2018 | rated R | starring John Huston, Oja Kodar, Peter Bogdanovich, Cameron Mitchell | directed by Orson Welles | 2 hrs 2 mins |
In 1938, a 23 year old Orson Welles was thrust into the spotlight when his radio play of War of the Worlds scared the daylights out of New Jersey. 80 years after that broadcast and 40 years after Welles’ death the bottomless money pit of Netflix and the efforts of Welles loyalists including Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall and the aid of director’s notes and 100 feet of film have put together the unthinkable – it’s 2018 and we got a new Orson Welles movie. I can’t imagine a bigger event in movies.
Thematic spoilers ahead, this is an abstract tapestry of a movie and a lot going forward is my own interpretation, one that will widely vary with each viewer. But that’s one of the reasons it’s so fun to talk about.
The Other Side of the Wind is a multi-layered time machine that zips us back to not just a specific period in the 70s but a specific style of movie making trendy at the time. In America it was hyper realism from the 60s French new wave explosion and auteurs and hippies emerging from the collapse of the old studio. In Italy it was atmospheric, more purely cinematic experiences. Welles slaps both of these together in The Other Side of the Wind, where the titular movie within the movie (staring Oja Kodar in a totally silent role where she and a 70s radical on a motorcycle walk the streets nude for half the running time) replicates the style of Michelangelo Antonioni films playing like a kinda-sorta satire of the likes of Zabriskie Point and The Red Desert. And yet, the film’s A story takes place at a wild party over the course of one very long night, not unlike an honest homage to Antonioni’s La Notte (and my personal favorite of his).
Meanwhile, the “real plot” about the making of “Wind” is centered around John Huston’s alcoholic, cigar-chomping director Jake Hannaford and his legion of acolytes and photographers as they all converge on Hannaford’s house for the screening of his latest opus. It is visually unrecognizable as a work by Welles. In approaching a new Orson Welles movie one might long for the meticulous craftsmanship and care put into each frame of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil or The Trial but this is a very different Welles, assembly the film with a series of tiny edits from a variety of sources that gives it a chaotic, messy and exhausting quality. The closest thing Wind comes to in the Welles filmography is F for Fake and even that doesn’t quite cover this visual patchwork of Welles doing an impression of a 70s radical. Yet, the themes and cynic’s attitude the film conveys is exactly in the wheelhouse of the maverick rapscallion director.
The end result here comes off like La Notte if directed by Paul Thomas Anderon in his Magnolia days, parodying hippie autuer filmmaking that both makes fun of and homages Antonioni while being a semi-autobiographical look at Welles himself as he comes to grip with the paparazzi engulfed changes in Hollywood and muses satirically about both films as self-indulgent pretention and money making products. Watching Welles go at Antonioni in this movie, in 2018, is like watching two master filmmakers duking it out from beyond the grave.
The Other Side of the Wind is a total gift for cinephiles, but is it good? Great? It’s fascinating, thoughtful, funny and weird – I would say that it’s very Synecdoche, New York, but Welles was doing this kind of meta movie making before Charlie Kaufman was born. The dialog is clever and the monologues are fun, with Huston absolutely chewing up the scenery, Bogdanovich pulling us along as the audience surrogate (the only character in the film not writing a biography about Hannaford) and a very brief appearance by Dennis Hopper looking like he’s about to walk on the set of Apocalypse Now. Everything here is over the top, Welles’ depiction of the 70s media tornado puts paparazzi photographers with big cameras in plants, behind trees and hanging off the back of cars, all over the film. And at the end of the day this is a mockumentary, before the term was even created.
It’s wild stuff, and you could argue it’s too clever by half. More fun to talk about than watch, more fun to analyze than it is entertaining with large segments of the film devoted to parodying pretentious that makes us watch pretention. Then we get Hannaford running around with a rifle, dressed like he’s on safari and musing about god and teachers, or a funny bit where a projectionist taps the film canister and tries to explain how everyone in the movie lost their clothes in the last reel, or a reporter asks if the camera lens is merely a phallus – because in the sexual revolution isn’t everything.
The Other Side of the Wind is a perfectly fitting final film, and with it Welles has made an appropriate bookend to Citizen Kane. Where his first film presented a kaleidoscope of perspectives through newsreels and newspaper reports that put together the life of a man, Wind does the same for the video camera and modern (well, relatively) celebrity culture. We only know of Hannaford what the press has put on film about him – so essentially nothing. The film is a house of cards of contradictions that both undercut and reinforce the film as a biography of Welles, his view of cinema and the audiences search for meaning in it all where there may be none.
So it may not be a masterpiece, or it might, but for those with the patience it is an entirely fascinating and entertaining – if incredibly exhausting – look at a time in film and inside the mind of a brilliant filmmaker. A must see for film historians and Welles fans. I can honestly, literally, say they don’t make movies like this anymore. Maybe the best thing about Other Side of the Wind is that it isn’t a Kane nostalgia trip. It’s a new challenge, a new puzzle for us to spend years decoding. And we were around to see it.