Welcome to the latest edition of Super Blog Team-Up, back from the dead after a long hiatus. The theme this time around is “Redemption” which leads me to look at a movie that is quite far afield of comic books and sci-fi: The Other Side of the Wind, written and directed by the legendary Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai, Touch of Evil).
The Other Side of the Wind was released with much fanfare late last year as the final film of Orson Wells. Principle photography began in 1970, and continued on-and-off for the next five and a half years, with Welles finally getting 99.9% of the movie shot by early 1976. As a creator who prided himself on striving for complete creative freedom, Welles was often plagued by difficulties in obtaining financing for his projects, and this played a major role in the length of the shoot. It would also result in The Other Side of the Wind remaining unfinished when Welles passed away a decade later in 1985.
It has been said that Welles did as much of his work in the editing room as he did from the director’s chair. The Other Side of the Wind certainly demonstrates this. Welles filmed approximately 96 hours of footage for what was intended to be a two-hour running time. By 1979 he had managed to assemble 40 minutes of the movie into a rough cut when, due to the extremely complicated financial circumstances of the project, it was taken out of his hands and literally locked up in a vault.
In the years following Welles passing, several efforts were made to untangle the legal Gordian Knot that The Other Side of the Wind had become. After numerous false starts, it was only within the last couple of years that the project finally achieved momentum.
Peter Bogdanovich co-starred in The Other Side of the Wind. He also knew Welles personally, sharing a close, but often contentious, friendship with the director. Bogdanovich is himself an acclaimed director (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon). Given his pedigree, his involvement in the production, and his relationship with Welles, it ultimately fell to Bogdanovich to at long last complete The Other Side of the Wind.
Collaborating with Bogdanovich on this Herculean undertaking were producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza, and film editor Bob Murawski. This involved them taking Welles’ annotated screenplay, the footage that Welles had edited, and the nearly 100 hours of rough footage at long last rescued from the vault, somehow assembling the whole thing into a cohesive two-hour movie that was as true to Welles’ original vision as possible. Words such as “formidable” and “daunting” immediately come to mind.
As others have noted, there really is no way to know how close Bogdanovich & Co.’s efforts come to achieving what Welles might have produced had he been able to complete the movie. What we have is an approximation, a semblance… which is entirely appropriate, as Welles’ story is dedicated to severely blurring the line between reality and fiction. It is simultaneous a mockumentary and a “found footage” movie.
The Other Side of the Wind takes place during the last day of the life of Jake Hannaford, an aging movie director who is killed in a car crash on his 70th birthday. Prior to his death, Hannaford had been attempting to revive his faded career by making a flashy, sexy, cutting edge film that would appeal to the “New Hollywood” sensibilities of the early 1970s. Hannaford’s movie, the film within a film, is also entitled “The Other Side of the Wind.” On the last night of his life, at Hannaford’s lavish birthday party, he shows this unfinished film to his guests, hoping that someone will step up with an offer to finance the remainder of the production.
The movie The Other Side of the Wind that we, the audience is watching, is supposedly assembled from footage culled from the myriad cameras of the friends, fiends, hangers-on, sycophants, critics, journalists and voyeurs who attended Hannaford’s party, interspersed with scenes from “The Other Side of the Wind” film that Hannaford is screening for them.
There is definitely a prescient quality to this narrative device, in that it anticipates both the ravenous fixation with wealth & fame in 21st Century America, and the ubiquitous presence of cell phone cameras & social media documenting the minute-to-minute minutiae of celebrity lives.
The film within a film “The Other Side of the Wind” is parody of a late 1960s art house movie, with a jumbled narrative, explicit sex scenes, and extended sequences entirely absent of dialogue. The plot, such as it is, involves a young man’s long, strange pursuit of a silent, erotic woman. The man, John Dale, played by Bob Random, is the latest protégé of Hannaford. The woman, known only as “The Actress,” is one of Hannaford’s lovers, and is played by Oja Koder, at the time Welles’ real life mistress, as well as the co-writer for the movie.
The reason why production of Hannaford’s “The Other Side of the Wind” has ground to a halt is due to John Dale abruptly waking off the set. As the night progresses, we come to learn just why this happened.
It has been observed that Welles was very likely sending up Michelangelo Antonioni here. Welles, ever the prankster, even shot much of the footage for Hannaford’s party at a house that was literally next door to where Antonioni made his 1970 film Zabriskie Point.
Among those in attendance at Hannaford’s party is Brooks Otterlake, a young, up & coming director already receiving critical acclaim. Otterlake is a friend of Hannaford, as well as a disciple, having extensively studied the older director. There is a clear implication that the young Otterlake has eclipsed his mentor, incurring Hannaford’s resentment, and complicating their already contentious relationship.
There has been quite a bit of debate regarding just how much of his own personality and experiences Welles drew upon when making The Other Side of the Wind. Whether by intent or accident, or perhaps a combination of the two, there is a genuine metatextual quality to The Other Side of the Wind. One can easily see parallels between Welles and the character Hannaford, and the relationship between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich bears similarities to that of Hannaford and Otterlake, who was played by Bogdanovich himself.
Hannaford is portrayed by another acclaimed aging director, John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen). Before Huston was cast, Welles shot around him, and himself stood in for Hannaford. As a result, in many scenes the actors were actually playing opposite the offscreen Welles, with footage of Huston as Hannaford recorded afterwards.
In particular, one scene between Hannaford and Otterlake appears to be very much about Welles and Bogdanovich. Speaking to Coming Soon this past November, Bogdanovich explained:
“I think the scene in the car, when I say “our revels now are ended,” that’s a powerful scene. But I didn’t play it with John. John wasn’t there. I played it with Orson. Orson was off-camera, and his only direction to me was, “It’s us.” ”
I can only imagine how frustrated Welles must have been in the early 1970s, to see a new generation of young directors such as Bogdanovich achieving the creative freedom & acclaim that had so often eluded him.
The irony is that the arc of Bogdanovich’s own career would later parallel that of Welles; after his early successes Bogdanovich was often plagued by under-performing, critically lambasted films, executive interference, and severe financial difficulties.
There is also something of Huston himself in the character of Hannaford: the bravado, the quick wit & easygoing charm that masks a ruthless drive for control, the mocking, needling disdain for those he considers beneath him. Huston, much like Welles, was reportedly a difficult, hard-driving director who often pushed his crew to the breaking point; it’s no wonder that the two men got along so well!
Of course, it is possible to over-analyze these things. As critic Darren Mooney puts it:
“How much of The Other Side of the Wind is Welles turning the lens on himself, and how much is him smirking at us for thinking that?”
It is interesting to consider how The Other Side of the Wind might have been received if it had been completed during Welles’ lifetime. Perhaps audiences of the late 1970s would have regarded Hannaford as a flawed yet nevertheless sympathetic character. However, looking at Hannaford through the gaze of 2019, we can see that he is an example of toxic masculinity run amok. And it is not only those in Hannaford’s orbit that suffer due to his hyper machismo, but Hannaford himself.
At more than one point it is suggested that Hannaford is a closeted gay man who is in deep denial concerning his sexual orientation. The macho posturing, the well-publicized seductions of the various actresses who appeared in his movies, the booze-guzzling, cigar-chomping lifestyle, the fondness for firearms and fast cars; all of these may be Hannaford’s attempts to convince both himself and the outside world that he is as heterosexual, as “manly,” as can be. If that is so, then in his desperate attempts to live up to the hyper-romanticized myth of the two-fisted American male, Hannaford suggests an incredibly tragic, damaged individual, full of a poisonous self-loathing that he projects upon those who surround him.
There is a great deal more to The Other Side of the Wind. It is a complex story that is open to analysis and interpretation.
In addition to streaming The Other Side of the Wind, Netflix has presented They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, a full-length documentary about the movie’s long & tortured production. Directed by Morgan Neville, it’s an informative companion piece, one that is as intriguing as The Other Side of the Wind itself. I definitely recommend watching both.
Why do I consider The Other Side of the Wind to be the “redemption” of Orson Welles? It has to do with the public perception of him as a creator. Citizen Kane is considered one of the all-time greatest movies ever made. This was a source of consternation to Welles, as it was his first film, and the clear implication was that people felt all his subsequent efforts fell short.
In other words, Welles hit a grand slam home run his very first time at bat, and even though he spent the rest of his career batting .300, people were disappointed that he wasn’t knocking it out of the park each & every time he stepped up to the plate.
For a long time a common perception of Welles was of a once-great director who failed to live up to the early potential of Citizen Kane in his subsequent films, and who eventually ended his career ignominiously, reduced to hawking frozen peas and cheap champagne on TV commercials.
The Other Side of the Wind lays bare this fallacy. It reveals that in his later years, in spite of professional and personal setbacks, Welles was still a bold & ambitious filmmaker, still stretching his boundaries, still producing work that was interesting and frustrating and provocative.
If there is one good thing about The Other Side of the Wind finally being completed, however imperfectly, it is that it had led to a revived interest, and reappraisal, of Welles’ entire career. It is certainly one that is long overdue.
Thanks for joining us. I hope you will check out the contributions from the other Super Blog Team-Up participants.