Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind is an auto-critical chimera that’s obsessed by its own inability to reach fruition. Like other late-period Welles projects, the film revels in its creator’s formal virtuosity while proffering a variety of mythologies under the guise of macho truth-telling. But there’s also a startling strain of vulnerability running under this film like a live current; Welles isn’t only coasting on his impressive contacts and astounding craftsmanship. Begun in the 1970s, when Hollywood was feeling briefly threatened by a new wave of sensual, politically enraged, narratively loosey-goosey cinema, The Other Side of the Wind is partially Welles’s attempt to top the eroticized abstraction of films like Easy Rider and Blow-Up. Here, the filmmaker attempts to take cinema into a subjective docudramatic realm, freeing the medium of the constraints of three-act plotting. And Welles, one of cinema’s most distinctive yet adaptable masters, is up to the task.
The Other Side of the Wind is one of those wink-wink inside-Hollywood affairs in which a rotten white patriarchal kingdom of wealth is deconstructed yet inadvertently celebrated. Jake Hannaford (John Huston) is a legendary he-man director who suggests Huston if he’d flamed out and taken charge of Welles’s bohemian coterie of acolytes. Hannaford is the kind of artiste who smokes cigars and binge drinks all night without (entirely) losing control of himself, while uttering such Wellesian/Hustonian bon mots as “Hemingway? That left hook of his was overrated.” Hannaford is also an Old Hollywood classicist who feels imperiled by the rise of talent like Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), a filmmaker who’s clearly meant to resemble Bogdanovich himself, after the flush of success he enjoyed with The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon.
Hannaford has set himself up with the same impossible task that Welles has: to finish a truly modern work of cinema that’s also titled The Other Side of the Wind. Set mostly over the course of a single night, Welles’s film follows Hannaford and his collaborators, friends, hangers-on, and critics—many played by legends who’re tasked with playing caricatures of themselves or other legends—as they celebrate the giant’s 70th birthday, where he will reveal footage of his new film. Hannaford is out of money and potentially without his leading man, John Dale (Robert Random), who appears to be burnt out on Hannaford’s abuse. Hannaford’s yes-men attempt to wrangle new financing from a Robert Evans stand-in, but no one can tell anyone else what the picture is supposed to be about, apart from fashionable references to sex and radicalism. One potential producer asks if Hannaford is making it all up as he goes along. That question, which also applies to Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, provokes another vintage Welles line: “He’s done it before.”
Hannaford encourages everyone to film his party, embracing transparency under the implicit belief that it will only enhance his fading reputation as an iconoclast. This gimmick allows Welles to fashion a kaleidoscopic tapestry in which multiple realities collide—of Welles’s life, of Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, of Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind, and of many other realities, including a mutant merging of the three. Watching the film, one may be inclined to believe the rumor that Welles never intended to finish it, as it suggests the supplemental result of the rarefied circus lifestyle that had become his true project. An artist living on the fringes of Hollywood, Welles became most obsessed with the art of his legend-hood. Like F for Fake, The Other Side of the Wind seemingly anticipates the rise of social media and reality TV shows by decades, embracing art as a kind of inhabitable drug. Culled together by contemporary editors and artists from hundreds of hours of footage, this is only a single version of a film that could’ve been anything.
Welles alternates between the cameras filming Hannaford’s party, fashioning a hypnotic cinematic cubism. Switching casually between color and black and white, and covering a wide spectrum of film stocks, Welles suggests that each sliver of film serves as an emotional X-ray of another, often editing by subject rather than by the dictates of narrative. If someone mentions Hannaford’s boozing or womanizing, for instance, Welles might cut to another person offering a differing or correlating nugget of information. As an editor, Welles seems to be everywhere in this sprawling, debauched party at once, and The Other Side of the Wind benefits from his mastery of montage, which was the art he developed to survive when he lost the studio financing that he required to fashion his prior aesthetic of deep, neurotic, character-centric composition. But the compositions here are often breathtaking as well, proffering frames within frames that allude to even more realities within realities.
However, Welles’s greatest triumph here is his realization of Hannaford’s incomplete film, of which we see long portions. On one level, Hannaford’s film is an old man’s parody of youthful ennui, following John Dale and an unnamed actress (Oja Kodar, Welles’s lover, as well as this film’s co-writer) as they stalk one another over a MacGuffin so loosely defined that it’s uncertain whether the object in question is a doll or a bomb. Overtly obvious phallic imagery pervades the film-within-a-film, as do empty landscapes that bring to mind the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Welles satirizes the idea that such an aesthetic would be considered politically important, rather than identified as tony masturbation. Yet Welles also satirizes Hannaford’s (and his own) pompousness in assuming that he can take command of an aesthetic so unfamiliar to him, while doing precisely that: creating imagery that’s beautiful for its own sake, yet so intensely beautiful that it explodes parody to become an un-ironic countercultural film. Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind becomes a feverish expression of Hannaford’s emotional ugliness and suppressed vulnerability, as well as of Welles’s longing for relevance, while confirming that the latter should, indeed, have remained relevant.
Hannaford’s The Other Side of the Wind is most explicitly a celebration of Kodar’s body and stride. Many of the sequences in this film-within-a-film, which follows Dale as he pursues the actress, are both ridiculous and astonishingly erotic. (Great sex scenes must be willing to risk the ridiculous, in accordance with our deepest desires.) At one point in the film, Kodar goes to the bathroom of a club, where couples are screwing in stalls, and strips down to a sheer, wet undergarment, which she removes and places over the face of a young blonde who’s sucking on and spitting out ice cubes. The dream logic of this scene suggests that the women are transmitting fluids, which is complemented by the similar symbolism of Dale and Kodar’s eventual tryst on a bare bed spring. Threatening to cut him, she slices her necklace instead, the beads of which tumble through the bed spring, passing by the couple’s bare buttocks in a simulation of ejaculation.
This is kitsch as indirect expression of the soul, both that of Hannaford and Welles, and it reaches its zenith when Dale and Kodar have sex in a car, with Welles underscoring the rhythmic movements of Kodar’s various talismans and of the rain and the swishing of windshield wipers. As their tryst progresses, Dale and Kodar become encased in a tunnel of blackness that’s tinged with giallo-lurid colors and decisively separate from the car setting. Welles shows sex to be what it is: a tumbling into yet another reality within a reality. The existential horniness of this scene is exacerbated by Welles’s testing of his own boundaries. Rarely drawn to overtly sexual subjects, he dares himself to create one of cinema’s great and resonant erotic set pieces.
The overt carnality of these scenes also underscores a pointed element of the film’s governing narrative. Hannaford’s party is rich in booze and cigars, and even women, but devoid of sex. Like Huston and Welles, Hannaford has a storied history of impressive conquests but seems to be most comfortable playing God to his mob of male admirers. (The predominant female character of the party narrative, a Pauline Kael stand-in played by Susan Strasberg, is regarded by Hannaford and Welles with undisguised contempt, and Hannaford is also seen pointedly dismissing Kodar.) Hannaford’s ultimately a “man’s man,” who, through his art, indirectly plumbs his loneliness and propensity for cruelty. Like most Welles films, The Other Side of the Wind concerns an artist who specializes in barely transcending self-destruction. It isn’t a novelty item, but a work of anguished art that’s worthy of its creator.