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NYFF Review: ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ is a meta-narrational mess

Written by: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer

Orson Welles occupies a unique position as a filmmaker as often mocked as he is revered. His persona as an embattled genius unable and unwilling to work within the confines of the Hollywood system meant he made far fewer movies than he wanted to, often beginning projects which were never completed, or even imagining projects that never started shooting. The Other Side of the Wind, which comes to Netflix this November, is among the most confounding of the “lost” Welles films. Welles completed the principle photography and some editing on The Other Side of the Wind before ultimately abandoning it due to time and lack of financing. He left behind copious notes and concepts, but it has taken until now for the “final” version to appear in a completed form. The open question, however, is how far we can consider this an “Orson Welles film” and how much credit—or blame—should be attached to those who produced the finished project.

The Other Side of the Wind takes place on the birthday of director Jake Hannaford (John Huston), at work on his latest film, also entitled The Other Side of the Wind. Hannaford’s movie is in trouble – leading man Johnny Dale (Bob Random) has vanished, the studio boss Max David (Geoffrey Land) is threatening to withdraw financing, and the film itself has no script. At his birthday party, populated by old cronies, film critics, cineastes, and biographers, Hannaford pontificates, berates, and gets progressively drunker, as he attempts to show scenes from his incomplete masterpiece while the projection is interrupted by power cuts.

The Other Side of the Wind is about Hollywood corruption, degradation, and the demise of artistry. The few jokes are at the expense of filmmaking itself—an early scene has Billy (Norman Foster) narrating missing footage to fill in the narrative gaps of Hannaford’s film, with the explanations themselves a meta commentary on Welles’s film as a whole. There’s an abundance of real-life directors—in addition to John Huston and Peter Bogdanovich (playing a version of himself), Paul Mazursky, Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, and Dennis Hopper all make appearances. There are parodies of Pauline Kael, Robert Evans, and Cybill Shepherd, nods to Marlene Dietrich, as well as bitter attacks on previous Welles collaborators, cineastes, and biographers, and actors playing versions of themselves. It’s surprising to not see Welles in the midst of all this, where his presence as an actor might have at least provided an opportunity for some mischievous humor. For all the talent on the screen, only John Huston manages to imbue his scenes with energy, as he harasses, mocks, and breaks down under the pressures of maintaining his persona in a town poised to reject him. The other men orbit him and support him, but none come close to rivaling him, and some, like Bogdanovich, pale so far in comparison they almost vanish.

The women fare far worse at the hands of the film than the men, though there is plenty of contempt to go around. Hannaford is beset by Juliette Riche (Susan Strasberg), a film critic who questions the meaning of his films and speculates about his desire for his leading men. Zarah Valeska (Lilli Palmer), the Marlene Dietrich insert, is the hostess of the party and an inscrutable woman who declines to comment on pretty much anything she’s asked. Mercedes McCambridge is underused as Hannaford’s secretary, but she’s the only woman in the cast allowed to bite without getting bitten. The women are tools of the filmmaker, only important in their relationship to the male characters, most particularly to Hannaford himself. The women are violated either by verbal mockery—Riche is referred to as “lady,” while The Actress (Oja Kodar) doesn’t have a name outside racial slurs—or, in one case, with physical violence. But where there might have been an unsubtle commentary on Hollywood misogyny, none of this is treated with the least bit of archness or humor. It is an eruption of anger at these women for existing, or for daring to speak before they’re spoken to.

The layers of performance here – directors playing directors, actors playing versions of other actors – is further complicated by the film within a film, as Welles’s girlfriend Oja Kodar plays both an actress appearing in the film, and the character within the film within the film. Her sole purpose appears to be to get naked and wander around while the camera follows her. To an extent, the film within a film parodies contemporary New Hollywood and European pictures—there’s a verbal reference to Bertolucci early on, and several visual references to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point and Jacques Demy’s Model Shop. A lone young man on a motorcycle follows The Actress across windswept deserts and into dive bars and sex clubs, eventually arriving at an extended sex scene in the front seat of another man’s car. Is this a joke on the use of female nudity and sexuality in 1970s cinema? Is Hannaford’s last film supposed to be good, or a jab at the contemporary art film? Whatever the intended meaning, any satirical edge vanishes in the wake of the camera’s dissection of an utterly silent, naked woman. The camera dwells on The Actress’s breasts and body—occasionally remembering to look at her face—to a degree that becomes both boring and gross. This obsession with the female body, combined with the racial slurs about The Actress and the emotional and physical violence that greets every (speaking) woman, does not make for coherent commentary. It comes off as simply misogynist.

Anyone who expects the usual Wellesian flourishes will be disappointed here. There are a few canted angles and deep focus shots—most of them in the film within the film—but otherwise the use of shaky cameras and murky lighting makes The Other Side of the Wind difficult to watch without squinting. The lack of polish might be almost charming—another little meta commentary—if there were anything worthwhile contained within the frame. But the plot itself is so confused and confounding, so pedantic and purposeless, that it struggles to make a case for any meaning, however banal. It’s like watching home movies of someone you hardly know and wouldn’t like if you did.

It’s hard to know who to blame for this travesty. Welles never finished it, and it seems unfair to lay at his door, but the whole history of its production smacks of an arch, long-term joke. After all, here’s a film called The Other Side of the Wind, never finished by Orson Welles due to lack of financing, starring John Huston – an alcoholic Irish director – playing an alcoholic Irish director struggling to finish a film called The Other Side of the Wind, never completed due to a lack of financing. Could it be that Welles never intended to finish his film? Was this all just an elaborate practical joke, a magic trick to make a movie disappear? Was he having a final, booming laugh at cineastes and colleagues, mocking the valorization of his own work by making a movie that was never intended to be finished, that contained within it a bad unfinished film?

“We don’t talk about the film,” says Huston, biting on a ubiquitous cigar. Maybe The Other Side of the Wind is the film that we never should have talked about, and maybe that’s what Welles meant all along. He depicts cineastes and critics as pop Freudian buffoons; actors as best when they’re silent; agents, managers, and New Hollywood filmmakers as charlatans, stooges, and thieves. “Shoot them,” the director concludes. He has a point.

Rating: 2 Stars out of 5