Orson Welles’ Masterful Swan Song

0

ORSON WELLES' SNIDE AND MASTERFUL SWAN SONGIn its crisp high-def restoration, Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind breathes and pulses with the grain of film stock. Shot between 1970 and 1976 and nearly — but never truly — completed within Welles’ lifetime, this long unreleased work is a cynical look at the film industry in transition to the New Hollywood coming from one of the true titans of the classic American cinema. Now, finally complete and restored, The Other Side of the Wind has emerged not only as a true masterpiece but also as both an experimental, form-defying work reliant on the physicality of celluloid and a treatise on the act of filmmaking itself.

The story of the troubled making of The Other Side of the Wind is well-documented but much too complicated and confounding to recount here. (There are a number of recent articles that can explain the backstory. Morgan Neville’s accompanying documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead also provides an in-depth telling). The short of it, however, is that the movie began in the wake of Ernest Hemingway’s death in 1961. Welles had known Hemingway since the 1930s and had long been fascinated by and contemptuous of the rampant masculinity that defined Hemingway’s life, an attitude that similarly pervaded the lives of many directors he knew and admired in Hollywood. In the decade from concept to production, the film’s central story dropped its more direct evocations of Hemingway (abandoning a bullfighting plot) and evolved into a fly-on-the-wall look into the last day in the life of a “pseudo-Hemingway” A-list director fighting the studio to finish his final film.

With a loose script that would be largely improvised by the actors and self-funding production with a skeleton crew, Welles finally began work on the project in 1970, ultimately casting his friend John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) in the role of the aging, bitter director J.J. “Jake” Hannaford and Peter Bogdanovich as rising wunderkind director Brook Otterlake.

The Other Side of the Wind risks being overshadowed by the story of its production, but Welles’ inability to complete the film is a strange case of art imitating life. The seemingly nonsensical title comes from the name of the film-within-the-film that Hannaford is attempting to finish, which we see woven into the narrative as unpolished dailies viewed by the characters. We learn that Hannaford is a highly respected commercial filmmaker, one of the top-grossing directors in history, but his latest work-in-progress is an attempt to make an arthouse feature in the vein of then-emerging European auteurs like Michelangelo Antonioni. The meta-movie “The Other Side of the Wind” is visually lavish, acid-infused, and sexually charged, but without dialogue or plot — merely extended sequences of a woman (co-screenwriter Oja Kodar) chasing, assaulting, and seducing a young man (Bob Random).

The surrounding frame story of Hannaford’s last night is set in a busy insider party, where characters mingle and bicker with each other, discussing the state of the film industry and whether Hannaford has lost his head completely up his ass with his attempt at an art film. Shot like a cinéma-vérité documentary with handheld cameras and cheap film stock, but edited to a discordant rhythm, Welles creates a stark division between the inscrutable professional production Hannaford is making and the rough, rambling “real life” sequences. Both are avant-garde and both speak to the state of the film medium itself.

An undoubted artistic genius, Welles nevertheless struggled to complete and maintain control of his films. After being granted total control over his first feature Citizen Kane in 1941, Welles’ second, The Magnificent Ambersons, was infamously taken away from him by the studio and recut with a happy ending; forty minutes of his director’s cut remains lost today. His career from there is a story of consistent betrayal and rejection, marked by repeated failures to finance dream projects, films cobbled together on shoestrings and compromised by circumstance, and numerous works left unfinished. It’s not surprising that The Other Side of the Wind is about a director who is operating on an artistic plain completely alien to the industry and who perhaps doesn’t actually know what’s he’s doing. Hannaford is lost in the transition between the old and the new Hollywood, he’s bitter and resentful and making a movie without an ending.

Although 35mm prints have been struck up and screened at film festivals and limited engagements in major cities, most people can see The Other Side of the Wind on their living room TVs, their laptops, or their phones via Netflix. Cinephile purists might scoff that a legend such as Welles would have his long awaited opus released via streaming, but in a weird way, it seems like Welles’ lost film received the release it deserved. The Other Side of the Wind is not just cynical, but deliberately anti-nostalgic. Welles would never have predicted in the 1970s that film presentation would one day be usurped by digital projection and the cinema experience replaced by home media, but Other Side feels like a eulogy for the medium itself.

Yes, the film industry is key to the Welles’ commentary, but it is most vitally about an art form in transition. Perhaps why it resonates so much in 2018 is that we’ve long taken for granted that the feature film is the dominant storytelling format for the moving image. But with the internet, serialized television, binge watching, YouTube, vlogs, Twitch, GIFs, and cell phone footage we must reconcile that maybe today movies just don’t matter the way they once did. To watch The Other Side of the Wind via the platform most frequently accused of killing theatrical distribution doesn’t undermine Welles’ message; it becomes the most poignant part of it. The Other Side of the Wind is a true swan song, a snide farewell to cinema that is as conflicted and agonized as the man who made it.

Share.

About Author

Brad Avery is a Boston-based writer and journalist whose film analysis has appeared in Vanyaland and Brattle Theatre Film Notes. You can follow him on Letterboxd.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: