kind of filmmaker by recreating these styles.
Still, the feature is unmistakably an Orson Welles film. Predating his work in the cinema, Welles was a man of the theater. Amid the film’s verite images, Welles stages Otterlake and Hannaford at the center of a dialogue, with cameras and onlookers on the periphery seeing these larger than life men, boasting of their exploits as everyone hangs on their every word. They are watching, but so is the audience.
“The Other Side of the Wind” will debut on Netflix and in select theaters on November 2.